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Thursday
Apr072011

Census Says There Are More Biracial People, But That Depends On Your Definition of Mixed

'True Grit' star Hailee Steinfeld is just your average Filipino, Jewish, something or other, multiracial American.Since 2000, the population of biracial and multiracial people has boomed by 50 percent according to 2010 Census data. The New York Times recently ran a story saying that because of changes in Census reporting, more people reported they are more than one race, but has our multiracial population actually boomed or is it just that both our government and society are more accepting of multiracial people?

More after the jump.

There have always been biracial and multiracial people, especially among America's most common mix -- African American and white American, which makes up more than 20 percent of the mixed race population. And you could easily argue that those African Americans mixing with whites were mixed themselves, the results of other mixed African Americans who were part of that original mix of black slave and white slavemaster. But no one ever called themselves mixed as in America, post-Reconstruction, you were just black. 

In America, people understood the concept of mixed race UNTIL the exact minute slavery ended. Many Southern states considered you to be white if you were only 1/8 or a quarter black. Entire groups of mixed race people were at times absolved into the majority white culture. There were such concepts of mulatto, quadroon and octaroon. There were Creoles and free people of color and various social groups and class differences among those with some African bloodline. But once slavery ended, anyone who had black blood was isolated from society in a brown muddle of dreaded otherness

The bad side of this is that no one was able to define themselves. The state made up your mind for you. The good side is, since everyone was thrown into the same hellish no man's land of discrimination, abuse, mistreatment, segregation it really infused black Americans with a sense of "all hand's on deck" to fight against racism. Because, it didn't matter. No one was special. No one could truly avoid the wrath of racism. Money couldn't buy you out of it. Skin color didn't protect you from it and even if you were light enough to pass, you often couldn't take your mama (or any darker relatives) with you when you crossed over into the great white unknown. 

Because of this, most black Americans are mixed -- with something -- from somewhere at some time. But the mix happened a long time ago and generations of mixed black people were only marrying or having children with other people of African descent, hence why a black Americans' looks can be as diverse as Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall.

But I realize that this is confusing to people who come from places where there were no such "black or white" divisions. Most Americans, black and white, struggle with the concept of mixed race, even in the face of so many mixed race people self-defining. Even the President, who describes himself as a black man of mixed race, sometimes deals with the irony of being called someone who hates white people (even though he was raised by them) or that he's denying his whiteness (in a country that constantly tells biracial black people they must do this because they sure as hell aren't "accepting" that whiteness).

It's a paradox of a "mixed" is. Mixed ain't. Like, I don't consider myself to be mixed. But to someone not born in the land of Jim Crow and contradictions, it's just confusing.

The other day I was in Eastern Market here in Washington, D.C. and I was hiding from the rain in a doorway with a vendor who happened to be a very dark complexioned, older black woman. She had an accent, but I couldn't quite divine from where. She was warm and friendly and was fascinated by my hair, which was straight at the time from a blow out. After complimenting my hair she asked me if I was mixed because her son had married a non-black woman and his children had hair similar to mine.

I grimaced, but tried to be patient with the woman as I explained that both my parents are black. She then didn't really believe that both my parents could be black and produce someone who looked like me. I then realized I didn't have the time or energy to explain to her the entire history of America, of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson and the "one-drop rule" and why, in this country, I would identify with her more than I'd identify with whatever white ancestor long ago wandered into the family tree. I was, in fact, tired of explaining, as I didn't even think I looked (recently) mixed. Most black Americas never thought I was mixed. Not in the way she was thinking mixed anyway. The only reason why anyone ever thought I was something else was always due to the hair because it was so long.

But how could I explain in a few minutes that my father was darker, but used to be lighter, but his father was very dark but his mother came from people who were a variety of colors, some very, very light and some almost light enough to pass and that my mother, despite having black parents, has slanted eyes and looks Southeast Asian to almost everyone when her hair is straight, and that her mother is a little lighter and taller and slimmer and her father was shorter and much darker, and she has more his features than hers, but got her mother's coloring and that they, in turn, came from another bunch or randomly colored people because everyone was living in the same rural area, together, fussing and fighting and loving and birthing babies and whatever white people had come into our lives had come into them long ago and no one liked to talk about it because they were not the loving relationships of choice, but the shame of being property and rape.

The other side of this (and was implicit in the old lady's surprise that I considered myself to be black), was that I wouldn't want to be anything other than black. That I'm proud of my culture, family, community and ancestry. That even with all the constant bad news, there is a lot of joy there -- from summers in Arkansas with my grandmother, to the smells of a Soul Food Christmas, to the sounds of an old blues song or a modern pop ditty. Being part of a sisterhood that includes both Harriet Tubman and Michelle Obama. Being part of a culture that produced both Dr. Charles Drew and Dr. Joycelyn Elders. That I'm proud of my family and my history and the people who made me, and even though there is pain in that history the joy found in having a community to call home far surpassed it.

I've only known being black and never wanted to be anything but that. Why wouldn't I want to be part of the same culture she was even though we weren't the exact same shade of brown? What we have is wonderful. If anything, I was offended that she thought my blackness was something I wanted to run away from. Why would I run from the only thing I've ever known? I wouldn't change being black any more than I would change being American. And blackness in America is being mixed, with something, sometimes, while other times being black in the traditional way people from the islands or Africa viewed blackness. Black America is rich and deep and broad with diverse looks and meaning.

And that's truly what the "mixed is, mixed ain't" contradiction boils down to -- who you are and how you feel about who you are. I'm not a racial purist, forcing people into boxes, demanding that they pick a side. I don't feel like someone should have to be "forced" to be part of the culture I love, anymore than I'd want to see someone be denied their identity because it doesn't fit our personal definitions. This is about reality. Of living in a world where someone of a different culture will see a mixed person and someone in America will just see a black person. Where if Tiger Woods goes missing tomorrow, no one in America is going to tell the police to look for a guy from Thailand. But Tiger Woods shouldn't have to act like he doesn't love, share and participate in the culture and religion of his Thai mother. This is about what makes one comfortable and where one feels most at home. America is always going to be ground zero for identity politics, but those politics don't have to rule your conscious or heart. 

We are who we are*.

*And yes, I just quoted Ke$ha in a blog post about diversity. World's ending in 2012 anyway, so, you know, dance it out.

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Reader Comments (34)

I think yours is the best take I've seen on this "new" phenomena that's been getting so much hype due to the results of the census and new categorizations. I also could be wrong and maybe this is bigoted of me, but it seems to me that when most bi-racial black-white folks were the products of a black mamma and a white daddy and it was the black Mom alone or her and her family raising the child the kids were black but now that it is mostly a white mamma black daddy phenomena and often it is either both parents or just the white mom on her own raising the kids, now it is oohhhh so important that the child be considered "mixed race" (Obama not withstanding). It is also kind of funny that soooo often I hear white Moms with black-white biracial kids swearing up and down that NO one in their family or friends EVER had a problem with their kids(something I find suspect) but they often say it was the black relatives or blacks in general who were hostile to their family and or child. Now it is possible that's true in general (which I doubt) and in some instances I'm sure it is, but it seems odd that since it was black people and the black community who raised and more or less accepted these folks for centuries but somehow now we are accused of being the ones hostile to such children. Seems odd to me. Forgive me for rambling but his has been kind of bugging me. It seems like another case of racism how a few black people (in the past and now) might act wrong regarding bi-racial kids and it is somehow viewed as endemic in black culture but when whites did it is was ok and now suddenly it is a problem that is barely acknowledged among whites (sort of like how we hear a lot about "black people" being homophobic but no one ever will say that as a group white people are homophobic).

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa J

I think it is easier for the white mother's in that situation to ignore or forgive the hostility of their friends/family than it is for them to ignore/forgive the hostility of black strangers. One example is a conversation I had with a young white female single parent of a biracial child. She insisted that black women were hostile towards her past relationship and her biracial child and that this was the biggest race based opposition. Yet with further discussion she admitted her own white grandfather refused to acknowledge her child. So even with a blood relative disowning her she was still more concerned about side eyes from random black women.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthelady

I have a friend who is black but married a white/phillipino guy and her daughter looks phillipino or latino--her daughter wishes she would look more black and is thinking about getting her eyes 'done' so she wont look so asian--i told her friend that she could be BLACK ONLY because of the one parent......the girl doesn't think so and is confused about her mother saying shes black..since the mom is 'mid-brown' in the black spectrum --simular to Kiim Fields---I told her not to worry about it--but it's hard to tell teenagers anything about their looks-----i know white guys that want their half black children to be labeled biracial since they have his last name-instead of black only--also, i'm beginning to see some white families adopting black girls and are learning to do their hair--white guys could cornrow too....

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjubilee

As a black person from other lands, I am surprised at how you jumped to the conclusion that the lady was implying you shouldn't want to be just black. In places that dont allow one drop of anything to define you, it is okay to express your heritage as being 25% this or 50% that without feeling like you sold out a particularly ancestor in favor of societal norms and conforming to the pressures of institutionalized racism. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that your lighter complexion is a result of centuries of mixing

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlala

@ lala

Well, it had a lot to do with her overall reaction. I don't think she meant harm by it (as most people who get a little pushy about my background do from time-to-time), but she seemed genuinely confused by it. And while many people don't have issues with being mixed or being dark, I have on more than one occasion been informed by someone darker than me that they were not black and did not have black blood in their family and took great offense at my assumption ... even if they were from places that have significant mixed race/black populations like Brazil or the Dominican Republic.

So just as there are those who are comfortable there are plenty of others who have both external and internal issues with skin color. It's true that I could never know the woman's heart, but we ended up having the "good" hair conversation, as in, she believed my hair to be "good" like her mixed grandkids hair. A conversation I always find unsettling with any black person no matter where they are from because it almost always means they really, really don't like their own hair and only covet mine because it is long when straightened. Then there are those who are adamant that I can't be black because as a darker skinned person they have had different experiences and they're insulted by the perception that I must have it easier.

These are issues all black people deal with pretty much anywhere with Western beauty ideals, its just usually younger people know it's impolite to say to a complete stranger. Older people just blurt out whatever is on their minds, not caring if it sounds self-loathing.

April 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

I remember having a conversation with a Canadian family member (parent of mixed race children) who was very shocked and surprised that UK forms (government and some recruitment forms) have various categories for one to select as what you believe you are!

I had to send said family member proof of these forms, which I find normal here (UK). It dawned on me and I, in turn, was surprised.

I think, it's great to be black, but if you are made up of other wonderful colours in the rainbow and feel proud of it, then go ye forth and embrace them all!!

I've just completed my UK Census form and I am proudly 'Black African' (with a generous dash of British!)

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrit-Afric Snob

There is no unitary Black American Culture. Black Americans have a common POLITICAL Experience, but you cannot argue that there is a unitary Black American CULTURAL Experience. In no way, shape, or form does Harlem have the same culture as New Orleans. The Geechee and Gullah do not have the same culture as the Exodusters. This refusal to acknowledge the richness of Black American Cultures must be stopped. Blacks are not one people culturally, they are many peoples.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

@ Paul:

I don't necessarily want to have an argument about semantics, but aren't what you're describing subsets within a larger culture? After all, there is a concept of "American culture" that includes everything from the contributions of various African Americans to Irish immigrants who influenced American culture, to the antebellum South to the industrial Midwest to grunge music. You can have black American culture, then have subsets within that culture, just as you can be a white American in urban Los Angeles and a poor white person in Alabama and still share certain aspects of American culture (i.e. McDonald's, Capitalism, protestantism, home ownership, jingoism, belief in self-determination, slightly Puritanical view of sex, a lot of latent Libertarianism mixed in randomly with anti-intellectualism, etc.) yet still have vastly different tastes, history and lives, still all rooted in the diversity of North America. The lives of the Gullah, of Harlem, of black Southerners are diverse, but they're all within a culture that is uniquely American -- created out of American history and experience -- unless you're arguing there is no such thing as a culture based on nationalism/language/geography?

As that's the shared commonality that creates the base for a culture. I've never confused an upper class black American with, say, an upper class black person from France as the French and Americans have clear-cut cultural differences, but I'm sure there's "diversity" within French culture, meaning being French is both being Sarkozy AND the descendant of Haitian immigrants. I don't think celebrating the richness of black American culture means denying the diversity of it. My whole point was that our culture (and racial mix) is quite diverse.

April 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

According to statistics, the largest group of interracial couples in the US are actually white men and Asian women. We don't hear about that because it doesn't carry the same political baggage as a black/white pairing. I don't know if Asian/white couples have to endure the same level of attention, but Asians' history as the so-called "model minority" has something to do with that.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatador1015

Being French is very cleared defined. In France, they do not recognize any ethnicity or culture outside of the white French culture. They do not even gather stats on country of origin or ethnicity of minorities. Also, the French don't consider Gascons truly French, so it's highly unlikely they'd consider Haitians or even Quebecois to be French. Finally, the Frecnh have a language policing agency which attempts to prevent other cultures from polluting French culture.

There is no overarching American culture. To act as if an Italian from the Bronx shares anything with a Scots-Irish from North Carolina or a Swede from Minnesots. The idea of a mass American cutlure has only come into being due to the mass media and advertising. If you were to look back even seventy-five years ago, Americans identified regionally and ethnically rather than as "Americans."

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

I love you Snob, but you probably took her questions the wrong way. I grew up in Africa and some people were not aware that there were Black people in America. I remember one of my cousins being shocked when she saw the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She was in tears when we made her watch roots. I remember in history class that we were taught about slavery, but never talked about what happened with the slaves. We went from slavery to colonialism by Europeans.
If its the lady who sells beads at the market, I think she is West African. Don't take it the wrong way, she is a stranger navigating this land. She might not be aware of the history of African Americans or the different dynamics at play when the topic of good hair comes up.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPurple

@ Purple:

It could have been that. I may have misread her disbelief and confusion wrong.

@ Paul:

Yeah. We're arguing about semantics. I'm all for the study of regional cultures and differences, but I don't think saying Black American culture negates or diminishes Gullah culture or my father's Texan background. It doesn't bother me that the concept of American culture is newer than French culture. France is demonstrably older, as is all of Europe, than North America as a Western concept. I'm not a culture purist who thinks there has to be clear delineations for this for others to want to learn about the diversity within regional groups. I don't see the negative affects of it, since most Americans don't bother to learn about history and culture at all, as most Americans, regardless of region, are kind of isolationist and don't think much about different people unless confronted with them. So, this is one of those arguments where I just don't really care that much if we're talking overarching culture or subsets or the legitimacy of culture, since I already agree there are different regional cultures and that black people are very diverse. The key is getting others to care when most have no interest in it.

April 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

The reason this argument over cutlure matters is that many Black People define Black Culture as opposition to White Culture rather than as an independent entity. This contributes to the viewing and thinking of Black Americanness in terms dictated by Whiteness rather than in real terms. We must stop looking at ethnciity as a political choice and see it as a culture inheritance. If Black People only defien themselves in opposition to Whites, then Black Culture is inherently negative as defines itself by what it is not rather than by what it is.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Didn't know that about the "True Grit" co-star...:/

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCDF

Here we go.

This topic will always strike a nerve with full bloodied black folks cause bi-racial black folks are mixed with the culture of power and with it comes a certain resentment cause full bodied blacks don't get to "choose".

Its like if you're 100% black you're not good enough or won't measure up.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMirabella

@ jubilee

if your friend wanted to have a black child, she should have had one with a black dude. fact of the matter is that that child is mixed. period. i bet she'd get mad if he called their child filipino. and ignored everything else.

any idiot who still subscribes to the one drop rule or has an issue about how someone else defines themselves shows their own racial insecurity and feelings of fear of rejection. but most folks are insecure. hence you have so many people who argue about exactly what tiger woods is.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

Jewish is a Religion , not a race.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.Belton

@Mirabella I don’t think that most full bloodied Blacks have any resentment towards biracial people, especially not because of getting to choose their race. The Black community has always embraced bi-racial people sometimes to their own detriment, when they could not choose to be another race. And biracial people still can’t choose to be another race when they are Black because as a whole the other communities are still racist and will only accept a mixed Black person WHILE they are very successful. ALL races do not readily accept mixed people, because they are concerned over their loyalty. For example most mixed white Vietnamese children that were left in Vietnam were not accepted by the Vietnamese and shunned and almost all of their White families abandoned them. Many mixed people told the slave masters about uprisings etc… so there may be some concern of betrayal when a mixed Black person does not identify themselves as Black. The Black people that I have known that prefer to call themselves “multigenerational mix” will sell their own father out for a few pieces of silver and not even think twice.

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

@Swiv I don’t think it is a fear of rejection, I think it is the very real fear of being sold out by confused wanabee “multigenerational mix” Negros and trying to avoid them. LOL

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

You can be mixed in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Each country (and culture) has their own definition of what constitutes mixed. In the USA we have to contend with a plethora of concepts and don't have a uniform definition to use in a discussion... So the beat goes on.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdbm

I know it's wishing for something that will never be, but boy would it be nice to stop talking about race, color, hair, etc, and all the wonderful garbage leftover from slavery/white supremacy/colonialism/racism...

Can't we just ever simply "be," and not care about who is high-yellow, mixed, black, darker the berry, or whatever...you get my drift...

Of course not...as DuBois said so long ago "The problem of the 20th century will be the color line"...he could have added 21st century as well..sigh

I really try to remember that WE ALL originated from the Land of the Blacks, aka Kemet/Africa, and that we are all human in all of our various shades and experiences. I try to see everyone as my brother or sister. MOST DAYS I FAIL AT THIS...it's impossible to cultivate such a mindset in this hate-filled, race conscious world...but alas I shall always strive

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNonya

I agree with Nonya. I often wish there would be just one day where I could have the luxury of not thinking about the ramifications of race, skin color, hair texture. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFran

Jewish is a race and a religion, they are one of the few groups that can be both, you can ethnically be Jewish and practice Judaism hence be called a Jew.

@Paul, I have the range of which you speak in my family, I have family member who are gullah and speak geechee, I also have family of that same branch in New York city and detroit and DC. They know their roots from SC, but also embrace the culture of the city and my cousins in SC recognize it as well. There is black culture and it is constantly evolving. Hate to burst your bubble but at 50 I can go from one end of the US to the other and connect with my brothers and sisters of color based upon on our shared history and those of our ancestors. Our world is not so small, and the older you get the more you will find that. Along with family if they have survived.

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbdsista

I agree with Nonya and Fran. I wish that we did not have to quibble about such things. However, I feel that that the reason that we are so obsessed with defining and delineating racial identity is in large part because of perception, what society-at-large perceives our racial identity to be.

Perception is very important in our race-obsessed culture because it ultimately shapes our experiences. That this actress Hailee Steinberg is of mixed ancestry is irrelevant; she will be perceived by Hollywood and larger society as white. If anything, her ancestry will lend her layer of intrigue in her career, but other than that she will be glamorized, praised, and put on a pedestal because she fits into the Caucasian beauty ideal. Now if she appeared more Filipino, she will be exoticized and fetishized, but ultimately considered to be different or "other" than the standard.

I believe racial identity is two-fold; it is partly what you consider yourself to be and partly what others consider you to be. It is my theory that Barack Obama identifies as a Black man with mixed ancestry because his experiences are similar to that of a black man navigating that murky waters of "post-racial" or post-Civil Rights America. Likewise with Halle Berry, who identifies as a black woman despite being raised by a white mother. While they might enjoy a certain degree of privilege in both the black and white communities due to their light skin/bi-racial heritage, they do not enjoy the same privileges as someone who is considered fully white, thus they base their identities on their personal histories and what others perceive them to be. Could you imagine Barack Obama pulling a Tiger Woods and saying that he does not identify as black?

While I have no qualms with individuals identifying with your entire racial background, understand that in this country that there might be a discrepancy between what you say you are and what other people consider you to be. It is the sad truth that you can list your ancestry until you are blue in the face, but what truly matter is your phenotype.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEme

@LisaJ I agree with your comments.........But, every Black blog I go to this seems to always make it's way in to a discussion. I wonder why that is

I wish Black people and when I say that I mean ALL.....the mixed couple husband....and the rest would have honest discussions about race and how our history in this country is changing. I wish people would speak openly to why the non-black parents of mixed children....never speak up on black issues and ills in this country on behalf of their spouse and mixed child...why is that

I think people are quick to say they are not a color or I don't want to be boxed in to black...whatever that means...and trust me there is a meaning behind it......when these numbers grow then black numbers are lowered right? why are people celebrating that....that's weird to me.

I find it annoying when people ask me what are you mixed with. I'm not gonna walk around telling people I look this way because of rape over a hunderd years ago. calling it" centuries of mixing" is not really telling the truth La La.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMSAUGUST
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