A Black man with a White mother examines the concept of multiracial identity—past, present and future
Photo of Elizabeth Kincaid
Photo by Shawn Lee
hat are you?
I have been asked this question for so long, some might think I should be over it. I’m not.
Not because I mind answering it. In fact, I often enjoy the reactions my answers get. “You ever read James Forman’s “The Making of Black Revolutionaries?” I at times reply. “Well, my autobiography would be called “The Making of a Black, African, Pan-Africanist, Nationalist, Communist, Revolutionary, Son of a Jew.” Or I might simply say, “I’m from the Punchdummiesinthemouth people.”
At age 39, I’m not over the question because of the arrogance and derision that commonly accompanies it. There is often a sense of entitlement, even obligation, to have my identity made known. How dare I not be easily classifiable by onlookers? In the United States, everyone is expected to fit neatly into a racial box-which influences your economic, professional and educational opportunities, for better or worse.
In 2011, the color line W. E. B. Du Bois spoke of, rather than dissipating, has evolved into a multiplicity of color lines. Though these lines are intertwining and merging with increasing frequency, they remain firm boundaries determining the lived experiences of millions of people.
Freman Hendrix was raised in segregated Inkster by his Black father and White mother-the only White person in their community. “Walking down the street is where you get your identity,” says the 60-year-old former chair of the Detroit Charter Commission. “We don’t have signs on us telling [people] who we are. It’s how other people react to you that tells you who you are.
“It’s naïve for kids to assume a multiracial identity,” he says.
Nineteen-year-old Karima Ullah couldn’t disagree more.
Ullah, of Oak Park, is the daughter of a Bengali mother and a father who has one White parent and one Black parent. For her, being multiracial means being beyond categorization. She rejects entirely the notion of having to choose one racial identity over another. “Be who you are,” she says. “Be a person.”
In Detroit, Ullah thinks diversity does not translate into cross-cultural respect or understanding. In fact, she reports that her light complexion exposes her to more antagonism than others. She describes Detroit as “savage” in its “dog-eat-dog” mentality, where racial and ethnic hostilities are regularly revealed through commentary on her physical appearance. She recounts being told by people of color to not divulge her father’s Blackness, to claim a better identity, “Hispanic or Bengali” perhaps.
We may be experiencing a generational shift in the self-identification of children born to parents of different races. After all, it was only one decade ago that Americans had the option to choose more than one racial category when filling out a Census Bureau form. For the record, I checked the African-American box in 2000 and 2010.
It’s insane that I would be categorized as being separate from my mother, just as it’s crazy for me to be categorized separately from my father. It seems to me that as the product of these two human beings, I should be associated with each of them equally.
Because of White supremacy, which causes these categories in the first place, in the context of this country’s history I am grouped with one parent, my father. I accept that politically, culturally and socially. I am a Black man.
Biracial identity has been a determining factor in people’s lives prior to the founding of this nation. For instance, throughout the slavery era, people who were of mixed race could be sold for more money than Africans with no Europeans in their family tree. Literally, human beings without White blood were considered less valuable than those with it.
Identity is often as much about what a person is not as what he or she is. A tragic, false sense of superiority enabled one group of people to enslave others, to treat them as sub-human. Confusion on the part of many African descendants remains ingrained as a result. Many of us accept a false sense of inferiority. That may explain why people of color tell Ullah to deny her African heritage.
Jared Sexton, 36, is the director of the African American Studies Program at the University of California, Irvine. His mom is Irish American and his dad is African American. “Why do those who can want to identify as other than Black? Because this nation remains fundamentally anti-Black and continues to associate Blackness with an absence of humanity,” he says.
On the West Coast, people have attempted to refuse to allow Sexton to identify as Black. On more than one occasion, he’s heard, “No, you can’t be.” People have also guessed that he is Latino or Filipino. On the East Coast-he was raised in Rochester, N.Y.-people frequently assume he is Puerto Rican.
Clawson native Elizabeth C. Kincaid was born to a father of Scottish, Native and African-American ancestry who identified as White, and a German-descended Jewish mother. She has also experienced others’ denial of part of her racial background. Kincaid recalls being at a public event where the speaker, a White man, asked if anyone of Scottish heritage was present. She raised her hand. He scanned the crowed, pretending not to notice her.
“We have a right to identify as we choose,” says Sexton. He chooses to self-identify as Black because he thinks multiracial identity contributes to a denial of White supremacy and anti-Black sentiments.
Also in her mid-30s, Kincaid opposes racial categorization for herself. She has children whose father is Black. For them she makes a special effort to identify as Black. But for herself, she chooses to embrace her many racial and ethnic identities. “I don’t want to be forced to choose one or another,” she says. “I am any, other and all.”
According to Ashley Fowler, an 18-year-old Detroiter with a Black father and a White mother, biracial identity is its own separate racial category and should be respected as such. Like Ullah, she says she experiences “racism from all sides.” And this, she feels, compels multi-racial people to “pick sides,” which in turn worsens divisions.
Detroit native writer and filmmaker dream hampton rejects the concepts of a post-racial America and the tendency to self-identify as biracial or multi-racial.
“My mother is White. My father and stepfather, who both raised me, are Black,” she says. “I have never been mistaken for White.” She wants no part of what she calls the “anything-but-Black multi-racial movement.”
Says hampton, “The Census should simply have a ‘not Black’ box” so that those seeking an out from the perception of Black as “code for criminal and poor” can simply take it. She acknowledges that her acceptance of the “one drop” rule, or what scholars refer to as the practice of hypodescent-the adoption of the identity of the subordinate race-is “retro.” But it is this nation’s continued abuse of African Americans that compels her to do so.
The political and cultural preference of a Black identity is essential to resisting racism, she says. For her, it is not about accepting one race and dismissing the other. It is about personal choice and political solidarity. “Embracing womanhood is not a denial of my father just as embracing a Black identity is not a denial of my mother,” she says.
Biracial identity in the U.S. is nothing new. According to “Long Memory: The Black Experience in America” by Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame, during the antebellum period, nearly 50 percent of people of color in cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore and St. Louis were of mixed race due to the commonplace rape of enslaved women. So convinced were slave owners of African peoples’ lack of humanity, they bred human slaves like farmers breeds animals.
This country has experienced evolving ideas and behaviors with respect to multi-racial identity ever since. Sexton, who has studied racial identity, reports that terms like mulatto and quadroon were used frequently until around the 1920s. Scholar Reginald Daniel has written that the “great age of passing” for White in order to escape brutal racial discrimination occurred from 1880 to 1925. But the phenomenon didn’t end completely.
For example, esteemed New York Times writer Anatole Broyard didn’t reveal to his own children that he was of Black ancestry until he was near death in 1990.
Despite that fact that Americans have been born to parents of different races throughout this country’s history, it didn’t become legal for interracial couples to marry nationwide until a 1967 landmark legal decision. Richard Loving, a White man, and his wife Mildred Loving, a Black woman, were arrested in their home state of Virginia for being married. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
While the couple’s crusade legalized interracial marriage for all, it’s a trend that today impacts Black people less than others. Sexton has found that the number of children born to Asian-White couples and Latino-White couples is increasing significantly, while the number of children being born to Black-White couples is nearly stagnant.
Says Hendrix, Black-White identity is different from other mixed-race identities. Sexton agrees, attributing this difference to the lingering negative connotations of Blackness.
Despite differing opinions of people of mixed racial heritage about how one should self-identify, both in Detroit and nationwide, there seems to be consensus about at least one thing: having a biracial president hasn’t changed the way society deals with multi-racial identity.
People still feel entitled to know “what” we are, or even to try to define us in ways that make them comfortable, as opposed to allowing us to define ourselves.
Just like biracial and multiracial people of African descent across the country, some Detroit natives born to parents of different races look racially ambiguous and some don’t. Consider Hendrix, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, poet jessica Care moore and “America’s Next Top Model” winner Naima Mora.
Whatever our appearance, the change we need isn’t an elected official reaching the highest office in the land. We need an end to White supremacy, an end to Black self-loathing and an end to others stuffing us into their racial category comfort zone. We need all people of African heritage-be it a little or a lot-to have equality in every sphere of our lives.
Now that would be change I can believe in.
JARED BALL IS A BLACKAGENDAREPORT.COM COLUMNIST AND AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF COMMUNICATION STUDIES AT MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY IN BALTIMORE.