To Be or Not to Be: That Is the Question

By Hu-DeHart, Evelyn | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

To Be or Not to Be: That Is the Question


Hu-DeHart, Evelyn, Black Issues in Higher Education


Maria P. P. Root, ed., The Multicultural Experience. Racial Borders As The New Frontier. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996) (Paper, xxviii, 481 pp.) Hardcover: $58.00 Softcover: $26.95

At this very moment as I sit down to write this review on Saturday, July 20, a group of multiracial Americans are rallying in Washington, DC to demand a multiracial category on the 2000 census. Chanting "I'll choose my category," among other slogans, they represent the latest manifestation of identity politics in the United States. Furthermore, this rally was preceded on July 6 by a front page article in The New York Times (the so-called national paper of record) publicizing the multiracial cause with considerable sympathy. The article in turn stimulated a number of letters to the editor -- pro and con.

In short, there is no more timely subject than the question posed by this volume of essays edited by Maria Root: why should multiracial individuals in the U.S. continue to be ignored in name and in practice, and why should they alone among Americans be denied the right of self-identification? To be deprived of personal power in this most fundamental way is particularly galling in an age when the most objectionable aspects of American race relations -- such as the law of hypodescent, commonly known as the one-drop rule, which states that one drop of African-American blood makes a person African-American -- can no longer be forced on any unwilling recipient. Advocates of the right to choose one's identity for multiracial Americans -- such as Root and Ramona Douglass, president of the Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans -- claim that only by breaking down the continuing use of monoracial categories, which perpetuates the myth of racial purity, can the negative construction of race be dismantled and American race relations improved.

There is also the simple matter of changing demographics. The rapidly rising phenomenon of mixed marriages across all ethnic-racial groups is producing children who, thankfully, will not likely have to share the more painful race experiences of their parents' generation. Not surprisingly, college campuses are the primary sites where mixed-race organizations have appeared, bearing a variety of creative names. On my campus, for example, the University of Colorado at Boulder, multiracial students have named their organization Masala, after the enticing Indian melange of spices.

But if the issue of multiracial self identification is such a clear-cut human rights issue, as proponents argue, why then do venerable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP oppose the drive for a multiracial census category? The answer lies in a very difficult, currently unresolvable, dilemma confronting this issue. On the one hand, the need for mixed-race people to claim their personal dignity is beyond dispute. On the other hand, at this point in time in the country's protracted struggle for racial equality -- America's unfinished business -- officially instituting an intermediate, mixed-race category can seriously undermine efforts to undo the legacies of America's racist past. For as Justice Powell and supporters of affirmative action have argued since at least the landmark Bakke case of 1978, in order to dismantle America's racist past, race must be taken into consideration. In other words, America is not yet ready to abandon race-conscious remedies.

Ironically, just as American apartheid -- or forced, legal segregation -- depended on fixed racial categories (especially, clear differentiation between white and non-white), then so too must the remedies rely on these same categories to correct the accumulated, inherited consequences of historically privileged white Americans (particularly white, middle class, male Americans). To know what to remedy, we must acknowledge how class and gender reinforce the white racial hierarchy over Black and other nonwhite Americans. Race is not about one's actual cultural-ethnic heritage as much as one's location in the race-based social order as historically constructed.

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