What's in a Name? African American or Multiracial?

By Marable, Manning | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

What's in a Name? African American or Multiracial?


Marable, Manning, Black Issues in Higher Education


The most important thing any oppressed people can do for themselves is to define who they are. Identity begins with naming yourself, in finding your own voice. This is the reason that names have always been significant to African Americans.

In slavery, the white oppressors sought to destroy our culture, to deny us our memories and traditions as an African people. In Jim Crow segregation, white racists hurled epithets at us to destroy and to belittle us. In successive generations, Black people have asserted themselves and our unique identities by what we have called ourselves. And through that evolution of names -- from Colored, Negro, Black and African American -- we have endeavored to speak to our own history and culture.

Today, there are some people in the federal government who favor the creation of a new name to redefine many Americans of African descent, as well as other racialized minorities: multiracial.

At the present time, the federal government uses only four classifications to define race in the United States: Black, white, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian. There are also two ethnic categories, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, who may be either Black or white. There are many problems with this system of classification. People who have very different histories, incomes, educational and social opportunities are lumped together in an undifferentiated category. Does it make sense to classify Japanese Americans, whose median household income is higher than that of Euro-Americans, as being in the same category as native Hawaiians, Filipinos or Cambodians, whose average income is well below that of African Americans? Do well-to-do whites from Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have anything in common with Black Dominicans and Puerto Ricans besides speaking Spanish?

As bad as the present system of race/ethnic classification is, some government bureaucrats want to go from bad to worse. In 1996, the Census Bureau conducted a four-month survey of 18,000 households which asked respondents to identify themselves by race and ethnic background. In the list of choices was the category, "multiracial." The study found that only one percent of all people questioned identify themselves as multiracial. …

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