'Multiracial' identity gains acceptance
California considers expanding data on its state forms to allow for multiple answers under race.
Actress, comedienne, and producer Kim Wayans first decided to write stories about a fourth-grader called Amy Hodgepodge to provide her 38 multiracial nieces and nephews with a character they could relate to. Amy Hodgepodge is part Japanese, African-American, Korean, and Caucasian – but not too mixed up about it.Skip to next paragraph
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"If your mom is white and dad is black, you should be able to embrace that and not have it be a problem," says Ms. Wayans, who is African-American. None of her nieces or nephews are confused about their identity, she adds, but rather the confusion lies in a society that won't let them use the word "multiracial" to describe themselves.
"The point is Amy Hodgepodge is the new American. We are all mixed and getting more so."
Recent demographic trends in the US suggest that might indeed be true. Nationally, the number of Americans who identify themselves as belonging to more than one race has gone up by 33 percent since 2000 – the first time the option of checking more than one box for race was introduced in federal forms – making them the fastest-growing demographic in the US.
Though their numbers are still small – an estimated 5.2 million – their rapid growth suggests an increasing acceptance of multiracialism in a country with traditionally rigid racial categories. In some states, bans on interracial marriages were lifted less than 50 years ago – the last state to do so was Alabama in 2000, though the law hadn't been enforced in decades.
And the increased acceptance of multiracial backgrounds is reflected by – and perhaps even promoted by – changing survey and classification rules.
'This is the fastest-growing demographic group, and 'multiracial' is the term they prefer over all others," says Susan Graham, executive director of Project RACE – "Reclassify All Children Equally" – a national organization supporting the movement for a multiracial classification and advocating on behalf of multiracial children. She says the category "other" as well as "mixed race" are both insults.
"We now have a multiracial president … so this issue's time has come," says Ms. Graham.
California, home to Amy Hodgepodge and host to the largest number of people identifying themselves as belonging to more than one race, is trying to take the lead among states in expanding classification of race and ethnicity. A new bill, which has already passed the state Assembly and is headed to the state Senate, will bring outdated racial and ethnic data collection practices into conformity with newly outlined federal data standards.
Currently, state census and education forms force respondents to choose a single answer to the question about race. The new education guidelines will allow pupils to "select two or more if you consider yourself biracial or multiracial."
"In our fluid society of immigration and intermarriage, it is our responsibility to properly reflect the entire heritage of our population," says Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, author of the bill. "Some school districts in California list 20 or more races and ethnicities on forms but limit students to choosing only one."
For him, the impetus behind California's bill to offer more identity choices is about respect. "It's pretty simple really," he says. "If your institution hands you a form to fill out and you are not on it, what does that say to the student about what the institution thinks of him or her?"
Society needs to have a standard that is "respectful and accurate," he says, and if "we in California [can] set the standards, others will follow."