'Multiracial' identity gains acceptance

California considers expanding data on its state forms to allow for multiple answers under race.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    American faces: Pedestrians in downtown Los Angeles. California is home to the largest population in the United States who identify themselves as multiracial. More than 40 percent of multiracial Americans are under the age of 18.
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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.

"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."

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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."

Beyond the personal, expanding racial classification could have policy implications – social programs for minorities, for example.

There is also the issue of eliciting more accurate racial information in order to help find donors in medical situations. A bill on helping to build a national databank for umbilical cord blood backed by Project RACE, for example, is currently working its way through the California Legislature.

"By knowing who is multiracial, we will enlarge these donor pools and save more people," says Project RACE's Graham. "This is a very ­critical issue."

"Information is needed to allocate resources and do society's business, so having accurate information is simply consistent with what benefits everyone," adds Mr. Portantino.

About 42 percent of those who have checked more than one race on US census forms are under age 18. And it is the young, polls and studies show, who are most open to embracing multiracialism and the multiracial label.

"The least inclusive generation is the one today that is 65 and older, and the most inclusive are those under 30," says Leonard Steinhorn, professor at American University's School of Communication and author of two books on race and social change.

"These are fundamentally different worldviews. One is moving offstage and the other is moving onstage, and these new demographic figures reflect that."

Social scientists point to an array of other reasons for the shift-ing view of multiracialism – from cultural change and social progress since the civil rights era to the aging of the baby boomers to, even, the rise of hip-hop.

"Jazz was unable to do it, nor could blues or rock and roll, but hip-hop came along and now we have Eminem and Asher [Roth] – both white men who have released excellent rap albums in the same year," says James Peterson, assistant professor of English and African Studies at Bucknell University.

And more and more famous people are multiracial, including actors such as Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz, Mr. Peterson and others point out.

The two most famous multiracial people – President Obama and Tiger Woods – are frequently in the headlines.

In a lighter moment last year, Mr. Obama – whose father is Kenyan and whose mother is a white American – surprised reporters by referring to himself as a "mutt."

And in 1997, golfer Tiger Woods startled many Americans when he objected to being called African-American, and instead referred to himself as "Cablinasian," to reflect his blend of Caucasian, black, Indian, and Thai blood.

It's important for multiracial kids to have positive role models, says Wayans, who is herself one-half of an interracial couple. Her husband, Kevin Knotts, is coauthor of the Amy Hodgepodge series.

Of her nephews and nieces, she says, "They know who they are and are proud of it."

She adds, "Hopefully, we are just on a transition to where the distinction is wiped out and we just eventually say, 'human race.' "

[Editor's note: The original version's summary misidentified the types of census and education forms to be changed.]

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