It’s been happening for a while — census data show it. The number of mixed-race babies has quickly grown in the last decade, a trend that’s no surprise in an increasingly diverse country. Men and women are choosing partners of different races and identifying their children using the array of hyphenated options now available on forms that still ask the question.
More than 7 percent of the 3.5 million children born in the year before the 2010 Census were of two or more races, up from 5 percent a decade earlier, the Washington Post reports. In the story, William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the information, said, “I think people are more comfortable in identifying themselves, and their children, as mixed race.” He added, “It’s much more socially acceptable, more mainstream, to say, ‘That’s what we want to identify them as.’ ”
What is come down to is choice, and if it remained just that, it would be fine. But Frey goes on to assign value to this particular choice. “This is a huge leap,” he said. “This is a ray of hope that we’re finally moving into an era where this very sharp black-white divide is breaking apart.”
That’s where he makes a leap, that it’s a matter of, well, black and white. Identifying as biracial is a choice now, but does it have to be better? Is Tiger Woods’ “Cablinasian” option more enlightened than Halle Berry’s decision to self-identify as black?
Frey isn’t the only one who judges the trend as a “ray of hope,” a necessary step forward in relationships between races. When President Barack Obama checked off one race, black, on his census form, he was criticized by some, accused of somehow denying his white mother. It may have marked the first time such indignation over the issue reached a fever pitch, though if it were Barack the bank robber I hardly think whites would be clamoring to claim him.
At the time, a white woman married to a black man told me she was angry and disappointed for her two children’s sake. “He's president. He could have been an example," she told me. That we were walking through a Charlotte science museum exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” that proved the many ways humans are more alike than any other species made our discussion both fraught and beside the point. Since she wanted freedom to choose, how could she criticize the president for his? I asked her. He would certainly know his motives better than a stranger whose reaction might have more to do with her own.
It’s not a stretch to think the president’s white mother and grandparents raised him to be a strong and confident black man making his way in America. As one who witnessed his grief as he spoke just after his grandmother’s death in November 2008, the notion that he felt any less a part of her because of his check on a piece of paper is more than a little insulting.
But you have to cut the indignant mom some slack, as well. Race, as the exhibit pointed out, is an elusive line that changes depending on politics, economics and so much more. Science can’t pin it down; contradictory emotions won’t let us let go. Race doesn’t matter but sometimes it’s all that matters, so why wouldn’t how we identify ourselves cause a fuss?
We’re at a time when just a discussion of race can be labeled racist, and a remark by President Obama (“If I has a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) meant to be one parent comforting another by uttering a simple fact, can signal different things to different ears.
In this country, census forms have asked age, gender and race, with only two out of three categories remaining constant. The one-drop rule – once used to keep non-white citizens on the outside – is being dropped altogether. Arcane laws like Louisiana’s long-used caste division of quadroons and the like are ultimately doomed, impossible to figure, human interactions being what they are. In truth, many Americans could claim “mixed.”
But it would be a shame if we replaced one orthodoxy with another, with children as obligated to identify with several races as they once were pushed to pick one. We can’t erase lessons of the past, when racial identity was as political as it was personal. We shouldn’t want to. In the case of those who had a choice, claiming black ancestry made what was meant as taint instead a point of pride in that history of struggle and success.
Those who wish for race-neutral realities are finding out that's not as easy as they imagine. In the Post story, Thien-Kim Lam, a Vietnamese American married to an African American, says their 6-year-old daughter is noticing she doesn’t look like her mother and is asking questions. “At the very beginning, I thought if I didn’t talk about race, she’d just be colorblind,” said an incredibly naive Lam.
When I read her story, it recalled discussions this black woman had with her white husband when I was pregnant more than two decades ago. We didn’t know what our child would look like (though if genetics ruled, we knew he’d have curly hair and a forehead that started in Nebraska) but we knew that in America this very wanted, much loved child would be considered black. That wasn’t something we thought he needed to run away from.
With my husband taking the lead, we decided we had a special obligation to teach the history of all his ancestors from Africa to Norway and stops in between, with an acknowledgment of both unlimited opportunity and the challenges he might face along the way. We had lots of hands-on help, including my brother, a veteran of two arrests during civil rights sit-ins not that long ago.
My grown-up son fills out his own census form now, a black man with a white father and a special relationship with a white grandmother he loves with all his heart. It’s not confusing at all.
Yes, there are more mixed-race children in 2012 America. But they won’t solve any black-white divide. Respecting every individual’s choice and realizing that no color combination is better than another might make all of us more secure. Being a biracial bridge to a nation’s healing is a burden no child should have to carry.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3