Don’t Call Me Mixed Race

I am, in a quite literal sense, African American. My father is a full-blooded African, my mother, a white American. This, of course, is not the sense in which I embrace it. For my racial identity, somewhat ironically I suppose, has less to do with my direct lineage than with the way in which history has shaped the politics of racial identity in this country.

The last two decades have seen a substantial amount of debate over the categories by which people are allowed to identify themselves on the US Census. African Americans, I think quite rightly, have generally expressed concern over broadening the categories. The concern in the African American community largely stems from a fear that fewer people will identify themselves as black if given the opportunity to choose the alternatives.

This fear is not unfounded – certainly, American history supports that view. People have been passing for white as long as Europeans have been passing for Americans. On the other hand, the advocates of broadening the categories, who succeeded in their push to add “Some other race” to the list of racial categories to choose from, and to permit respondents to check multiple categories, argue that the new census allows people to provide a more accurate picture of their racial identity.

Though I think there are merits to the arguments on both sides, fundamentally, I believe there is no sense in which additional categories provide a more accurate view of the racial makeup of this country, nor of the individuals who live in it. Everyone knows race mixing has been going on since time immemorial. We live in a country where far more people than would ever multiple boxes on the census are of mixed racial heritage. To me, the question is when one checks a category indicating racial or ethnic background, is it merely a question of political and cultural identity? I would argue that it’s latter.

In spite of the fact that I grew up in perhaps the most integrated town in America (Ann Arbor, Michigan), there was never a sense in which I was viewed as a mixed race individual. Even those who knew my family and me considered me black, and nobody seemed to consider it the contradiction that it was. For when and where I grew up, there were only two things you could be in Michigan– white or black ( and perhaps, on occasion, Jewish). Thus, I inherited my racial identity from this country’s racial history as much as from parents, if not more.

In case anyone has forgotten, this situation is not unique to Michigan. America has never had a problem identifying individuals like me (of mixed white/black parentage) as black. In fact, it has been a priority of this country for more than 400 years. It is in part the reason I have never identified myself as “mixed race,” which is not to deny the fact that according to my parentage, I am. Nor is it to deny the extent to which racial identities can be chosen. It is merely to acknowledge the very real sense in which I am and have always been black in this country, less at first by choice than by force – an imposition linked to the shadow of ill will, death, and oppression that is the racial history of this country– but later also, by love, by joy and by the luck of my complexion an d features.

For only in black homes and amongst black people was the full scope of my humanity embraced and celebrated. Thus when I got older, it was with the black community that my racial allegiances remained. Allegiances that no matter how flawed ( for race has proved, it would seem, perhaps the most flawed human concept ever fabricated) remain necessary and relevant even in the 21st century.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am all for the right of people to choose how they identify themselves. No one can argue against choice in a country founded on the principle of such a freedom. But I think often times those who would rather call themselves “mixed race” (I’m confining my argument to people of black/ white heritage) do so not to embrace their whiteness but to reject their blackness. In America, it has always been such a choice, to choose one at the expense of the other.

Even if this is not ever the case (which I highly doubt) I still find it ironic that the prevailing argument on the other side of the issue seems to be that “mixed race” is somehow more accurate as if race really has a biologically foundation in the first place (for those still uncertain, it does not). The only sense in which it is real is in how we humans have created meaning in skin tones, and through those distinctions helped shape cultures and subcultures that existed side by side, though often separately, for centuries.

So in my view I think that acknowledging one’s mixed racial background has more to do with personal identity than racial identity. Yes, I know my mom is white and that my father suddenly became black when got to the Unites States. But I was born here – and I was born black, in everyone’s eyes – including eventually, my own. I can choose to change how I identify myself later, but it will have little to do with how I am perceived, and quite wrongly – how I am treated. It will probably take several more decades of racial mixing before that will change.

So when it comes time for me to pick my racial identity (not just on the Census, but on college applications and elsewhere) there is never a question about which category I will choose: “Black or African American.” You can call me stupid, mixed up (ha!), or just plain wrong, but please, do not call me “mixed race”


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