Racial lines no longer just black and white

Clear-cut racial categories restrict how multiracial Americans identify themselves.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

Based on her appearance, you wouldnâÄôt easily be able to guess University of Minnesota sophomore Mary TaylorâÄòs racial or ethnic heritage. But if you ask the communications studies major what her ethnicity is, sheâÄôd tell you she is three-quarters white, 12.5 percent black and 12.5 percent Native American âÄî a heritage she makes sure to represent when filling out surveys.

The current generation of college students encompasses the largest group of mixed-race people to come of age in the U.S., according to a recent New York Times series on multiracial identity.

Although young Americans increasingly identify themselves as multiracial, they often feel that their fluid identities are restricted when asked to self-identify on paper.

Under new requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education, which will take effect this year, multiracial non-Hispanic students who choose multiple races on surveys will be placed in a “two or more races” category. The justification for this is to offer students of mixed heritage more options to self-identify, and some say it demonstrates the U.S.âÄôs greater appreciation of the fluidity of racial identity.

However, many sociologists fear it will lump all multiracial groups into one category, ignoring the different life experiences and the varying levels of discrimination that members of various multiracial subgroups face.

“ItâÄôs like the âÄòotherâÄô category or the âÄòmultiracialâÄô category because everyone getâÄôs glommed together and you canâÄôt even interpret it,” said sociology faculty member Carolyn Liebler. “ItâÄôs a battle whenever youâÄôre trying to compile information about peopleâÄôs race. On the one hand, institutions want to know who you are, they want you to self-identify âĦ but on the other hand, the entities that want to create statistics would really prefer if you could give a simple answer.”

Often, surveys and census forms donâÄôt accurately reflect the reality of racial differences and identities to begin with, she said. This is partly because people of multiracial backgrounds may select a category based on a political decision or because their identities are constantly changing.

“There were a lot more pressures in the past to pick a race and there were legal pressures,” Liebler said, referring to the “one drop rule,” which classified Americans with minuscule amounts of African ancestry as black âÄî and thereby of lower status.

“Being able to self-identify was definitely a civil rights issue âĦ and young people grew up with a sense that itâÄôs a personal right to be able to identify.”

Although Americans were allowed to self-identify by 1960, they were expected to identify only one race. It wasnâÄôt until 2000 that the census finally recognized more than race, which dance sophomore Mette Towley appreciates.

Towley usually selects both African-American and white, but wishes she had the opportunity to specifically identify her Norwegian ancestry, she said. She sometimes checks the “other” box when forced to pick one race.

“IâÄôve always been proud and comfortable with the fact that IâÄôm a mixed person. IâÄôve never felt like I canâÄôt identify,” she said. Sometimes Towley feels like she has to choose, “but I should never have to choose, even though itâÄôs my right to. âĦ People just donâÄôt accept that. They donâÄôt want you to choose, they just want something thatâÄôs easy to identify. If you donâÄôt fit a category youâÄôre a nuisance.”

Desiree Abu-Odeh feels the same way. SheâÄôs a first-year graduate student who self-identifies as half-Palestinian and half-Caucasian American. She said she selected the “other” category when applying to the University as a prospective undergraduate and identified herself as Palestinian.

Abu-Odeh later discovered the University didnâÄôt send her information about campus opportunities for first-year students of color. She suspects itâÄôs because Arab-Americans are considered Caucasian by the federal government.

“Lumping us as Caucasian is not true to our experiences because of the prejudice we face depending on our last names and how we look,” she said. “To say that weâÄôre white is to belittle our experiences as minorities and as people of color in the U.S.”

In The Mix is a student group founded in 2008 for students of multiracial and multiethnic heritage. The groupâÄôs president, Anthony Shields, said he hopes to leverage pressure on the University to offer more options on application forms so that situations like Abu-OdehâÄôs donâÄôt come up. Because of In The MixâÄôs small membership, the journalism sophomore said the group is focusing on events like “Shades,” tonightâÄôs open discussion at Coffman Union about racism and skin color. The event is being organized in honor of Black History Month.

Shields, Towley and Taylor joined the group because other cultural groups didnâÄôt address the unique experiences students of multiracial backgrounds face.

“Cultural groups try to create a community among ethnic groups, but thatâÄôs the issue with a person whoâÄôs multiethnic: we donâÄôt identify with just one,” Shields said. “Sometimes you can feel rejected and sometimes you feel like you donâÄôt click with some people.”

Shields said he discovered his mixed-race pride since attending the UniversityâÄôs predominantly white campus and identifies himself as a German, Hungarian and African-American âÄî not just black and white âÄî which he feels gives him an edge.

“Nobody can really put me in a category,” he said. “ItâÄôs almost easier for me to connect with other cultures [because] IâÄôm not in one major group. It makes it easy for me to step out of my comfort zone.”


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected]