francis April 23rd, 2011
Recently I have become aware of a trend in academia to criticize the multiracial movement and its progress. Identity in Education (Sanchez-Casal & Macdonald, 2009) includes a negative chapter by Michele Elam (who apparently also has two upcoming books on this topic, which one assumes will also be negative); Color Struck (Adekunle & Williams, 2010) also includes several very negative attacks on the movement, along with some fairly positive chapters.
It should be noted that publishers only publish books that they believe will sell. Thus, there clearly is an appetite in the academic community for this push back against the progress of the multiracial movement.
What’s going on?
It is only natural for any new movement to produce a negative reaction, especially from people, disciplines, academic departments, and social and political causes that feel threatened. To some extent this is positive, even if this attack is surprisingly vicious and derogatory. But these particular critiques are inaccurate and misguided.
These writers are misguided because, 1) they have no real understanding of the history of the multiracial movement, 2) they use the wrong documents and historical events for their analysis of the movement, 3) they view the movement and its success through a critical theory prism, 4) they totally ignore and belittle the reality of multiracial children, families and people in America, and 5) they are wedded to the old ways of looking at race in this country.
No Understanding of the Movement
The heart and soul of the multiracial movement was the roughly 80 support groups that dotted the U.S. and Canadian landscape during the 1980s to mid 1990s (Brown & Douglass, 2003; Wardle, 2004; Williams, 2006). These support networks created a whole body of newsletters, conferences, and local advocacy activities. Second to these influences on the movement were national publications – Interracial Voice, New People, and Interrace
While some of the support groups, such as the Multiracial Association of Southern California (MASC), included active members from local colleges and universities, local families, young people, and multiracial adults dominated their memberships. The movement is not indebted to academia, academic writings, academic leaders, college student groups, or other academic organizations or activities. It was a truly grass-roots movement with no single leadership and little support from academia (Brown & Douglass, 2003; Wardle, 2004). Even the national organizations did not fully represent all these local, grass-roots support organizations.
Got it Wrong
The chapters that I recently read criticizing the movement focus on Root’s Manifesto: A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People (1996), Kay Williams’ book (2006), Newt Gingrich’s support for including a multiracial category on the 2000 census, the choice of visual images on book covers (Elam, 2009), and the relevance of the college classroom in defining the movement and it’s impact. None of these approaches make much sense as a way to examine the history and direction of the multiracial movement in this country.
In her 1996 book, Maria Root includes the A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People (p.3-14). Rainier Spencer makes the case that this document is somehow the Bible of the multiracial movement (2010). First, the height of the movement was the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the publication of this document; and second, in my extensive involvement in the movement (writing, conference presentations, talking to local groups, and so on) I rarely came across this document. But – because the writer has no real understanding or involvement in the movement, he uses for his very negative critique of the movement a document that, while representing many of the beliefs of these involved in the movement, was not instrumental in its development and progress.
Kay William’s Book
This book is an interesting take on the movement (2006). It may even have value from its biased perspective. But it does not represent an objective analysis of the grass-roots dynamism of the movement: no academic document to date does. And I think this is one of the problems: there is no true record of the movement in academic writings. If academics really want to study the movement, they need to collect, achieve, and analyze the hundreds of newsletters and thousands of articles generated by local support groups, and interview the leaders of these very diverse and dynamic groups (not all of whom were White women, despite the claims of Ms Williams!)
And Kay Williams makes the same mistake most observers of the movement make, namely, that the only goal of the movement was to change the U.S. Census categories and subsequent federal school forms. While each support group had its own goals and mission, they were much broader than this one, albeit very important, goal (Brown & Douglas, 2003; Wardle, 2004).
Newt Gingrich and the Conservative Right
Many critics of the multiracial movement have used Newt Gingrich’s support of a multiracial category on the 2000 Census as proof of the movement’s anti-progressive and anti-Civil Rights agenda (Elam, 2009; Spencer, 2010; Williams, 2006). While I have addressed the issue of the support of Civil Rights by the movement in another place, rather than question the meaning of conservative support of a multiracial category, these intellectual critics might ask themselves why the traditional Civil Rights groups (NAACP, La Raza, Asian American groups) vigorously opposed a multiracial category on the census (Root, 1996; Williams, 2006), and why multiracial children and families are still invisible in most school curricula and textbooks? After all, to have the U.S. government accurately record one’s identity would seem to be a basic civil right.
Further, any scholar of liberation movements worldwide is well aware that these movements often produce what appears at the time to be strange bedfellows.
In her chapter in Identity in Education (2009), Elam argues that some of the more popular books about the multiracial movement, “are filled to the margin with middle-class studio portraits of interracial couples and school pictures of their light-skinned, well-groomed children…” (p. 135). While this is not a correct observation, that is not the point. Anyone who has worked with book and magazine publishers knows that the publisher – along with their art director - dictates the visual images used on book covers (for marketing purposes). For example, for an article I wrote about multiracial children that was published in an education magazine, the artist illustrated it with stereotypical, token images of children representing single-race groups: White, Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian!
However, who can blame these authors for wanting to present multiracial and multiethnic people as normal, after the academic world has historically, systemically and aggressively represented multiracial people as physically, morally, intellectually, sexually and emotional crippled, and, in many cases, continues to do so? After all, the academic community coined the term, Marginal Man, brought us eugenics, and some still use the term mulatto.
Over-Estimate the Relevance of the University Classroom
Elam writes, “I suggested at the onset of this chapter that the classroom is pivotal to driving our understanding of mixed-race” (p. 145). Because of the context of the chapter, she means the college classroom.
I obviously disagree.
This is the arrogance of academia. Our understanding of mixed-race in this country is going to be determined by the real issues faced by real multiracial families, children and adults in their daily lives. Of most importance, many of these multiracial individuals who end up in university classrooms will - as they already have – force these classrooms into a massive paradigm shift in the way they discuss race and identity. The pivotal force will be the influence of these multiracial students on the university classroom!
Use of Critical Theory to Deconstruct Mixed-Race
Critical theory uses the concepts of power, privilege and oppression in the study of individuals and society. It views White, heterosexual males as the powerful oppressors; women, people of color, and those with alternative sexual orientations as lacking power and as the oppressed. While this approach is seriously flawed (i.e. women are gaining considerable power in many places, and, at least in my home state of Colorado, gays have considerable power and prestige), it is an approach that simply does not work when examining the mixed-race construct. This is because people who are mixed race – including the most powerful man in the world, the president of the U.S.- are often products of competing power orientations. Is a mixed-race person of Black and White heritage powerful because of his White background, or oppressed because of his Black background? Or both (or, to perpetuate a deeply engrained myth, confused?) And is the relationship between his parents an unequal power relationship by definition? If this is the case, we are then back to the ideal that all interracial relationships are somehow dysfunctional.
Using the Wrong Lens
All the authors discussed in this article believe that, as one author derisively states, “the multiracial identity movement (his moniker) focuses on the self-esteem of is members at the expense of a true declaration against racial inequality in this country” (Spencer, 2010, p. 158). We are accused, at best, of relegating our responsibility in the fight for racial (and gender) equality, and, at worst of being impediments to that struggle (Elam, 2009).
But the problem is that these academic writers de-emphasize and totally ignore the issues most important to us – the constant harassment, belittling, and plain ignoring of our families and children by teachers, administrators, psychologists, social workers, counselors, multicultural educators, and single-race students and parents. Where is the criticism of the extremely vulgar sexual comments made about Mariah Carey and Black men by Sandra Bernhard, comments no-one would dare to make if she (Mariah) were Black (Sleeter, 2003, p. 312)? Not only is there no condemnation of these remarks, but Caroline Sleeter actually decides to repeat them in this academic book, and Elam (2009) continues this Freudian analysis of the sexual attraction of mixed-race women, only she presents them as the “fantasy of the [White] male editors” (p. 135).
These writers blindly ignore the realities of multiracial families, children, and adults trying to live normal and productive lives in 21st Century America.
Caught in Racial Orthodoxy
One of the more surprising things about academic protestations against the new mixed-race consciousness is their total inability to view race from any position other than the traditional, orthodox American (U.S.) perspective. For example, James and Cherry Banks (2004) claim in their book that in America, individuals do not have the option to make a multiracial identity choice. One of the major goals of the multiracial movement is to blur the hard lines between races, what Maria Root calls racial borders (1996). We believe that not only does a mixed-race construct change our view of people of color in this country, but also of White people. Globally, White people include Italians, Turks, Middle easterners, Spaniards and Portuguese (who are genetically influenced by Moors from N. Africa) - including Spanish and Portuguese in S. American countries - and other people with less than pure White skin. It’s only in America that we have this racist notion that White must somehow remain pure (and in Japan, but that’s a different discussion!). Thus, in their chapter on multiracial identity, Rockquemore and Brunsma (2010) label a group of students in their study with the moniker of honoree White. “We consider those within our sample who identify as biracial, those who have multiple and shifting racial identities, and those who claim no racial identity as ‘honorary whites’” (p. 183). What’s going on here? Why cannot these children claim to be multiracial, White, or, as Root suggests (1996), have multiple and shifting identities if they so choose? Who made these writers the arbitrators of racial identity – and, ironically, the protectors of the pure White race? Of course, the author’s argue these students cannot make these choices because ‘White society denies them access because of their phenotype - skin color, hair types, etc’ (2010, p. 183). But I suggest its not “White society” that is doing this, rather, its this current crop of multicultural educators and experts. Outside of the U.S. there are many people who choose identities that do not match the traditional, orthodox American racial perspective.
Thus the critics of the new multiracial consciousness are deeply wedded to the old racial paradigms, and are unable to change, or more importantly, to allow others to change!
There is currently a trend by academic writers to push back against the strides made by the multiracial movement in the United States. This push back is driven by ivory tower academics, who have no real understanding of the multiracial movement, and no real appreciation of the difficulties these children, families, and individuals still face in this country (from all single-race groups). They expect multiracial people to be advocates for other minority-rights efforts, and aggressively criticize them when they inaccurately perceive them to be soft on Civil Rights. Furthermore, because they lack a true understanding of this grassroots’ movement, they use the wrong documents and historical events for their analysis. These critics also over-emphasize the role of the university classroom in the advancement of multiracial identity and equality. And, finally, they don’t understand that the major purpose of the movement is to enable multiracial families, individuals and children to live normal, productive lives without continual harassment and belittling from others - including academics!
Adekunle, J. O. & Williams, H. V. (2010)(Eds.). Color struck: Essays on race and ethnicity in global perspective. Lanham, MA: University Press of America.
Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (2004)(Eds.). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Brown. N. G. & Douglass, R. E. (2003). Evolution of multiracial organizations: Where we have been and where we are going. In L. I. Winters & H. L. Debose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st Century (pp.111-124). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Elam, M. (2009). The mis-education of mixed race. In S. Sanchez-Casal & A. A. Macdonald (Eds.), Identity in the 21st Century (pp. 131-150). New York: Macmillan.
Root, M. P. P. (1996). A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People. In M. P. P. Root (Ed.), The multiracial experience: Racial borders as the new frontier (pp. 3-14). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rockquemore, K. A., & Brunsma, D. L. (2010). Whiteness reconstructed: Multiracial identity as a category of “New White”. In J. O. Adekunle and H. V. Williams (Eds.), Color struck (pp. 173-186). New York: University Press of America,
Sanchez-Casal, S. & Macdonald, A. A. (2009)(Eds.). Identity in the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sleeter, C. A. (2003). The hazards of visibility: “Biracial” women, media images, and narratives of identity. In L. I. Winters & H. L. Debose (Eds.), New Faces in a changing America (pp. 301-322). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Spencer, R. (2010). Militant multiraciality: Rejecting race and rejecting the conveniences of complicity. In J. O. Adekunle & H. V. Williams (Eds.), Color struck (pp.155-172). New York: University Press of America.
Wardle, F. (2004). History of the contemporary multiracial movement, Part 1. http://thestudyofracialism.org/about130.html Retrieved May, 2010.
Williams, K. (2006). Mark one or more. Civil Rights in multiracial America. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
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