by Francis Wardle, PhD When studying for my BS degree at the Pennsylvania State University, I had a U.S. History class in which we studied Andrew Jackson’s victory against the
Soon after Peggy McIntosh published her paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack in 1988, the theory of White privilege grained traction and became popular in many academic circles. Today
On a recent visit to Houston, my wife and I were reintroduced to a wonderful couple, Pat and Wolf. We first met this couple in Kansas City, when our children
by Francis Wardle, PhD. So says Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a March, 2012 article published in the New York Times. This article joins an increasing number of vocal voices published
by Francis Wardle, PhD All three of the early childhood classes that I teach at a local community college include in their syllabi content on diversity and multicultural education. However,
Francis Wardle, PhD
When studying for my BS degree at the Pennsylvania State University, I had a U.S. History class in which we studied Andrew Jackson’s victory against the British at New Orleans. My teacher had us read three different accounts of the American victory, published during three different periods in U.S. history. One account reported Jackson as a national hero, another as an incompetent drunk, and a third as a mediocre general. I was reminded of this class with when I read the Research Focus: Multiracial Identity in the book, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in USA, by Richard Schaefer (2014). This chapter feature describes events leading up to the momentous change in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) system that resulted in the 2000 census (and a variety of 2010 federal school and employment forms) allowing respondents to check “two or more races” after many years of being forced to select a single race. (Of note, the change was made by the OMB, which then required changes in the census and a vast variety of other federal forms that collect demographic information). For many interracial parents who had bitterly fought school officials over these forms, this change was long overdue.
However, as someone who was actively involved in the multiracial movement of the 1970s-90s, I can attest that the account provided in this book is dread wrong. It states, 1) the reason a single multiracial or biracial category was not provided, but rather a choice of “two or more races” was selected, was because “pretests showed very few people would use it” (p. 13); 2) the 9 million people who eventually chose two or more races on the 2000 Census was less than many observers had anticipated, and 3) race is now universally considered a social construct as opposed to a biological reality.
In recent years, several reports have been written about the multiracial movement and the events that resulted in the change to the OMB racial category system (see Williams, 2003, 2006; Williams-Leon, 2003). However, these reports are not by people who were actively involved in the movement, but are by people affiliated with single-race and ethnicity departments at colleges and major universities. For a variety of political and social reasons, these scholars have seen a need to distort the actual record.
I was involved in various aspects of the multiracial movement, and one of the major goals of the movement was to change these federal categories. I even visited the offices of OMB with my good friend Edwin Darden from the Washington, DC support group, the Interracial Family Circle, on one of my many visits to the capitol. However, despite what many have reported, pressuring the OMB to provide a category enabling children and people of mixed-heritage to select a choice that truly resented who they were was not the only goal of the many support groups. My point here is not to provide a detailed account of how the changes in OMB were achieved (which can be described by others who were more directly involved), but to refute the account provided in Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the USA, by R. T. Schaefer (2014). Below is the view I have of these three issues.
A Biracial and Multiracial Option Was Not Provided Because Too Few People Would Use It
This is blatantly false. The reason OMB did not provide a multiracial or biracial choice is because of vehement, forceful and political opposition from a vast variety of civil rights and single-race advocacy groups, including the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), NAACP, La Raza, the Urban League, and various Asian and Native American groups (Williams, 2003, 2006; Williams-Leon, 2003). These organizations insisted that OMB approve an approach in which the choice of two or more races could be disaggregated back to the traditional single-race options, so that these groups would not reduce their numbers from the various demographics counts viewed as critical to social and political power.
According to Williams (2003, 2006), the civil rights community told the U.S. Congress that a multiracial category would “imperil the statistics needed to enforce civil rights laws” (p. 42). The Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA), a national umbrella group representing some of the local interracial support groups, and Project Race, initially supported a federal multiracial category. However, eventually all the multiracial groups except Project Race and Charles Byrd (an advocate and publisher of Interracial Voice) supported the” two or more races” option as the only approach that these various politically positioned civil right groups would support. It was clear that it was either the “two or more races” option, or nothing.
In this discussion, it is also important to deeply understand that the multiracial movement was not a united group with national leadership, clearly articulated goals, and a universally accepted mission statement (despite what many have reported). Rather, it was a disjointed collection of individuals and support groups; people with only one thing in common: advocating for the rights of multiracial children, interracial families, and people of mixed-heritage. For example, AMEA, the national umbrella group, was comprised of only 13 of the national local support groups out of a list of more than 30 active groups, and many active individuals. Further, AMEA had no formal relationship with three very involved national publications: New People, Interracial Voice, and Interrace.
Thus one can convincingly argue that most of the multiracial support groups and other individuals and organizations working towards acknowledgement and acceptance of interracial families and multiracial people in the U.S. had no formal representation at the various hearings for the changes in the OMB categories.
Fewer People Selected “Two or More Races” in the 2000 Census than Many Expected
This too is untrue. Many news outlets expressed surprise at the large numbers of people who choose too or more races on the new form – 2.9% of the total, and about 9 million people. I believe this was due to two main factors:
• The media was simply unaware of the number of people in this country who viewed themselves as multiracial, even when the government saw them as invisible; and
• The media – like so many Americans – assumed that the U.S. Census categories somehow naturally and accurately reflected all Americans’ personal identity choices.
Further, because for so many years the OMB had only allowed people to choose a single racial identity on the census and other federal forms, many people of mixed-heritage had reluctantly become used to this system. Supporting the system was both the one-drop rule, and the rule of hypodescent. Both of these “rules” require individuals of mixed-heritage to select a single racial identity, thus fitting neatly within the previously-used demographic approach. Many mixed-race people and organizations who challenged the traditional OMB rules were roundly criticized and even harassed by single-race minority groups for jeopardizing the social and political clout of single-race groups, being disloyal to their race, and causing all of the federal collection agencies to be forced to use “inaccurate” data. In fact, Arthur Fletcher, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at the time, exclaimed, that “he could see a whole host of light-skinned black Americans running for the door the minute they have another choice” (House subcommittee testimony, Nov 3, 1973, as cited in Williams, 2006, page 42).
Race is a Social Construct
Until the results of the Human Genome Project, most multicultural textbooks followed the popularly held notion that race is somehow a biological scientific reality. This is the first diversity textbook I have read that has finally abandoned this outdated and unscientific notion, although later in the book the author returns back to the old, biological definition! However, ironically in a chapter feature that focuses on changes in the U.S. Census, and how OMB changed the federal forms to allow respondents to check “two or more races”, the author does not acknowledge that race in America is obviously a highly political activity! The entire process of OMB hearings and the intense political pressure by various special interest groups, is a classic example of politics.
One example of the political nature of racial categories is that, while people of mixed-heritage in the U.S. have been struggling for years for official acceptance and inclusion, especially children, mixed-race people in Brazil don’t think twice about their identity, because mixed-race people in that country have always been acknowledged and officially accepted by the federal government and by Brazilian society (Fish, 2002). And in Belize there are a variety of different racial combinations that would all be included under the broad African American category, if they were used in this country. Another example is that, while the U.S. Census recently adopted a Hispanic ethnic category (many of whom are multiracial), they took a very long time to provide a “two or more races” option, and have continually refused to provide a multiracial option. One can only imagine why the political nature of these racial constructs is not addressed in this text; one guess would be because this reinforced the pervasive academic view in America that a single-race view of diversity is not only somehow socially acceptable, but is also supported by most unlighted and progressive people.
In the book, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the USA, by Richard Schaefer (2014), there is a feature, Multiracial Identity, in which the history of the change to the federal OMB categories is detailed. This was a monumental change to how our government collects demographic data, and a description of it belongs in any book on racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. However, the report is incorrect on several levels. First, it argues that a separate multiracial category was not given as an option because too few people would use it. The truth is that this option was rejected as a result of heavy and persistent opposition from single-race advocacy groups, and a variety of national civil rights organizations, including NAACP, the Urban League, La Raza, EEOC and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The check “two or more races” was a compromise acceptable to these powerful groups. Secondly, the books states that the number of people who selected “two or more races” was lower than expected. This too is incorrect; many in the media were surprised that in a society where race has been socially and politically codified in single-race terms for so long, so many would select two or more races on the 2000 census. And, finally, this feature claims that race is socially constructed, while ignoring the obvious (since it describes a change in the political process) political nature of race and counting people by race. Slavery, the Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement, and the one-drop rule were decidedly political constructs.
Fish, J. M. (Ed.)(2002). Race and intelligence. Separating science from myth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schaefer, R. T. (2014). Racial and ethnic diversity on the USA. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Williams, K. M. (2003). From civil rights to the multiracial movement. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 85-98). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Williams, K. M. (2006). Mark one or more. Civil rights in multiracial America. Ann Arbor, MI. The University of Michigan Press.
Williams-Leon, T. (2003). Check all that apply: Trends and perspectives among Asian-descent multiracials. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 168-175). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Soon after Peggy McIntosh published her paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack in 1988, the theory of White privilege grained traction and became popular in many academic circles. Today it is required reading for anyone studying race in America. It is probably popular for several reasons, including 1) it expresses the experiences many African Americans and other minorities have had in their daily lives in the US, including being carefully followed in department stores by store personnel, having police profile them while driving through upper-class neighborhoods, and experiencing unpleasant interactions in their workplace; 2) it neatly fits the very popular structuralist approach to deconstructing race and ethnicity and other forms of inequality promulgated by sociologists and other scholars throughout Western academia (Banks, 2013); and 3) it taps into a strong vein of White guilt that many White intellectuals carry with them.
But is it correct? And is it a helpful framework for understanding the dynamics of race and racism in this country and the world?
Central to this theory is a view that all White people carry within them what Ms. McIntosh calls White privilege. White privilege is essentially a cloak of favoritism and special provisions based on the White phenotype, what McIntosh calls unearned power and unearned dominance over people from other groups. The second concept of the theory is that most White people not only are totally unaware of this privilege and power, but will deny its existence if it is pointed out to them, while also being quick to point out specific privileges of other groups, such as those based on government policies, educational programs, or industry initiatives designed to increase diversity and to offset White privilege (McKinney, 2008). Ms. McIntosh also suggests that White people use this power deliberately and persistently against people of color.
Like all theories, there is some truth to the theory of White privilege, and some value in its application. Here is not the place to describe its benefits; needless to say, as I have already suggested, most academics are very aware of its value and its overall framework to deconstruct race and racial inequalities in contemporary America.
Problems with the Theory
There are three approaches that can be used in critiquing any theory: 1) deconstruct the theory itself, 2) examine the interpretations of the theory by academics, practitioners, and those who disseminate academic information (i.e. journal editors, book writers and publishers), and 3) examine how the theory is applied. However, it is usually extremely difficult to separate out these three areas, as the original theory is continually reinterpreted by various people with a variety of different perspectives and personal and political agendas, many of the people who interpret a theory are also involved in applying it, and the theory is used in a vast array of different forms, venues, and applications
As a teacher who discusses theories of human development and behavior continually in my own college classes, I have also found that it is very helpful to examine the life experiences of a theorist, as I believe each one of us is the product of our own social, historical, political, national, racial and socioeconomic contexts. Thus each person, including a theorist, views the world from his/her own unique, complex perspective. I do not know Ms. McIntosh, but I do know that she developed this theory while working for a very exclusive, elite New England woman’s college. Wellesley College clearly would not be a place where one would expect to find many poor white women who grew up in the valleys of West Virginia or Kentucky (or others who lack a certain education and social status). Thus the personal privileges Peggy McIntosh has experienced and writes about may be much more about her wealth, education, and social status, than her skin color (although admittedly they are connected in complex and dynamic ways).
However, like many other theories (Freud’s psychoanalytic theory comes to mind) (Freud, 1917), this theory is overly broad and overly broadly applied, and is easily manipulated by people with a vast array of political and academic agendas. Students of human behavior understand the dynamics and complexities of the human experience; unfortunately, a sociological analysis of the human experience tends to obliterate these complexities, assuming that group dynamics and group belonging must always supersede individual realities and unique individual identities. They don’t. Thus there are several major problems with this theory, including, 1) all privilege depends on the contexts of power, 2) the theory is often poorly and inappropriately applied, 3) according to the theory, people of different racial backgrounds can never be equal, even in intimate and personal contexts, 4) sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and 5) the theory can far too easily be used as a new and subtle way to accuse someone of being a racist.
The Contexts of Power
Power that is based on a person’s skin color, like other forms of power, is often situational. Over the years I have taught college-level classes in multiculturalism and diversity, both as ground classes and on-line (and yes in online classes students are very aware of each person’s race). Many of these classes are multiracial, and despite their double minority status of being both a female and African American, the female Black students in these classes are by far the most powerful and assertive members, to the extent that some are even rude and insensitive to students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. The reasons for their sense of power are not important here; simply, they clearly do not feel inferior, dominated, harmed, invisible, or lacking in advantage!
In 1976, I joined a caravan of motley individuals in St. Louis, Missouri, to embark on a long road trip in an old school bus to a small town high in the Highlands of Guatemala. I was part of a multiracial group that was sent to help Mayan indigenous people after a devastating earthquake that killed many people and destroyed many of their adobe homes. The group was comprised of Canadians, Mohawk Indians from upstate New York and Canada, Whites, Hispanics, Mexicans (from Mexico City), and Puerto Ricans. All were men except two young White women from the US (Wardle, 1976). Two sets of dynamics prevailed throughout the long trip and the subsequent six weeks of working in mountain villages in the Highlands of Guatemala: 1) the White Americans – including me – were outnumbered and out-powered, and 2) the two women announced – verbally and non-verbally – early on that they only had interest in the nonwhite men in the group.
We worked with local Mayan families and their leaders in villages scattered throughout the area. During this six-week experience, many of the minority members of the group often choose to leave the work site and go to Guatemala City and other places for entrainment, while the White members of the group remained in the poor mountain villages, living with the local Mayan villagers and working on a variety of key projects, including building houses and creating a fresh water system for an isolated village. I even had to take over as the group’s photographer because the official photographer was more interested in the city lights than taking pictures. This was fine with me, because I enjoyed living and working in the Highlands of Guatemala and learning about the families, their culture, and the education of their children (Wardle, 1976). I also was not really interested in dating at that time in my life, so the behaviors of the women in our group did not bother me. However, it was pretty clear to all of us who actually had the power in the group!
Later in my life, while living in Denver, I was very good friends with a young lady who worked very consciously both with the Denver NAACP and La Raza. She was a single mother struggling to make financial ends meet, but she believed in social justice and was very committed to helping both of these communities. However, she often bitterly complained to me that, as a young Jewish woman, she had absolutely no power in either of these organizations, which was a shame because she had a lot to offer them. Certainly she had White privilege when she went to the local 7-11 to buy a piece of candy, or to Sears to buy some clothes, but while working within these two groups, she had none.
Who has Power? Misapplication of the Theory
It is too easy and simplistic to automatically assign power and domination to the White person in a multiracial group. Some examples where a White person has no power include:
• A white person with a gun pointed at his or her head by a another person obviously has no power;
• When I visit my friends in the Taos Pueblo Indian Reservation they are happy I am interested in their culture (and in giving them my money); but I have absolutely no power – no should I have power – on their Indian reservation. I am not even protected by the local town police.
• When my Black female friend and I visited a local bar as a send-off for her working for me, we entered an all- Black bar, and I have never in my life experienced such intense and hateful stares! To say I had any power or privilege in that particular context is simply ridiculous!
In another article on this website I mentioned a confrontation between a Black female diversity consultant and the White mother of a biracial child at a local school in Denver. The mother wanted to make sure the school-sponsored diversity support group would address some of her child’s struggles in the school. Her child had been a student in the district for several years, and had experienced some harassment and many challenges. Quite frankly this child was struggling in school. However, before the mother could finish asking her first question, the consultant cut her off, saying the group would not listen to someone with White privilege. Clearly this response was totally inappropriate and completely out of line, because:
• In this case the Black consultant had the power and privilege because she was the official leader of the group, and because she was the official representative of the school district;
• The White mother lacked privilege and power because she had for years fought with the school district to try to get them to respond to the unique and unmet needs of her biracial daughter -and other biracial students in the district – and she was now desperately trying to find solutions for her child’s lack of success in the school;
• The single-race minority parents in the group had privilege because the group officially represented single-race minority families in the school district, and did not include any interracial families with biracial children.
In this case the person interpreting White privilege got it all wrong, and quite frankly not only made a fool of herself, but also poorly represented the school district. The Black consultant had all of the power and privilege; the White mother had no power and no privilege. As a consequence of this confrontation, and her lack of power in the school district, the mother pulled her biracial daughter out of the school to home-school her.
People of Different Racial Backgrounds can Never be Equal
One of the central dilemmas with the White privilege theory is that it makes any equal relationship between people from different racial background impossible. Thus my marriage of over 30 years must be built on an unequal relationship. I have the power and dominate my wife; she has no power and is subservient to me. This is obviously stupid. Yes, all sorts of issues must be continually faced in any intimate relationship, and, in a country fixated on racial inequalities, race can increase the stress. But an equal relationship is very possible, and exists in many personal and professional relationships.
This situation is similar to the belief by many feminists, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and supported by some today, that a true feminist cannot have an equal relationship with a man, and therefore must be in a lesbian relationship. It also fits the narrative that there is something inherently wrong and unhealthy with an interracial relationship.
The White privilege theory also reinforces the bitter view expressed by segregationists (on both sides) that the only reason a Black person marries a white person is to give their children some White privilege. (It’s interesting to note that at the same time these detractors do not explain the motivation of the White partner for marrying a Black person). This view also justifies the mean harassment of multiracial children by Black peers who accuse them of trying to be White and trying to be better – privileged – than them. Often the Black peers insist that these multiracial children must prove their Blackness.
Conversely this theory is also used by some to justify the peculiarly American one-drop rule approach to defining race. After all, if White skin gives someone an automatic privilege and a sense of undeserved and unearned power, then anyone with skin that is no pure White lacks this power and privilege. Thus they must be Black!
And finally this view presents a sticky political and social question that Critical Race Theory also supports: if White people are automatically and consistently privileged compared to Black people, we then must create public policies, procedures, laws and approaches to education, employment, and other social issues to rectify this problem. In other words, we now must create specific policies, laws, and approaches that give Black people – and other minorities – an advantage, to balance the scales and to offset White privilege.
Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
One of my psychology students commented to me how she enjoyed my class on human growth and development. She complained that her previous teacher, a devout Freudian, had psychoanalyzed every student in the class, and how this made many of the students feel very uncomfortable. One of the most frequent criticisms of Freud’s theory is that it can be applied – and misapplied – to almost every human behavior, even the most benign and normal. Even Freud said that sometimes a cigar is simply a cigar (as opposed to a phallic symbol or the expression of a deep psychological trauma). Sometimes people can simply interact together as equals, without having to resort to an interpretation of White privilege (and other forms of repression and domination). Not every interaction between people of different races is an exercise in power; it is very possible to over-complicate things, and to see privilege and oppression where it does not exist.
I remember an incident a few years ago when Oprah Winfrey was upset that she was thrown out of an upscale Paris department store because it was close to closing time. She and others claimed racism. However, according to my two children who lived in Paris at the time, this was simply the typical behavior of French workers, who do not care who they are serving if it is time to close. (French workers generally do not get tips and therefore care little about customer service). Race and White privilege had absolutely nothing to do with the incident!
Just as J. Edgar Hoover saw a communist under every bed, this theory supports the idea that all White people are continually and unconsciously motivated to suppress minorities, and to distort the humanity of people from minority groups (McIntosh, 1989). People with this perspective can take the joy and richness out of the human experience, and negate the wonderful experiences people from different backgrounds can have when enjoying each others’ company (Wardle, 2013).
A New Way to Accuse Someone of Racism
One of the things that I have recently discovered is that academics are loath to call each other racists, but they often believe they are. So they resort to suggesting they are using White privilege logic and thinking, or interpreting a problem from a White privilege perspective. This is a extremely dangerous practice, because it allows them to accuse anyone with whom they disagree of racism, and can be intellectually lazy. For example, in discussing affirmative action in a university, a person who supports affirmative action can quickly argue that someone who does not support affirmative action is using a White privilege argument, because the White privilege theory claims that meritocracy is not real, because Whites and Blacks never compete on a level playing field. The person who does not support affirmative action may have wanted to point out that statistics show that many minority students are academically unprepared to be successful in college, especially in large, high-powered institutions, and therefore should be allowed to take an alternative, less successful route to a college degree. But because White privilege is automatically thrown into the argument, a serious debate never occurs.
Any interaction that stifles debate is negative; in a world where we are continually and even aggressively urged to talk about race, this kind of illogical and absolute accusation is much too easy, unhelpful and unproductive. Like Freudian psychoanalytic theory, White privilege is often misused to interpret a situation that is more complex and nuanced, and requires deeper and more circumspect intellectual debate.
Ever since the publication of the paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, by Peggy McIntosh (1988), the White privilege theory has been embraced by Americans academics who study and teach about race. Its principles ring true for many who have experienced racism in this country, and it can be a helpful framework to deconstruct race and racism. However, as with other theories of human behavior, this theory is overly broad, and uncritically applied. There are several major problems with this theory, which include, 1) privilege depends on the contexts of power, 2) the theory is often misapplied, 3) according to the theory, people of different backgrounds can never be equal, 4) sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and 5) the theory is now being used as a new and subtle way to accuse someone of being a racist. Scholars and practitioners who have little understanding of the complex dynamics of human behavior continue to interpret the theory in ways that are not only unhelpful, but that are very destructive to any discussion of the complex issues of race and racial inequality in contemporary society.
Banks, J. A. (2013). Multicultural education: Characteristics and goals. In J. A. Banks & C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (8th ed., pp. 3-25). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Freud, S. (1917). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible backpack. Wellesley MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
McKinney, K. D. (2008). Confronting young people’s perceptions of Whiteness: Privilege or liability? Race and Society, 6. 39-55.
Wardle, F. (1976, November). A first look at education of Guatemalan Indians in post-earthquake Guatemala. New Schools Exchange Newsletter, 136, 12-15
Wardle, F. (2013). Human relationships and learning in the multicultural environment. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
On a recent visit to Houston, my wife and I were reintroduced to a wonderful couple, Pat and Wolf. We first met this couple in Kansas City, when our children were very young and we were struggling to decide how to raise healthy biracial children in a society fixated on race.
Wolf is from the East German city of Dresden. He came to the U.S. with what remained of his family immediately after the war, setting up in one of the Dakotas, and then joining the army. He now works for veterans in the state of Texas. He met Pat in Chicago. Pat is a gifted music teacher from Louisiana, and an outspoken, articulate southern Black woman.
We met Pat and Wolf shortly after my oldest daughter, then 5 years-of-age, had an argument with a young child who had recently emigrated from Mexico. As children this age do, they got into an argument. However, in the heat of the argument, the little boy declared to my daughter, “Well you are Black and I am not”!
“How come I am Black and he is not, when he is darker than me?” my daughter asked in bewilderment” (She could also have asked, “and why did he feel it was important to tell me in an angry voice that I am Black and he is not? What relevance is this to our argument?”) How do you explain the one-drop rule, and entrenched societal racism, to a five year old? It then became very apparent to my wife and I that we needed to have a clear idea how to develop in our children a healthy, accurate and positive view of their complete racial identity. It was also clear to us that we needed to start early, before our children were five-years-old, as clearly young children pick up and express the racism of the society around them. We had not understood this important point before this incident.
But how should we do this?
My Children are German
Wolf is a large, ex-military man, with a quiet but powerful presence. When asked about the identity of his four biracial children, he automatically and intuitively replied, “My children are German!” At a dinner we had with Pat and Wolf’s family, Wolf selected a variety of sweet, German white wines, and described to us the finer aspects of good German wines and how to select them. At the same meal, as I recall, Pat prepared a wonderful Louisiana dish. Pat was equally adamant that her children learn about her proud Louisiana background, along with her husband’s German heritage. Not only did she see no contradiction in this view, but she also saw it as an expression of her deep belief in human equality. To her, society requires that people should be respected for who they are, and no-one has a right to tell others who they can and should be. Her society – the one she grew up in – celebrated and honored the value of each individual, and empowered each individual to be what they wished to become; not what others wanted them to be. In fact, Pat’s own self-image is such that the views of other people really do not matter!
Thus Pat and Wolf raised their children as German, Louisianan, and American.
Pat and Wolf’s children were older than ours. Thus, their family became a wonderful role model for our children. Wolf is German; I am English. Pat is an African American from Louisiana; Ruth, my wife, is an African American and Chickasaw Indian from Kansas City and Oklahoma. Pat has a master’s degree in music education, and Ruth has a master’s degree in special education.
While we were struggling to decide how to support the unique racial identity of our children, we talked to a variety of experts, read journal articles, and did extensive research. The pervasive view we heard then (1978) was that society sees our children as Black, so we should raise them as Black. My favorite response was from an expert who said, “We really don’t know the best way to raise biracial children, so I suggest you wait!”
At that point we had three children. We also were not comfortable with the idea of raising our children according to society. First, who exactly is society? Second, society then – as now – had a fairly negative view about Black people. Did this mean that we had to raise our children with a sense of inferiority and subservience? Finally, I grew up as someone different from the surrounding society. Both my parents rejected a comfortable middle-class background in England by joining a very poor, alternative communal society on a farm in the border country between England and Wales. They choose to raise their children differently than the typical English child, and I do not feel my upbringing was somehow less, because society didn’t like it!
The other pervasive view then was that if you raised a child as both White and Black, the child would become very confused. We heard a lot about how confused and messed up our children would be, and how selfish we were for wanting them to be biracial. As the White parent, I was expected to feel guilty for not allowing my children to be raised as Black. None of this made much sense to either of us. If children who grow up in an interracial family and are raised as biracial are confused, then the obvious response is to make sure they clearly know who they are! So, as we raised our children, we made sure – through books, discussions, visits to museums, travel, celebrations, cultural events, teaching their teachers and peers, and exposing them to a rich variety of other experiences that showed them that the world is not just Black and White – our children knew they were biracial, and they were not confused. But at the beginning we listened to the experts, and like most beginning parents, we were unsure of the direction we wished to take.
Biracial – and Bicultural
Thus it was very refreshing to meet Pat and Wolf, and to see their clear and unequivocal view of the importance of raising biracial children with such a strong understanding of both of their parents’ heritages. The positive and affirming example of Pat and Wolf was a great reassurance and support of our own disagreements with the views that had been presented to us, and an affirmation that our children would be OK being raised as proudly biracial and bicultural. Pat and Wolf demonstrated to us how to be proud, assertive, and competent about our choice to marry and to raise our children as biracial.
In a way we had an advantage over other interracial couples, because not only did we come from different races, but also totally different cultures: European and American. This made it much easier for us to expose our children to both of our backgrounds, and to integrate these diverse backgrounds into our family’s experiences – traditions, celebrations, histories, and values. Unfortunately, interracial parents in the U.S. are bombarded with negative opinions, comments, and criticisms, freely and assertively expressed by total strangers and supposedly knowledgeable academicians who have never struggled with raising multiracial children in this society, including accusations of being disloyal to their race, repeating the history of rape of Black slave women by White slave-owners, being ashamed of their Black children, and selfishly sacrificing the welfare of the entire Black race for the self-esteem of their own children. Interracial parents also have to put up with the total ignorance – when it comes to racial identity – of teachers, school administrators, social workers, diversity specialists, and others who work with children and families. So, when it came to celebrating cultural differences, we did not have to tolerate that kind of stupidly. We did not have to hear that we should only expose our children to their Black race, due to prejudice, discrimination, racism, the history of slavery, guilt, power, white privilege, and so on. Because of the role of the melting pot in the history of the American society, Americans of all racial backgrounds understand mixing traditions and cultures much more than they understand – and accept – the mixing of races!
When a curious stranger asked, “Well, what are they?” it was much easier, and far less frustrating to answer, “They are British and American”, rather than, “They are Black and White”.
This appreciation of cultural differences led me to teach my children about a great-grandparent who was a pioneering member of the Labor Party in England. He was an important socialist who was instrumental in passing the first child labor laws, and who supported the building of hospitals for people with disabilities. I could also proudly relate to my children the stories of my relative enjoying hiking in the British countryside – as I like to hike with my children – and his reputation (similar to my own) of taking ‘short cuts’ and getting lost! I was proud and comfortable presenting my White relative as a critically important role model to my biracial children.
Pat and Wolf’s children are now grown, with families of their own. They have successful careers, including a telecommunications executive, teacher, councilman, and college administrator. One of them, in fact, is a member of the Prometheus society, which is a far more restrictive IQ group (requires a much higher IQ score) than Mensa. Pat recounted to me that when this son was at a recent Mensa society gathering, a little old White lady asked him to get her some coffee (assuming he was a worker in the hotel). He said he would gladly do so, but then quietly informed her that he was a member of the Prometheus society, as well as her lowly Mensa group! Clearly this young had no problem with his self-image!
None of Wolf’s and Pat’s children are in jail; none are in mental institutions. All are successful contributing members of society. They are not confused because of their mixed heritage; they are not ashamed to embrace their full and rich racial and cultural heritage: Black, White, German, American, Louisianan, and so on. In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons they are so secure in their identity is because of the clear and powerful role models of their two parents.
By the same token, my four children all have college degrees. All have jobs. One is married with two children; another will marry this spring. By most traditional accounts they are successful, contributing members of our diverse society. Each embraces his or her full heritage, and is very comfortable with a world view that says humanity is not divided into distinct racial groups, but rather is made-up of a rich continuum of fluid and ever-changing racial and cultural identifies. Further, individual identity to them is not solely based on group belonging and loyalty, and on what others think of the group; it’s also based on individual attributes, behaviors, and individually integrated and synthesized backgrounds
We Made the Right Decision
It was a delight to reunite with Pat and Wolf. It brought back those early years in Kansas City, when we were struggling with a young family, and wrestling with the question of how to raise confident, secure and healthy biracial children in a society fixated on race and racial differences. Pat and Wolf assured us that we could raise our children as confidently biracial. It prepared us for many of the struggles we were to encounter as our children were growing up, such as the time the father of my daughter’s best friend said to my daughter, when her friend invited her to her home, “You cannot come into my house until you wash the dirt off your face”; the teacher who insisted that, even though the federal school form explicitly stated, “check the most accurate response”, insisted on her checking only one option (she refused); and the teacher who told my daughter she could not be part Chickasaw because she was Black (her mother is an enrolled member of the tribe), to the constant misidentification (of both parents and children) and the incessant question, “well, what are you, anyway” that we continually experienced. I am so grateful that we met them when we did.
Francis Wardle, PhD in education/human development, has written extensively on interracial families and multiracial children, in books, journals and magazines; and has given conference presentations on this topic in the U.S., Canada and Brazil.
by Francis Wardle, PhD.
So says Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a March, 2012 article published in the New York Times. This article joins an increasing number of vocal voices published in progressive publications and in books published by academic presses. But why? At a period of time when same-sex marriage is becoming acceptable, and gender identification is greatly expanded, why do intellectuals insist on the very narrow one-drop-rule definition of blacks in America?
This particular article, As Black as We Wish to Be, is by a black man married to a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed French woman. While insisting that his children must be loyal to the black community, he hypocritically argues that “exhortations to stick with one’s own, however well intentioned, won’t be able to change that” (marrying outside of the black race). As my black wife suggests, it seems that some black men who marry white women try to assuage their guilt by insisting their children identify as black.
What are Mr. Williams’ arguments? One, all biracial children “look black”, and therefore should identify as black, 2) America is still not fully equitable, providing social and economic justice to all, 3) people who choose a mixed-race identity are engaged in the “private joys of self-expression” (i.e. are selfish), 4) the one-drop rule that was created to protect the purity and superiority of the white race is not all that bad, 5) identifying as mixed by people who are truly mixed will have a devastating impact on government support for black programs and overall black well-being, especially in our schools, 6) racial self-identification means that racial identity will become a matter of individual will, and 7) identifying as black is required to “honor those who came before us”.
Let me address each of these arguments briefly.
All Biracial Children Look Black
This phenotypical argument is used by many. I remember a African American news correspondent declaring the fact that she was passed over by a New York City cab driver was proof that she was black. (As a white male I have been profiled on several occasions, including the time I was spent in jail for 24 hours high in the Colorado Rockies because I looked like a drug dealer). This is also the kind of argument we in psychology call self-fulfilling: if a biracial child (or adult) matches someone’s essentialist view of what a black person looks like, then yes, they look black. But if not, the viewer probably doesn’t even think they are biracial (and yes, they are often very confused).
My four children have been identified as Vietnamese, Cambodian, Moroccan, Native American, North African, Brazilian, Hispanic – all the time, Chinese, Asian, and Indian (Asian), but rarely black. Yes, people think they are adopted, their black mother is a maid or nanny, and their white father has no biological relationship to them. But this is because of the “pure white race mythology” that this writer perpetuates.
America is Still Not Fully Equitable
This of course, is very true. However, the thousands of illegal immigrants risking their lives to come here (most of who are minority) seem to think this place is worth the sacrifice. And the issue of inequality in the United States should be addressed, 1) by enforcing all anti-discrimination laws (for all people who are discriminated against), and 2) by increasing programs for low-income, homeless and others who are less fortunate, regardless of their race. Government programs that address inequality and injustice should not give preference to specific racial groups.
Selecting a Mixed-Race Identity is a Selfish, Private Joy of Self-Expression
Critics of the multiracial movement often accuse advocates of racial self-identification as advocating selfishness over loyalty. They argue that the only reasons we support a biracial identity is, 1) because we don’t want our children to be black, and 2) because we only care about individual self-esteem. And – just like Mr. Williams – these critics juxtapose individual self-worth against allegiance to the black community. It should be noted here that the famous black identity theorist, William Cross, divides a healthy black identity into two parts, RGO (loyalty to a group), and PI (personal identity).
This either-or argument is highly specious. First, race and ethnicity are central components of everyone’s identity, as are gender, ability, language, culture, and so on. Thus, a person’s full racial and ethnic identity should be accepted, and all individuals should be encouraged to accurately embrace who they are. Secondly, we need as many people as we can get in this country who feel good about themselves, and who have high self-esteem. Crime, drugs, domestic violence, dropping out of school, joining a gang, and so on are far more likely to occur in people who do not feel very good about themselves. Thus they find ways to act out against others, so that they can feel important.
One of the reasons I insist that multiracial children embrace and celebrate their full heritage is because they are often required to defend themselves against harassment and bullying, due to their mixed identity. Ironically, multiracial children receive harassment and bullying from all single-race peers, including black peers.It is also incorrect to assume that multiracial children and adults have no allegiance to the black community and no commitment to black equality, although constant criticism from people like Mr. Williams will make them think twice before supporting black causes.
The One-Drop Rule is Not all Bad
One of the most racist policies that slavery produced, and that the Jim Crow laws perpetuated, is the one-drop rule. Essentially the rule was passed by many states – and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – to keep the white race pure and unadulterated by genes from lesser races. Later the eugenics moment and the creation of IQ tests to measure intelligence were both used to solidify this racist idea, which continued as an official government policy during WWII, when Americans – including African Americans – were involved in fighting the racist Nazis.
It is simply unimaginable why advocates of social and political justice and equality support the one-drop rule. I do considerable work in Brazil, including studying constructs of race and racism in this large, multiracial society. But whenever the topic is discussed, all Brazilians, from intellectuals to people in the street, always interject, “But you have the racist one-drop rule”. That ends any further discussion.
To support the one-drop rule is to perpetuate the idea that the white race is pure and must remain pure. It is a view still held by the U.S. government (i.e. the census), but, while the U.S. government has never been a paragon of justice and equality, the fact that so many social justice advocates support it is embarrassing.
Choosing to be Multiracial has a Negative Impact on Government Programs, Especially Schools
This, of course, is always given as the main reason mixed-race children must identify as black: the power of numbers. But it’s false on several levels:
1) Most of k-12 funding (about 90%) is local and state funds, and not federal funds. The local and state funds are allocated according to a variety of formulas, but race in not one of them. A specific area that is funded directly by the federal government is IDEA – funds for children with disabilities. A disproportionate number of these children are black (and Hispanic). Ironically, however, the federal government has never fully funded this program, siphoning off funds for programs such as the Race to the Top.
2) The U.S. census (and other agencies that collect demographic data) takes the results of people who check more than one race and disaggregate these numbers back to the 5 single-race groups, including African American. So anyone who selects African American and some other race on a federal form will be counted as African American in these single-race tabulations.
But I think it is good that more multiracial people are insisting on being identified as multiracial, because this group is still generally ignored by the government, multiculturalists, and diversity experts. My community college refused to allow students to identify with more than one race until required to by the federal government; most multicultural texts ignore multiracial people, and, of over 500 entries in a new early childhood book for which I was asked to contribute, multiracial families were somehow totally missed. (To their credit, multiracial families has been added now that the omission has been pointed out).
Racial Identification Becomes an Individual Choice
This, of course, is the way it should be. What gives a government – especially a government of the people – the right to decide the racial identity of its citizens? After all, the census is supposed to reflect racial identity choices of the American people, and not dictate a person’s racial identity, despite Mr. Williams’ assertion to the contrary. (It should be noted here that, while the U.S. census provides people with a very limited number of choices for their racial identify, the census continually insists that individuals must self-identify, and that it’s not their job to determine a person’s race). Further, why should we use a racial category system that was produced as a central part of our racist past? It is time to allow – even encourage – people to select their own racial and ethnic identity. Actually, many Americans are already doing so.
New immigrants from Africa are maintaining their national, tribal and religious affiliations. Hispanics, who the U.S. census claim can be any of the five racial groups, tend to see themselves as a separate race, and more and more Asians subscribe to their individual national and cultural identities, rather than to the broad and inaccurate Asian census category. And Mayas from S. Mexico and Central America reject the census view that they are Hispanic. (Ironically, in those countries the Maya are oppressed by the Latino majority).
Identifying as Black Honors Those who Came Before Us
No-one is suggesting that the history of African Americans – and for that matter, Africans throughout the Americas – should be eliminated from history books; no-one is saying that multiracial children should only celebrate the white side of their family’s history. What we are saying, and what Frederick Douglas said so eloquently many years ago, is that mixed-race people can and should celebrate both the white side of their background and the black side. After all, when I meet white people, they often tell me, “my ancestors are German and Irish”, or “Italian, Welsh, and Portuguese”. Why can’t we do the same with multiracial families?
Clearly we have a deep dept to the history of Africans in this country. But, in my family, we also have a dept to our Caribbean relatives, our Native American ancestors, our Asian forefathers – and yes, my English ancestors, one of whom helped pass the first child labor laws, and who was instrumental in establishing trade unions. But maybe this issue again comes back to the one-drop rule: the strange notion that humans can only understand and appreciate a single racial identity, and, because of the rule of hypodescent, that legacy must be black. But places like Brazil and Belize, where mixed-race is one of the official racial groups, obviously challenge this uniquely American fixation!
With the increased number of multiracial families in this country, and a broadening of tolerance of differences, interracial relationships are much more accepted in America today. But many people in are still confused about the children produced by these relationships. One of the main confusions is the identity of these children. Many writers and intellectuals, such as Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a piece published by the New York Times, argue that children of black/white relationships have a moral obligation to identify as black (and others must follow the rule of hypodescent. However, in this short piece I have argued that it is time to finally discard the one-drop rule, and to encourage multiracial children and adults to embrace and celebrate their full heritages, histories, and multiracial identities.
Francis Wardle, PhD
All three of the early childhood classes that I teach at a local community college include in their syllabi content on diversity and multicultural education. However, in two of these classes I refuse to address the topic, because, as I explain to the students, I simply believe the way multicultural education is taught today is incorrect, and not at all helpful to teachers, children, and families. In fact I believe the way it is taught perpetuates some of the problems it is supposed to address. In the third class that I teach, I spend a full day on multicultural education (the class is offered every Saturday during the semester). We begin by deconstructing common multicultural concepts such as race, ethnicity, culture, and diversity. We then progress to a discussion about how multicultural education should look like in early childhood programs and classrooms.
I believe that the traditional approach to multiracial education taught in America’s colleges and universities, and in schools and early childhood programs, is outdated and desperately needs to be revised. Not only does it totally ignore the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their families (something that is obviously contradictory in any approach to diversity in our education programs), but it focuses on single-group belonging, while reinforcing stereotypes and creating an us versus them mentality in many of the students – and some of the parents.
In this article I attempt to describe my vision of multicultural education for programs that serve children, age birth through age eight. The article includes three sections: 1) a very brief history of multicultural education in the US; 2) problems that exist with the traditional approach to multicultural education, and 3) a detailed description of the new approach to multicultural education. This is my first attempt at articulating my multicultural model, so it is fairly simplistic, and will need refinement. Furthermore, while I focus on the early childhood period, many of the concepts apply to the k-12 school curriculum. Finally, while my own focus is on the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their families, I deeply believe that any multicultural education approach that does not positively include, embrace and empower multiracial and multiethnic children is fundamentally flawed in many other ways, and thus is not appropriate also for children with a single-race or ethnic heritage.
Two subjects that are discussed in this article will not be found in regular multicultural texts and articles, because they are problems that are unique to the early childhood field: the need for increased pay and benefits for teachers and caregiver of young children, and advocacy for more men in the field. These are social justice issues that simply cannot be ignored in any discussion of multicultural education for children, birth through age eight.
Brief History of Multicultural Education in America
Multicultural education in America developed from the turbulent 1960s: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the counterculture. The civil rights movement challenged the white-superiority view of American society and culture, and finally eliminated the Jim Crow laws. Minorities took their place within major American institutions, including education. The women’s movement challenged the male-dominated approach to American society, including the content taught in schools and the official school curriculum. The counter culture, which operated somewhat parallel to (but also interacted with) the civil rights movement, challenged all traditional American values, including racism, segregation, and prejudice. One result of the counter culture was the free/open school movement of the 1960s-1980s.
In the beginning multicultural education included specific racial groups in American history: African Americans, Asians, and Native Americas (at that time the Hispanics were combined with other people from Europe or with a minority group, depending on the person’s origin and what they looked like)(Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004). Soon after its inception, women were added; then in 1975 – with the passage of a new federal law – people with disabilities were included in multicultural education (a final blow to the eugenics movement, which is a powerful and disturbing part of America’s racist past). Today multicultural education also includes sexual orientation and sexual identity, people who do not speak English, low-come families, and people of non-Christian religious faiths (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012; Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006).
Thus multicultural education focuses on groups that historically were marginalized in American society, and then continually added new under-served groups as they became active and demanded full participation in American society (except, curiously, the multiracial movement). Multicultural education developed at the college level, then was adopted by k-12 education, and finally included in preschool programs. To this day, almost all multicultural writers, lecturers, and ‘experts’ reside at the college level, including those who write multicultural texts for the early childhood field.
Problems with Today’s Multicultural Education
Over the years there has been considerable criticism of multicultural education (Bloom, 1987; Hirsch, 1987). However, this article is less about criticizing multicultural education (which I fully support), than it is in suggesting a new approach that builds on the foundation of the traditional multicultural model. However, the overall multicultural approach has not changed much since the 1960s, and it is simply time to make some important improvements and advancements. Problems with the current, traditional multicultural approach include:
• It was developed at the college level, and then pushed down to k-12. Further, most of the scholarship, theoretical constructs, and theories about multicultural education emanate from college departments of sociology and ethnic studies, rather than psychology, education, and anthropology. This poses many problems, including a focus on groups, power relationships, and racial politics, rather than on child development, individual differences in learning and development, educational processes and constructs, and pedagogy.
• An approach that is confused about the purpose of American public education. Since the inception of public education in America (and other countries, for that matter) there has been great debate about its purpose (Wiles & Bondi, 2011). Further, there are many schools of multicultural education, each with their own goals and objectives. However, all seem to have no real understanding about public schools in general. For example, one book uses the subtitle, honoring diversity; another, honoring differences, and a third, affirming diversity, yet the very function of public schools throughout the world is to unify a country that is comprised of people with a vast amount of different allegiances, cultures, and histories (language and religion, and racial, ethnic, and tribal affiliations, and so on) into one unified, national identity (Wiles & Bondi, 2011). In the last part of the 19th and most of the 20th century, American public schools were charged with implementing the great American melting pot (Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006). True, there were problems with this idea – but these problems were more about American society than about the schools – and the fact remains that schools have never been about highlighting peoples’ differences. Certainly, how public schools unite a nation’s diverse population is debatable, but not the need to provide this national unity. (It is, however, somewhat comical that the various attempts by public schools to match students’ different strengths and abilities through charter schools is totally rejected by most multiculturalists (Nieto & Bode, 2012).
• An unquestioning acceptance and support of the racial and ethnic categories created and used by the US government to count and sort its population. To me, this is unfathomable! The very government that produced the near total genocide of Native Americans, supported slavery, instituted and supported the Jim Crow laws, and nurtured and perpetuated eugenics, is now viewed by multiculturalists as the arbitrator of racial and ethnic identities!
• A group approach. As already pointed out, the original multicultural approach was developed from a civil rights and social movement that focused on the rights of people belonging to underserved and disenfranchised groups. And this made a great deal of sense. However, the current approach to diversity still focuses on groups (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). There are many problems with this group approach, including, 1) it reinforces stereotypes – both internally and externally – about the people who belong to each group, 2) it marginalizes people who either do not belong to a specific US census category, or whose identity includes more than one group, and, 3) it encourages a group versus group mentality, which is very unhealthy, especially for developing minority children, and for fostering true acceptance and diversity in our schools. An individual’s identity includes many characteristics, including gender, race/ethnicity, language, family, religion and so on (West, 2001). During the first 8 years of development, the child actively constructs his/her unique identity, with the goal of developing a positive and healthy identity. Unfortunately, when we focus on single-racial and ethnic groups, there is a tendency to define identity in opposition to the white race: “I am not white”; “I don’t act white”, “I do not like white people’s music”, “I do not participate in white sports”, and so on.
• A focus on a single dimension of a person. None of us is one-dimensional; all of us have rich, complicated dimensions that include race and ethnicity, culture, language, national origin, abilities and disabilities, education, and so on (West, 2001). But, with the traditional approach to multicultural education, a highly gifted Black female student is always viewed as first and foremost Black. Further, the traditional approach does not allow the full, balanced integration of several important factors, such as a Native American boy who is skilled at computers and has a learning disability in reading.
A New Approach
The new approach for multicultural education of children, age birth through age eight, builds on the rich history of multicultural education. I focus on birth to age eight because this is the traditional early childhood age that I work with (teaching teachers at a community college), and because, in my view, the traditional approach is the least appropriate for this age child. The new approach involves eight interrelated concepts:
• Focus on the unique developmental needs of children, birth to eight years old;
• Advocate for the enhanced pay and benefits of early childhood caregivers and teachers;
• Advocate for more men in the early childhood field;
• Begin with the individual, and not the various groups the child belongs to;
• Advocate for bilingual education for all children;
• Focus on educational opportunity, and not educational outcomes;
• Stress high expectations of everyone, including the child and his/her parents, and
• Stress a whole-child approach and a focus on the arts, physical activities, and play.
Focus on the Unique Developmental Needs of Children, Birth through Age Eight
As already mentioned, multicultural education was originally developed for college curricula, then k-12 programs, and eventually for young children. Thus all of the multicultural books, articles, conference presentations, and so on, for young children, are simply pushed-down versions of k-12 approaches. As such, most are not developmentally appropriate and are not effective with this age child. For example, k-12 multicultural education places considerable emphasis on belonging to one of the official US census racial and ethnic categories (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012), yet we know children up to about age 8 to 9-years-of-age do not understand race and ethnicity as the social and political constructs that they are (Aboud, 1987). One reason for this lack of understanding is because young children are operating within Piaget’s preoperational stage, in which they discriminate between objects, people, and animals only using visual characteristics and cues (Piaget, 1952). Thus, if a child sees three people – a Native American, African American and Hispanic person – all with the same color skin, to the young child the three people are racially the same (Aboud, 1987). Further, much of the k-12 multicultural curriculum focuses on equality, oppression, prejudice, and racism – all complex concepts young children do not fully understand. Certainly they understand friendship, rejection, hurt, being cruel, and exclusion, but they do so as individual actions and behaviors, not as group attitudes and beliefs (Piaget, 1952).
A multicultural curriculum for young children should focus on affirmation and acknowledgement of everyone, making sure that every child and every family is represented in the classroom environment and in all curricular materials, and that there are lots and lots of opportunities for rich human contact between children and a vast variety of diverse, mature, and talented adults.
The focus should also be on how everyone is the same: everyone has emotions, dreams, fears, needs and wants. Approaches should be developed to help children move beyond people’s obvious unique physical characteristics to see how we are the same; to view how people feel and dream, as opposed to how they look and talk. Physical, cultural and behavioral differences should not be overlooked, but children need to focus on how each of us is, fundamentally, the same.
Increased Pay for Teachers and Caregivers of Young Children
Some educators may not see this as a multicultural issue; to me it is central to this discussion. Why? While college professors – those who write multicultural texts and articles – are well paid, and have secure benefits, early childhood caregivers and teachers are extremely poorly paid and generally lack benefits (Neugebauer, 2008). This is a multicultural issue, because,
• Most early childhood teachers and caregivers are women;
• Many early childhood caregivers and teachers are minority women; and
• Many early childhood teachers and caregiver are single parents.
Not only will increasing the salaries and benefits of early care and education teachers increase the social status of poor, and in some cases, single-parent women, many of whom are minority, but it will also provide good role models for young boys and girls in their early childhood programs. It will show them that minority woman can be successful; it will also increase the status of people who work in the early childhood field, who are currently viewed by many, including some college and k-12 teachers, as merely babysitters. Thus adequate pay and benefits for people who care for our youngest children is very much a multicultural issue.
Increase the Number of Men in the Early Childhood Field
Again, initially this would not seem like a multicultural issue, but it is. Ninety-seven percent of teachers and caregivers in early childhood programs are women; almost as many elementary school teachers are also women, and most early childhood directors and elementary school principals and other school personnel are also women (Neugebauer, 2008). This is a multicultural issue because, 1) men should have an equal opportunity to work with young children, if they so choose, and 2) both young boys and young girls need to have mature and stable male role models in their programs. As we know, many young children, especially minority children, do not have stable, mature male role models at home. Thus boys need models to use as they develop into responsible men, who will themselves have children; girls need positive male role models to use as they develop attraction to the opposite sex, and then enter into important relationships that will help define their adult lives.
It is fascinating to note that when there is underrepresentation of women or minorities in any profession, multiculturalists and civil rights activists are rightfully concerned. But when it comes to too few men, little is said, and nothing is done. Thus the new approach to multicultural education must make this a major goal.
Start with the Individual
Race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, language, sexual orientation, abilities, learning styles, and other characteristics of a child are all very important components of their identity. However, they are not important in isolation; they gain importance as they dynamically interact with all other characteristics to create a unique individual (Wardle, 1996: West, 2001). Each child’s identity is unique; as such, the child is not an interchangeable cog in a racial or other identity group. Individuals are not defined by the group in which they belong; they are defined by all of their characteristics; by what Bronfenbrenner calls ecological contexts (1979). Race, ethnicity, language, gender, and so on are important contexts, but they are not the only ones.
In this model we begin with the individual. Then we add a variety of factors that contribute to that individual’s view of the world – the child’s identity (Wardle, 1996; West, 2001). However, each of these factors does not carry the same weight, and the influence of each factor on the child depends on many things, including the child’s age, home language, gender, socioeconomic status, number of siblings, and so on (West, 2001). Two central influences that directly affect the child’s identity are, 1) the social and cultural contexts in which the child lives and goes to school, and 2) the child’s increasing ability to think for him/herself, and construct his/her own view of the world.
This view of identity does not devalue the importance of race, ethnicity, gender, and other highly significant characteristics in American society in the 21st century. However, it 1) integrates all characteristics together into a unified, unique whole and 2) recognizes that the individual is in charge of processing his/her unique identity (Wardle, 1996; West, 2001).
This approach also proactively discourages the human temptation to view everyone as belonging to certain groups, with each group defining who the person is, what the person can do, and what the person cannot do; in other words, group stereotypes.
Regarding individual racial, ethnic, and tribal identity, this view encourages a mixed race/ethnicity personal identity, and deeply discourages the view of single, government assigned racial categories and hierarchies. This does not mean people should not proudly claim membership in specific groups; what it does mean is that claiming membership in one group, say African American, in no way requires an individual to reject membership in another group, say, their White heritage. Children are encouraged to select and identify with groups that represent who they are and with whom they feel a sense of belonging; however, they are also free to reject these memberships when they no longer serve their needs. And no-one – be it another child, teacher, or other adult – has the right to assign a child to a single racial group, and then to expect the child to exhibit certain values and behaviors based on group membership. This approach also provides ammunition for individuals to reject a single-race approach imposed by others, especially by peers.
The history and rationale for the creation and support of racial categories is all negative, beginning with the need to place people from Europe at the top of the human chain, and including a justification for slavery, persecution, and eugenics (Smedley, 2002). Today a single-race view of race and ethnicity is often used to marginalize families who have children with a variety of mixed-race heritage (Wallace, 2004). The time has come for all multiculturalists to advocate for the elimination of government-defined, single-race categories.
Focus on Equal Educational Opportunity
The focus of the civil rights movement and multicultural education was initially to provide equal opportunity to all Americans, specifically equal educational opportunities (Banks & Banks, 2013). This idea is deeply embedded within the overall American culture: to enable each person to fulfill their potential. The view was that each person is unique, with a unique set of skills and talents, and that education should enable a person to achieve their potential, regardless of their social, racial, linguistic or other characteristics (Wiles & Bondi, 2011).
However, many multiculturalists have changed their view to one of equal educational outcomes. The most obvious example is the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind, which seeks to reduce the academic achievement gap between Whites and Asians on one hand, and Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics on the others hand. And this gap is determined by test scores. There are several problems with the outcome approach:
• Who decides on the outcomes that must be achieved? Are these outcomes meaningful to all of society, or are they a select view: i.e. college entrance?
• Everyone knows that human beings exhibit different skills and talents; we are not all the same. Further, no society needs everyone to be the same. An educational approach that requires all students to achieve the same levels in all curricular areas denies these realities.
• Those who decide on educational outcomes have determined that math, science, and literacy are the only important outcomes to be achieved. Many student s – including minority students – also excel in other areas – particularly in the critically important early years. The arts are very effective in creating important brain connections in the early years (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Shore, 1997). Further, this focus on academics reduces time engaged in physical activities, and thus perpetuates childhood obesity, a disease impacting all children, but especially minority children.
• By focusing on educational outcomes, and then ensuring that all children will meet these outcomes, the educational establishment has taken on the full responsibility of educating children, and denied the critically important role of parents. The view is that parents are not needed in reducing this gap, only teachers and administrators, a view that is found throughout multicultural literature.
Stress High Expectations for all Students and all Parents
All multicultural texts express a desire for schools to have high expectations for all students, including minority, low income, and non-English speaking students (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). These books particularly focus on teachers and administrators. Clearly this is very important, because expectations – both good and bad – become self-fulfilling prophecies (Nieto & Bode, 2012). I have some friends at the community college where I teach who are from different African countries. These Black female students are all pursuing degrees in petroleum engineering, in English, and will attend the most competitive engineering school in the Western US to earn their degrees. I wonder what the expectations of these students were from their parents and teachers.
However, many teachers I have spoken with complain that schools and early childhood programs do not have high expectations of low-income and minority students, and that schools and early childhood programs do not have high expectations of the parents of these students. Schools now require that teachers provide all sorts of documentation before they can fail a student; but parents do not have to provide any evidence of supporting their child’s learning. When my wife was a teacher, she would often receive complaints from parents – especially minority parents – when she had high academic and behavioral expectations of their children. And her administrators would always side with the parents and never the teacher.
In early childhood programs we are not only teaching children, but also teaching parents about our expectations. Thus early childhood programs have the critical responsibility to help all parents understand that the most powerful influence on their child’s academic success is parent involvement and support. Too often, schools and teachers misinterpret cultural competence as a lack of high student and parent expectations, which is an obvious form of discrimination. In many cases, excellence in education is sacrificed for a false sense of equality (Wiles & Bondi, 2011).
Advocate for Bilingual Education
One of the central concepts of multicultural education is teaching English to non-English-speaking students, although this is usually only advocated for students whose home language is Spanish (Nieto & Bode, 2012). I believe that true multicultural education should support the teaching of a second language to all students, beginning in preschool. And early childhood programs and schools should offer a variety of languages, including English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, French and Portuguese. Parents should choose the second language they wish for their child to learn. The advantages of teaching a second language include:
• Advanced brain development, especially at the early age.
• Attracting more bilingual and multicultural teachers and other school staff.
• Valuing parents who speak another language, especially if they can help translate.
• Making American students globally competitive. It is rather strange that, with all the rhetoric about global competitiveness, politicians and educators have not advocated for bilingual programs.
• Creating a multilingual culture in early childhood programs and schools, where speaking a variety of different languages, by students, staff, and parents, is valued.
• Creating a multicultural climate in educational programs, because language is closely tied to culture (Nieto & Bode, 2012).
Use a Whole-child, Play-based Approach to Curriculum and Instruction
Unfortunately, as a result of the No Child Left Behind federal act, the new Core Curriculum Standards, and the increased focus on closing the academic achievement gap, early childhood and elementary school programs now focus only on teaching of academic skills. Students who struggle academically are often denied access to other important subjects, such as the arts and physical education.
And often these students are low-income and minority children. But, for a variety of complex reasons, these children often need the arts and physical activities more than their middle-class counterparts, especially during the early years (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000)
Thus the multicultural approach for children, birth through age eight, should be a whole-child approach that includes all of the arts, lots of physical activities, many outdoor experiences, and lots of play. And no child should ever be denied these critically important experiences, either as a form of punishment (for any reason), because they struggle in academic areas, or because they have a disability or special need.
Multicultural education developed as a result of the civil right movement of the 1960s, the counter-culture movement, and the women’s movement. It began at the college level, and slowly moved to k-12 education, and then was finally adopted in early childhood education. Initially, multicultural education focused on race, gender, and disabilities in schools, using a whole-group approach to diversity. Today, a variety of other disenfranchised groups have been added, but the whole-group approach remains (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012).
This article argues that the traditional approach to multicultural education has many problems, and that now is the time to build on the traditional model, making changes to address a variety of areas that require a new and different approach. The revised approach to multicultural education focuses on the age, birth to eight years, because this age group requires a very different and unique approach to multicultural education. Within this time frame, eight new and improved multicultural concepts are suggested: 1) focus on the unique developmental and learning needs of children, birth to age eight; 2) advocate for enhanced pay and benefits for early childhood caregivers and teachers; 3) advocate for more men in early childhood and elementary education programs; 4) when it comes to a child’s identify, begin with the individual child and not the various groups to which the individual belongs; 5) advocate for bilingual education for all students, beginning in preschool; 6), focus on educational opportunity and not outcomes; 7) stress high expectations for everyone, including students and parents, and 8), use a whole-child approach that includes the arts, physical activities, and play.
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Francis Wardle, PhD
I recently received a new book, Early Childhood Development: a Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.), by Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, published in 2014. (I get to review all sorts of new books as a college professor). In this book there is an extensive section on gay and lesbian families. Here the author reports that children of gay and lesbian families who are confident and proud of their unique relationships are self-assured and perform well in school. Further, according to the latest research, these families received support and encouragement from their children’s schools and teachers. Their teachers were open, relaxed, and made a point of including a diversity of family structures and styles in their lessons and class discussions.
The discussion and advice for schools and teachers reminded me of the research on multiracial families and their children, and my own work on stressing how these families and children need to be supported by schools and teachers. After reading this section of the book, I excitedly looked for the section of the book that addressed the unique needs of multiracial children and their families, and how teachers and schools need to challenge the traditional, conservative, orthodox American views of racial categories and single-race families. I expected to find an entire section on the deconstruction of race as we have traditionally understood it, and a lengthy discussion of the emergence of healthy individuals who embrace their full racial and ethnic heritage, and are proud and confident of their unique, multiracial identity. After all, the subheading of the book is, “a multicultural perspective”.
No such luck!
The only mention of biracial families or children in the book (there is no discussion of multiracial or multiethnic children or families) is a misuse of the term, which is used to describe transracial adoption. Obviously the writer (and editor) of any book has the right to decide on the book’s content (as I know, as a writer of 8 textbooks). However, in my experience, the omission of any discussion of multiracial families and children in a book on child development clearly shows that this book lacks a multicultural perspective. One can speculate why multiracial children and multiracial families are not included in a book professing to be multicultural; my own view is that, by acknowledging and embracing people with more than one racial or ethnic background, the author would upset the entire definition and structure of orthodox multiculturalism: whites versus people for color, and diversity by group belonging.
The tragedy of this omission is that teachers using this book in their college classes will not learn how to support, empower, and encourage multiracial children and their families. And thus parents of multiracial children will continue to struggle with school administrators, social workers, and teachers who have no understanding of the unique needs of these children, or of how to meet these needs.
And this is tragic, because our children and families need understanding, supportive teachers and other school staff. A recent incident in the high-powered Cherry Creek School District, in suburban Denver, illustrates my point. This upscale district, with the highest test scores in Colorado, knows very little about diversity, and nothing about multiracial families.
A friend of mine with a biracial child attended a meeting at her child’s elementary school in the district. The meeting was held to address the needs of minority families and their children in a very white, upper-class school district. The meeting was led by a Black, volunteer parent, who is a part-time instructor at a local college: Metropolitan State College. She presented a program that focused on the need for solidity and unity among the black families in the district, including biracial families. Other Black members of biracial families attending the meeting said nothing. However, my white friend, who has worked extremely hard to help her child accept and embrace both parts of her racial heritage, objected.
However, before she could even explain her reasons, the diversity expert said, “I don’t need to hear your opinion. Because of white privilege, your views are not welcome in this meeting”.
Here is not the place to discuss the contradictory issues that surround the white privilege philosophy. However, to accuse the white mother of a biracial child (whose father in not in the picture) of any kind of privilege, is absurd! This mother has worked diligently to make sure the school acknowledges and embraces her full identity, including her Black heritage. And to silence someone’s opinion simply because of the color of their skin is absolutely crazy!
Incidentally, not only is this a public school in a public school district, and the diversity expert is a teacher at a local public college, but my wife and I support this district through our property taxes.
Clearly from this incident, our teachers (and administrators) need information about how to support multiracial families and their children. They also need to make sure that whomever they allow to lead diversity trainings in their school understand the unique needs of this emerging population. The book, Early Childhood Development: a Multicultural Perspective, by Jeffery Trawick-Smith, not only does a tremendous disservice to students studying to become teachers, but also to multiracial students and their families. The author should be ashamed, as should the publisher: Pearson.
Pushback of the Pushback (Critiquing the Recent Attacks on the Multiracial Movement and Multiracial People)
Francis Wardle, PhD
During the late 1970s to the early 1990s a strong and active multiracial movement developed in the U.S. and other places in the world. This movement was initially created by interracial families and multiracial individuals who formed a variety of support groups scattered throughout the U.S. and Canada. These groups had a variety of functions, but the principle purpose was to support a growing number of emerging interracial families and multiracial individuals throughout the country. Some of these groups produced their own newsletters and conferences; several national publications also emerged: New People, Interrace, and Interracial Voice.
A Grass-Roots Movement
This was a truly grass-roots movement that developed out of the needs of an emerging population that challenged America’s strict views of race and the racial hierarchy. It soon attracted the attention of the popular media, and then the academic community – some of whom were themselves from mixed-race families, and who were also involved in local support groups.
The movement had no national leaders, no predetermined scripts, and no unifying organization. Two national organizations – AMEA – the Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans – and Project Race – did eventually develop. However, beyond taking up the cause to change the OMB forms used by the U. S. Census and a variety of government institutions, these national organizations had little impact on the overall direction of the movement. Not only was the movement grassroots, but its philosophy, goals, and overall agenda were never written-down, codified, or fully articulated. To a large extent the movement reflected a diverse group of parents – both biological and adoptive, and some mixed-race individuals, who were struggling to find the best way to raise their children and identify themselves. Beyond this unique struggle, these people had very little in common. Thus the movement reflected a vast diversity of ideas, viewpoints, policies and visions for a future America. As the children of these interracial families grew up and entered college, a variety of mixed-race college groups continued this search for a mission and purpose.
In addition to the local support groups’ newsletters and national publications, a variety of first-person books began to appear. They were written by parents struggling to raise biracial children, and later the children themselves, reflecting on the challenges of growing up biracial in a society obsessed with a single-race view of human diversity; of growing up in a society that had historically either totally ignored people of mixed heritage, or viewed them in an extremely unflattering light. They were not philosophical treaties, political tomes, or academic discourses.
Then Maria P. P. Root edited two seminal volumes, both published by Sage: Racially Mixed People in America (1992); and the Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (1996). These were collections of academic essays and personal reflections about the multiracial experience that were largely positive and affirmative. It is interesting to note that while Maria is a professional, she is not an academic aligned with a university and a specific university department.
Then a number of academic books began to appear that directly criticized the multiracial movement, and the popular and academic documents it produced. These slowly increased, until a major anti-multiracial pushback developed, both in the U.S. and in England. These anti-multiracial documents are characterized by several common elements, 1) they are written by academic professionals at various universities, 2) they are published by university and academic presses, 3) the writers have no first-hand experience of the movement, 4) many of the authors are heads or faculty of university departments of African American or ethnic studies, and 5) all the authors are presented as authoritative experts on the nature and history of race and racial constructs. It is not entirely clear why this pushback exists; clearly academics wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the multiracial movement; also, because the academic view of race, injustice, and human diversity is extremely conservative and ridged, the new movement challenged the very core of racial thinking in academia, and thus necessitated a response. Finally, these intellectuals know they can criticize the multiracial movement with immunity in the academic press, because no-one is going to challenge them and open themselves up to the same level of criticism.
It is not possible to summarize – and then respond to – all the many documents on the market today that criticize the movement. Thus I have chosen to use a chapter by R. Spencer, Militant Multiraciality: Rejecting Race and Rejecting the Conveniences of Complicity, in the book, Color Struck, edited by Adekunle & Williams (2010) for the basis of my critique. But before I do so, a couple of caveats are in order. First, Spencer uses some complex academic language that is simply unintelligible to me. Secondly, he believes that the goals and philosophy of the movement exist in written form – in this case, Maria Root’s “A Bill of Rights for Racially-Mixed People” (1996). As I have already stated, the goals and philosophy of the movement have never been fully flushed out and written down in one place. It fact, it is probably not possible to come up with such as document, given the diversity of the movement.
Spencer’s 17-page critique can be grouped under several themes:
- Advocates of the multiracial movement believe in the biological basis of race, and believe that the parents of biracial children represent two distinct biological races.
- The goal of the multiracial movement and its leaders is to place multiracial children between Whites (at the top) and Blacks (at the bottom) of the American racial hierarchy.
- The entire movement is anti-Black and anti-people of color, and dead-set on making sure multiracial people are not viewed as Black.
- Leaders of the movement and the supporters of its anti-Black philosophy are White mothers of mixed-race children
- The movement and its leaders have no desire to challenge the basic American racial hierarchy. The fact that they use the word multiracial is proof of this position
- Multiracial people want either to blend in with Whites, or to create a new racial definition that places them above Blacks.
Obviously I cannot talk for all the leaders who were involved in local support groups, national and regional conferences, local and national publications, and members of the two national organizations. However, I did meet many of these leaders during this period, and was myself actively involved in the movement. I will address each of these themes, one at a time.
The Movement Believes in the Biological Basis of Race, and That the Parents of Biracial Children Represent Two Distinct Biological Races
Between 1970 and 1990, Black and White groups in the U.S. were still in great conflict, even after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Not only did most Americans view these two groups as very different, but the academic and popular view at that time was that races did, in fact, have a biological basis, which justified slavery and other brutal behavior by Whites towards nonwhites. Additionally, for hundreds of years academics and politicians have argued that racial groups were extremely different, in a variety of ways. One school of thought even claimed races were separate species, and therefore people from the two groups could not have children; most argued that children produced through interracial relationships would be morally, intellectually and physical defective. And, as we know, some state laws banned interracial marriages up until 1967. Given these realities – and the vocal resistance to black/white marriage in the U.S. at that time, not to mention the continual refrain “but what about the children?” it was quite natural for participants of the movement to empathize the coming together of people from historically different groups, and the challenge of raising children whose parents came from both of these groups.
This, however, in no-way means they believed in the “purity” of the races, or even in the biological bases of race; they simply accepted the view of race understood by most Americans at that time. Since then the Human Genome Project has shown conclusively that race lacks a biological basis, and the tension between the groups has subsided a great deal. Most experts now understand race to be a social and political construct that reflects the unique social and political contexts of a society – in this case the American society. Many participants of the movement adjusted to this new way of thinking, and now prefer the term multiracial to biracial. At the same time, some parents of multiracial children began to examine their own mixed heritage. For example, my wife, who used to view herself as Black, now sees her identity as Black and Chickasaw, with some added White and Asian influences. I have always believed that I probably have some “Black English” in my background.
It is difficult to try to use logic to discuss something as illogical as the American racial category system! However, within the American social and political context, it makes sense for the progeny of a parent who is defined by society as White, and one who is defined as Black, to be labeled biracial or multiracial. But it is still critically important for these parents to understand, from an overall American societal perspective, that they are challenging the very structure of the American racial system. Furthermore, for mixed-race children to withstand the ignorance, harassment, and prejudices of a society that views diversity through a homogeneous, pure, single-race prism, these children need to be comfortable embracing and accepting both sides of their racial heritage, however race is defined.
The Goal of the Movement is to Place Multiracial Children between Whites (at the Top) and Blacks (at the Bottom) of the American Racial Hierarchy
This, of course, is true, at least regarding placement. It is true from a reality perspective (phenotypically, culturally, and so on) but also from a social-political perspective. What interracial parents and multiracial adults are saying – as loudly as they possibly can – is that dividing all American people into homogeneous racial and ethnic groups makes no sense in an era of the Genome Project, and a Black/biracial president.
As many people know, when Obama was running for president many Black leaders and intellectuals challenged his Blackness , wondering if he was really Black enough, given the fact that his mother and her family were White. Thus products of Black and White parents are in-between, and everyone knows it, including minorities! This is simply the reality. It is critical that parents of multiracial children help their children to 1) understand and accept this reality, 2) understand that much of American – and the world – have not come to grips with multiracial children and people, and 3) embrace and celebrate their unique racial identity. It must be remembered that, until recently, many Americans viewed people of mixed heritage as confused, immoral, physically deficient, overly sexualized, and overall freaks. Some Americans – even professionals – still have this view.
However, placing multiracial children between the Black and White racial groups does not automatically mean that parents of multiracial children view them as better than Blacks. The fact that the racial hierarchy in America is based on the notion of inequality does not necessarily mean that individual interracial parents accept, support, and maintain this view, which is addressed in more detail later in this article.
The Multiracial Movement, at its Core, is Anti-Black
This is an accusation made by all the authors of these documents. It is a view that began to emerge when the multiracial movement advocated for the official OMB racial categories to be modified to include a multiracial option. All single-race groups protested, and many Black leaders and intellectuals interpreted this as an anti-Black sentiment of the movement. These single-race advocacy groups continued to pressure the government not to implement the new, select two or more races option in the census and on all federal forms, including school racial choices. It is curious that the people who recommend the deconstruction of a racial system because it was created to justify slavery and to perpetuate the notion of White purity and superiority, became so upset when the multiracial movement tried to change that very system. This opposition to changing a racist and hierarchical labeling system is very perplexing.
Some of this view comes from the basic belief that any Black person who marries a White person is disloyal to his or her racial group, and is in conflict with his or her own Blackness. Another reason for this belief is that many Native Americans and Hispanics have tried to distance themselves from their own African heritage, and view their racial group above that of Blacks. My wife belongs to the Chickasaw tribe, and many of the people portrayed in their official literature are whiter than I am. And the entire Hispanic movement, since its creation by the U.S. Census as a separate ethnicity, rather than a racial group, has worked hard to deny the African part of the Hispanic/Latino identity, and the history of slavery in Mexico and much of Central and South America. Finally, many Blacks seem to believe that all Black people want to become White, and that any challenge of the traditional American racial paradigm is therefore somehow anti-Black.
However, this does not mean that people who acknowledge and celebrate their mixed heritage support this view. From my experience, this is simply untrue. How could a White person who chooses to jeopardize much of his/her White privilege by marrying a Black person and having multiracial children, be anti-Black? I have argued in several places that once a White person marries and has children with a Black person, their reality has forever changed: they have in many ways joined the non-White American society. And the reality is that many multiracial children have little in common with Black children. Some are raised by single-White mothers in suburban communities, supported by White grandparents and friends; others are adopted by White couples and raised in primarily White cultural contexts; and some are raised in middle-class cultural contexts that are, culturally, more White that Black. This reality, however, does not mean that these families “are anti- Black” and actively try to distance themselves from their Black heritage. Many, in fact, make a tremendous effort to expose their children to the Black part of their history, culture, and heritage, and to help them feel comfortable with their Black heritage.
Leaders of the Movement – and Thus Those who are Anti-Black and Want to Distance Their Children from Blacks – are White Women
One of the more curious narratives that have been created is the view that the leaders of the moment were all White mothers of biracial children, and thus all the negative attributes of the movement can be blamed on them. This is simply untrue. The forces behind the three national publications already mentioned were people of color (two were Black women), and many of the leaders of local support groups and the national umbrella group, the Association for Multi-Ethnic Americans (AMEA), were men and women of color, some of whom I have had the pleasure to meet. It is also very difficult to understand this enmity towards White women – as if they are being accused of seducing Black men into abandoning their race. (Maybe we need to consult our old friend Sigmund Freud for help in understanding this one). Many White mothers of multiracial children are not only very involved with including their child’s Black heritage in their child’s upbringing – which is very difficult when the Black father is not physically or psychologically present in the child’s life – but they also become very involved in a variety of equity and social justice issues – in social service agencies, university multicultural departments, and schools.
One also has to wonder why White women are somehow viewed as having less humanity and less compassion than other people. Maybe all movements and causes need an enemy to objectify; for the pushback crowd, this enemy is apparently White women.
The Multiracial Movement has no Desire to Challenge the Overall America Racial Status Quo
Throughout this chapter, Dr. Spencer returns to this claim. His thesis is that the multiracial movement’s insistence on a mixed-race label for their children, and the fact that this label acknowledges the White part of these children’s heritage, is total acceptance of the current racism within American society. However, many in the movement have argued, as I have done, that requiring a multiracial label is a step in the progress to eventually deconstruct the entire racial labeling process. We believe that as more and more options are provided by the census, eventually it will make no statistical sense to collect this information in the first place. However, it is essential to assert that, until this occurs, it is critical that multiracial children who are developing and growing up in a society fixed on a single-race view of humanity, must have a label to use to affirm their own sense of identity, and to use to educate parents, peers and professionals alike.
Reasons for a multiracial label for mixed-race children and adults include:
- Enable them to defend themselves when miseducated peers, parents, teachers, and helping professionals – social workers, psychologists and school counselors – insist they belong to the single-race of their parent of color.
- Educate people that none of us belongs to a pure racial group; that in fact, everyone is multiracial to some extent.
- Provide more accurate demographic data to all the programs and people who love to crunch racial numbers for a variety of purposes.
- Enable mixed-race children and adults to publically celebrate their full, complex, rich identities, and not to have to select a single, artificial, government -sponsored category to describe who they are. We also know that one of the worst things than can happen to any minority group is for it to be invisible. By counting these children and adults we force the rest of American society to 1) accept the number of children and adults who are of mixed heritage, and 2) challenge their own prejudices and racism against these children and their families, and against adults who celebrate their multiracial identity.
Clearly race is not a biological entity – it is a social and political construct. As such, as I have suggested, it reflects the social and political realities of each society – in our case the American society in the 21st century. As this society becomes more and more diverse, multiracial children and adults have a right to declare their own social and political identities. They belong, and they have the right to be officially counted as part of this society’s diversity.
Mixed-race People Want to Blend in with Whites, or Create a Separate Category above Blacks
This argument is similar to the one made above, that mixed-race people view themselves as better than Blacks. Even the titles of many of the books criticizing the movement make this very claim. The reality is that, regardless of how race is defined (but with the understanding that it is always totally essentialist and illogical), a multiracial person fits between the Black race and White race. To deny this is to continually adhere to the one-drop rule, which was created and maintained to protect the pure White race from the contamination of all the other “inferior” races.
Thus our response has to be that we must all actively work to change the hierarchy of a racial system that places Blacks at the bottom and Whites at the top and other racial and ethnic groups in the middle. For me, the best way to do this is to deconstruct the very idea of race itself, which it the vehicle used to perpetuate this system. As I have already detailed, the idea of dividing the people of the world into distinct categories was to justify slavery and other inhumane treatment of non-White people, and to support the idea of the superiority of Europeans. Today there is absolutely no justification to continue its use.
But, as long as institutions and people in American society continue to use single-racial categories to describe a group people, there will be a need for people who do not fit into these groups to have a label to describe themselves. For people of mixed-race to say they will ignore the idea of race when the rest of society is fixated by it not only makes no sense, but leaves these people in an unacceptable no-man’s-land.
The legacy of harsh and unequal treatment towards Blacks in this country and throughout the Americas, including Mexico, and Central and South America, is a huge challenge that must be faced by the people and governments of all these societies. But to accuse people who acknowledge and celebrate their mixed heritage of “trying to distance themselves from Blackness and towards Whiteness” actually supports the very hierarchy of race that needs to be destroyed. Culturally and phenotypically, many mixed-race children and adults are simply not Black (or White).
During the 1970s-1990s, an active multiracial movement developed in the U.S. and several other countries. This was a grassroots movement created by interracial families and mixed-race individuals seeking support and ways to raise healthy multiracial children and affirm mixed-race adults in an America still divided by race. Individual support groups developed newsletters and held conferences; several national publications and organizations were also created. Soon personal memoires, both by parents and adults who were products of this new movement, began to appear. Then Maria Root edited two seminal books containing a variety of academic and first-person articles exploring various dimensions of the movement.
These documents, newsletters, and books, and a generally supportive coverage by the popular media, eventually produced a backlash – an anti-multiracial reaction by intellectuals, many associated with African American and ethnic studies departments of major U.S. universities. This backlash essentially accuses the movement – and its leaders – White mothers of interracial children – of actively and deliberately obstructing Black progress in the US.
I don’t believe this accusation is accurate or fair. The multiracial movement challenged the accepted racial paradigm used in the U.S. It argued that a system of single, homogenous racial groups, arranged in a hierarchy of power and influence, no longer makes sense. Further, for mixed-race children and adults to become fully healthy individuals in a society fixed on racial purity, a mixed-race label is required. While the detractors of the movement claim a mixed-race label places these people above Blacks and below Whites, mixed-race advocates view it as a way to begin to deconstruct the entire racial system.
Multiracial advocates believe that racial categories are illogical and artificial labels created to justify inequality and injustice. However, until the entire system is disbanded, children and adults who do not fit into these social-political structures need, require, and deserve their own label. Further, as the American population becomes more and more diverse, homogeneous, pure-race labels make less and less sense.
From the beginning, inter-group mixing and intermarriage have been important characteristics of U.S. society (Spickard, 1989). This article examines some of the historical, political, legal and social issues that have impacted interracial marriage in the U.S., focusing on Black-White relationships. The article discusses the unique way race has been, and continues to be, constructed in the United States, and how this affects interracial marriage. Specifically, White supremacy, the one-drop rule and the rule of hypodoscent, eugenics, and colorism will be examined, along with a brief review of the history of interracial marriage in the U.S. This discussion is embedded within an understanding of the U.S. political and legal structure, where many important laws, policies, and structures are created and maintained at the state rather than the federal level, but with the U.S. Supreme Court having final jurisdiction.
Interracial Marriage in Colonial America
One of the factors that leads people to marry outside of their group is an unbalanced ratio between men and women within a group. Also, when there are the large, homogeneous groups, people are less likely to marry outside of their own group. More interracial marriages occur when society becomes more heterogeneous – as it has in the U.S. since the 1960s (and especially since the 1990s). Finally, there is a steady increase of out-marriage in successive generations of immigrants – during the first generation few immigrants intermarry, while more second and third generations do (Spickard, 1989).
Other scholars have examined the barriers that have to be crossed in interracial marriage, and argue that religious barriers are easier to cross than racial ones, with national barriers the easiest, and Black/White barriers the most difficult to transcend. Further, many scholars view intermarriage as a major indicator of the degree of assimilation of one ethnic or racial group into another (Gordon, 1964).
A New Colonial America
Initially, European men traveled throughout the American colonies, coming into contact with and intermarrying free Blacks, poor Whites, Native Americans, and people from other parts of the world. People believed that the new colonial America was a melting pot where people from different backgrounds would come together, intermarry, and have children who would be the “new Americans (Spickard, 1989).
In the history of interracial marriage in the U.S., there are many forms of interracial marriage. The first large group was that of Japanese, who were brought to help in the gold mines and in building the railroads; another significant combination was Jews and Christians, and also Black and White, Native American and White, Native American and Spanish, and Latino and White. But to understand interracial marriage in the U.S., we must first begin with White supremacy and its impact on racial attitudes and categories.
The concept of White supremacy is at the heart of the view of race in the U.S. Shortly after the inception of this country, European racial thought overcame the egalitarian view of “new Americans” (Spickard, 1989). Only White Europeans were welcomed, with Native Americans, Mexicans, Africans, and Asians not welcome. This view soon became institutionalized within the immigration laws and laws regarding who could become U.S. citizens (Spickard, 1989). To be American one had to be Anglo-Saxon. Thus the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s call for equality was initially only for Anglo-Saxon men with property (Grant, 1916). The new country was officially viewed as a White, Northern European, and Protestant society. The notion of distinct and separate racial groups developed from this view. Thus, anyone not considered White Anglo Saxon (and later Nordic) was considered inferior: Catholics, Jews, Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and people from S. and E. Europe (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004).
Because the White race was considered superior to all other groups (including Jews and Catholics), it became critical to make sure that this racial group’s genetic stock was not contaminated through intermarriage. Thus early in colonial history, colonies began to enact stringent rules to maintain racial boundaries. Laws were passed to ban interracial relationships, because these would contaminate the superior White race with inferior genes (Welch, 2002). Anti-miscegenation and anti-cohabitation laws were passed in many states (Knepper, 1995). At the same time, many states broadened the definition of who is not White. In 1894, California and South Carolina ruled that the term White excluded Black, yellow, and other colors, with Black being defined as anyone who is not of White blood (Knepper, 1995).
The One Drop Rule and the Rule of Hypodescent
After the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation freeing African Americans, Jim Crow laws were created, especially in the South. These laws were designed to keep Blacks as second-class citizens, through rules that kept them from voting, having equal educational opportunity, and accessing public and private facilities, etc. While targeted to Blacks, this law applied to most non-Whites. Violation of Jim Crow laws produced an increasing number of court cases by people who did not believe they were subject to these laws – because they did not view themselves as Black (Knepper, 1995). These cases – including several U.S. Supreme Court decisions (which supported states’ rights) – upheld the one-drop rule – any amount of African blood made a person Black. Thus a White person cannot have any trace of any other blood (genes) anywhere in their background to be considered White.
The rule of hypodescent derived from the one-drop rule. This rule describes the way Americans classify race according to blood (Fish, 2002). It places racial identity on a continuum, from most preferred (White), through intermediate forms (i.e. Asian, Native American) to least prestigious (Black), and assigns the status of a child from parents of two groups to the race of lowest status, regardless of their physical appearance (Fish, 2002). Thus all offspring – and subsequent generations – of one White and one Black person are considered Black (Fish, 2002).
Laws as early as 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to White Europeans. Whites were legally defined as pure Caucasians (Knepper, 1995). A court case also declared that Hindus were not White. Laws were passed to prevent the flow of inferior races into the country – Asians, Pacific Islanders, and inferior Whites from S. and E. Europe (Banks, 2001). In a 1983 court decision, the one-drop rule was upheld. According to Spickard (1989), the law also applied to Asians and Latinos.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence initially included a section on the “horrors of the slave trade”, but this was removed by the southern colonies (McCullough, 2001). Slavery, of course, did not exist in the northern colonies. Equality at that time in U.S. history did not include any person of color, or any non-Northern Europeans. Many early leaders of the new country were concerned about the contamination of the pure, White, Protestant blood with inferior White and non-White mixtures, including the original Native American inhabitants (Grant, 1916).
At this time in U.S. and European history, it was argued that non-Anglo Saxons were inferior forms of life (Grant, 1916), and many justified this view by arguing that non-Anglo Saxons had no soul. However, the Pope declared that all people are equal in God’s eyes (Smedley, 2002). Thus the justification for White supremacy shifted to scientific support of the superiority of Anglo Saxons and Nordics, and the innate inferiority of everyone else. Scientists developed a variety of ways to prove this superiority – the IQ test being the most recognizable (Fish, 2002). By the 19th century, the belief in the inherent superiority of the White race was well established within European and U.S. social and scientific doctrine.
Unique Aspects of the U.S. View of Race
The U.S. census defines interracial marriage as marriage between people from two of the racial or ethnic groups on the census. However, in the past interracial marriage was a term used to cover interfaith marriages and marriages of people from different national backgrounds (i.e. Italian and German)(Spickard, 1989). For non-Americans to understand interracial marriage, they must first understand how the U.S. categorizes people racially (and how this differs from the way their country categorizes people) (Fish, 2002). The one-drop rule is particularly significant. For example, throughout the history of this country, dark-skinned Blacks have married light-skinned Backs in order to lighten their offspring (Spickard, 1989). In many other countries, such as S. Africa and Brazil, these light-skinned Blacks would not be considered Black, and thus their marriage would, in fact, be viewed as interracial. But in the U.S. this is not the case.
Passing for White
One of the results of the one-drop rule is the concept of passing for White. During the Jim Crow era, many Blacks with light skin and European features passed for White: getting jobs and living in neighborhoods reserved for Whites. Today academics and Black leaders view passing for White as a deceptive, dishonest and disloyal behavior (Fish, 2002).
Over the history of Africans in N. America, beginning with slavery, a hierarchy of color developed and was maintained. In slavery often the lighter-skinned slaves were the progeny of a slave and the slave owner. They were often given preferential treatment, and became known as house slaves. Darker-skinned slaves were known as field slaves (Spickard, 1989). This system generated resentment and jealousy from the field slaves. After emancipation, this color hierarchy continued, with the lighter-skinned class becoming the social and political leaders, known as the mulatto elite. These groups maintained their own social clubs, churches, neighborhoods, and even colleges (i.e. Howard University in Washington, DC). They were often segregated from dark-skinned Blacks, and imitated many of the social graces and institutions of Whites. Thus, there developed within the African American community a complex hierarchy based on skin color, facial features, and hair texture. According to Spickard (1989), these gradations were more important to women than to men. Today this hierarchical social system within the Black community is called colorism. A similar hierarchy exists within other communities of color.
The racial hierarchy, with Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom, was the dominant scientific view of race in the U.S. during the 19th century, and was used to justify economic exploitation of whole groups of people – the labor of Africans, the taking of the land of Native Americas, and so on. Social behavior and physical appearance were justifications for this hierarchy and social class inequalities, as was Darwin’s theory of evolution and Spencer’s social Darwinism (Fish, 2002). This view was used as scientific and political justification to prevent marriages of Jews, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Portuguese, Catholics, Africans, Naïve Americans and Mexicans to Anglo-Saxons and Nordic Whites.
Francis Galton believed that genetic inequality was based on innate abilities, and he deeply believed that society should be involved in increasing the genetic pool of good people, and reducing that of inferior people (Welch, 2002). He established the Eugenics Laboratory at the University of London in 1907; in 1908 the Eugenics Society was created, and produced the journal, The Eugenics Review (Welch, 2002). In 1901, the Journal Biometrika was created by Galton and Pearson to study the statistical distribution of the procreation of the elite and of the genetically unfit (Welch, 2002). Since half the subscribers of Biometrika were Americans, the view of English eugenics soon became popular among U.S. scientists and intellectuals.
Pearson, a disciple of Galton, wrote extensively about the problems of immigrants coming into Britain, particularly that of Jews. He used his publication to convince British politicians to limit immigrants, as did Herbert Goddard in lobbying for a 1927 Immigration Act in the U.S. According to Goddard, IQ tests proved that Jews, Catholics, and immigrants from S. and E. European who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island were inferior, and thus contaminating the U.S. genetic stock (Chase, 1977).
During the 1890s, campaigns for the castration of the mentally retarded and criminals gained support in the U.S. In the early 1900s, 44 boys and girls were castrated in Kansas; in the South there was strong support by scientists, health professionals, and social reformers for the compulsory sterilization of the feeble-minded, criminals, alcoholics, and African Americans. During the 1920s, hundreds of morally delinquent and mentally retarded boys were sterilized in Alabama (Welch, 2002). This continued through 1951.
Throughout the 1920-50s, southern states enforced compulsory sterilization programs of mental degenerates, poor whites, and African Americans. According to Barry (2002), in Virginia, 7, 450 people were sterilized from 1924 through 1974 under eugenics policies. And, during World War II, when Americans, including African Americans, were attempting to defeat Hitler and the Nazi racists policies, eugenicists spent months collecting genetic information about residents of Shutesbury, Massachusetts, to determine what would happen when good pioneer stock (White) is mixed with bad immigrant stock (Portuguese fishermen)(Barry, 2002).
In the United States, the increase over time of Black out-marriage has been much slower than other minority groups (i.e. Japanese and Native Americans). One can look at Black out-marriage in 5 periods: 1865-1920, 1920-1945, 1945-1960, 1960-1990, and post 1990. Over this time out-marriage has increased; however, still today most American Blacks marry other Blacks.
1865 – 1920
Shortly after the Civil War, there was an increase in Black men/White women marriages and cohabitation, especially in the south. This was due to the scarcity of White men (many killed in the war). In the 1880 census, there were 209 mixed marriages in New Orleans – 29 Black men to White women (Spickard, 1989). The most common pattern of intermarriage at this time was White men and Black women. Even though slavery had ended, White men in the South still had power over Black women, especially because many Blacks were in deep financial dept to White landowners. Thus White men could still easily have their way with Black women. Many White men had Black concubines and mixed-race children on the side. However, not all of these relationships were forced, and not all were negative. In some cases the White father acknowledged and supported his Black mistress and his mixed-race children (Spickard, 1989).
From 1890 to 1910, the U.S. census showed a “lightening” of the Black race. This was due to two factors, 1) increased interracial relationships (official and unofficial), and 2) mating preferences of Blacks toward lighter-skinned partners. Prior to the great migration north, just before WWI, there were very few Blacks in the North and West of the country. There was 10% intermarriage of Blacks in the North, including famous people like Frederick Douglass and John Durham, who married White women. Of those blacks who immigrated north as part of the great migration, many were light-skinned. Scholars suggest that many light-skinned Blacks passed as Whites and married Whites, thus increasing the number of interracial marriages (Spickard, 1989).
1920 – 1945
As the number of Blacks increased in the North, communities formed, which brought about White restrictions and Black unity, restricting Black out-marriage. Overall, the percentage of Black out-marriage in the North declined greatly. Most of the marriages were Black men married to White women. Between the two wars, Black intermarriage in the North continued to drop. While interracial relationships in the South tended to be illegal and informal, the relationships in the North and West usually resulted in marriage. Most of those involved in these marriages were middle-class people.
Many changes in race relations occurred in the U.S. after WWII – the integration of the armed forces; the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education; Blacks returning from Europe, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. In Washington, DC, the number of out-marriages rose 10 times from 1945 -1960. Much of the modest rise in Black out-marriage was a result of American servicemen bringing home wives and girlfriends from Europe and Asia. Many war brides suffered from harassment, both from Whites and Blacks. The media – especially the Black media – delighted in highlighting interracial unions, especially of famous Black people – politicians, athletes, and entertainers. One of the more curious examples was the marriage of Walter White, a Black leader (head of the NAACP) with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, to Poppy Cannon, a White women with hair, eyes, and skin several shades darker than that of her husband, Walter White (Spickard, 1989).
The Civil Rights movement produced radical changes in race relations in the U.S. Blacks became more visible in American society, and more attractive to educated, liberal Whites. Blacks began to attend White universities and colleges, and slowly integrated much of the workplace. And, in 1967, the Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, declared the remaining states’ anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional. From 1960 to 1970, the number of Blacks who chose to marry non-Blacks nearly doubled over the previous decade, and continued to rise. By 1980, intermarriage constituted 5% of all Black men in the 1970-1980 decade; however the percentage was small compared to other minority groups, and the relationships were still mostly Black men married to White women (Spickard, 1989). This was partly due to Black women, who stood strongly against integration, and who were much more concerned than Black men with keeping Black communities intact (Spickard, 1989).
Many Blacks and Whites interacted socially during the Civil Rights activities in the South. In the 1970s, many all-White communities began to be integrated, and Blacks who grew up in middle-class neighborhoods and attended middle-class schools had more in common with middle-class White people, than they did with poor Blacks.
Today much of the U.S. workplace is fully integrated, especially professional settings such as schools and universities. Blacks run cities, universities, and major corporations. Further, particularly in the West and SW, but also in North and SE, neighborhoods are becoming much more integrated. Aggressive implementation of equal opportunity and non-discrimination laws have resulted in more workplace and housing equality. Further, there has been an increased acceptance of interracial marriage, especially by Whites. In 1968, 72% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage; in 1991, 48% approved, and 42% disapproved – a marked change (Gallup Poll, 1991). Here is not the place to debate the level of racial equality in U.S. society. But what is clear is that White and Black Americans interact on a daily basis in schools, universities, neighborhoods, shopping centers, and the workplace.
However, a curious split has occurred, with many common people (both White and Black) leading the way to support the rights of Americans to marry across racial lines, and intellectuals (heads of university ethnic studies programs, multicultural experts and writers, etc) who believe that interracial marriage is a conspiracy by the mainstream society to destroy individual cultural and ethnic groups, and to make every American part of mainstream America (Wardle, 2009). This latter view is a logical result of a diversity movement in the U.S. which focuses on the notion of “a salad bowl” as opposed to the “melting pot”, and which deeply believes that diversity is about empowering and institutionalizing distinct cultural groups with very clear boarders (Banks 2001; Nieto, 2004), and in finding ways to increase solidarity to and loyalty within these groups. The diversity movement emphasizes differences between these groups and their conflict with White America. It is a also a result of intellectuals who fear that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the U.S., many now view U.S. society as colorblind (Spencer, 2010).
There is a trend towards higher rates of interracial marriages for Whites, Blacks, and American Indians. By 2000, about one out of seven Black men married a White woman; Black women are also increasingly marrying White men (Farley, 2010). From 1950 through 2008, there has been an increase of Black husbands married to a woman of a different race, to over 20%; in 2008, 14% of Black husbands under 30-years-of-age were married to someone of another race; 7% of Black wives under 30-years-of-age were married to someone of another race (Farley, 2010). One result of this increase of mixed marriage is an increase in mixed-race children. In the 2010 census, 9 million Americans identified as ‘two or more races’, an increase of 34% from the 2000. In 2008, 9.3% of children under age 18 lived in homes where married partners were of different races (Farley, 2010).
Changing Views on Race
Over the last 20 years, there has been a change in the way many people it the U.S. view race. Many interracial parents are raising their children as proudly multiracial, thus rejecting the one-drop rule, and labeling them “two or more races” on school and other government forms. In 2000, 48% of black-white children were raised and categorized as multiracial (Farley, 2010). Further, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the biological view of race has been replaced by a social view. Many multiracial people (and parents) now believe this social view allows them to be seen as multiracial, and to call their children multiracial (Farley, 2010). Further, some adults who accepted the single-race view of identity now view themselves as multiracial. Finally, an increase in the number of immigrants with racial backgrounds that do not conform to the U.S. Census categories is deconstructing the traditional view of race in the U.S. (Wardle, 2011).
It is critically important for intellectuals from outside the U.S. studying race and racial relationships in the U.S. to deeply understand the unique history, politics and current realities of race within the U.S. These unique elements include a history of White supremacy, the eugenics movement and the social policies it produced, the creation and maintenance of the one-drop rule and the rule of hypodescent, and historical and legal issues surrounding interracial marriage. Further, observers of race in U.S. society must understand the relationship of states’ rights to federal authority and control. For example, the one-drop rule, eugenics policies, and laws against interracial marriage were all state laws, and not federal mandates, as was the legal right to own slaves. Today the ridged boundaries between racial groups, adherence to the one-drop rule, and the rule of hypodescent are all under siege. While academics, diversity experts, multicultural writers, and those who profess to care for the equality of minority groups still religiously adhere to the old paradigms about race, much of U.S. society – particularly the young – are rejecting these ridged, limiting and outmoded constructs.
Banks, J. A. (2001). Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Barry, E. (2002, Nov. 29). Descendents learn of breeding study. Rocky Mountains News, p. 62
Chase, A. (1977). The legacy of Malthus: The social costs of the new scientific racism. New York: Knopf.
Farely, R. (2010). New challenges in measuring race in the United States. Washington, DC: Presentation given at the National Conference on Mental Health Statistics.
Fish, J. M. (Ed.).(2002). Race and intelligence. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
Gallup Poll. (1991, August). For the first time, more Americans approve of interracial marriage than disapprove. Gallup Poll Monthly, 311, 60-64.
Gordon, M. M. (1964). Assimilation in American life: The role of race, religion, and national origin. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grant, M. (1916). The passing of the great race. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons.
Knepper, P. (1995). The prohibition of biracial legal identity in the United States and the Nation: An historical overview. State Constitutional Commentaries and Notes, 5(2), 14-20.
McCullough, D. (2001). James Adams. New York: Touchstone.
Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity. The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Smedley, A. (2002). Science and the idea of race: A brief history. In J. M. Fish (Ed.), Race and intelligence (145-176). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
Spencer, R. (2010). Multiracial militancy: Rejecting race and rejecting the convenience of complicity. In J. O. Adekunle & H. V. Williams (Eds.), Color struck: Essays on race and ethnicity in global perspective (pp. 155-172). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Spickard, P. R. (1989). Mixed blood: Intermarriage and ethnic identify in twentieth-century America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Wardle, F. (2009). Academics are enemies of the multiracial movement. Retrieved from the Center for the Study of Biracial Children website, http://www.csbchome.org
Wardle, F. (2011). Responding to racial and ethnic diversity in early childhood programs. Child Care Information Exchange, 33(2) 68-71.
Wardle, F. & Cruz-Janzen, M. (2004). Meeting the needs of multiethnic and multiracial children in schools. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon
Welch, K. C. (2002). The bell curve and the politics of Negrophobia. In J. M. Fish (Ed.), Race and intelligence (pp. 177-2000). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
*This is the text of a presentation delivered at a conference at the Universidade Estadual Paulista, Araraquara. SP, Brazil, in June, 2011.
Review of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards
In 1989, the Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children (NAEYC) was published. This is a seminal book that attempted to translate k-12 (and college) multicultural concepts to the early childhood (0-8) period. As such, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (2010) is a revision of the first book. This second book has expanded the view of diversity beyond gender and race/ethnicity, embracing language (non English speaking), economic class, abilities and disabilities, family structures, and sexual orientation. It has also adopted some of the major contemporary trends in k-12 and college multicultural education, such as critical pedagogy and social justice, with less than universally positive results.
I am a huge supporter of multicultural education in early childhood programs and k-12 schools. All children deserve maximum opportunity to succeed and fulfill their unique potential. But I believe this books does little to help achieve this important goal.
It is difficult to know how to best critique this book. I have decided to begin with the four core goals of anti-bias education, then examine areas that I view as particularly problematic: immigrants and their families (Latino), the two pages devoted to multiracial children, and the simplistic formula that considers mainstream whites the only barrier to diversity. I then discuss the unique definitions of certain words and phrases that this book has coined.
“Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities”. Further, this goal adds, “A basic goal of quality early childhood education work is to nurture each child’s individual, personal identity. Anti-bias education adds to that goal the important idea of nurturing social (or group) identities” (p. 4). The book defines social identity as, “compared with individual identities, this denotes membership in groups that are defined by society, are shared with many other people, and have societal advantages and disadvantages attached to them. These identities include, gender, economic class, racial identity, heritage, religion, age group, and so on” (xiii).
Clearly, reference group orientation is a significant part of each of our identities, and the identities of our children (Cross, 1987). However, there are many problems with this goal:
1) The perception that all of these social identities are homogeneous, clearly defined, unchanging, and unchangeable. They are not. We know a family can quickly drop from middle class to poverty after a divorce or the loss of a job; we know that a child’s racial/ethnic identity can change when they come to America (i.e. a Hmong becomes an Asian, a Columbian becomes a Latino), transracial and multiracial children do not belong to any clearly defined social group (and if the various tables used throughout this book are any indication, these children really don’t exist!)
2) Society does not do anything – people do! Not only does one’s group identity depend on historical, global, national, political and economic contexts, but the individual also has some say-so in their identity. It is illustrative to note that in the section of the book that describes the identities of the people who contributed to it, there is this statement: “as people chose to identify themselves” (p. viii). Parents of young children also have an impact on the identity of their children. This is particularly true of interracial children, transracially adopted children, and new immigrants, whose home country often defines them differently from the way we define them. For example, new immigrants from various African countries do not view themselves as African Americans. Further, advocates of anti-bias education insist, as they should, on challenging society’s concept of gender and to some extent, disabilities, but are wholly unwilling to challenge society’s social and political definition of race and ethnicity. This inconsistency is difficult to understand, and will be addressed later in this review.
3) Who decides the social identities of children? Who decides if a child, in fact, feels good about membership in his/her group? For example, there is considerable literature that argues multiracial children who embrace a social identity that includes their full, mixed heritage, are somehow ashamed of their black social identity (Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2010). Or what about a Mayan child from Guatemala whose social identity in her home country is the Maya, but who is expected to change her group belonging in this country to Latino/a (the group that has historically persecuted her people)?
4) Attaching societal advantages and disadvantages to children based on their group belonging is highly problematic. For example, while sociologists place men at the top of the status hierarchy, young boys as a group struggle in our early childhood programs. Further, men have very little status in the early childhood field. And, how do we evaluate the status of children from different backgrounds? For example, how do we evaluate the black daughter of a single mother who is a physician at the local university hospital, compared to a little white boy whose two parents are homeless? But the main problem with this approach is the judging of individuals by teachers based on group belonging (the kind of stereotyping we should be avoiding), and a generally paternalistic attitude.
“Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections” (p. 4). This goal is problematic from several perspectives. Let’s take each one of these three ideas separately.
Each Child Will Express Comfort and Joy with Human Diversity
Young children are learning a variety of concepts about humans. A central concept they struggle with is their own identity – gender, language, culture, abilities, etc. Thus they tend to be attracted to people – children and adults – who are like them, and who are important in their lives. For example, little girls look to their mothers as very important role models; children play with other children who enjoy the same kind of games and activities they enjoy. Thus at this age there is a natural and healthy tendency to feel comfortable around people – adults and children – who are similar to them. Only after developing a secure sense of identity can young children truly “express comfort with human diversity”.
A central dilemma with this goal is that both parents and society in general teach children the survival skills of human safety. This is represented by the “beware of strangers” campaigns. But clearly parents also want their children to be cautious and defensive around human diversity. Part of the problem here – a problem embedded throughout this book – is that a young child’s ability to discriminate anything is very immature, and thus highly stereotypical. If a parent cautions her young child to stay away from a specific homeless man with a beard, chances are the child will stay away from all men with beards.
Each Child Will Express Accurate Language for Human Differences
It is not clear to me the meaning of this goal. On a recent visit to Brazil I discovered that it is not acceptable in that country to use the term Black to describe Afro-Brazilians, yet it is appropriate to call them Negros (the accepted term). We know that the language used to describe various disabilities continues to change over time; and the language to describe children of mixed-racial heritage in this country is still up for debate. Many adults still call these children Black (or the label of the parent of color) even though the correct terms are multiracial or multiethnic. In fact, many multiracial children will tell you the most annoying part of being multiracial is the constant questioning (especially by adults), of, “well what are you, anyway”(signifying these adults really don’t know!)? Many adults still refuse to even use the terms multiracial and multiethnic.
A good example of the adult use of inaccurate language to describe human differences is using the label Latino to describe the vast diversity of the people from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America (see the later section on immigrant families).
Each Child Will Express Deep, Caring Human Connections
This goal I can totally subscribe to!
“Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts” (p. 5). It is important that children learn about unfairness. However, this goal is totally inappropriate for young children, to whit:
1) For children up to about age 7-8, fairness generally means what is best for them. This is the egocentric stage. There was many a time with my own four children when they declared my behavior towards them to be unfair. All parents soon learn that children will respond to a parental wish, a denial of a request, or a demand to do a chore, with the word, “unfair”. And most parents soon learn to respond with, “the world is unfair”.
2) The world is an unfair place, and, while we should all be committed to make it less unfair, a young child is in no position to do so. To use the language of the book, they have no power. For example, a child may discover that his friend from class has been diagnosed with a special need, and is consequently being removed to another classroom by the school district. The child does not want to leave, but what can his friend do? Or a child has a favorite teacher who must stop teaching to take a different job, because she cannot make enough money teaching. There is nothing the child can do.
3) I always wonder whether this goal will set up a child to fail. My son was very concerned with fairness, and struggled intensely in middle and high school. In middle school he was bullied; at high school he could not tolerate the arbitrary and autocratic rules that permeate most American high schools. He was exceedingly aware of the unfair rules of the schools and the unfair behavior of people in positions of authority (as were his parents). For example, when he was bullied he fought back, but due to one of these unfair rules, he was suspended along with the bully. Then the Vice Principal accused him of provoking the bully.
“Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and /or discriminatory actions” (p. 5). Bullying in our schools is a major problem (Olweus, 1992). Yet, in schools throughout the world, bullying continues unabated. But its not really about prejudice and discrimination, it’s about two kinds of children (of all different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds): bullies – aggressive children who enjoy power, and victims – timid individuals who are generally unpopular. And, according to the research, bullying continues because both the bully and the victim believe adults will not intervene. And they are often correct.
So it seems to me we need to do two things to address bullying, 1) develop a school-wide approach, and 2) seriously implement this approach. While children should be involved (i.e. in learning conflict resolution skills), it is clear that adults – teachers and administrators – must take the central roles. This should also be true with anti-bias education. Recently at a conference in Brazil a multiracial adult reported about the harassment she received in school from the teachers. My own children have also experienced harassment from teachers (“you can’t be Native American, you are Black”) and administrators (“your parents are uptight about the school’s racial categories”). Thus it is the adults who must spearhead anti-bias activities in our early childhood programs and schools.
Finally, as I have already pointed out, children do not have the power to create change. Many, many unfair situations occur in the early childhood center, classroom and school. If students protest, they get into trouble (as do their parents!). A high school student in Denver protested the fact that students were required to take meaningless, high-stakes standardized tests. He was punished with the same severity as if he had brought a gun to school.
Supporting New Immigrant Children and Families
In the essay, Supporting New Immigrant Families and Children, L. A, Hernandez writes, “misinformation about immigrants is everywhere” (73). However, he does little to clarify much of this misinformation, especially about immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean (what is commonly called Latin America). This is a particularly glaring example of how American (U.S.) diversity experts view global diversity from an America-centric perspective.
Hernandez perpetuates the myth that everyone from south of the U.S./Mexico boarder are Spanish-speaking people with cultural roots from Spain. The truth is much more complex, rich and diverse. The countries that comprise Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and S. America contain as much unique diversity as exists within the U.S., if not more. Three examples will illustrate this phenomenon. The three major cultural groups in Guatemala are Maya, Latino, and Black (on the Gulf of Mexico side of the country). The Maya are divided into several groups, each with their own language. In Guatemala, the Maya are also the majority population; however historically, politically, and economically, the Latino group dominate – they are the oppressors, if you will. While Spanish is Guatemala’s official language, among the Maya many do not speak any Spanish – especially the women.
In Belize, the majority of the population is Black, with small groups of whites (including Amish), Asians (many of the shop owners) and Indians. However, there are also several official mixed-race groups. These include Carib and Creole. The official language is English, but a variety of other languages are spoken.
In Brazil, the major racial groups are Afro Brazilians (there were five times as many slaves in Brazil compared to the U.S.), mixed-race (usually African, European and Amerindian), Amerindian (several tribes that speak various languages), European (Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Welsh, Scandinavian), Middle Eastern, and Japanese (the largest group of Japanese outside of Japan live in Sao Paulo). The major language is Portuguese, not Spanish, and the colonial history is Portuguese (and some French, Dutch and English) but not Spanish. Brazil comprises about 50% of the landmass of S. America, and over 50% of the population.
People in the countries south of the U.S. speak a variety of languages, including English, French, Dutch, Welsh, Japanese, German, Spanish and Portuguese, along with over 40 native languages.
As you can see, describing all immigrants who come from Latin America as Spanish-speaking people with a Spanish culture is not only a gross misunderstanding; but it is tantamount to an academic and statistical hoax.
Because people who enter the U.S. from Mexico, Central and Sought America, and the Caribbean come from countries with significant African populations (most of these counties had slaves), many Latinos have some African racial heritage. According to the one-drop rule, which is still used in the U.S. to categorize race, these Latinos would be considered racially Black (Fernandez, 1996).
Supporting Multiracial, Multiethnic, and Mixed-Heritage Children and Their Families
Maybe the biggest problem with the section, Supporting Multiracial, Multiethnic, and Mixed-Heritage Children and Their Families (p.88-89) is its size (2 out of 166 pages), and the fact that it is a separate section. Both of these facts make it a classic token approach to diversity! It should be noted here that the multicultural education body of knowledge to date has not embraced diversity that is multiracial. For example, of the 49 chapters in the Handbook of Multicultural Education (Banks & Banks, 2004), only one directly addresses this population, and most of the other 48 chapters strongly support a single-race view of race and ethnicity, including reinforcement of the one-drop-rule. And throughout Anti-Bias Education for Young People and Ourselves, there is constant reference to “groups of people” and “nurturing group identities.” All these terms and the general focus of the book reinforce a single race, essentialist view of identity and racial and ethnic diversity. If this book were truly about diversity, multiracial children and adults would be embraced and included throughout. They are not.
Beyond these two glaring issues, this piece, unlike other sections of the book that are very forthright and direct (even when they are wrong), is weak, tentative, and careful not to offend. For example, while it correctly reports that multiracial families experience racism, it never points out that this racism comes equally from people of all single-race groups (teachers, parents, and students), and not just from white people. Further, while the issue of filling out federal forms is addressed, it is not addressed with the clarity and urgency required. Many multiracial families first face official invisibility or downright hostility when officials with early childhood programs and schools insist they choose a racial category for their child that does not accurately reflect their own view. Early childhood programs and schools must address this issue head on: this book must tell them how to do so!
Another problem is that the author states, “having parents look very different from each other or very different from you makes the reality of difference very present in the family early on” (p. 88). This reality seems to be presented as a negative situation, it is not: these children grow up believing difference is normal and is their reality. To them, it is the other families that are strange! This same section also states that some families “feel confused about how to deal with their child’s racial/ethnic identity” (p. 89). While there is a sidebar that encourages parents to talk to the program if they want to discuss the identity of their child (because they are confused), early childhood programs must be much more proactive in helping parents understand the value (and the mounting research evidence) of challenging the role of hypodescent, and in raising and identifying their children as multiracial. Programs must empower parents of multiracial children (both biological and adoptive/foster parents) to have the courage to withstand societal orthodoxy and celebrate their child’s full racial and ethnic identity. This book is very clear in challenging other societal issues, such as non-English language learners and gender issues; so why is it not affirmative here?
As already suggested – and further explored later in this review – this section continues to perpetuate a myth woven throughout this book: only white people (teachers, parents and children) can be racist. Multiracial children receive outright harassment, along with “invisibility”, from people of all racial groups. In fact, one of the challenges that this book does not address is when race is presented in terms of power and privilege, how does a biracial (Black/White) child deal with this apparent conflict, and how should teachers help them deal with it? According to the matrix outlined on page 31, a child whose mother is Black (i.e. a minimum of a two-time target of institutional prejudice and discrimination) and whose father is an educated white, heterosexual, male (a four-time recipient of societal advantage) experiences a very unhealthy family due to their parents’ unequal status. If teachers, other parents, and “multicultural experts” believe this, as many do, then this child and her family will not be supported in the program.
Thank God my children were never taught this, because it simple makes no sense.
Finally, instead of providing direct advice to teachers regarding this greatly misunderstood area, particularly by people who claim to be “culturally competent”, much of these two pages presents scenarios for which the reader is asked to decide “what would you do?” (p. 89). Again it seems like the author/editors are unwilling to take the kinds of affirmative positions they do in many other areas throughout the book.
Mainstream Whites are the Problem
Like other early childhood multicultural texts, this book blames all prejudice and anti-diversity on mainstream (male) white people. In the book mainstream whites are the only examples of people engaged in insensitive behaviors and non-diverse and prejudicial activities. Never is a minority child or adult shown to exhibit any prejudicial or inappropriate language or behavior. While this is a nice, neat formula, it’s neither accurate or particularly helpful to teaches and child care providers.
Here are a few examples of a more realistic view.
The first incident of racism my eldest daughter experienced was from a boy who had just come from Mexico. His family lived below us in the apartment building. In the heat of a typical childhood argument, he said to my daughter, “and, besides, you are Black and I am not”. He obviously saw this as a putdown.
My youngest daughter had an ugly incident when her Hispanic friend invited her to play in her house. Her father met them at the door, and said to my daughter, “You cannot come into my house until you wash the dirt (dark skin) from your face”.
At a family picnic I recently attended, I observed a very active 9-year-old having a great time climbing a tree. Her mother called to her to “get down from the tree”.
“Why”? I asked the girl’s mother.
“Because girls don’t climb trees”, her mother responded.
The mother and her daughter were African American.
Some years ago I received a phone-call from a distraught white mother of a biracial child in Chicago. She was upset because Black children in her daughter’s kindergarten class kept telling her daughter that her mother was a whore. The mother complained to the Black administration and teachers, but both refused to intervene.
A good friend of mine, Marta Cruz-Janzen, recalls growing up in Puerto Rico (2004). She described how painful this childhood experience was, because she is biracial (Spanish/Black), and the local fairly tales, songs, and colloquial expressions used by the other children towards her were all extremely racist.
Any adult and child from any racial or ethnic background have the capacity to be racist, stereotypical, and prejudicial. Its not just white folks!
Word and Phrase Definitions
There are several words and phrases in this book that I wish to comment on: social identify, pre-prejudice, and race.
Social Identity. This term is defined as “compared with individual identities, this denotes membership in groups that are defined by society, are shared with many other people, and have societal advantages and disadvantages attached to them” (xiii). I have already addressed the phrase in another section of this review, so I will be very short here:
• Society does not do anything.
• We all exist within multiple social contexts (West, 2001).
• Advantage and disadvantaged often change as a result of time and context.
• Each person’s individual identity is comprised of multiple interacting social identities (West, 2001).
• This definition makes multiracial children and to some extent transracially adopted children invisible. They do not belong to one social identity group “defined by society”. In fact, for major components of society, these children are still invisible – as they are in much of this book.
• While it is important to help all children come to terms with the various words others use to identity them, it is absolutely critical we help children go beyond the limitations of these identities. A central dilemma for minority children is the insistence by peers that they must continually subscribe to their own groups’ narrow norms of behavior, taste and world-view. One result of this need to define what it means to belong to a social identity group is that minority students are often accused of “being white” (acting, behaving, speaking, doing well academically, etc) by their peers. Instead of reinforcing the limitations of children’s “social identities” we should be helping children not to be defined or limited by them.
Pre-Prejudice “Beginning ideas and feelings in very young children that may develop into real prejudice if reinforced by societal biases. It may be based on young children’s limited experience and developmental level, or it may consist of imitations of adult behavior (p. xiii)
According to Piaget, young children develop biased and limited schemas about the world and how it works. Through direct experiences with the social and physical environment, children continue to refine their schemas until they come close to reality. When it comes to ideas about people (race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, disability) young children’s views are highly stereotypical – and usually incorrect. Thus it is up to adults to help children progress to a place where they can see human diversity is all of its complexity (unfortunately many adults cannot do this). But it’s wrong and silly to call this pre-prejudice, because a young child’s view of the world is pre-everything.
Race: “A social construct that fraudulently categories and ranks groups of human beings on an arbitrary basis such as skin color and other physical features…..The scientific consensus is that race in this sense has no biological basis in the human species” (p. xiii).
First race as a construct is both social and political (as is ethnicity). Thus, as the direct result of powerful political pressure, we now have Latino/a as a census category. The rest of this definition I generally agree with. But what puzzles me is that, if race is a fraudulent system that categories and ranks groups of people on an arbitrary basis, which I believe it is, and, if this book is about anti-bias education, then why does it not strongly advocate – and include activities – to eliminate racial categories?
I can see wonderful anti-bias activities to protest the use of federal forms for the USDA food program; efforts by students to eliminate racial categories used by the school or early childhood program when they hire new staff, and activities by students to make sure their school district is in compliance with the federal law that allows people to check “more than one race”.
It seems to me the authors want it both ways, 1) to show the world that they understand the racist nature of racial categories (created by the dominant groups), but also to align themselves with single-race identity politics.
You cannot have it both ways!
This review highlights some specific areas where I think this book fails. However, as I have written elsewhere (i.e. chapter 11 in my 2009 book, Approaches to Early Childhood and Elementary Education), I think its time to change the entire focus of our diversity efforts. Essentially a simple, single-group approach (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, etc) to diversity is now obsolete, and we need to shift to viewing diversity in all of its wonderful complexity and interrelatedness. No one is just Black, just a woman, or just an immigrant. Thus we need to look at a child in his/her totality, using Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory to understand how all the contexts of a child impact the child, those who interact with the child, along with how they interact with each other (West, 2001). And we must place the child in the center; not race, ethnicity, culture, gender and so forth.
Banks. J. A. & Banks, C. A. M. (2004). (Eds.). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cross, W. A two-factors theory of black identity formation: Implications for the study of identity development in minority children. In J. S. Phenney & M. J. Rotheram
(Eds.), Children’s ethnic socialization (pp 117-134). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.1987.
Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: NAEYC
Fernandez, C A. (1996). Government classification of multiracial/multiethnic people. In M. M. P. Root (Ed.), The multiracial experiences: Racial borders as the new frontier (pp.15-36). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Olweus, D. 1992. Bullying among school children: Intervention and prevention. In R. D. Peters, R. J. McMahon, & V. L. Quinsey (Eds.), Aggression and violence throughout the lifespan (pp. 100-125). 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 & H. V. Williams (Eds.), Color struck: Essays on race and ethnicity in global perspective (pp. 173-186). New York: University Press of America.
Wardle, F., & Cruz-Janzen, M. (2004). Meeting the needs of multiethnic and multiracial children in schools. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
West, M. M. (2001). Teaching the third culture child. Young Children, 56(6) 27-32
When Sarah* is at school or in the neighborhood, nobody takes a second look at her. They assume she is a typical five-year-old white girl, with fair skin and curly, blond hair. When her mother picks her up at school or takes her shopping at a local shopping center, a few eyes might be raised. With her light brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair, many incorrectly view her mother as a stereotypical Latina (she has often been misidentified by strangers, some of whom get very upset when she cannot reply to them in Spanish).
But when Sarah is picked up at school by her grandmother, or taken by her to enjoy a local playground, most people don’t bat an eye, simply assuming she is the family’s nanny. Since Sarah’s family lives in a middle-class community, nobody would question this assumption – one that has been made on several occasions. You see, her grandmother is African American – and her mother is biracial.
However, at some point Sarah’s classmates are going to express their utmost confusion: they wonder, if Sarah’s mother is Latina (as they assume), and her grandmother is African American, how come she is white? To add to their confusion, Sarah’s white father sometimes drops her off and picks her up after school.
In situations like this, Sarah’s teacher needs to help Sarah’s classmates resolve their confusion. Unfortunately, the teacher probably cannot help the other children in Sarah’s class. She probably did not take a multicultural class in college, but if she did, multiracial children would not have been discussed. The majority of multicultural textbooks simply omit these children; they are invisible. This is also true of college courses like child psychology, where race is an increasingly important part of the class content, but multiracial children are totally ignored. However, if multiracial children were covered in the teacher’s college classes, she would undoubtedly have been taught that Sarah is African American, and must be raised with a secure, single African American identity. She may have even been told that raising her as white is an affront to the African American community.
One of the oldest and most irrational legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow laws is still with us: the one drop rule. Because it was essential during slavery and the Jim Crow era to determine who was Black, and who was not, many states adopted this rule. The rule was even supported by several Supreme Court decisions (under the rationale of state’s rights). Astoundingly, in today’s climate of the ever-increasing number of mixed-race families, experts of racial diversity, multicultural educators, and heads of ethnic studies departments at our nation’s leading universities continue to insist that the one drop rule is valid, and that any person in the U.S. with any African heritage must be considered Black. Furthermore, anyone with any African heritage who somehow ignores or rejects this obsolete notion of racial identity is considered passing for white: a particularly onerous sin, denoting racial disloyalty and identity confusion. As the saying goes, Black blood is powerful stuff (and white racial purity apparently still sacrosanct).
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, interracial marriages have dramatically increased in this country. The Pew Research Center study just reported that interracial marriages in the U.S. are now 4.8 million – one in 12 marriages. Sarah is one of a growing number of first, second and even third generation multiracial children from these marriages. The 2000 U.S. census was the first to allow people to designate two or more races; the 2010 census reported that 6 million people did so (2.4% of the population; 6.8% of children under age 18 claim a multiracial heritage). However, according to some researchers, it is estimated that at least 40% of Americans have some racial mixing in the last three generations, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King.
Added to these people with mixed heritage are new immigrants who come from countries that do not use the one drop rule. For example, the majority of people in Brazil who have some African heritage are officially classified by their government as pardo – brown (mixed – usually Amerindian, Afro-Brazilian, and European).
Another group that is challenging the one drop rule is Latinos. Some Latinos whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations have some African heritage in their past; new immigrants from south of the border bring with them a multiracial heritage recognized in their native country. Mexico, Central and much of South America have a history that includes African slaves; Brazil had five times as many slaves as did the U.S. However, while the U.S. census claims that Latinos can be of any race, most Latinos seem to avoid the confusion of the one drop rule, celebrating instead their combined Native and European heritage, and ignoring their African past.
Yet Sarah cannot celebrate her full heritage. In a society as fixated as we are on race, the new generations of multiracial children require teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and multicultural experts to help them embrace their full racial identity, and to help their peers understand their rich, multiracial heritage. If Sarah’s peers can be Latino and Dine (Navajo), or Irish, German and Italian, why can’t Sarah be white, African American and Chickasaw (her grandmother is also a member of the Chickasaw tribe)?
Sarah lives in a culturally multiracial world. Her parents and grandparents live in integrated communities. She helps her white grandfather with his vegetable garden, attends a British tea shop (her grandfather is English) and visits a nearby historical farm with both her grandparents. As she gets older, her grandmother will also expose her to her Chickasaw heritage. And her parents have enrolled her in dance classes that are attended by students from a variety of racial, ethnic and national backgrounds. Her school has many Somali and Latino students.
Liberation movements are all about challenging the past and changing society’s views. The Civil Rights movement challenged legal inequality and a view of Black inferiority; the woman’s movement demanded educational equality and the elimination of the glass ceiling; the disability movement advocated for public access and educational fairness; and the gay and lesbian movement is making us reconsider our views and laws regarding marriage. So why don’t we challenge and get rid of the one drop rule?
To say that Sarah is only African America, despite a white father, a biracial (black/white), mother and a white (English) grandfather, defies any kind of scientific or common sense.
*Sarah is an assumed name