Archive for December 2013

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.


Spencer’s Critique


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.