When Barack Obama set his sights on the presidency, newspapers suddenly began devoting a lot more ink to the multiracial identity. Media outlets from Time Magazine and the New York Times to the British-based Guardian and BBC News pondered the significance of Obama’s mixed heritage. His mother was a white Kansan and his father, a black Kenyan. Three years later it remains to be seen just what impact Obama’s biracial makeup has had on race relations, but mixed-race people continue to make news headlines, thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau’s finding that the country’s multiracial population is exploding. But just because mixed-race people are in the spotlight doesn’t mean that the myths about them have vanished. What are the most common misconceptions about multiracial identity? This list both names and dispels them.
Multiracial People Are Novelties
What’s the fastest-growing group of young people? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the answer is multiracial youths. Today, the United States includes more than 4.2 million children identified as multiracial. That’s a jump of nearly 50 percent since the 2000 census. And among the total U.S. population, the amount of people identifying as multiracial spiked by 32 percent, or 9 million. In the face of such groundbreaking statistics, it’s easy to conclude that multiracial people are a new phenomenon now rapidly growing in rank. The truth is, however, that multiracial people have been a part of the country’s fabric for centuries. Consider anthropologist Audrey Smedley’s finding that the first child of mixed Afro-European ancestry was born in the U.S. eons ago—way back in 1620. There’s also the fact that historical figures from Crispus Attucks to Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable to Frederick Douglass were all mixed-race.
A major reason why it appears that the multiracial population has soared is because for years and years, Americans weren’t allowed to identify as more than one race on federal documents such as the census. Specifically, any American with a fraction of African ancestry was deemed black due to the “one-drop rule.” This rule proved particularly beneficial to slave owners, who routinely fathered children with slave women. Their mixed-race offspring would be considered black, not white, which served to increase the highly profitable slave population.
The year 2000 marked the first time in ages that multiracial individuals could identify as such on the census. By that point in time, though, much of the multiracial population had grown accustomed to identifying as just one race. So, it’s uncertain if the number of multiracials is actually soaring or if ten years after they were first permitted to identify as mixed-race, Americans are finally acknowledging their diverse ancestry.
Only Brainwashed Multiracials Identify as Black
A year after President Obama identified himself as solely black on the 2010 census, he’s still garnering criticism. Most recently, Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote that when Obama marked only black on the census form, “he missed an opportunity to articulate a more nuanced racial vision for the increasingly diverse country he heads.” Rodriguez added that historically Americans haven’t publicly acknowledged their multiracial heritage due to social pressures, taboos against miscegenation and the one-drop rule.
But there’s no evidence that Obama identified as he did on the census for any of those reasons. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama remarks that the mixed people he’s encountered who insist on the multiracial label concern him because they often seem to make a concerted effort to distance themselves from other blacks. Other mixed-race people such as the author Danzy Senna or the artist Adrian Piper say that they choose to identify as black because of their political ideologies, which include standing in solidarity with the largely oppressed African-American community. Piper writes in her essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black”:
“What joins me to other blacks…is not a set of shared physical characteristics, for there is none that all blacks share. Rather, it is the shared experience of being visually or cognitively identified as black by a white racist society, and the punitive and damaging effects of that identification.”