CSWAC Blog

The Multiracial Movement – A History

Part 1 of a 3-part series.

From the early 1980s to the start of this century, there existed a publicly identified “multiracial movement” in the United States. Central to the movement were 30 grassroots support groups composed of interracial couples, transracially adoptive families, and individuals of multiracial heritage. Early examples were Interracial/Inter-Cultural Pride (I-Pride) of San Francisco founded in 1978, Biracial Family Network (BFN) of Chicago founded in 1981, and Interracial Family Circle (IFC) of Washington, D.C., founded in 1983. My family and I were personally members of Getting Interracial Families Together (GIFT) of Montclair, NJ, founded in 1994.

There also arose umbrella and advocacy groups. Most prominent was the Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA), founded in 1988. AMEA counted several support groups as members, and launched a program of political advocacy aimed at changing the existing US Census practice of only identifying people by a single race. Project Race, founded in 1990, also advocated for official recognition of multiracial identity. Another early center of organizing was Interracial Voice, founded by Charles Byrd. Interracial Voice was largely a media outlet, at first in print and then later online. Charles Byrd also organized the first Multiracial Solidarity March, held in 1996 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Other media outlets appeared, including the magazines Interrace and New People. These magazines featured human interest stories and news items of interest to the emerging self-identified multiracial community. Not to be left out, the scholarly and artist communities took notice. Sociologists began to study the mixed-race experience, and writers wrote stories and novels. The popular press published features and opinion pieces. It was an exciting time.

My family fit within the multiracial mold. My partner and I were a married, black and white interracial couple with one monoracial black child by adoption and another mixed-race child by birth. Together we encompassed the collection of interracial couples, transracially adoptive families, and mixed-race individuals who formed the multiracial community. For us, the parents, it was interesting to meet and mingle with other couples and families who shared similar experiences. For our children, it normalized the experience of being a multiracial family that seldom was affirmed in other settings. Now, more than twenty years later, images of mixed-race families are common in TV ads, and interracial couples appear in sitcoms. Back then, it was rare.

The multiracial community had four pressing concerns, all of which overlapped and related to one another. One was racism, of the type in which white supremacy asserts itself against people of color and white people who ally with them. Rejection by extended families, housing discrimination, slurs and threats made in public, were all too common examples. People of color did not become immune from racism by associating intimately with white people, and white people suffered collateral exposure.

A second concern was the “one drop” rule by which a person with one drop of black blood was considered black. This “rule” has a long history of enshrinement in law in many states, and remained prominent in the public consciousness even without benefit of legal standing. The effect of the rule was to create and enforce the color line.

A third concern was “monoracism.” Here we see the outgrowth of new language. “Monoracism” refers to the belief that people must belong to one and only one race, and that this is the normal state of affairs. A monoracist point of view is antagonistic to multiracial identity, often characterizing it as wrong, deviant, and/or psychologically disturbed.

The fourth and final concern was government classification of people by race. Some eschewed any classification at all, but most recognized it as a necessary matter. The concern here was the various classification systems only recognized monoracial identity. There was no option for multiracial individuals, who accordingly were forced to “choose one” or check “other” when that option was available.

This latter issue changed what was a social movement into a political one. Like many political movements, only a small number of the broader community were involved. But they had an impact. The AMEA, and particularly Ramona Douglass, lobbied at the national level in Washington, DC, attending hearings, reviewing proposed policy initiatives and legislation, and speaking with politicians. The target of their effort was to change the race question on the US census. This work ultimately proved successful. The 2000 Census allowed people to “check all that apply” in response to the race question. Susan Graham of Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) made a similar effort at the state level in several states.

Notably, the multiracial community was opposed in this effort by the NAACP and La Raza (now named UnidosUS). Each expressed concern that “check all that apply” would dilute the numbers of people for whom they advocated. Numbers, in this case, represented power. Nor was the choice clear cut. Several options were proposed, including a separate multiracial category, the “mark one or more” option, or some combination of the two. The multiracial community was drawn into the politics of the time with one side favoring Democrats and the other Republicans, the latter who sought a wedge issue along racial lines.

In the midst of this rich, bubbling mix of ideas and advocacy, Maria Root created the Multiracial Bill of Rights in 1993. This simple statement asserts the rights of multiracial people to identity as they choose and, accordingly, characterizes how the pressures of a society structured around monoracism infringes on those rights.

Once the 2000 Census took place, for whatever reason, the multiracial movement and the community itself lost its coherence. In my own family, our children were growing into their teen years and as a family we were moving beyond the simple need for affirmation. Perhaps it was just something of the times. Community leaders were aging. Some younger, mixed-race leaders emerged and started groups like the Mavin Foundation and Swirl. Even today there remain some groups organizing around the multiracial experience. But the heyday of the multiracial community and movement, as such, seems to have passed.

During these times I played a small role in the multiracial movement as a volunteer organizer, supporting the development of three grassroots groups in NJ, acting as liaison with umbrella groups, and attending and speaking at conferences and events such as the first Multiracial Solidarity March. The movement was exciting, and more important, brought forward a sorely needed perspective that was lacking in other sectors, even among racial justice advocates. But I was also feeling some growing concerns. There were some serious shortfalls to the organizing that took place in the multiracial community. Ultimately, it led me to co-founding CSWAC and developing our core philosophy of decentering whiteness and building multiracial community.

More on this in Part 2.