The Multiracial Movement – Retrospective Analysis

Part 2 of a 3-part series.

The multiracial movement has faded now, even as the number and presence of multiracial people and families has grown. We felt we had something special to offer, standing as a rare example of people of different races living close at hand in a race-conflicted society. But the multiracial community also felt itself besieged. The assaults came from surrounding monoracial communities, most prominently the white community but also the black community, and others. People of all colors were accepting, but racialized responses of rejection and threat to the multiracial community were common. Claims were made that multiracial identity was bogus. Multiracial identity was characterized as an attempt to whiten people who might otherwise be seen unequivocally as people of color. “Why are you with him?” “Why are you with her?” “What are you?”

Along with feeling special, but besieged, the multiracial community also felt either invisible, or subject to intense scrutiny, depending on circumstances. Either condition reflected the transgressive nature of the multiracial community. We violated racial norms simply by existing.

The relationship of the multiracial community to whiteness was a delicate one, and troubled. The community stood accused by monoracial
communities of color of aspiring to whiten ourselves, whether as multiracial individuals, or as families. Multiracial people of black and white heritage
were held to the “one drop” standard and expected by many in the black community to adopt a monoracial black identity. One might have a white parent, but to claim that portion of one’s heritage was not acceptable. The white community, on the other hand, espoused tolerance and colorblindness but only pretended to concern by asking “It’s okay if you get married, but what about the children?” The “kids” are fine, by the way. We always knew they would be.

Fortunately, in its heyday the multiracial community was the focus of close study by Kim M. Williams, whose findings were published in Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America in 2006. Williams’ study revealed the multiracial community was not what it might seem at first glance. Of the many different combinations of race that might exist (e.g. black/white, white/Asian, black/Latinx, white/Latinx, etc.) the grassroots support groups were composed almost entirely of black and white couples with mixed-race children, or white couples who transracially adopted black children. Even more telling, half of the leadership of the grassroots support groups were white women and only one group was led by a mixed-race person.

Here is where I had qualms. Williams notes “fighting racism was not a priority in the multiracial groups I studied.” I agreed then, and I do now. The multiracial community was fully consumed with its own issues of recognition and legitimacy. Clearly people were aware of racism. Recounting personal experiences of racial and monoracial discrimination was a favored
activity at gatherings. But discussing white privilege was not, even though the term itself was already in use back then. Nor was there a pressing sense of solidarity with the larger, historic struggle for racial justice. Awareness, yes, but active engagement, not so much.

On top of that, if we were special people, one had to acquire that status through marriage or by birth or adoption. This helped encourage a sense of community, but it severely limited how far that “specialness” might be extended into the population at large. The greater picture was that white supremacy had created and was maintaining a racialized society that impacted everyone in the country. When it came to the struggle to overcome that, the multiracial community really had no strategy. Maybe it’s unfair to expect the multiracial community would have looked beyond its most immediate and pressing concerns, but much of the suspicion it drew from monoracial communities of color stemmed from the myopic view we had of the larger struggle at hand. I felt, in the long run, that it was our struggle too. We needed to be more engaged.

That engagement needed to include an internal analysis and critique of the role of whiteness in the multiracial community. While claims launched against of the multiracial community of false consciousness or aspirations to whiteness were simple-minded and self-serving on the part of monoracial communities of color, the multiracial community failed to do its own necessary work.
Accordingly, the community found itself divided as the Census decision came about. At the heart was how the multiracial community related to monoracial communities in the struggle against racism. One portion supported the proposition that counting numbers mattered and concerns expressed by the NAACP in that specific regard, for instance, were valid. Another portion moved toward a radical form of colorblindness broadly supported by right wing political activists and sought to eliminate all racial data collection. On a personal note, some of the small number of white men in the multiracial community took prominent positions supporting this latter view. They were not alone, although I was not one of them.

Ultimately, these concerns led me away from organizing in the multiracial community, even as the community itself was losing coherence. Instead, I began to turn my attention to the larger struggle at hand, and together with my partner, we formed the Center for the Study of White American Culture in 1995.