Monday, January 31, 2011

Mixed Race America

A few years ago I did some internet research for an essay about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings that I never got around to writing. Typing "Sally Hemmings" into the search box took me to a whole world of blogs, web sites, and discussion groups for Americans who consider themselves "mixed race." What struck me was not that such people exist, which is pretty obvious, but the depth of their attachment to a mixed identity. They spoke of mixed-race people as "we," and some of them seemed to feel that mixed-race people ought to have a position on the Jefferson-Hemmings question-- what should we be saying about this? What does this mean for us?

The New York times has a feature article by Susan Saulny on mixed-race America that has become the "most e-mailed" story on the site, which is another sign of how much interest mixed-race Americans have in their identities. This article is full of statistics, all of which point toward a huge growth in the number of mixed-race Americans; according to the Pew Center, 1 in 7 American marriages is between people of different ethnicities, and most of the children of those marriages are likely to consider themselves mixed rather than settling into one or the other identity.

The people who spend too much time thinking about issues like this -- e.g., the ones who went to court to try to stop the census bureau from allowing people to check more than one race on the form-- are wondering what this will mean for America; will it help us get "beyond race" and stop obsessing about racial categories, or will it lead (as it long did in Brazil) to the stigmatizing of the purely black as the lowest of the low? I think these speculations take the matter too seriously. Boundaries between American racial and ethnic groups have been growing fuzzier and less important for decades -- which is why we now have so many mixed-race marriages. I doubt racial feelings in America will be changed much, one way or the other, but the rise of a "mixed race" identity. If it helps young people feel like they have a place where they really belong, great. It won't end our racial problems any time soon, but I can't see what harm it is doing, either.

No comments: