Stunted identity

By

T’es Quoi? ¨Qu eres t£?

What are you?

This question is the basis of the mixed-race collective.

I’ve been asked this question from people of all over the world, in more than just these three languages. At the most basic level, people are all asking the same thing: how should I categorize you?

I’ve never met anyone who was eager to condense his or her entire identity into a single word. This task becomes increasingly difficult amid multiple pressures in life that constantly encourage you to choose different identities.

Until 2000, the federal government required people of mixed race to “check one box” on forms.

In 1997, the federal government passed a bill that required that any federal organization that collects racial statistics offer the option of checking more than one box.

In 2000 for the first time, people of mixed race were able to “check all that apply” on the census.

When this bill was first announced, the mixed community was thrilled. However, this gift seemed largely to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Mono-racial minority rights advocates were generally against this advancement; checking more than one box would mean that they would lose some of their members to mixed race advocacy groups.

On the 2000 census, my parents checked Indian American, African American/Black, and White/Caucasian for me. Under the new regulations for the racial reporting of mixed race people, the first step of my re-categorization is to remove my whiteness all together (surely a legacy of the one-drop rule). Then, for the most part, I’m not seen as being a person of mixed race, but rather as a black person or as an American-Indian person, whichever classification benefits any organization interested in my data.

Confusing, superfluous, and deceitful, right? Many mixed race people were eager to be able to finally acknowledge the way that they actually saw themselves, but the government was just eager to re-categorize them. Additionally, they were never informed that this was the way that they were being looked at.

Considering that the right to check two boxes plays such a large role in boosting self-esteem, it’s ironic that the newest mixed-race rights struggle involves the people most in need of that boost. In accord with the census’ pseudo-acknowledgement of mixed-race people, the US Department of Education was supposed to make similar changes.

Right now, No Child Left Behind forces student test-takers to “choose one race,” starting the whole cycle of alienation, and feeling “different” all over again in a new generation.

The Association of MultiEthnic Americans, The Mavin Foundation, and The Level Playing Institute are currently working on encouraging the Department of Education to release guidelines for how schools should report mixed-race students. The 1997 bill required that these guidelines be distributed by January of 2003, and they have yet to be taken seriously. Their campaign would directly affect institutions of higher education, but would also be to the benefit of younger students, as it would create pressure for No Child Left Behind to adhere to a more modern categorization method.

As of the 2004-2005 college-application year, there were only nine schools, colleges and universities that reported their mixed race students. According to the guidelines released in 1997, that’s only three percent. Macalester was not among the few.

The struggle for mixed rights is persistent, and isn’t going to be solved through any single victory. And despite the situation with the government’s dubious relationship with the cause, most of the struggle will be resolved on step-by-step basis.

Before asking a racially ambiguous person what they are, consider in what other situations you might ask what something is. Would you ask an owner of an adorable dog what the dog is? In a quick survey, my floormates generally concluded that that wouldn’t be sufficient for explaining the question; they generally would ask what breed the dog was.

My answer to the question “what are you?” has been the same since I was about eight years old: Human.

This spring, Macalester and bridges are hosting the National Student Conference on the Mixed Race Experience. If you are interested in issues of relating to the conference, this article, or the mixed race experience, email [email protected]

Contact Danielle Sigwalt ’08 at

[email protected]