Multiracial Families: Counted But Still Misunderstood

By Guest Contributor Jen Chau, cross-posted from The Time Is Always Right …

In the past couple of years, I have noticed a certain complacency that I never noticed before, in my eleven years of leading Swirl. The same passion and the same excitement around building multiracial communities had faded a bit. In the one year leading up to the Presidential election, we launched five new chapters (the norm had been a chapter every year or every other year). People were excited by the energy created by Obama’s campaign, and they were motivated and eager to be a part of creating supportive and inclusive multiracial communities.

And then once Obama was firmly placed in the White House, something happened. It got quiet.

My theory was that it was all related to the claims that we were now in some sort of post-racial wonderland. I think it very much had to do with the fact that Obama is of multiracial heritage. This fact resulted in a sort of sitting back. A sentiment that sounded like, “we’re good now.” The idea that Obama understood so many of us, and that he cared about diversity was something that gave people a reason to relax. Take a breath. Stop pushing so hard. I understood this and even felt a bit of it myself. The other reality is that in an individual’s development, one may feel a strong desire to connect to community at one point and not at another. Swirl has always understood and been supportive of this.

Organizations, academics, student leaders still continued their work, but it was clear that a lot of people – our members, our “audience” – were….gone. I heard the same from other groups – that membership started to lull. Student campus groups folded. It seemed that people didn’t need our mixed groups in the same way they had, previously. Before Obama. Before “check all that apply” on the U.S. Census.

But had things changed all that much? Yes, we are counted now. We know the numbers of multiracial people and interracial couples in this country. But do people start understanding one another and become supportive overnight just because we have a tally? Do things feel different for a multiracial person or a mixed family on a day to day basis?

Yes and no. I have heard from many people that things are better. That they are not questioned nearly as much. That people no longer stare in awe as they talk about the fact that their mom is black and dad is white. That they feel comfortable being all of who they are, at all times. It always makes me happy to hear that this is what people are experiencing. It means that progress is being made.

But others still experience the awkward questions. The demand by strangers to “prove” they are one thing or the other. Moms being asked how long they’ve been babysitting their own children. Stares, rude comments, family tensions and sometimes divisions. This is all still real and still happening.

And your experience, in part, is impacted by your context. Your circle, your larger environment. Where you live. In pockets, multiracial people and families are supported, recognized, understood. In others, far from it.

There are many ways that we have to fight racism and ignorance. It’s absolutely critical that things happen on the institutional level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the corresponding changes automatically happen at the cultural or individual level. And vice versa. Just because a change occurs on one level doesn’t mean that the others follow neatly in line. We have the ability to “check all that apply” on the Census (which is huge), but that doesn’t mean that individuals immediately understand the complexity of multirace. Things don’t change overnight. We know this logically, but it seems that we sometimes want to pretend it isn’t the case (see “post-race”). I want to live in bliss too, believe me. But a real one, that we work hard to create for ourselves…not a superficial one that we wish into being.

This piece was prompted by a New York Times article on a mixed family. I hope that their story (and others) help to illustrate all that still needs to be understood.

  • little mixed girl

    i feel like there was some activism before, but i never felt like the multicultural movement (can i call it that?) was all that strong. the big websites and organizations seemed aimed at creating a very broad multiracial identity that didn’t totally resonate with multiracial people. or at least it didn’t seem to resonate with me…

    there is (was?) a multiracial club at my university, and membership was “meh”. everyone wanted different things. the common complaint was “mixed people have no history” or “what’s the point?”.
    rather than looking to form an identify as someone multiracial, a lot of people seemed more interested in trying to find someone with the same racial make-up (black/white, asian/white, asian/black, etc) to chat with for a bit. many were more involved in and dedicated to monoracial minority associations.

    what’s our rally cry? i want to be able to check “multiracial” on a form without having to specify race. i want “multiracial” to be seen as a “real” racial identification. but, maybe those families that started clubs were really just looking for some other multiracial families to befriend.

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  • k.eli

    “But others still experience the awkward questions.”

    Yep, that’s pretty much my story. I myself am of mixed backround (black / mestiza Puerto Rican) and I’ve been asked the “What are you?” question for most of my life, even after the election of Mr. Obama. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of multiracial/multiethnic families is still a novel concept to most. I’ll never forget the one time where a close friend of mine outright told me that I was lying when I told her that the beige-skinned woman I was waving at was my cousin. Ever since then, I’ve always made sure to proudly mention both my black heritage and my Puerto Rican heritage whenever I’ve been asked the ethnicity question because I hope it will continue to challenge people’s perceptions of what families (and family members) are supposed to look like.

    • Morenaclara

      me t0o!!! I’m Mexican-American and  if you look at my family we come in all types of  colors.  So don’t be shocked when you see my family.  I get questions from ” what are you?” to”  THAT’S your sister???”!!!!!”  It can be upsetting to see how people can be so closed minded/

  • Anonymous

    Love that family pic. The girls adore their Daddy.