Race matters - Volume #1 (maybe)

Bi-racialism or Multi-racialism: Perspectives of a White Man who has lived for 30 Years in a Filipino Family

[Warning: This blog entry is intended to be serious, unlike past posts where I was trying to be funny but probably wasn't. Also, it is kind of long.]

I wrote down these thoughts while listening to a National Public Radio episode of Talk of the Nation back in December called “Politics of Bi-racial.” This was shortly after the presidential election when every news outlet was trying to spin stories off of the historic election of President Barack Obama. The thing that got me upset was a White woman who asked rather indignantly: "Why doesn't Barack Obama call himself multi-racial? When he calls himself Black, he's denying that he is half White!" I framed my response as a listener comment email during a live broadcast, but I became so passionate about it that I couldn’t stop at a few lines. Unfortunately, the episode ended before I could get my brilliant ideas onto the airwaves. But Lauren has been asking me for some time why I haven't updated my blog. So, I thought I'd cheat a little and slide my email in here, with some editing.

If you don't know me, Sarah and I are a “mixed couple.” Sarah is 2nd generation Filipino-American and I am White, of unknown generation. When we got married, or truthfully some time before that, I gained two already-made children. (My White family would say they are stepchildren.) Then in the 1980s we had two more children - hapa, mestizo, bi-racial kids - and faced the question of how to talk to them about their racial identity. Today this may seem a little obvious, but this was a time when there was virtually no discussion of the issue and “mixed marriages” were still considered taboo by many. In fact, it was not all that distant from a time when it was illegal for Whites and Filipinos to marry.

“Mixed marriages” are more common today and, at least in metropolitan areas, are no longer considered taboo. Of course, “mixed marriages” go way back in American history to the first encounters between Whites and American Indians. But Sarah and I were pioneers of “mixed marriages” in the sense that we were on the front end of a growing wave of “mixed marriages." Not that there weren't multi-racial kids before then, but mixed-couples became ever-increasingly more common in California during the 1980s and 1990s. More importantly, we were pioneers because society gave us no clear or positive models for how to raise children of a “mixed marriage.” "Mixed children" were considered "unfortunate" by many. Oh, people would assure you that THEY aren't racists, but "don't you know that your children will have such a hard time in this world." Maybe that was more in the world I grew up. Maybe not so much in Sarah's world.

So we had to make it up as we went. We instinctively rejected the notion that race doesn’t matter. I believe that society will have achieved racial equality when our society stops asking why we have to talk about race, and starts talking about race as something to celebrate, not denied. At the same time, without any kind of model to help us frame the conversation, we had to find a way to talk to our children about their racial identity. Again instinctively, we told our children that they are not half of this or half of that, but they are all Filipino and all White. Our hearts told us that telling a child they are half or this or part of that says to the child that they are not a complete person. We rejected the historic societal understanding that their racial identity can or should be boiled down to fractional mathematics. To do so teaches a child that every moment of their lives they must be asking themselves: “In this situation, am I a Filipino or am I White? Or, in this context, do people see me as Filipino or White?” These are choices that no one should have to make, least of all a child who is just forming his or her identity. And don't fool yourselves into thinking that the little children can be protected from racism in our culture. Society does force these questions on multi-racial children from an early age.

Back then, I was asked by White people: “Why do you force your children to confront race? Can’t you just let them grow up first? You should let them have their time of innocence when they're still young. They will have plenty of time to face racism when they grow up!” No one actually said it that way exactly, but their expressions of disapproval of the way we talked to our children about race was more than evident. This kind of thinking is a corollary of the false theory that if we just stopped talking about race then racism will go away: "If we don’t talk to children about race then they will grow up without any racial prejudices and racism will be eradicated." I am certain that I don’t have to tell my friends of color how absurd this is. Unfortunately, our society forces children to face their racial identity in a negative way. I can tell you many stories about our kids facing and recognizing racism at a very early age. There was one time, when they were 3 and 4 years old that the man at an ice cream stand made our clean and neatly dressed kids put their money on the counter before he would scoop their ice cream, but didn’t do this with the scruffy looking White boy in front of them. We witnessed this, but it was our kids who told us that the man was racist. I don’t think that our society’s understanding of race has changed much since then.

Maybe one day scientists will be able to measure race genetically and assign the fractions of a person’s racial genetic material. Or maybe not. But even if they can do this, what would be the purpose? A person’s racial identity is not genetically inherited. Society’s understanding of race is a social construct, not a scientific one. Society’s understanding of race is inextricably connected with culture. Our racial and cultural understanding of ourselves is shaped by the culture of our family within the context of society’s understanding of race and culture. I know people whose ancestry is predominantly non-White, but they were raised in White families. Their family culture is White, but society sees them as non-White. Societal context may shape their racial and ethnic identity as much as their family. I can’t pretend to understand how this feels, but I imagine society may force them to struggle to connect with the culture of their ancestry. Should they be forced to make this choice? Shouldn’t they be allowed to freely claim all the ethnicities and cultures they associate with, or perhaps none if they so choose, without feeling like they have to make choices between part of one and part of another? Shouldn’t all people be allowed to continuously develop and expand their racial, ethnic and cultural understanding of themselves throughout their lives?

For all the talk about “multi-racialism” our society still views race in “black and white” terms. One drop of non-white blood makes you multi-racial and, therefore, not White, says our culture. It’s not really a question of skin color. A person can be very light skinned, but if their features are seen by society as non-White, then they are considered non-White. So we parents of “multi-racial” children and children of color are forced by society to attempt to “innoculate” our children against racism when they are very young. We also have to find ways of fortifying our children’s sense of their racial identity, because society will still try to tear it down. Not always intentionally, but when a child grows up seeing very few positive images of people who look like them on television, in movies, in magazines and even on the internet, society is sending them a very powerful message that they are not really part of that society. And regardless of economic or social status, separate is never equal.

My White family has asked me why we emphasize our children’s Filipino culture more than their White culture? The answer is that their White culture is re-enforced virtually every moment of every day simply because they grow up in a dominant White culture. We do not have to do anything and they will absorb White culture. On the other hand, we must be very intentional about how we talk about their racial identity to re-enforce their Filipino culture. Inoculation and fortification. Perhaps this is a little sad, but until we live in a society free of the disease of racism, we have no choice.

So when I hear people ask why President Obama doesn’t call himself multi-racial, I have to ask: Why should he? Science has proven that we are all genetically mixed to one degree or other. So the whole concept of “multi racialism” is meaningless. His identity is defined by the family and culture in which he grew up. If you want to understand his identity, read his books and listen to his speeches. He has been very clear and honest about his search for his identity as a child and as a young man. His discussion of race is very nuanced. The fact that his understanding of race and his own identity has moved way beyond the last generation’s is one reason why many people see him as hope for a better society. The media has called it “post-racial,” but that term implies that President Obama is beyond talking about race which, if you’ve been listening to him, is clearly not true. My thoughts rebelled when I first heard that term applied to President Obama. I believe that “post-racial” is another example of the White-dominated media reflecting White society’s wish that we should “just stop talking about race and get past it.”

We need to keep talking about race and ethnicity, but we need to develop a new language. One that allows people to forge their own identity. One that never forces people to choose between one race, ethnicity or culture and another. One that acknowledges that these things come from our individual family and cultural roots, not our genetic material. One that celebrates diversity but allows people to choose to be of one culture or of many. One that allows all people to be whole people not fractional people.

Instead of pigeon-holing those who society sees as “multi-racial,” perhaps we should label people like me as “mono-cultural” and speak of everybody else as the norm.


Lauren said…
daddy, i heard that npr segment too (or another one) and was similarly outraged at the white mother who had biracial children and was offended that obama identified as 'black' because she saw it as denying his mother (i guess she needed some affirmation herself). anyway, good post. you're brilliant!
Sarah said…
You are such a great writer and I agree with your daughter you are brilliant!! Our family is so blessed to have such an articulate and wise man.
Amy Gibbs said…
Joel, very well said and I learned a lot. I understand why you and Sarah reinforce and inoculate your kids against racism by making sure they are proud of the part of their heritage that is Filipino. I wonder if you want your kids to learn your heritage from a "dominant White culture" which is, by any measure, pretty ignorant, racist, judgemental and homophobic.
Personally, I hate the term "white" anyway. It's generic and nondescriptive. Anglo, whatever, anything's better than "white". Yecch.
Your Northern European...um, Anglo....um whatever sister,
Miss Merissa said…
I definitely agree with Auntie Sarah.
I am very blessed to have you in my life.

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