The New York Times recently published a story highlighting the increase in numbers of multiracial children in the United States. The numbers of self identifying multiracial children has doubled in the United States to 2.9% of the entire population. With this data, coupled with a 2007 Pew Research Center report that interracial marriages represented 14% of all new marriages (up from 7% in 2000), we could begin to surmise an end to problematic racial distinctions and a truly new America, right?
Taken together these numbers indicate a movement towards greater acceptance of interracial/interethnic relationships as well as a greater freedom for multiracial children to claim this mixture as part of their identity. And perhaps this is the most significant aspect of these figures. While the idea of numbers doubling seems extraordinary, multiracial children still constitute only 2.9% of all children which means more often than not sexual desire and marriage is oriented towards similarity and homogeneity (it is also important to note how even mixed marriages follow patterns of desire away from African American women who marry outside of their race in the smallest numbers.)
In the midst of these numbers we must remember that multiracial identity is not confined to checking boxes. Interactions with friends, dating, interactions with co-workers do not begin with our self-assertions, but with a complicated set of markers and interpretations that the multiracial person is not entirely in control of.
The space to claim one’s “multi”ness is important, it is certainly important for myself and my children. At the same time, the existence of multiracial children does not diminish the realities of racial exclusion and economic oppression that are not only present, but becoming more vehement and stark in the wake of our first African American president. To put it a different way, we are not the future of America. Like all other people who are raised in a deeply racialized world, we are formed to resist certain notions of beauty, embrace or recoil from certain people.
At the same time, we are also uniquely subjected to stereotypes, prejudice and exclusion from multiple spaces often making it difficult to find a space or a home in communities where race or ethnicity is such a powerful, if implicit marker of belonging.
Multiracial children provide us an opportunity to see both the possibilities of becoming new people but also the contours of racial thinking and life. But even more than this, our stories and lives hopefully illumine how race works in subtle and deceptive ways. Multiracial children are not an indication of how far we have come but perhaps a reminder of how far we have left to go.
Recent trends towards the implicit re-segregation of schools, moves against ethnic studies programs, the perpetual segregation of cities all suggest that multiracial and multiethnic bodies are hardly what this country desires. In many ways the hard truth is the numbers of interracial marriages and multiracial/multiethnic children is growing despite America’s vehement or implicit resistance.
If we wish to celebrate the growth of multiracial children let us not pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, but begin to rage against the systemic realities that prevent these numbers from growing: mass incarceration of African American men, tragic inequities between white and black in access to education, anti-immigration legislation, perpetual wars that limit our economic options, images of beauty and health that implicitly deride dark bodies and work against white bodies, the perpetual differentiation, bullying and teasing that plants these seeds of difference in elementary age children.
You might suggest that this is just a list of social difficulties that has little to with multiracial children. But within all of these are implicit desires and hopes, we desire “safety” before education, for instance. Until we begin to imagine life with one another, the multiracial child will be a statistical anomaly, an accident of a few couples odd transgression to love someone who does not look like them.
But even here we multiracial folks are not immune to the realities and phobias of race. While we check multiple boxes, our lives often indicate a choice for one or the other. We are not the future of America. We too must open ourselves up to the possibility of becoming something new, of embracing difficult options and by all means we must resist claiming “multi” as a new race. What I mean here is that if we are not attentive to the patterns of desire and fear that perpetuate the 85% of marriages being homogenous, we will simply try to suggest multiracial children have a unique beauty, insight, or genetic disposition that is superior to others, that there is a social imperative to intermixture.
But this is where I am wary of the celebration of the mixed child. We are not a “new” race. We are people who are connected to by a common language, geography, or even experience. We are held together by what we are not. In this way we are still tragic because our identity as “inter” resides in the assertion that there is something pure on either side of us. Until we become aware of this delusion, of the may ways our desires and hopes and fears are modulations of who we believe we are and are not, the mixed race child will still be an anomaly, but even worse we will ignore the patterns of injustice that persist in our nation and in our world.
Multiracial children are not the answer, but perhaps they can begin to help us see the problems we face more clearly.