July 14, 1996 in Nation/World

The Multiracial Movement People Of Diverse Racial Ancestry Push For Their Own Category - And Meet Some Opposition

Putsata Reang Staff writer

At age 9, Spokane’s Vickie Countryman poured Comet on her arms and tried to scrub the color off her skin. Instead, she chafed it and caused a rash.

She also soaked her hair in bleach and peroxide, trying to make it blond. It turned a rusty red. Parts of it crusted and broke off.

During much of her childhood, Countryman struggled with the person who blinked back at her in the mirror. What she saw didn’t match what people called her. Hawaiian. Samoan. Latino.

Now 34, she looks back and can still feel some of the hurt of trying to fit in.

“I tried everything I could to be white,” Countryman said.

Countryman is part of a burgeoning biracial and multiracial America that’s forcing people to rethink how they define themselves.

That growing awareness now has racial advocacy groups clashing with multiracial people and supporters over an issue that could draw new race lines.

At the core of the debate is whether to add a new multiracial category to the next census for the year 2000 - a controversy rife with political undertones, and involving millions of dollars Uncle Sam sets aside for disadvantaged groups.

On the one hand, proponents of the new category - mostly multiracial people and their families - say they want to be recognized as a viable group rather than having to choose one race over the other(s), or opting for the “other” box.

But foes fear that adding a mixed-race box will dilute numbers in racial communities, taking away federal dollars for minority-based programs.

What’s more, opponents fear the new category would negatively impact the way civil rights and affirmative action policies are implemented. For example, if a company’s affirmative action goal is to hire five African Americans, but they all check a multiracial box on an application form, there would be no way of counting them to reach that goal.

A mixed-race America has quickly vaulted into a hot political debate as grass-roots efforts keep pressuring the government to add the new category to federal forms.

Currently, people can pick from four main racial categories (Asian, American Indian, black and white), two ethnic boxes (non-Hispanic and Hispanic) or “other.”

On July 20, thousands of multiracial people and supporters are expected to rally in Washington, D.C., to support the new category.

The current multiracial movement started with parents who wanted to see a “multiracial” box on school forms. The group formed the San Francisco-based Interracial Intercultural Pride, Inc., in 1978.

The federal government’s Office of Management and Budget - which decides what racial categories appear on the census - recently ended hearings on the issue. The office plans to make a decision by 1997.

Other agencies, like the Governor’s Affirmative Action Policy Committee in Olympia, are holding their own hearings.

The governor’s group will hold six meetings around the state from July to August. This month, it comes to Spokane.

Susan Graham, director and founder of Atlanta-based Project RACE, says biracial and multiracial people need the same rights as everyone else. “To ask a child to pick one race is asking them to deny another one of their parents,” she said.

Graham began advocating for a mixed-race category in 1990. On several occasions, health or school officials pitted her children’s white race against their black race when they made them choose which race to mark, she said.

“We’re not saying that everyone who is biracial or multiracial needs to classify themselves that way,” Graham said. “It’s giving them a choice.”

So far, seven states have legislation that allow a “multiracial” listing on government forms. Washington is not one of them.

As the federal government tries to find a solution to the census question, Countryman and other multiracial people are mired in daily issues of their own.

One challenging dilemma multiracial people face is how to find their way out of a racial twilight zone, where they are volleyed from one community to the other.

Multiracial people sometimes have a hard time trying to convince people of their mixed blood when they’re asked: “What are you?” Countryman would like to answer simply by saying, “human.”

Instead, she often takes time to explain her mother is Japanese and her father is Caucasian.

For Countryman, learning how to live with both cultures was painful at times. Schoolmates teased her, calling her names. As a child, she felt compelled to choose mom over dad; Asian over American.

That’s why she tried to be just one race.

When she realized the Comet and bleach wouldn’t turn her white, she tried to be more Japanese.

That involved wearing kimonos, bringing ethnic foods to school, and taping her eyelids to “look Japanese.”

But Countryman, a diversity trainer with American Express Financial Advisors, realized no matter what she did, she could never escape her Japanese-American-German-French-Irishness.

That’s why she’d like to see a multiracial box in the next census for the year 2000 - so people like her won’t have to choose.

Not having a box that identifies multiracial people, “makes us invisible,” Countryman said.

Mixed politics

The movement’s biggest obstacles are civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza which argue that adding a multiracial box could sap numbers used to analyze discrimination in housing, education, and jobs, which require rigid racial boundaries.

Census experts say at least 75 percent of all American blacks are multiracial, but most identify themselves as black.

Advocacy groups fear that many blacks will check the multiracial box, draining numbers in the African American community. That drain would also hit dollars directed at federal programs for blacks.

They say the new category could also affect race-based federal set-asides.

“There is a fear that we will lose a lot of people who are confused and identify themselves as multiracial,” said Eric Rodriguez, policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza.

Rodriguez said the Hispanic community already is losing strength as many in that community check the box “other.”

More than 10 million people checked the “other” category when it appeared on a trial basis on the latest census in 1990. Most of them were Hispanic, census experts say.

“I’m sure federal funding will be adjusted, and that’s our biggest concern,” Rodriguez said. “It would very, very difficult to advocate for particular groups if you cannot identify the groups.”

A multicultural conundrum

Americans are increasingly coming in all shades as the number of interracial marriages climb.

From magazines and web sites to support groups and pop songs, multiracial America is pushing into mainstream America.

Nearly 30 years after the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited interracial marriage in some states, the number of those marriages has doubled each decade.

Currently, there are more than one million interracial couples - a number that’s expected to keep growing.

In 1993, 4.1 percent of births were to parents of different races, up from 1.5 percent in 1973, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The trends are evident in Washington state, where 4 percent of the nation’s mixed race couples reside, according to the Census.

As racial lines blur, so, too, do identities.

Leon Strayer gets tired of people assuming what race he is. “A lot of people just assumed I was Filipino, Hawaiian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian,” the 23-year-old said.

Strayer, who recently graduated from Washington State University in elementary education and psychology, is half African American and half Vietnamese. He was adopted by Caucasian parents.

“A lot of people are a bunch of everything,” he said.

Being multiracial can also be a blessing.

Raphael Guillory, WSU’s multicultural recruitment coordinator for African Americans, says he’s glad he’s more than one race Guillory, who is Native American, African American and Hispanic, grew up on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation with a black father and an Indian mother. He was often reminded of a third race when his parents talked about his Mexican American grandfather.

“I feel that I have the ability to cross the lines,” said Guillory, 25, who has an Native American wife.

He said he feels just as comfortable in the African American community as he does in Native American and Hispanic communities.

“I just knew that I was different when I was younger,” Guillory said. “As I grew older and became more self-aware, I began to embrace these cultures of mine.”

But the government inevitably forces Guillory, too, to decide what race he is.

When he applied for admission at Walla Walla Community College, he remembers marking all three races. People normally check one box, the admissions clerk told him.

“But I’m all three,” he said.

The pair went back and forth until the woman finally gave in and left the application as is.

“For me to check one box is for me to deny these other races,” Guillory said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT The Governor’s Affirmative Action Policy Committee is holding a public hearing July 25 to determine whether to add a “multiracial” box to the next Census for the year 2000. The meeting is from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Spokane Public Library, W. 906 Main, room 1A. For information, contact Robbi Ferron at (360) 586-5344.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT The Governor’s Affirmative Action Policy Committee is holding a public hearing July 25 to determine whether to add a “multiracial” box to the next Census for the year 2000. The meeting is from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Spokane Public Library, W. 906 Main, room 1A. For information, contact Robbi Ferron at (360) 586-5344.

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