When You're Mixed Race, Just One Box Is Not Enough
NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition. You can find hundreds of six-word submissions and submit your own at www.theracecardproject.com.
Since The Race Card Project is about identity, it's not surprising that many submissions deal with the question of how people choose to identify themselves. That can be more complicated for those who have two parents who do not share the same race — especially when asked to choose a particular box for race or ethnicity on an application or government form.
George Washington III is familiar with this quandary. An African-American voice-over artist, Washington has been married twice, both times to women who are white. When he heard about The Race Card Project, his thoughts went immediately to his children. His six words: "My mixed kids have it differently."
Since Washington is black, he assumed the world would also see his olive-skinned children as black. But during a routine trip to the doctor's office in Charlotte, N.C., he realized his son Jordan, 18, had his own ideas about identity.
"It was an 'aha' and an awareness moment for me," Washington says. "[My kids] know that they don't exactly fit into the, 'They are black, they are white' ... way of thinking."
An Inner Struggle Over 'One Box'
In 2000, the U.S. Census began allowing people of mixed race to choose more than one box to describe their racial makeup.
Dave Kung of St. Mary's City, Md., was grateful for that policy change, and his submission to The Race Card Project explains why: "No one box is correct."
Dave, a math professor, struggled for years over what box to check on government forms and applications. His father is Chinese. His mother is white. Picking just one box on a form, Dave says, meant choosing one race over another — and that meant denying part of his ancestry. But checking "other" as an alternative choice was also unsatisfying, he says.
"Sometimes when I was applying for colleges I was just annoyed at whoever was asking me. I was sort of picturing some bureaucrat forcing me to check a box," Dave says. "And sometimes I would just check both boxes and force them to deal with it."
Kung was in his late 20s when his 2000 Census form arrived. He already knew, before opening it, that the form would offer him a chance to check more than one "race" box.
Even so, he wasn't prepared for "how emotional that experience was," Dave says. "When I filled out my census card and was finally allowed to — correctly — check more than one box, I cried."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have another installment this morning of the Race Card Project. NPR's Michele Norris invites people to send in six-word stories about race. People take a complicated, controversial subject, and boil down to six words what it means for them. They write those words on a card or a tweet or an email - words like these from a man in Charlotte, N.C.
GEORGE WASHINGTON III: My name is George Washington III, and my six words are: My mixed kids have it differently.
INSKEEP: My mixed kids have it differently. Michele Norris is with us to help pull out the meaning behind those words. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. You get thousands of submissions, I know. In fact, you got thousands more after the first installment of this series, a few weeks ago. What makes this particular submission leap out of the pile for you?
NORRIS: Well, I get a lot of submissions around a dilemma involving the exercise of checking a box to determine your racial identity. And I was looking at a lot of those submissions, and George's submission really stood out for me. I went back, and I was calling people to find out why this was such a dilemma for them.
INSKEEP: And so we're talking about the act of checking that you are white, that you are black, that you're Native American - whatever the box says; and that's become a more and more complicated act as the years have gone on. So, who is George Washington III, who faced this dilemma?
NORRIS: Let's let him tell us a little bit about his brood.
WASHINGTON: Well, I have a blended family, and it's quite large these days. I have an 18-year-old son, a 14-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old stepson, a 12-year-old daughter, a 10-year-old stepson and a 16-month-old daughter.
INSKEEP: OK, blended family. In this case, that means...
NORRIS: Well, this is a yours, mine and ours situation. George Washington is African-American. He's been married twice - both times to white women. In his current marriage, he brought children to the marriage who are mixed race. She had two children, two sons. They're white. And together, they now have a mixed-race daughter. And his experience of raising biracial children is what prompted him to send in those six words: My mixed kids have it differently.
WASHINGTON: I knew that my children's experience would be very different from my own, as I am African-American and they are of a mixed heritage; and that they would experience race, and people talking about them and how they are perceived, very differently than I did when I was growing up.
INSKEEP: Differently in what way, Michele?
NORRIS: Well, some of that comes down to assumptions. And he says that because he's black and his kids are part-black, the thinking was that America would sort of automatically put them in the black category, much in the same way that we, as a nation, now have a president who's mixed race. And yet President Obama will be remembered in history books as America's first black president. And George Washington III explains that this is just sort of a cultural norm for his generation.
WASHINGTON: My parents, you know, kind of expressed to me in our dealings, you know, you are black; you're African-American. And we think and believe that your children are as well. And maybe not explicitly saying in those words, but that's kind of what we were thought to be. And when the kids come along, they have a different interpretation.
INSKEEP: You know, this was a cultural norm in most of the United States, and even a legal norm in much of the United States, for decades and decades. If you had any black blood, you were black. That was a legal definition, in some states. But clearly, things are changing now.
NORRIS: Yeah. We are comfortable thinking back to - you know, the one-drop rule. But things are changing. Cultural norms are changing, and society is changing, in terms of demographics. I mean, right now, the fastest-growing cohort among youth are mixed-race kids. That category has increased by 50 percent since 2000. And the questions around identity, you know, for those kids are really changing very quickly, and the notion of what box they will check on the forms that we were talking about. And George had an experience that really goes to the heart of this. He tells a wonderful story about a recent visit to the doctor's office with his 18-year-old son, Jordan.
WASHINGTON: I had taken him to the eye doctor, and we were filling out the forms. And I checked African-American. And he was standing kind of behind me and to my right. And I didn't notice; he didn't say anything. But when we got in the car afterwards, he - that was the first thing he wanted to talk about.
NORRIS: You know, I so appreciate you sharing this story with us, but I'm wondering if you're willing to put us in the car with you - if you could describe in detail what happened when you got in the car.
WASHINGTON: Well, we sat down, you - started the engine, started to go. Our eye doctor is - what, five minutes from the house. And he said, well, Dad, it's not a big deal, but I don't always just check black when I use those - when I do those kind of forms. And the feeling came over me like, oh, I should have thought of that; I should have realized that. He didn't make a big deal out of it. It wasn't something that we were going to have an argument over. He just wanted it known that he considers himself more than just one race - which he is.
INSKEEP: So that's George Washington III. He spoke with our own Michele Norris for the Race Card project. And Michele, such a small thing, what box to check on a form; such large issues raised. What did George Washington III do about it?
NORRIS: Well, there are a lot of big issues around this. You know, some cases, you get to check more than one box. In other cases, you have to just check one box. And he thinks about whether he should approach the people who create these forms and ask them to think about it. And he said he decided to focus on sort of the things that he could control. He can't determine how they comprise these forms that he and his family members have to fill out. But he took control of the situation that was closest to him. And he actually went back to the eye doctor's office and asked for the medical form, so he could go back and correct the record and honor his son. And his son is now identified as biracial, as being more than one race.
INSKEEP: Let's remember that this is one story, one set of six words from one person. But you've received thousands, including many others, on this topic. And you're sharing another one with us at npr.org.
NORRIS: If you visit the Web, you'll hear and see the story of David Kung. He is mixed-race also. He's white and Asian. And for years, he confronted forms where he was asked to choose just one box. It was before the norm started to change in the way that these forms are comprised. And that marking of the box carries a lot of weight because you have to decide if you're accepting one line of ancestry or denying the other. And he explained to his own son the difficulty of having to make that decision. His stepson is white, and didn't really understand why it was so hard. And he told him this.
DAVID KUNG: If you were told to choose just one - do you love your mother or your father? - what would you say? And he said, that's just absurd; nobody would ever ask me that. And I said, every time they said check one, that's what they were asking me. That's what it felt like to have to check one of those boxes; either I was choosing my mother or my father, and I was not allowed to choose both.
NORRIS: Dave Kung said that when he received the 2000 census and for the first time was able to check more than one box, he was in his apartment; he sat down on his couch, and he cried.
INSKEEP: And you can hear more of his story at npr.org. NPR's Michele Norris is curator of the Race Card Project. Michele, thanks for coming by.
NORRIS: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Talk to you again soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.