Students searching for heritage have many options

by Janet Singleton

College Press Service

University of Colorado senior Tenica McGowan has long, brown hair and olive skin. People assume she's white. And she is, but she's also black.

McGowan is one of a burgeoning pool of biracial students challenging racial boundaries on campuses across America.

McGowan is director of cultural events for CU's MASALA. Named after an East Indian word meaning spicy mix, the organization is a common ground for the school's students of mixed racial heritage.

The group's 30 members possess backgrounds of varied mixtures: Caucasian and African-American, Asian and Caucasian; African-American and Asian, etc.

Mixed does not mean mixed up, said member Greg Duane. "Our members tend to identify with both their parents' races. They resent being forced to choose."

MASALA is among a large cluster of multiracial student organizations sprouting up across the nation. They function as support groups, research tanks and political activist alliances.

At Brown University, there is BOMBS, or Brown Organization of Multiracial and Biracial Students.

The University of California at Berkeley has MISC, or Multiracial Students. At UC-Santa Barbara, biracial students have formed Variations.

PRISM was created for Harvard's biracial population, and Students of Mixed Heritage (SOMH) was founded at Williams College.

More biracial students have hit campuses in the last several years, and research and information-gathering about biracialism is surging, says Michelle Travino, a minority center counselor at CU-Boulder.

"There's been an explosion," she adds.

Why now?

Experts cite an increase in the number of Americans born to parents of different races in the last two decades, yet no one can claim a firm grip on what the numbers are.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists no "biracial" category on its surveys. Except in rare cases, applications and information forms passed out by colleges and public schools fail to recognize dual racial heritage, as well.

"Check one" just won't do anymore for some.

"More and more biracial people don't want to choose one race over the other," McGowan said.

"Mixed heritage is a term that's widely used on campus," says Anim Steel, co-founder of the Williams College multi-racial organization.

Gabe Grosz, editor of Interrace Magazine, has researched the biracial phenomenon for six years and come up with a jumble of figures.

According to his sources, biracial Americans number anywhere from 500,000 to 5 million. He cites Population Reference Bureau statistics indicating births of biracial children grew 26 times faster than the rates of other births since 1968.

Candy Mills, Grosz's colleague, editor of the sister publication The Biracial Child, is cautious about citing numbers. "At one time there was no reporting of biracial or multiracial anything. When you start reporting something, you get a perceived increase of it that's more dramatic."

Today's big population of biracial youth can be traced to a sharp rise in mixed marriages in the 1970s, Grosz said. According to the Census Bureau, 310,000 interracial marriages took place in 1970; 1.2 million exist today. About 25 percent of those are between blacks and whites.

The children who resulted from those unions are pouring into college campuses in the 1990s. Duane, a 43-year-old grad student at the University of Colorado and member of MASALA, said when he was an undergraduate student at MIT, 20 years ago, racially mixed students were unusual.

"There are more of us now, and it's considered less weird," he says.

Still, Grosz said he feels the number of children from biracial parents often is underestimated. "Not all of these kids are counted."

Even his own two children were not recognized as biracial when they were born, he said. Grosz, who is married to a black woman, eschews labels. "When I fill out school forms for them, I leave the race section blank."

Sometime during the semester, school administrators will go and check black or white. "And then I'll have to argue with them."

Boxes don't neatly apply to multiracial Americans. So why can't people like Grosz have "multiracial" boxes added to surveys so their families can take pride in their heritage?

Biracial activists argue the ways in which the races are officially categorized need to be changed., but others say adding a multiracial category would muddy discrimination issues and dilute the political clout of minority groups.

"The whole concept of blackness needs to be more flexible and inclusive," says Reginald Daniel, a sociology instructor at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Daniel, 47, considers himself multiracial, though both his parents are technically black.

"When I was in the first grade," he recalls, "I knew to get my own skin tone, I had to mix brown and white."

Daniel's skin tone is a light tan. He asked his mother about this, and she said, "Even though we're only part Negro, we're all Negro." Two of his grandparents were biracial.

Today, defining who's who racially in the United States remains a complicated matter. "It's very tricky," Grosz asserts.

The idea that "one drop" of black blood colors a person is completely a carryover from the slave era, Mills says. Anyone with a known black ancestor "is booted from the white category."

"If you're part black, you're all black is a racist rule," says Ari Rosner, a member of UC-Santa Barbara's Variations. "Probably 20 percent of black Americans are multiracial and have some European or Native American background."

Rosner, a grad student at UCSB, wrote his senior thesis on biracialism when he was at University of Massachusetts-Amherst as an undergraduate student.

"We live in an `either or' world," Daniel said. "Some people say how can you embrace the identity of your enemy? What they're hearing is not that you want to be multiracial, just that you want to run away from your blackness."

Mills claims tradition perpetuates racist power divisions. "Black people have helped to perpetuate the `one drop' stereotype. Because we believe numbers translate into power, and the more number you have the more power you have."

It is true some black activists object to designating part of the population as biracial, fearing it will siphon numbers from the African American community.

William Strickland, a visiting lecturer in Afro-American Studies at the UM-Amherst, argues that African Americans will pay a political price if splintered into multiracial categories.

"It's understandable that people want to honor both parents," explained Strickland in a recent issue of Emerge magazine. "But politically, it is deleterious. Even though we may see ourselves in a certain way, the system doesn't."

Biracial students say they are commonly asked, "What are you. What are you?"

"Research shows they may identify themselves differently in different situations," Rosner said.

"Biracial students will often check "black" for financial aid purposes," Grosz said.

Williams College became one of a few in the nation to offer a "biracial" category on admissions forms. The campus group Students of Mixed Racial Heritage had lobbied for the change.

Co-founded by Anim Steel, the group was launched in 1991 and includes up to 70 participants.

"There were a lot of biracial students on campus but no dialogue. It was kind of odd to be around people of similar backgrounds, and no one was saying anything about it," Steel said.

Steel's parents met in the late 60s in Africa. His father, a white American economist, was doing research at the University of Ghana when he met a Ghanaian student who would become his wife.

On most of the forms that have come Rosner's way he checks the "black" box, he said.

Many biracial students make a choice to identify with one group or another on campus by their sophomore year, Rosner said. "Consciously or unconsciously.

"There are things that push or pull you away from or toward different identities. Do you move into the black cultural hall? Do you sit at the black table in the cafeteria?"

Members of campus biracial groups say they want to thrive in both worlds. "I need to express all the parts of myself to be whole," McGowan said. "I don't want to get excluded from the black side of myself because people label me as white or vice versa."

Daniel said attempts to galvanize a biracial presence at UCLA were met with hostility by some black and Latino groups. "These groups are very restricted. They have clearly delineated boundaries."

Not so, said Rodney Graham, program director of the UCLA African Student Union. Currently, no biracial group exists at UCLA, but Graham said he wouldn't object to one.

"We support all members of our constituency," Graham said. "Our members are our members, and their heritage is either heritage. The idea of being black and proud does not dictate that you must be black and black only."

Despite growing awareness of biracialism, people still get treated according to the way they look, Mills said.

Others concur.

McGowan doesn't look black, grew up in a white environment in Boulder, Colo., and said she has never experienced racism.

Rosner said, "I'm often not viewed as black. I go to a night club in D.C. and start talking to a sister, and she'll go, `Oh, are you Spanish?"'

"Throughout my life I've been identified as black," said Krietta Bowens of BOMBS, who grew up in Massachusetts. "I have fine curly hair and medium brown skin." Bowens' grandparents were Native Americans. She considers herself part Osage.

Saman Dashti, of UC-Berkeley's MISC, was also mistaken for Spanish. "I grew up in a Latino area of New York. It was easier for people to just take me as another little Latino boy." His father is from Iran; his mother is from Haiti. His current home, California, has probably become the hottest spot for biracial activists groups, on and off campus.

Interracial marriages occur more frequently in that state. "California has the second highest rate, next to Hawaii, " Daniel said.

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