A world that's no longer in black and whiteby David Cazares, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Almost as if it were yesterday, I can see my Korean classmate approaching with that quizzical look, posing the inevitable question.
What are you?
Perhaps he was also uncertain of his place in the world, but certainly, he wasn't sure of mine.
Where did I fit, he wanted to know, into the largely black and white world that surrounded us, the one that in the early 1970s was only beginning to make room for those who fit neither category?
At age 11, I hadn't yet given it much thought.
I must have told him that I was black. Maybe I also told him that my father was "Spanish," then unaware of just how Mexican-American he was.
That I don't precisely recall how I answered doesn't matter. What does matter is that the nation's social fabric didn't then allow me to choose, to decide for myself what or who I was. We've only started to turn that corner.
In those days I was a colored child. My mother fondly called her 15 children that. It was her way of embracing us, of letting us know that we were wanted. My demanding father was also proud of his children, though we were too dark for his mother, a grandmother I never knew.
We would find acceptance and security in my parents' largely black Pentecostal church, and by extension in black America, for generations the only home for people of mixed race -- that is, those of black and other ancestry.
That's the way the things were back then, and to a degree they still are.
But the world is a much different place today. Nearly a century and a half after slavery ended, and half a century since school desegregation began, the nation has changed -- for the privileged at least. Gone are the miscegenation laws that barred blacks and whites from marrying. Though my father isn't white, one such law led my parents to leave Indiana to marry in Chicago 58 years ago.
Thankfully, people who look like me are no longer an oddity, or subject to the stares that often greeted us a generation ago. Immigration has brought millions of multiracial people to the United States. Many are Latinos, who can be of any race, or Asian. Intermarriage has created a generation or more of young people with mixed heritage. Some are choosing partners of mixed backgrounds.
So when the New York Times weighed in this week with a story about young people of mixed heritage who want to proudly claim the multiracial label, I wasn't surprised. It's about time they had such a choice. For them there is nothing ambiguous about making it.
But it's still hard to escape the outdated black and white prism through which the nation largely views race and culture. The sought-after standard of "whiteness" that allowed European immigrants to step over lowly black folks -- or Mexicans -- long endured. It's the worldview that perhaps led some of my father's relatives to claim Italian or Greek roots, when they couldn't have been more Mexican.
Some black people can't help but think that those with black roots who would call themselves multiracial seek to avoid the label of blackness, a distinction that years ago was a burden, but one that also would have allowed them to express their humanity.
I wonder whether some young people who celebrate their mixed heritage and seek to promote a multiracial status realize that in some quarters they'll be always be viewed as black -- or other than white -- whether they want to be or not.
Even though many people no longer see color or race, some do. Discrimination still lurks around the corner, behind the door, or in plain sight. The nation's boardrooms are still largely white, and so are its newsrooms.
The multiracial category doesn't work for me. But Americans who want to use it should have that choice. People should have the right to self-identify, and evolve.
I know this because the little colored boy I was has become a man who claims his black and Latino roots, denying neither. I like to think that my life has been enriched by John Coltrane and Tito Puente, enchiladas and collard greens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison.
Yet I know the multiracial label also provides a categorical home for people of mixed heritage who do not have African ancestry -- be they Latino and Asian, white and Asian, Latino and white -- or any combination between and within such broad categories. That couldn't be more obvious in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, where the world is no longer in black and white.
Many simply don't see the world, or the nation, through our centuries-old prism. That can be a blessing. But it also could be a hardship, should they face discrimination they are unprepared for.
We should acknowledge that others, even those close to us, can see questions of identity through different eyes. My wife, who is of Jamaican and Canadian heritage, likes the multiracial label. It fits her family's circumstances and worldview.
I'm not sure my two daughters will feel that way. I'd rather they carry all of their cultures with them.
But whatever they choose to call themselves, I want them to know there was a time when there was only one home for people like them. The doors to it are no longer closed behind them, but they're still welcome there -- even as they simply declare themselves human.
David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.