Multicultural Categories

On February 6, 2012, in Biracial, by Honeysmoke

GreeceBy Karyn Langhorne Folan

© Karyn Langhorne Folan

I spent an hour or so yesterday completing the forms necessary for my family to travel on our Mediterranean cruise next week. The cruise line asks that you send in your passport information— as well as certain details like your travel plans, your emergency contact and of course, your credit card number for on-ship spending. What I hadn’t expected them to ask was for the primary racial identification of all of our travellers.

It’s funny, I had completed that section for my husband, myself and my older daughter without really thinking about it. White, black, black… and then I came to my baby, who is bi-racial.  I couldn’t call her primarily white any more than I could call her primarily black.  If she were old enough to ask, I would have written whatever she said.  Experts on the subject say that it’s normal for bi-racial children to bounce between racial choices: black at one stage of their growth, white at others. They may also insist on both– or neither, claiming themselves to transcend classification.  I’ve read enough literature to be prepared for Sommer’s choices as she grows older.

But right now, Sommer’s a little shy of 4 years old. At this moment, the choice was mine.  We’ve never come across this before: she goes to a private preschool where the question was never asked. Perhaps in a year or so, we may confront the issue again on some public school form. But this was my first time– my virgin moment– with racial classifications in my own family– and I was surprised my the conflicting emotions it brought up.

I re-read the form. This section was optional– the cruise line was only interested for marketing and consumer information purposes– but I hadn’t hesitated or even questioned the use of their data for the rest of my family. Sommer’s status made me re-think whether that was information that I cared to share– or at least whether the cruise lines marketing database was a good enough reason to provide it.  But righteous indignation aside, there will be other forms, more crucial ones. Medical forms, for example. What is the appropriate response for a child whose parents are of different races?

Organizations like ProjectRace.org have been focusing on this issue for years.  They have lobbied against boxes like “other” and argue that, in our increasingly multiracial society, forms should allows to “check all that apply” instead of being forced into a single category box. The wisdom of this approach seems obvious to me: it allows a person of mixed heritage to honor all of his or her cultural influences.

But the larger questions remain about why any of this matters so much outside of the medical context (where certain genetic markers may affect compatibility of treatments).  What does it say about our society when a cruise line collects racial information “for marketing purposes”? What does it say about our school system if racial heritage is  important information to tracking the performance of a student?

The truth is, if I knew more about my own racial heritage, I could probably check every box on any form you give me— most of us probably could.  I know for certain there is white/Dutch ancestry in family, as well as English/Anglo Saxon blood.  But I’m certain there is a far more rich story that I don’t know and that that rich heritage is present for us all.

Perhaps the ProjectRace.org approach is the beginning: we check as many boxes as apply… until science and geneology make it possible for all of us to check all of the boxes. Only then will the necessity for racial categorization become unnecessary.

For today, I left Sommer’s form blank … and when back and erased the categories for the rest of my family. We’re a family travelling together and that’s really all the cruise line needs to know.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is the author of Don’t Bring Home A White Boy (And Other Notions That Keep Black Women Single).

Do you have a story to tell? Send it to Honeysmoke@Honeysmoke.com

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  • Blanc2

    Add a box that says “human” and check that.

  • “But the larger questions remain about why any of this matters so much outside of the medical context (where certain genetic markers may affect compatibility of treatments).”

    I am still annoyed that we could not get our wedding license without answering this question. Had I to do over, I would put “human” in the space and leave it at that. I had to answer the question to take Portuguese at the adult ed program through Miami public schools. Really? My race is relevant for this?

    For the US census, I didn’t answer the question. The census people called me four times! I refused to answer each time. None of their business.

  • Gini

    I like your article. I also like what you say about what we all might find looking at our distant family tree. I am a pale blond of primarily Irish, English and Swedish descent but when I was digging into my geneology about six months before my now 4.5 year old daughter who is bi-racial was born I found that my great, great grandmother from New York was listed on census records as mullatto. For an instant this discovery was shocking (not in a bad way). However, it made sense as my my maternal grandmother had light brown skin that through family lore we attributed it to some likely mysterious native american. Point being illustrates what you mention — who knows — what anyone’s background is. In the reverse, my husband who is African-American just two generations back had a great grandfather from Germany who basically lived in an African-American enclave not understanding America’s racial issues and apparently not understanding at least immediately why his living among African-Americans was strange and in the south at the time dangerous. What box am I to fill out from our daughter? I try to check-off as many as appropriate and hope more flexibility in this arena because I think many others have the ‘surprise’ relatives in their background that both my husband and I have…:-)