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Betwixt And Between: Studying Multiracial Identity


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In the spring of 1989, Professor Reginald Daniel started teaching a university course on multiracial identity called "Betwixt and Between." The class was one of the first of its kind. He's continued to teach it ever since. Last week, he received the Loving Prize, named after the couple in the famous Loving v. Virginia case, where the Supreme Court struck down laws that banned interracial marriage. The award recognized his contributions to the national dialogue about multiracial identity.

We want to hear from multiracial listeners today. What's changed, in your experience, over the past two decades and more? Just a reminder: It's a rebroadcast. We're not going to be able to take any new calls in the hour.

Reginald Daniel teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joins us now from his home in Santa Barbara. Nice to have you with us today and congratulations.

REGINALD DANIEL: Thank you very much. It was quite an honor and also quite a - sort of something to get my head around. It was - having that kind of public recognition.

CONAN: In what way?

DANIEL: Well, you know, this is not a - this is a really contested topic, and it has been since it entered the public arena around 1989, the late '80s. And even though I think there's much more openness - no question about it, much more openness and discussion surrounding it, it's still a topic where there's a lot of uncertainty about what this identity is about, what the consequences would be for our society. So - and for me, given my age, and given how long I've been at this, there - my earlier experience was mostly one of erasure and censure, where people really were not comfortable with me talking about it. And I paid some prices for that, you know, both personally and professionally.

CONAN: So that's what it was like in 1989?

DANIEL: Yes, and even before that. I mean, this is - that's when I first began teaching it. But actually, the topic was something I had been, you know, studying for several decades prior to that. But 1989 was when I first taught the course. The students were very receptive to the course. It was taught in conjunction with the Latin-American and African-American studies department. But because it was so new, a lot of people were really apprehensive about, what is this thing? And in fact, even in the class - my very first class which I taught - I was really uncertain if I could get across the issue here.

And I would use examples such as the broccoflower - you know, broccoli and cauliflower - cockapoo, and mermaids and centaurs, or other kinds of symbols of hybrid phenomena that people were aware of and - to try to get them to make a transfer from understanding that, to understanding the multiracial person. I was actually very concerned about that.

And the very first class that I taught was called "Multiracial Identity in Global Perspective." And the reason I focused on global, rather than the U.S., is because I felt it would be less politically sensitive. It would ground the U.S. material in a larger - I mean, it was important in many ways because people point out the anomaly of the United States globally. Practically every other place in the world has recognized in-between people - racially - but the United States has, historically, not done so.

So there was a strategic value there educationally, this - to contrast the U.S. with other places, particularly Latin America, for example, or even South Africa. We looked at New Zealand, Australia, Canada. I mean, there were just - there was just - the entire continent of Africa. We looked at a lot of different places. But one of the reasons was if - I felt, at least - if I taught a course "Multiracial Identity in the U.S.," that could be seen as a little bit more controversial. People might not have been ready to look at that.

So part of my reason was to ground it in something more global, so they didn't stand out. Later, I began to focus more and more on the U.S. - or U.S. in comparison with Brazil, particularly Brazil, because there's a lot happening there. Here, there's always the long - there's a long history of research, and there are resources to draw from, for teaching, that make that easy. Brazil, South Africa and the U.S., or Brazil and the U.S., but...

CONAN: But I suspect you don't cite the broccoflower anymore.

DANIEL: I don't have to do it anymore.


DANIEL: But I bring it to you - I bring it up, throwing it out to students just to say, well, you know, there are these phenomena. But initially, to be honest with you, it was the fear that people would be so hostile. And I was trying to give them something to show how normative it is for mixture to exist in many ways. And yet the students were more receptive than some colleagues who have been very resistant, particularly some nationalists who have legitimate concerns about what this will mean, some civil rights activists, I think.

And some radical whites have been equally hostile. And I think they're concerned just because there are definitely concerns about - some of the same concerns that anybody who is involved in anti-racist work. Otherwise, they would be as centralized as the enemy all the time. So...

CONAN: Well, what were the arguments - I'm curious - the arguments of those in civil rights community saying you were undermining their efforts?

DANIEL: Well, it was mostly more - the more the radical voices. But the concern was, what will happen to these numbers, particularly on this census, in terms of how they're tabulated. There was a real, genuine concern about previously, a person who identified with more than one background was always coded numerically with the community of color, if it was white and something else.

CONAN: The one-drop rule. Yeah.

DANIEL: Well, it wasn't just one drop. It could be any kind of drop. But certainly with people of African descent, it was definitely the one-drop rule. But the concern is if you were half European-American and half person of color, traditionally in this country, you've always been numerically coded with the so-called minority background, or background of color. That was one concern.

But I think the other concern is, is that we still live in a society that privileges people of European descent, people with lighter skin. And the concern was, would this somehow or another erode the efforts that communities of color have been struggling with for decades, to gain equity in our society, and will this, somehow or another, slow that down? Will these multiracial-indentified people have an awareness of those struggles? And will they, themselves, be actively engaged in the struggle for racial equality? And I think the answer is some will, some won't.

I think what people don't understand is, is that a multiracial person, by being multiracial, does not automatically disassociate themselves with being involved in the struggle for racial equality, or the anti-racist struggle. I think there's perception that somehow or another, there's a contradiction between saying you're multiracial, and being engaged in that struggle. You can't have that identity, and be seen as someone who's engaged in the struggle for racial equality. But of course, that's people's perception may be because of individual cases. But to assume an automatic rejection of agency or to assume an automatic rejection of an interest in that struggle on the part of a multiracial-indentified person is pretty reductionist and very inaccurate.

CONAN: We're talking with Reginald Daniel, who got the Loving Prize this year as the - one of the pioneers in the studies of multiracial identity. We want to hear from multiracial listeners. What's been your experience, and how has it changed over the past 20 years? And we'll start with Kaye(ph), and Kaye's with us from Phoenix.

KAYE: Hi. I think for me, over the past 20 years, being half-black, half-white - in high school, I probably never would have dated - I'd actually didn't date anyone in high school because it was kind of awkward for me. But right - currently, right now, I'm married to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy with Swedish descent, and we have a beautiful baby daughter. And I don't get the same kind of social awkwardness, I guess, that I would've got in high school. I mean, that might just be a high school problem too.

CONAN: Yeah.

KAYE: But it's never been an issue for me. And I've felt very proud, you know, being with my husband, you know, in public; not having an issue about it with any of my co-workers, or anyone at our church.

CONAN: But back in high school, you didn't know where to sit in the cafeteria?

KAYE: Back in high school, we had a very, very mixed group of people. And I've always been in a very mixed crowd where it's never been very apparent, like, oh, Kaye's mixed or, you know, it's never been an issue. But in my mind, I guess, it was always like, well, you know, I like that guy but he's Indian, or he's white, you know. So I don't know. That might look strange to some people. And you know, that was probably my own self-consciousness playing into it. But, you know, growing up, maturing...

CONAN: And we were all pretty self-conscious in high school. Yes.

KAYE: ...coming into my own as my own individual, it's because really, my ethnic background has never played a part for me. I've always just been like, hey, I'm American. I don't know. I have no - my mom's side of the family is English. I mean, I have no ties to England. I don't, you know, I'm American here, now, today. I have dark, curly, brown hair. And that's kind of it, you know.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad it worked out, Kaye.

KAYE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the phone call. Reginald Daniel, you said you had to pay some prices once you started this all those years ago, professional and personal. What were the professional prices?

DANIEL: Well, some of them were that people were uncomfortable with me teaching the course. And some faculty, some colleagues, when they, you know, this just happened where we'd be all walking down the sidewalk, and they would cross over to the other sidewalk to avoid crossing my path. And I think what shocked me was that the students were actually very happy with the class.

This was a controversial topic to bring into academia in 1989, at least at UCLA and elsewhere. Terry Wilson taught a course - beginning in the late '70s, at UC Berkeley - a very large class. He was in the - I think it was anthropology, American-Indian studies and ethnic studies there. And Paul Spickard, historian here, and Teresa Williams-Leon - Teresa organized the very first class at UC Santa Barbara, that led to this issue as it relate - related to people of Asian-American background. And Paul has done some of the work teaching in that area ,and drawing from that class. So there have been other things that have happened since then.

The climate in 1989 was considerably different. And then you go back 10 years before that - and, of course, everybody experiences this themselves differently. But I can tell you that things are much more open and accepting of this phenomenon now, and that it's much more normative. It isn't quite the shock, although I can't say people always engage in understanding what they mean. They often collapse people into - monoracial identities and actually don't grasp what a multiracial individual is.

Tiger Woods had a very difficult time when he first came out and spoke about this, and that was in the '90s. And you have lots of people in the entertainment business, for example, who are what we call first-generation biracial people, particularly black and white, who only identify as black. You have a president who is of a biracial parentage, who only identifies as black.

And so that's a continuation of a longer-standing history of identity, and particularly a relationship to black and white people, that shows that there's a strong retention of that identity even in the face of the option of perhaps identifying as biracial and multiracial. And some people are actually very hostile to people saying they're biracial and multiracial. But it is not as extreme as it was, say, 20 years ago.

CONAN: Reginald Daniel, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As he mentioned, he started that course on multiracial identity at UCLA. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And John's on the line, John with us from Ann Arbor.

JOHN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: I am multiracial - black and Italian. I'm 53 now. And back in the '80s - that was the last time I really felt overt racism pointed at me. Since then, like the previous caller said, it's been much less a point to a - to actually be overtly targeted. However...

CONAN: Can you point to an incident, or a moment, where you felt a change?

JOHN: Well, as I started on my working career in Michigan, in the early '80s, I had the opportunity to move into a training job where I actually designed a diversity program. Within that program, in teaching people about stereotypes and such, I felt like people were really more open to me than they would be to a white person or a black person in that people were able to identify with parts of me. And because of that, I was able to learn a lot and teach a lot about how to deal with your own view - about how you deal with other people being from - looking at it and be stereotyped and such.

CONAN: And throughout this - your life, have you always identified as multiracial or biracial?

JOHN: Well, that became later as I matured. I grew up with my - mostly with my mom, who was the black person in my parentage. And I identified as black and do still mainly. However, as time went on, I became more and more aware of how much access being multiracial in America gave me to a larger and broader society. You can take many opportunities to bring together people of varied diversion - backgrounds as friends of mine in different arenas and bring them together, and they become friends. So we're kind of like a linking pin to society, like we're part of helping heal the wounds.

CONAN: That's interesting. Reginald Daniel, have you had that same experience?

DANIEL: In a lot of individual cases and contacts, yes. And in fact, my whole teaching has been aimed at sort of raising awareness of how - of the connections students have with each other, you know, how we're all related in many ways no matter how we identify. You know, one of the things I throw out is my own genealogy chart. And then I tell them, you know, you go back 20 generations, you have a million ancestors. You go back another 20, it's just - it's astounding the numbers you'd have in that. We don't know those histories, and all of us actually have an original family that evolved in Africa before the dispersal.

So one of my whole tools - at least, in the classroom context - has been to try to help students negotiate new kinds of (technical difficulties) in terms of dealing with each other and dealing with the difference by thinking about new ways of connecting. There had been many other individual circumstances where I've had to mediate opposing positions. But I'm not one of those people that thinks that multiracial folks will automatically be able to achieve that. I think a lot of people, no matter what their identity, can achieve that. But certainly, you could think that a multiracial experience - because you have to navigate sometimes seemingly hostile terrain - may be imbued with ways exploring that. But I'm not convinced that most racial people automatically will be able to do that.

But certainly, if there are, let's say, operationalize some of the things in their life experience in a way that leads to conflict resolution or reduction of tension, certainly that's great. But again, I think that will be an individual kind of situation rather some sort of collective outcome. And also, one thing I wanted to say, I was not being critical of people like President Obama, or the people who maintain a black identity in the face of, perhaps, having the option to identify as biracial. I have to be very clear about that. But what I'm saying is, is there is a different alternative. But the retention of blackness among - particularly among people of black and white - is very strong for political reasons in many cases in seeing the need to do that in order to be in the struggle with people of African descent, that's a completely legitimate concern. And I also say that you can be in the struggle with people of African descent and also identify as multiracial. And that was the point I wanted to get across.

CONAN: I see.

DANIEL: And I think for a lot of people, they haven't yet been able to make that shift to understand that that is a possibility. Even if they understand it intellectually, I think, there's a bit of caution there. Will these people reject, will they leave behind the black struggle? Will they be out there? I mean, we'll have more opportunities, and then we'll be concerned about people who don't.

CONAN: Reginald Daniel, professor of sociology at the University of California, winner of the Loving Prize. This the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.