Milestone for Those of Mixed Race
For the first time, a person can check two or more ethnicities on the census
form. It can be an
emotional moment for those whose identities were forged in less inclusive times.
By SOLOMON MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Fifty-eight years ago, in a space allotted for race but not for ambiguity,
a maternity ward nurse
Perhaps she thought the birth certificate would limit confusion as Abdullah Ismail grew up, maybe
even provide him with more opportunities. Ismail's father was a Panamanian Egyptian, his mother a
Ever after, no matter how incongruous it seemed, Ismail darkened the box next to "white" when
asked for his race.
Now, for the first time, he is about to tell the whole truth.
The U.S. Census Bureau, responding to greater acceptance of racially mixed Americans, is inviting
residents to "mark one or more" of 15 ethnic categories on census forms now being mailed out across
the country, offering many possible combinations of racial identity. Abdullah Ismail will check four.
For him and thousands of interracial people of the World War II generation, the 2000 census
provides the first chance to ask a question many have postponed for decades: "What am I?"
It comes at a time when young multiracial Americans have Web sites, support groups and
magazines celebrating their mixed backgrounds. Some were part of the lobbying effort to persuade the
federal government to make its unprecedented change this year.
But multiracial people in their 50s and older have lived without that kind of acceptance. Their
identities were forged in a harsher time, before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down
anti-miscegenation laws 30 years ago. Stark racial lines left few opportunities to publicly claim
overlapping ethnicities. Law and propriety dictated that people with diverse backgrounds adopt a
single minority identity to the exclusion of any other. Interracial people were often compared to dogs,
called "half-breeds," "mutts" and "mongrels."
A man like Ken Catbagan, whose mother was white and father was Filipino, did not fit anywhere.
So he approximated.
"I was told I was really 'Oriental,' " said Catbagan, a 62-year-old Realtor in the West Adams
district of Los Angeles. "I never really felt like I was Oriental. I wasn't Japanese or Chinese. I was
Filipino--and half-German besides."
The subject is so painful for him that only this year did he have his first substantive discussion about
race, with a Cal State Northridge professor researching people of mixed descent. During their talk,
Catbagan revisited the racial fault lines that split his family apart. The conversation ended after
Catbagan broke down in tears.
"I don't think I ever called myself biracial," Catbagan said. "I just took my father's identity."
Similar reevaluation is taking place in classrooms, living rooms and chat rooms across the nation as
people who long regarded themselves as "white" or "just Latino" or "only African American" are no
longer sure that's all they are.
Because census data affect everything from congressional redistricting to civil rights enforcement,
groups including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Asian American
Legal Defense Fund opposed the decision to allow respondents to claim more than one racial identity
for fear that their numbers--and political power--would be diluted.
Federal agencies have not yet decided how they will tabulate data from the new categories. But
census officials downplay the potential impact, estimating that only 1% of Americans will claim two or
more racial or ethnic identities.
Some sociologists believe that the numbers are less important than the philosophical implications.
"The shake-up comes in the way we structure and view the world," said Kenneth Chew, a
demography professor at UC Irvine. "Just having the option is going to make everybody think another
five seconds about who they are."
After the 2000 census, racial identity could become more like religion or political orientation, with
ethnic affiliations being chosen rather than inherited, Chew said.
In the eyes of the government, 50-year-old Reginald Daniel was black. This year, he says, he will
be something else.
"Both my parents were African American," Daniel said. "But I took a different turn. I identify
Daniel, a UC Santa Barbara professor, says he has no direct knowledge of any white ancestors
and claims no official tribal membership. Still, he will check African American, Native American and
white in this year's census.
"Practically all African Americans--practically the whole planet--have multiracial backgrounds," he
Roderick Harrison, a senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in
Washington, D.C., said people like Daniel make an unassailable biological and genetic argument that
there is only a single human race.
But Daniel and others misunderstand the intent of the census' race question, said Harrison, who
helped create the new categories while working for the Census Bureau in the '90s. "From a social and
historical point of view, we do have these [different people who] have gone through exclusion and
oppression that our nation is still trying to rectify.
"This isn't an academic exercise," he added. "The question was intended for those who have
serious commitments to multiracial identity."
Mixed Marriages Double in 20 Years
Studies show that mixed marriages have doubled since 1980 and, according
to a recent report
from the Public Policy Institute of California, interracial births in 1997 composed the third largest
ethnic category of newborns in the state, after Latinos and whites. Preliminary census data also show
that people who identify themselves as multiracial are more likely to be young.
"This is a social movement being led by youths," said Matt Kelley, the 21-year-old publisher of
Mavin, a quarterly devoted to "the interracial experience." "We're part of the first widespread
interracial baby boom."
As the interracial population grows, so does the strength of what Kelley calls "the multiracial
"The political and social networks we have were only recently established," said Kelley, a
half-white, half-Korean student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "These kinds of support
networks probably weren't available for older interracial Americans."
Which is why census officials expect the vast majority of older mixed-race people to check only
Mary I. Suzuki, a 68-year-old woman whose father was Filipino and whose mother was white,
said she will remain a Filipino.
After being attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha and shoved into a ghetto by Chicago's
housing covenants, Suzuki's family moved to the Philippines in 1931. Life was easier there, but Suzuki
still has painful memories of Filipino children who mocked interracial kids--many of whom were
fathered by American soldiers.
"There's a rhyme in Tagalog: 'You're a white milkfish, your mother is cheap and your father has a
bald head,' " she said. "When they said that, I wished I could go hide in the tall grass behind the
Suzuki's parents separated after World War II, and the family returned to the United States
without her father. Her mother landed good teaching jobs, only to lose them after her employers
learned her children were half-Filipino, Suzuki said.
Finding housing was tougher than keeping a job. One year during America's postwar boom, the
family lived in a strawberry patch in Stockton. Their only shelter was an abandoned boxcar.
Suzuki's mother moved to Davis, Calif., when the children were old enough to live on their own.
"She asked us not to visit," Suzuki said. "That would have meant her job."
When she was young, she said, she could not afford to think about being half-white: One was
either entirely white or not white at all.
Maria P.P. Root, a Seattle-based psychologist who has edited several books on multiracial
identity, said Suzuki's view is the legacy of the "one-drop" concept, which holds that "whiteness"
cannot be tainted by any other ancestry. Mixed ancestry could sometimes confer a higher status within
a particular minority group--Louisiana's Creoles, for example--but racially mixed people usually
"identified with whatever race had the lower social status."
That's what Ken Catbagan did. His German American mother already had three children--all blond
and fair-skinned--when she married Catbagan's father. Ken was the youngest, the darkest and the
loneliest of the children.
'I Don't Have a Place of Being or Beginning'
When he was a boy, Catbagan's mother took him to see his oldest half brother,
a career Navy man
who had never lived with Catbagan.
"I recall there was something wrong," he said. "He and my mother had an argument. I knew he
didn't accept my dad or me. It bothered me. I took it as a racial thing."
When the brother died recently, his other siblings--who seldom call--told Catbagan a full year after
the funeral, he said. Catbagan has to think hard when asked his brother's name.
"I was closer to the Filipino side of the family," he said. "I could get a mirror image with them."
Catbagan's father was a strong assimilationist and rarely talked about his Filipino origins, so even
that ethnicity seemed a poor fit.
"I do regret that I don't really have a place of being or beginning," Catbagan said.
But after 22 years in Los Angeles, he says most of the old slights have faded into memory and he
seldom feels out of place in a city so aswirl with diversity. He has also noticed that his daughter--a
blond beauty with green eyes whose mother is white--is unfazed by her heritage.
Even if it's mostly symbolic, Catbagan said he appreciates the 2000 census' mixed-race option.
The pressure to fit into one category has diminished, he said.
Cathy Tashiro, a UC Berkeley researcher, said Catbagan's experience proves that race is
"situational," determined by sociological factors such as wealth, religion, educational attainment and
Race has real effects, she said, but no objective reality.
To illustrate the mutability of race, Tashiro has conducted interviews with interracial people over
time to gauge how their racial identities change according to their environment.
"I ask them stuff like: What kind of situations make you feel more black? Or when do you feel
more white?" she said.
With his wavy black hair and tan skin, Abdullah Ismail could be a Middle Easterner or a Latino,
black or white.
When he fills out his census form, he will be all of these.
Ismail said he was an Arab until he was 5. His family lived in an Islamic mission in Manhattan. He
spoke Arabic and Spanish and ate fresh bread sold by Yemenite bakers on his block.
When his family moved to a hardscrabble housing project across town, they lived among Irish
immigrants, African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Ismail identified with the Latinos in his building.
When he was a teen, his friends were black. He wore an afro and briefly became a member of the
Nation of Islam.
While serving in the racially charged U.S. Army of the 1960s, however, Ismail became
disillusioned with black nationalism and told everyone he was white.
"I was put off by them," he said of "black militant" soldiers. "They could be real nasty if you weren't
as black as them."
These days, Ismail said he is getting back to his Panamanian roots, speaking Spanish to patients at
the Long Beach hospital where he works as a respiratory therapist. But he's not limiting himself.
"When I try to nail down whether I'm Arab American or this or that, it just seems so superfluous,"
he said. "I mean, in this day and age, who isn't mixed?"