Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.

3 Replies to “Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious”

  1. You know, I grew up in a mixed race family, and I remember embracing (auditioning?) the attitude of multicultural acceptance and respect that my family, by default, espoused. But I found that no one else cared, no one except a Very few of the brown skinned people, and a few of my parents friends. At school, I was drawn into arguments and even had to break up fights in middle school, as well as defend my younger sibs, one white and one black, from kids who occasionally picked at them. Multiculturalism is not a friend to black people, black Americans that is, and it left me feeling so untethered for years. In my family, having lost my black mother to her unfortunate death at my four-almost-five years of age, and then subsequently being raised by a white mother, no one taught me how to walk in this country as a black woman, and I needed that. I had to watch my aunts and cousins from afar and listen out for any tips from any corner I could on haircare, skincare, makeup do’s and don’ts, as well as read, talk and educate myself about women, race and politics; religion and politics; and black life in America in general, before integration, and also in this great kumbaya multicultural afterlife. You can rah-rah “being both” all you want, but in this country, as far as race/cultural heritage are concerned, you choose. As long as the socio-economic benefits accrue one way, there’s a choice to be made. Of course I am as multi as the next person, but I refuse to let my black African ancestors (from who knows where I might add), be driven underground in this effort to be whitewashed. Color blindness is a lie, a not-funny joke, when you consider the rationing of resources, access and opportunity that people of color must navigate to mitigate each and every day. I acknowledge my German and, American Indian heritage, but the one that informs and shapes my everyday walk is that of being a black American woman. As the old black southern man said when interviewed after Tiger claimed himself a ‘caublanasian,’ “All you have to do is look at him and see he’s black!”

    1. Denise–I deeply appreciate your eloquent thoughts on this, and (as always) your teaching. It is interesting to note that Brazil, a country that long prided itself on avoiding binary race identifications, now has a growing black pride movement and the government is just now beginning to track race. When I was living there and Colin Powell was considering running for President, Brazilians noted that the US would probably have a black president before Brazil would, in part because of our willingness to address race head-on rather than ignore it. And they were right (though it was Obama who ended up president, not Powell).

  2. Hi susan,
    Jamily5 here.
    Thanks for checking my site and return.
    I have checked out your site for about 1year now when I went searching for interfaith blogs.
    There are very few interfaith blogs out here and fewer still in America.
    I have not found any Christian/Muslim blogs, with the exception of mine.
    I have mentioned your blog in my posts about interfaith, but I am not savvy enough to link and track back… … or something like that.
    Keep writing!
    I’d write more on intercultural/interfaith identity but should probably make my own post about it.
    yet, you bring up some very valid points.
    The only thing that I do want to allert you to is:
    in an interfaith setting; no one actually knows the faith,
    But, people already make perceptions about one’s cultural identity.

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