Has race outlived its usefulness?

The new census has so many options for racial makeup that maybe it's time to rethink the concept, says a young editor.

March 19, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

By now, many U.S. residents have received the 2000 Census forms and come face-to-face with the race question. For the first time, the questionnaire allows more than one box to be checked to identify racial makeup. Instead of the 10 possible racial/ethnic combinations of 1990, there will be 32,000.

"At what point do we just realize that it's ridiculous?" asks Matt Kelly, the 21-year-old editor, publisher and founder of Mavin, a year-old magazine dedicated to "the mixed race experience."

Kelly says he finds racial identity to be largely a social construct, one based in community, family and, of course, visual characteristics. And he should know. As the product of a white father and Korean mother, Kelly's spent a good portion of his life feeling the effects of society's quest to define a person by his or her race.

But the definitions are blurring. The rise of pop culture figures like Mariah Carey and Tiger Woods and the recent uproar over the interracial dating policy at Bob Jones University are testament to the changing face of the United States. Racial categories, something Kelly says our country is obsessed with, aren't so neat anymore.

In a recent interview from his apartment in Middletown, Conn., where he's a sophomore at Wesleyan University, Kelly spoke about the new census possibilities, Mavin (Hebrew for "one who understands") and life in the United States for racially mixed people:

What is the mixed-race experience?

Maybe this is a cop-out, but it is almost indefinable. [Racially mixed people] share some similar experiences, as far as addressing some pervasive issues of ambiguity, in a society that is so set on very concrete concepts of race. And I think sometimes it's a very unique kind of racism that racially mixed people face. In this society, if you don't fit into a monoracial category, sight doesn't know how to categorize you, and if you look different, people are going to constantly remind you. You're forced to address these issues on a daily basis.

What does Mavin bring to the experience?

I look back on growing up, and I don't feel like I had resources to address some of the ambiguity that was surrounding my mixed-race experience. I hear from my readers, but I also just see for myself that the magazine is creating that resource for people. It's pretty much the first time on a large scale that mixed-race people are talking about their experiences.

Why is this happening now?

Pretty much the first generation of racially mixed people is emerging now, and is on college campuses now, and that's why it's very interesting to see the changes that are on the 2000 Census, the changes that we're seeing on college application forms and just the general awareness that's out there.

What effect do you think the 2000 Census will have on defining race in our country?

It's difficult to know until we know what's actually going to happen with the data. Until we know whose pressure they're going to bow to, how they're going to categorize people, it's difficult to say. What's also unfortunate is people who are [filling out] the census still don't have a general consensus on the census. I think some people are going to ask themselves, "How do I see myself politically?" but some people are going to say, "How do I see myself culturally?" So you're going to get two completely different answers from the same person at times. If people are going into the census with different ideas of what it represents, then what good is the data going to be?

Which boxes will you check?

I think that I will probably check both Korean and white. Because of the magazine, we're very interested to see what the reaction of the country's going to be when people say, "Oh my god, why are there so many of them and where did they come from?" So, of course I'm going to participate in that.

How do you think the media handle issues of mixed race?

The media is infatuated with them, whether it's Tiger [Woods] or Mariah [Carey] or Halle Berry or whoever. There's still very much a trend toward "exoticifizing" or sexualizing those of mixed race. Up until 2000, we've been institutionally invisible, but at the same time we're hyper-criticized. And there's so many racially mixed people in the entertainment industry. It's a very strange xx paradox. Some of the census people are even saying if Tiger wins the Masters [golf tournament] again, they're expecting thousands more people to identify themselves as multiracial. It's really funny -- that golf is influencing racial identity.

Do you foresee a time when we do away with racial categories in this country?

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