But defining people as multiracial, says Charles B. Stewart, chief deputy to state Sen. Diane Watson, would almost certainly dilute whatever numbers-based gains the black community has made to date. "Today there are few affirmatives in being designated black," he says, "but we've paid the historical price for that designation, and we have a right and the need to claim those numbers." (How those numbers are gathered varies widely. The modern census is largely self-defining, requiring one to identify oneself by age, ethnicity and several other factors for purposes of charting America's demographic profile. California agencies differ in how they effect racial identification. Some maintain no race counts at all.)
Since society imposes racial designations upon us, Stewart argues, it is not illogical to assume that people with features bearing obvious traces of African ancestry who refuse to acknowledge any African heritage are trying to escape that part of their ethnicity. Some psychologists concur: Sandra Cox, a therapist in Los Angeles, sees such denials as "pathological." Even people who are not mental-health professionals consider such self-identification, at best, naive. "They can call themselves multiracial if they want," one friend sniffed, "but when the LAPD pulls you over, they don't treat you different because you say you're multiracial. To most of them, we're all niggers."
THE VERY CONCEPT OF multiracialism with an African strain makes many people jumpy, for if there are individuals who are \o7 black\f7 -looking and multiracial, then, obviously, they have to be mixed with black and something else. Frequently, that something else is white, which means that there are a lot of multiracial \o7 white\f7 -looking Americans, too, who aren't aware of it--or who choose not to acknowledge it.
San Francisco psychiatrist Katrina Peters, an African-American who specializes in cross-cultural psychiatry, believes that America's preoccupation with race stems from its inability to admit that slavery's legacy extends well beyond the black community. We will not, Peters says, deconstruct our thorny race relations until we "deal with and acknowledge the past. Just like people who have had an alcoholic or an abusive parent, facing up to the truth is the first step."
But some things are hard to face--like the probability that Thomas Jefferson had several children with his black slave, Sally Hemings--children who, by laws he helped draft, were considered black. And chattel.
When I visited Monticello in the early '80s, the tour guides politely pretended not to hear questions about Hemings, just as it took decades for the august Mount Vernon Ladies' Historical Society to acknowledge that George Washington's estate did, indeed, contain slave quarters. (Washington's slaves were freed after his death; Jefferson's weren't, except for five, of whom two--strange coincidence, this--were Sally Hemings' children.) History books tell us that Alexander Hamilton was born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, to a half-white mother. "What they conveniently forget to mention," laughs a friend with family on the island, "is that her other half was black. It's accepted fact in the islands, but not here." It is the inability of many white Americans to admit that such unions occurred (obviously they did; many black photo albums, including mine, attest to it) that has many of us happy to identify as black, not multiracial.
An editor at a Western newspaper laughs when I ask if she considers herself multiracial. "No, child!" she says emphatically. "That white didn't get there by choice." That many of us are descendants of unions imbued with distinct power inequities has made acknowledging the white component much less compelling. Itabari Njeri agrees that much of our diversity "was raped into us." But when blacks refuse to admit that we have white blood in us, that's "like blaming the victim. We didn't do the raping. It's not our fault white blood is there. And it's part of us. We should say so."
But it's common for African-Americans to ignore their white ancestry, says Los Angeles author Bebe Moore Campbell, whose recent novel, "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine," explores how racism affects two families, one black, one white, through several generations. That, she says, seconding Njeri, is because such unions were not always mutually desired--and often went unacknowledged by the white parent. "We hear a lot about black fathers who shirk their responsibilities to their families, but the first deadbeat dads in this country were white slave owners, most of whom didn't honor or care for their children."