Covering Multiracial America Requires Historical Perspective

Covering Multiracial America Requires Historical Perspective

Maynard Media Center on Structural Inequity
Maynard Institute

Nadra Kareem Nittle

Although people of mixed races have lived in the United States for centuries, authorities on multiracial identity say mainstream media continue to report on these people as if they are a new phenomenon.

In 1619, the first slaves were brought to Britain’s North American colonies. The following year, says Audrey Smedley, professor emerita of anthropology and African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, the first “mulatto” child was born. Thus, mixed-race people have a long history in this country, disproving the notion often mentioned today that miscegenation will somehow magically cure racism.

Most major stereotypes about multiracial people in America historically involved individuals whose heritage was black and white or Native American and white. Such people were largely thought to yearn for the same advantages as whites but found them off-limits because of the “one-drop rule,” which originated in the South and mandated that just a drop of black blood meant they were of color.

In the 21st century, newer stereotypes about multiracial people have gained popularity. Rainier Spencer, founder and director of the Afro-American Studies Program and senior adviser to the president at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says contemporary media coverage of mixed-race people isn’t filled with tragic mulattoes but with docile symbols of a colorblind America yet to reach fruition.

“Multiracial people are infantilized,” Spencer says. “They [the media] don’t treat them as fully capable agents. Mixed-race people are quiet and happy, and they don’t complain. They’re our postracial future.”

Spencer, author of “Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix,” cautions that these notions are dangerous. The stereotype that multiracial people represent a bridge between races that will soon eradicate bigotry ignores the fact that such people were in North America more than a century before U.S. independence and that racism remains a reality.

This idea also lets the establishment off the hook, he says. “If mixed-race people are going to take us to a postracial destiny, then the power structure doesn’t have to worry about it. It’s very convenient.”…

…In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau permitted declaring more than one race on census forms. In the subsequent decade, several published articles reported that the mixed-race population was increasing, especially among young people.

But Heidi W. Durrow, who grew up as the only daughter of an African-American father and a Danish mother, would like to see news stories about multiracial people that don’t revolve around census figures…

Laura Kina, a founding member of the Critical Mixed Race Studies biennial conference and associate professor of Art, Media and Design at DePaul University, has similar concerns. She considers the idea that mixed-race people are new to be a stereotype. “They go back a very long ways,” she says.

Kina is the daughter of an Okinawan father from Hawaii and a Spanish-Basque/Anglo mother, according to her website…

Dominique DiPrima, host of Los Angeles radio show “The Front Page,” takes issue with the concept of multiracialism because she disputes the concept of race. “I think the media should differentiate between culture, ethnicity and race,” says DiPrima, daughter of Italian-American poet Diane di Prima and African-American writer Amiri Baraka…

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