The United Colors of Family (Interview with Charmaine Wijeyesinghe)

The United Colors of Family (Interview with Charmaine Wijeyesinghe)

UMass Amherst, The Magazine for Alumni and Friends
University of Massachusettes
Summer 2007

Interviewed by Faye S. Wolfe

Tell us about your work on racial identity.

For my dissertation I interviewed people who were black, white, or biracial. I came up with a model for how people form a sense of racial identity. Many factors are involved: racial ancestry, physical appearance, cultural attachment, early experience, spirituality…

Identity is a matter of choice to some degree.  Multiracial people may choose to identify themselves as that, or as monoracial: black, white, Asian. I had three grandparents who were white. My mother was Dutch Portuguese, my father Sri Lankan. Filling out forms, I’ve checked off Asian, I’ve checked off black. Do you check one box or two? There was a time when you could check only one; society constrained one’s choices. It’s still controversial, the idea of racial identity as a choice. Some people would say, choice is a luxury.

I’m interested in working with “helping agents”—teachers, counselors—on questions this idea raises: What do you think race is based on? What do you bring to an interaction with a multiracial child? With the parents? With a multiracial person who says, I’m white? The idea of racial identity as a choice lends itself to great, sometimes painful conversations…