The History of Multiracialism in the United States of America
The Color of Us: Blog Post 02
By: Sonya Colattur
The stage was set. On a cool January morning in 2009, with all the pomp and circumstance of Washington DC, massive crowds stood and collectively witnessed the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America…Barack Hussein Obama. Many media outlets, as well as political commentators, academic scholars and American voters heralded President Obama as “the first Black President of the United States”.
But President Obama is multiracial, a person of two or more races, and has always been very open about his racial identity from the very beginning of his political career. He has spoken often about his mother, a white woman from Kansas who fell in love and married a black man from Kenya. A similar racial labelling has happened to Tiger Woods, regarded by many as “the first Black professional golfer to win at Augusta National”. But Tiger Woods is also multiracial. His father was of African American, Chinese and Native American descent, while his mother is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent. The list of well-known multiracial politicians, athletes and movie stars is numerous, but their racial identification as multiracial is lesser known and often overlooked in contrast to the societal definition of their race based solely on their phenotypic features. Recognizing and honoring the many parts of self involved in one’s racial identity is an important component of the multiracial experience and one that has not been part of our larger conversation about race. Our systematic categorization of people based on race has left many multiracial individuals with internal conflict, often forced to deny or dismiss their history, heritage and existence in order to neatly fit into the mold and categories society has constructed. This is not a new phenomenon. Seen through the historical lens of slavery, and later segregation, identification and categorization based on race has a discriminatory origin. In 1790, the first United States population census classified free residents as “white” or “other”, while black slaves were not included in the census at all. In 1860, the census had expanded to three categories that included “white”, “black” or “mulatto”. Mulatto, being a derogatory term used to identify a person of mixed “white” and “black” ancestry. The word “mulatto” originated from the Spanish word “mula” which means “mule”, an offspring from a horse and a donkey. Clearly offensive, derogatory, and illustrative of how multiracial people were viewed and devalued at the time. Yet the recognition of multiracialism, however offensive the term used, spoke to the growing realization that multiracial individuals existed as a result of white slave owners having forced sexual relationships with black female slaves. With the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which officially abolished slavery, the categorization of individuals according to race became paramount. While the 13th Amendment did end slavery, it did not end racism. In 1911, Arkansas passed Act 230 (House Bill 79), later to be known as the “One Drop Rule” that had two intended purposes. The first was to identify interracial cohabitation as a felony, and the second purpose was to identify anyone who had, as then stated, “any Negro blood whatsoever” as a second-class citizen. No other country had ever defined race in such a manner, and it was a clear attempt to maintain white supremacy for many years in the Jim Crow south. The landmark civil rights case of Loving vs Virginia in 1967 was a turning point in the recognition of interracial marriages in which the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment prohibits governments from discriminating against people on the basis of race, even in the area of love. A man and a woman met, fell in love, and married, except that in 1958, to marry someone of a different race was illegal in Virginia and both were sentenced to a year in prison. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in their favor, the societal acceptance of interracial couples and their children continues to be met with curiosity, resistance and even racism in the 21st century. Although the origins of multiracialism are woven into the painful fabric of slavery in the history of the United States, the present and future for multiracial individuals is filled with promise and possibility if we recognize and celebrate diversity, discard the limits of racial labels and embrace the humanity of acceptance.