Students Break Out of Fixed-Race Box


My journalism students were brainstorming topics for their final story projects. I urged them to come up with compelling ideas that relate to their experiences but that push deeply into national trends.

“Stop letting all the midlife writers (like myself) tell your stories,” I pushed. “Tell your own.”

As they went around the room, several pitches swirled around the same theme: the dramatic increase in multi-racial students and the issues of identity and self-definition they face.

The idea caught fire and sparked a fascinating class discussion. Turns out, they identified a trend that is transforming our classrooms—and should transform our teaching as well.

According to the recent New York Times story “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above”: 

“The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration intermarriage.”

This growing trend has implications for every teacher in every classroom at every educational level. How do we teach, discuss and explore the new, murky issues raised by multi-racial relations when many of us still struggle with how to teach, discuss and explore the literally black-and-white issues raised by what we’ve historically identified as race relations?

There is a lot of talk now of our “postracial society” and a new brand of “color blindness” now that our president is identified as an African-American. Except, President Barack Obama comes from a multi-racial background.

As usual, my students are my teachers. Their intense desire to identify as individuals of mixed races—to talk about it, write about it and study it—clarified for me the most powerful way to teach it. We must be neither post- nor blind regarding issues of color, race, ethnicity, difference, otherness.

Rather than colorblindness, I believe in “color mindfulness.” We should honor, acknowledge and bring our full teaching attention to students’ issues of identity. Our students are leading the way. They aren’t colorblind. They talk to each other endlessly about their differences, their varying identities. They code-switch daily between the mixed cultures, socioeconomic classes and identities within their own worlds. Maybe one grandma is Italian, and another is Puerto Rican. The food is different. The hues are different. And the children moving in and out of those households know those differences well. They describe them, laugh about them, boast about them.

They are mindful of them. So why must we be blind to them?

According to The New York Times, we can’t afford to be.

One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center from 2008 and 2009. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And experts expect the racial results of the 2010 census, which will start coming out next month, to show the trend continuing or accelerating.

Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity.

I believe this “more fluid sense of identity” offers a brave new world of teachable moments. We should own it, get ahead of it and show our students we see, and honor, the whole of them. 

Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.


I have to respectfully

Submitted by Polly on 16 November 2011 - 3:27pm.

I have to respectfully disagree with Steven. As a mixed race adult of 43 years saying we all come from multi-racial backgrounds like Obama is minimizing the struggle. It's like saying we all come from Africa. We can not educate if we don't acknowledge or learn about experiences of people. Ignoring a struggle or saying we are all the same is the same point the author was making about colorblindness. Once a year I get to meet with over 100 mixed race educators at a conf. for people of color. Some of our struggles are different and some are similar. For me and several others it is the first time we have felt like we belonged somewhere. So if we say that we all are of mixed race we are not addressing the issue.

I have to respectfully agree

Submitted by Pamela Cytrynbaum on 5 December 2011 - 12:50am.

I have to respectfully agree with Polly, who clarified and deepened the point I had hoped to make in the piece.

"How do we teach, discuss and

Submitted by Steven Riley on 16 November 2011 - 12:38am.

"How do we teach, discuss and explore the new, murky issues raised by multi-racial relations when many of us still struggle with how to teach, discuss and explore the literally black-and-white issues raised by what we’ve historically identified as race relations?"

Perhaps the best way to start is to understand that these "new, murky issues" are neither new nor murky. We have been a "multiracial" society for centuries and as a consequence, we ALL come from a multi-racial backgrounds--like our first African-American President.

In some areas in early 17th century colonial Virginia--before wealthy elite planters made the fateful decision to rely on slave labor--nearly 5 in 10 black men had white wives and nearly 1 in 4 births were what we would call today, "mixed." Also, do not forget the considerable mixing amoung Native Americans. If you wonder whatever happend to the descendents of these early Virginians, just look in the mirror.

Steve Riley