Rethinking Race 

Identity 2.0

In the '90s, UC Berkeley was at the center of active discussions about racial identity and politics, especially among mixed-race individuals. At the forefront was a group called Hapa Issues Forum — Hapa, Hawaiian for "part," is a word that was first used to describe someone of mixed Hawaiian heritage and was later appropriated by mixed-race Asian Americans. Started as a campus group (disclosure: the author was a member during college), the forum later became a national nonprofit with chapters throughout California. At the time, it had a fairly clear purpose: to provide a welcoming space for mixed Asians, educate others about their common experiences, and change the way our society thinks about race.

A few years ago, however, the organization dissolved due to lack of funds, volunteers, and interest. At Cal, it morphed into the Mixed Student Union as its members saw a need to branch out and be more inclusive. Today's mixed-race individuals aren't just biracial, after all. Many have multiple heritages. In the 2000 U.S. census, nearly seven million people checked more than one racial-category box to describe their heritage, and that number is likely to increase in 2010. Trying to peg the needs of such a diverse group isn't easy.

Such are the challenges mixed-race activists — a dispersed, somewhat disjointed group — are faced with nowadays. First, what should they call the movement? "Mixed race" is problematic since most activists view race as a social construct, without biological basis. Meanwhile, some Hawaiian activists have decried the use of "hapa" to describe Asians as part of an assault on Hawaiian culture. Complicating matters further, transracial adoptees have come into the fold, as have the non-mixed parents of mixed kids.

Should their collective efforts even be considered a movement? And what should their goals be? A big issue for past organizers was to convince the U.S. Census Bureau to let individuals check more than one race box. They succeeded, so now what?

These were some of the questions posited at the Hapa Issues Forum's Last Hurrah, an event held on the Cal campus last week to memorialize the group and discuss the future of mixed-race organizing. Panelist Dorothy Jones-Davis is on the board of the Bay Area chapter of Swirl, a national organization that advocates for what it calls the "mixed heritage community." She encouraged the forty-plus audience members to move outside the "mixed-race bubble." Working with the LGBT community is one oft-cited proposal, since the ban on gay marriage correlates with anti-miscegenation laws. "We're not saying anything strange," Jones-Davis said. "We want equality, not just for us, but for everyone."

A similar conversation is emerging nationally. Longtime activists are feeling the need to move beyond Identity 101 talk. That's a reference to the discussions that take place when mixed-race individuals first get together to share their experiences. For one, the Seattle-based magazine and organization MAVIN is focusing on the fact that mixed-race patients needing bone-marrow transplants are often out of luck, partly because marrow banks don't make enough of an effort to attract mixed-race donors. Jen Chau of the New York-based Swirl wants to expand conversations about race to include monoracial communities. "I'm one person who seriously wants to go in a completely different direction," she said. "I'm not going to force it."

But opening those doors could drive away some of the mixed-race folks the activists aim to represent. If they called it the "mixed-ethnicity" movement, for instance, European Americans of mixed national heritages might want to claim rank. Then it's "back to the identity hamster wheel," said Tarah Fleming, co-director of iPride, a Berkeley organization launched in 1979 for mixed-race children and families of transracial adoptees. That group dissolved three years ago, and was resurrected with the help of Fleming, who isn't mixed herself. She and other activists are planning a groundbreaking Bay Area meeting in February to further discuss where the movement — if indeed it is one — is headed. "There is an urgency. Children are dying," she told the crowd, in reference to the bone-marrow shortage. "People need to be educated. This isn't a feel-good movement anymore."


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