BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" just might be my favorite movie of all time.
It stars Sidney Portier as a well-off doctor who is engaged to marry a white woman. (For those of you who've been living in a cave, Portier is black.)
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play the parents of the bride. The story is more nuanced and multi-dimensional than what you might expect for a film tackling this issue back in 1967. And its message is just as timely today. If
you haven't seen it, it's well worth renting.
In one scene, Spencer Tracy asks Portier if he had considered having children and the effect having an interracial family would have on them. It's a
question that used to be heard quite often when it came to interracial marriage: "But what about the children?"
Now, 36 years after the making of that movie, more and more "children" of interracial marriages are stepping forward to answer the question for themselves.
Around the country, biracial college students are forming their own clubs to address their unique issues. Some of those clubs include "Harvard Hapa," Tufts University's M.O.S.T. (Multiracial Organization of Students at Tufts),
Wellesley College's "Fusion," and Macalester College's "Bridges," just to name a few.
It's happening off-campus as well. In Seattle, Matt Kelley's Mavin Foundation continues to bring attention to multiracial issues with the recent publication of the Multiracial Child Resource Book. In New York City,
Jen Chau, a leader in starting the Wellesley College group when she was a student there, has gone on to found "Swirl," which now has chapters in several other cities.
I find all of this very encouraging. Ten years ago, when I first went looking for interracial support groups, what I found were a number of organizations that had been founded by interracial couples, some who had just started families. The groups had formed primarily to help the young children of these couples come to terms with their multiracial heritage, provide a positive atmosphere for the children to interract with other interracial families, and give
monoracial parents a forum for discussing the issues they faced.
That's all well and good, but such an organization doesn't offer much for single, biracial adults. Now, however, I'm pleased to see more movement in that direction and the recognition there's a broader constituency that groups of this kind should tap. The growth of these organizations both on college campuses and in the community is a postitive step.
It's time the answer to the question, "But what about the children?" come from those of us who have lived the multiracial experience -- the biracial children who aren't children anymore.
My British Cousin
By Elliott Lewis
"I have wind," my cousin Teresa announces. Yet another example of how
Americans and the British are separated by our common language. "Do
you know what I mean by wind?"
"Do you mean gas?" I reply.
"Yes, gas," she says. "I'm so nervous."
It is less than an hour before the wedding ceremony. Moments ago, two
bridesmaids, a makeup artist, the cat sitter, and two of Teresa's
longtime friends all filled the house. Now the two-story home, which sits less than a
quarter of a mile from the water's edge in this seaside English village, is
eerily quiet. It is just the two of us, the bride and her American cousin,
awaiting the chauffeur's return for our ten-minute ride to the chapel.
"I'm so glad you're here," says Teresa. "I mean, if you can't have gas
in front of family..."
I burst out laughing before she finishes the sentence.
Teresa and I have only seen each other five times in our entire lives,
four of the five in the last ten years. But that is five more times than
she has seen her father, my mother's brother. Stationed in Britain during his
years in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s, he was transferred before Teresa
was born and has never lifted a finger to support her or her mother, or
establish any kind of relationship with his daughter, which is why I'm the one
accompanying Teresa to her wedding instead of him.
Had it not been for a pen pal relationship between Teresa's mother and
mine, we might never have met. The letter-writing began soon after Teresa
was born and years before I was even conceived. Over the years, my mother sent
family photos and occasional news about the relatives here in the United
Teresa's mum sent pictures of her little girl and occasional news about
their lives in the United Kingdom. When Teresa got old enough, she began
She made her first trip to America in the mid-80s. I made my first
trip to the U.K. in the early 90s. And ever since, every excursion I've made
to Europe has included a stop in England to visit my British cousin, whose home
is just a two-hour train ride away from London.
The chauffeur pulls up in front of the house in the vintage Rolls Royce
that will carry us to the church, a small chapel dating back to the 14th
century that holds at most 75 people. Everyone else is already in place.
Teresa and I are the last passengers on what will be his final trip of the
"You're too quiet," Teresa says as the old car chugs its way through
the town's narrow streets. "Say something. Reassure me."
"You're going to do fine. It'll be great," I say.
Actually, it's me I'm worried about. As one of the few members of her
father's family she truly knows, Teresa asked that I be the one to give
her away. She considers it an honor that I said yes. I consider it an honor to
have been asked.
We gather just outside the back door of the chapel.
"Are we ready?" asks Allison, the vicar who will perform the wedding.
We all nod. "Then let's go."
Allison turns to enter the chapel. Two steps in, she trips, losing her
shoe. Quickly she retreats back outdoors, then starts laughing, setting off
a chain reaction from Teresa to me to the bridesmaids.
"Okay," she says, now trying to regain her composure. "Let's try it
This time, the trip down the aisle goes flawlessly.
"Who presents this woman for marriage?"
"I do," I say.
Before long, Michael and Teresa have said their vows, exchanged rings,
and signed the church register. Allison cues the band. I stand to take my
place behind Michael. The bridesmaids and the best man follow as we lead the
rest of those in attendance out of the chapel. Outside, friends and family
members gather around to offer their formal congratulations to the newlyweds.
"We've heard so much about you," one of Teresa's friends says to me.
"Yes, we can see the family resemblance," says another.
What do they see? I wonder. Do they really see a resemblance? Or is
this simply the first time they've seen two biracial people together?
We come from a rainbow family, for sure. My grandfather was a
dark-skinned African American. My grandmother was part black, part white, with
perhaps some Native American thrown in. Their ten children represent various shades
from light caramel to milk chocolate brown. My mother is one of the
lightest, but unlike her siblings, she married light as well. For the record, my
father was classified as "mulatto" on his birth certificate.
Given our backgrounds, Teresa's olive complexion matches my skin tone
more closely than we match many of our other cousins in the United States.
Something tells me that's where our "resemblance" starts and ends in the minds of
those looking for evidence of a family connection.
The crowd eventually makes its way to the reception hall where the food
awaits. Somewhere in between the dining and the dancing, Michael
stands to make some announcements. He thanks the choir. He thanks his close friends
and family. And he thanks Allison for making a 900 mile trip to perform
"But if you think 900 miles is something," Michael continues, "Teresa's
cousin Elliott has traveled thousands of miles, all the way from
America, to give Teresa away."
With those words, the audience erupts into the longest and loudest
applause heard that afternoon.
Michael and Teresa are ecstatic that I've made this journey. But from
the moment Teresa extended this special invitation to me, there was never
any doubt in my mind where I would be on their wedding day. My place was at
Teresa's side. How could I not be here? We're family.
"Eight Simple Rules
for Understanding Multiracial Identity."
Once upon a time in this column, I invented something known as "The Seven Habits of Highly Multiracial People." I followed up several months later with my
tongue-in-cheek "Top Ten Signs You're Living the Multiracial Experience."
Now, I'm back with yet another list. This one I'm calling "Eight Simple Rules for Understanding Multiracial Identity." As you might suspect, the idea came
to me while watching television and a promotional announcement for ABC's "Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" appeared on the air.
My goal with this list is to provide a tool for breaking through the brick wall many of us encounter when attempting to articulate the multiracial experience and our resulting multiracial identity. For some people, none of our explanations for why and how we identify as multiracial seem to make sense to them. That's because they're not following these eight simple rules. So here we go...
8 Simple Rules for Understanding Multiracial Identity
by Elliott Lewis
1. You must be able to identify your assumptions about how race is defined, how racial identity is formed, and the life experiences of multiracial people.
Maybe you buy into the "one-drop rule," in which one drop of black blood makes a person black. Maybe you think multiracial people must ultimately choose a
single race to identify with. Maybe you think biracial people of black and white heritage are universally accepted by the black community and their black
relatives while being universally rejected by the white community and their white relatives. Maybe you think mixed race people are a bunch of mixed nuts
who live in a state of perpetual confusion. Whatever your assumptions are, you must first be able to identify them. Write them down if necessary. But get to
know your mental baggage.
2. You must question these assumptions.
Now that you have identified these assumptions, you need to take a second look at them and question their validity. What if the life experiences multiracial people actually have don't match the experiences you think we have? What if the way you perceive us is not the way everyone else perceives us? Your judgments and conclusions about multiracial identity may be based on a series of false assumptions about the nature of racial identity in interracial families. This will get in the way of true understanding.
3. You must discard those assumptions that are shown to be outdated, incorrect, or do not reflect the multiracial experience.
I cannot tell you how many times someone has claimed to have more expertise on my life and what it is like living in my skin than I do. While some of your assumptions could be right on the money, other assumptions about how multiracial people make their way in the world may be flat out wrong. Some may be
true for some multiracial people some of the time, but wrong for other multiracial people all of the time. And some assumptions about multiracial people may
have been true for previous generations of mixed race folks but no longer apply to biracial people growing up today. Purge those assumptions that turn out
to be wrong or are not representative of the defining moments the multiracial people in your life are expressing to you.
4. You must recognize that for the multiracial person, race and racial identity are contextual, not absolute.
Multiracial people may adopt different identities in different social contexts. Psychologists who have studied the multiracial population call this
"situational identity," and this is not at all weird or unusual. Someone who has lived abroad or traveled extensively may notice that different countries have
different ideas about race than the notions we often cling to in the United States. Even within the USA, a person may identify as black in the context of
their professional life and how they interact with the outside world, but biracial in their personal life and how they view their culture, upbringing, and heritage.
5. You must abandon the idea that there is a "correct" way to racially identify.
Those of us who are multiracial make sense of our racial identity in our own way, in our own time, in accordance with our own priorities, and in the manner that makes the most sense to us. Some people see their racial identity as a political statement. Some people see their racial identity as a social or psychological one. For others, it's a legal declaration made within the context
of equal opportunity laws. Hey, whatever works for you. But I have no patience for those who attempt to "instruct" multiracial people on how to "properly"
6. You must recognize that racial identity is not strictly a matter of how a person looks. There's more to it than that.
A person's physical appearance is part of the equation, but it's not the only variable in play. I would argue that ultimately, life experiences and how we process them determine one's racial identity. How a person looks certainly influences those experiences. But it's the experiences themselves that carry weight. Those who think it's all about physical appearance and nothing more are not seeing the full picture.
7. You must recognize that each multiracial person has different experiences with race and racism, and that these individualized experiences shape racial
Some black-white biracial people see themselves as black. Some see themselves as members of all the races in their heritage. Some see themselves as
members of a separate "multiracial" race. In each case, the identity declaration reflects the sum total of their life experiences, from family structure to cultural upbringing to social interactions and so on. And those experiences differ from person to person.
8. You must accept the "multiple truths" in the lives multiracial people live.
I've been seen as black. I've been seen as white. I've been seen as Egyptian, Cuban, Coloured, Creole, and multiracial. I've been rejected by white people. I've been rejected by black people. I've been called the N-word. I've been called "white boy." Some days my life reflects "the black middle class experience" in America. And some days it doesn't even come close. There are
"multiple truths" in the lives multiracial people live.
And they are a big part of the reason we identify the way we do.
CHICKEN GUMBO NOW IN BOOK FORM
"Have you written a book?"
For the longest time, my answer had been, "Nope," or "Not yet."
Well, now that's changed.
"Chicken Gumbo for the Multicultural Soul" is no longer just a column.
It's also the title of my new booklet of essays, charts, and random thoughts on the multiracial experience. It's not a lengthy publication by any means. In fact, it's intended to be a rather breezy exploration of multiracial identity and related matters.
Drawing on many of the concepts I've written about here over the last year and a half, the booklet contains:
The Seven Habits of Highly Multiracial People
The Game of Life for Highly Multiracial People
Three Ring Circus of Biracial Identity
Top Ten Signs You're Living the Multiracial Experience
Elliott's Come To Your Census Form
Resume of Blackness
Six Stages Toward Identity Resolution
A Chicken Gumbo "Recipe"
Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People
Declaration of Independence for Racially Mixed People
The 40-page booklet is a serious but humorous, cerebral yet whimsical, entertaining while educational guidebook on personal identity,
interracial family matters, and cross-cultural issues. A publication for people with multicultural personalities and those who love them!
Here's the 4-1-1 on how to order your copy:
Cost: $7 (includes $2 for shipping and handling)
Make check payable to: Elliott Lewis
Mail to: Elliott Lewis
P.O. Box 2247
Rockville, MD 20847
The book actually came about as a result of the public speaking I've
done on this topic. While I certainly don't make a living this way (I give less than a dozen presentations a year, working them in around my "real" job), over and over again, I saw audience members taking notes. Others asked for copies of the overhead slides I'd used in my presentation.
On one occasion, a college professor asked if she could have a copy of my speech, which really just consisted of a few key phrases written on a piece of paper. I wasn't prepared for that level of interest in what I had to say and felt somewhat embarrassed that I had nothing on paper to offer them.
So I started developing handouts. And the more I spoke, the more
handouts I found myself creating. But that meant making a mad dash to Kinko's right before each engagement. Finally, I realized I had the material to put together a booklet to complement my presentation.
I'm still at work on a full-length book which will go into much more
detail on my background and my journey to come to terms with racial identity. In the meantime, for folks who just want a quick-read of my musings on the multiracial experience, "Chicken Gumbo for the Multicultural Soul" is now being served!
Time for a declaration of Independence
By Elliot Lewis
Don't ask what got me thinking about the 4th of July in the middle of fall. It may just be the recent cold snap to hit the DC area. It has me wishing for a return to summertime temperatures, especially since that string of sniper shootings kept some of us indoors more than we would have liked during the month of October. (One of the victims in Montgomery County was killed within walking distance of my home.)
But the more likely reason July 4th comes to mind is that I just finished rereading "The Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People" in preparation for an upcoming speech, and it made me think about the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and American history in general.
Our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, right to due process, right to remain silent, and so on are all there in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Americans hold those rights dear. Yet it's the Declaration of Independence, the document announcing our divorce from England, that we celebrate with parties and fireworks and barbecues every 4th of July.
So if we can have a Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People, then why not a Declaration of Independence for Racially Mixed People, too? If you're not familiar with it, the Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People is a set of principles articulated by psychologist Maria Root, one of the nation's leading researchers on multiracial identity and interracial family issues.
Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People
I have the right ...
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people's discomfort with my physical ambiguity.
I have the right ...
To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.
I have the right ...
To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial.
To change my identity over my lifetime -- and more than once.
To have loyalties and identify with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.
Some of the ideas expressed in the Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People provided a foundation for arguments to rewrite the census form in 2000, allowing multiracial people to check more than one racial category. But since that battle was fought, some of those involved in making the case to change the census have aligned themselves with other political causes, such as Ward Connerly's "Racial Privacy Initiative," campaigns to end Affirmative Action, and other race-related movements of one political shade or another.
Naturally, some folks may wonder if the rest of us who championed the census changes are now headed down the same ideological path these other activists are taking. The answer is no. And that's where my idea of a Declaration of Independence comes in:
Declaration of Independence for Racially Mixed People
I am free to identify as biracial and not have my identity seen as a political statement.
I am free to identify as biracial and remain apart from political movements formed in the name of mixed race people.
I am free to identify as biracial and remain apart from political movements, period.
I am free to identify as biracial and engage in social activism as I desire.
I am free to identify as biracial and champion causes of my own choosing.
I am free to identify as biracial and reject the causes that other biracial people may embrace.
I am free to identify as biracial and not take up any causes at all.
I declare my independence as a multiracial person.
Top Ten Signs You're Living
the Multiracial Experience
By Elliott Lewis
Maybe I've been watching too much David Letterman.
For those of you who don't stay up that late, one of the regular features of the comedian's
nightly show on CBS is his "Top Ten List." The lists poke fun at everything from pop culture
to current events. If you've seen the show, you know that some of the items that make the
list are so funny precisely because they are so close to being true. In that spirit, I present
to you my Top Ten List (drop roll, please):
Top Ten Signs You're Living the Multiracial Experience:
10. At the family picnic, you tried eating chitlins with chopsticks.
9. You prefer the term "melanin-challenged" as opposed to "high-yellow."
8. You consider yourself a "person of color" but can't decide what color.
7. You've tried compensating for a near-white appearance by acting "super-ethnic."
6. Your "multiracial-radar" works better than your "gay-dar."
5. Your family celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.
4. In demographic surveys, when asked for your race, you think it's an essay question.
3. Your idea of a well-balanced meal is sushi, enchiladas, and baklava.
2. When speaking Ebonics, you have a white accent.
And the number one sign you're living the multiracial experience...
1. You've developed a medical condition which causes your eyes to roll whenever
someone asks, "What are you?"
A Family Thing
By Elliott Lewis
My mother turns 70 later this month. For years, I've been trying to persuade her to write a memoir about her upbringing. When I was younger, my cousins and I couldn't believe some of the stories she and her brothers and sisters would tell us about their childhood. "You're lying!" We used to say to them. "Nobody lives like that!"
Somewhere along the way, we came to realize our elders were telling us the truth. And today we look back with amazement at how far our family has come and the progress it made in just one generation. My cousins and I were living a life so far removed from what our parents had experienced that their life stories sounded like fiction to us.
This spring, I got a letter from Mom. She hasn't written that memoir yet. But she has put some of her experiences down on paper in the form of the following essay, which she has given me permission to share with you here. I hope it inspires you as much as it inspires me.
Which Way Redemption? by Betty Dent Lewis McNeal
Uncle Bill called us a bunch of heathens. I guess I was about 14 when I heard him spew out this accusation and though I didn't know what heathen meant, the fact that Uncle Bill spoke in disgust and disdain gave a clue that a not so nice name had been conferred on us.
My family, that is. We were 12 in all, Mama and Daddy, eight girls and two boys squeezed into a four-room, coal miner's company-built home. Uncle Bill lived in the other half of this duplex and when the mine shut down and the houses were sold, Uncle Bill bought it, making him our landlord with every right to complain about what he considered uncivilized behavior within our walls.
The immediate incident for the heathen remark was Mama taking her hatchet and chopping kindling for our wood stove, not outside, but in the kitchen. Uncle Bill and Aunt Leah heard the cracks and thumps through the thin walls and knew precisely what careless activity was taking place. But that was just the latest in a plethora of oddities we were famous for.
Chopping wood indoors paled next to the slop jar saga. If you don't recognize the term, "slop jar" refers to the chamber pot, a makeshift indoor toilet with a lid to keep out the stench. Everybody in our little village had a slop jar, because in the coal camps of the 1930s and 40s there were few modern conveniences.
The fastidious used the slop jar for liquid discharge only, leaving the lumps for trips to the outhouse outback to which old and young trekked even at night and in all kinds of weather. Gladys, our neighbor on the other side, rinsed her jar after its daily emptying and swished it with Lysol. But not us.
We had no lid and didn't always empty every day. Our playmates made cruel remarks about our stinking abode. Gossipy, curious adults who never came near our door noticed that Mama and Daddy were never seen going to the outhouse, thus revealing the embarrassing fact that our slop jar was not just a nighttime convenience for sleepy-eyed kids, but a 24-hour container for everyone's waste.
People close enough to observe us shook their heads and rolled their eyes at our strange lifestyle. For example, in summer several weeks might go by before freshly washed laundry appeared on our clothesline. How could a family with a dozen bodies go for long stretches without wash day? Neighbors also picked up on the fact that in the rare event when laundry was hung, there were never bed sheets in the lineup. We had no sheets.
We almost didn't have beds. Two double beds that had seen better days housed the kids until the older ones were forced out to the davenport downstairs. Someone gave us a special chair that opened into sleeping space, which was heaven for our eldest, a girl in her teens. We used rolled up coats for pillows and more coats for blankets. Sometimes we slept in our coats when fuel was low. Having several chronic bed-wetters in the bunch meant that mattresses were wet and soggy, and once I saw maggots crawling around.
Forget about fashions and fitting in with our peers. Our clothes were anything anyone gave us, whether in season or not, flattering or ridiculous. I wore sandals, sans boots, in knee-deep snow. I clumped about in high heels and bobby socks as a high-schooler. I wore a secondhand monogrammed blouse, and kids asked why I was wearing someone else's initials. Most awful for us girls, in a family of nine females, sanitary napkins were absent. We used old, unsanitary rags for the monthlies.
You get the picture and have suspected by now that there's more of the same that could be told. Besides being weird, dirty, and poor, we are also African Americans who grew up before liberal laws and the war on poverty could come to our aid. We were awkward and naive and scared of people, especially Daddy. What Godforsaken losers we were! Was Uncle Bill right?
You be the judge.
The 10 kids are all alive today, the eldest 72. We can boast two high school valedictorians. Three attended college and two have multiple degrees. The boys served proudly and honorably in the United States Air Force. We own property and cars and some of us have lavish homes. One sister is a real estate agent and owns two homes. Another sister went through tough government clearance and worked for the FBI. I have earned three degrees, one in law, and passed the Ohio Bar. My name is listed in Who's Who of American Women (1979, see Betty Lewis). Our professions and occupations include the airline industry, medical arts, teaching, banking, computer science, library science, construction trades, the auto industry, clerking and cashiering. Most of us have traveled from coast to coast; several have been to the Caribbean Islands and countries in Africa and Europe.
Mama is gone now but was the most beloved person in our community, being thought of as part saint, part queen for her long-suffering years and noble bearing. Daddy left this world at age 93, respected as the tough survivor he turned out to be. I can't help wondering what Freud's assessment of our early family life might have been. We stumped the experts, for sure. Logic and science always take a back seat to life's redeeming spirit that beats all odds and springs strength and beauty from the least likely of places.
A recipe for Chicken Gumbo
By Elliott Lewis
In the months since I started writing this column for NewPeopleMagazine.com, I have shared with you my various ramblings on biracial identity, common experiences shared by multiracial people, books that I've found helpful in exploring the mixed race experience, and so forth.
Yet despite the title of this column, I have not shared any recipes for making "Chicken Gumbo for the Multicultural Soul." Until now.
Feel free to adjust the ingredients and cooking instructions to suit your taste. Anyway you cook it, I hope you find this concoction to be hot, spicy, and heartwarming!
Chicken Gumbo for the Multicultural Soul
1 cup History
2 cups Family
1 cup Spirituality
1 1/2 cups Race Relations
1 cup Ethnic Diversity
3/4 cup Community
2 cups Friendship
1 teaspoon Politics
Directions: Mix with generous portions of Love, Compassion, and Understanding. Stir vigourously, dissolving all bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance. Add Cultural Seasoning. Sprinkle with Activism.
Serve with Respect.
Enjoy for life!