Elliot Lewis, a Washington, D.C., television news reporter, dislikes one question above all others: “What are you?”
So when the question rears its ugly head, Lewis whips out his personalized business-style card, which politely requests the inquisitor to think more carefully about why fitting him neatly into one racial group or another is so important. For Lewis, racial identity boils down to more than one word.
“When we get into a conversation with people [about their backgrounds], we may find that the answer is infinitely more complex,” Lewis said at his Tuesday afternoon talk at the University of New Haven.
Lewis, like millions of Americans, is of mixed racial heritage. At the presentation “Chicken Gumbo for the Multicultural Soul,” he addressed the difficulty of racial identity and the misconceptions multiracial Americans face on a regular basis.
Wearing a button that reads, “It’s a multicultural thing, you wouldn’t understand,” Lewis showed clips from his award-winning television documentary, “Heat in the Shade,” to a full auditorium.
In a society that operates in an “either-or” mindset, Lewis said, there is an inclination for people to reflect their own racial constructs onto individuals who do not clearly fit into a single category. He compared this tendency to an inkblot test, in which people’s backgrounds and beliefs influence what they believe the blot resembles.
“As a biracial person, when people look at me and often try to peg me racially, I am like a living, breathing, walking, talking inkblot test,” Lewis said.
The way Lewis identifies himself — “more black than white, but more biracial than anything else” — does not exist as a check box on surveys and tests. Racial identity often has more to do with individual personal choices and experiences than color of skin or parentage, Lewis said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 census, more than 6.8 million Americans checked two or more categories when asked to describe their race. The year 2000 marked the first time Americans were allowed to select more than one racial category in the census.
As people of multiracial backgrounds grow and change, their perceptions of their own racial identities can also change, Lewis said. Frequently, they undergo a temporary identity crisis before they discover a label with which they feel comfortable. Sometimes, they identify with the race of one parent, sometimes with both, and sometimes with an entirely separate multiracial group.
“We move through this on our way to a resolved identity,” Lewis said.
In fact, most Americans come from mixed heritage backgrounds, Lewis said. Many African-Americans have white ancestors, but their relatives were classified as black during the era of slavery for the economic benefit of slave owners, Lewis said. Despite this inherent diversity, Americans tend to pigeonhole people with specific labels, said Johnnie Fryer, director of the University of New Haven’s Office of Multicultural Affairs/Services, which invited Lewis to be part of the campus’ Multicultural Week.
“We live in a society where one drop defines what you are,” he said.
While Fryer said most of society would identify him as racially black, in his office he displays pictures of his blue-eyed, light-skinned grandchildren. Fryer said he felt Lewis’ talk could apply to almost any American.
“[Lewis’] focus was more on the combination ‘black plus,'” he said. “But I think it’s equally appropriate if an Irish-American or a German-Italian-American were to discuss being ‘plus.'”
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