THE BLOG

Multiracial Children Choosing a Race

10/28/2011 10:14 am ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

What to check on the form?

That is a question that vibrates in the background of a the child whose parents are different races.

Do you put the race you most "resemble"? The one that might increase your chances of admission? The one that describes how you "feel" about yourself?

Each of those are loaded questions, of course. And while they have been made simpler in recent years as more institutions have added a box for "mixed race" or "other" (spurred by a Department of Education edict that schools collect more information about race and ethnicity), even choosing that represents a worldview.

The Choice blog at the New York Times ran the story of one typical dilemma a few months ago, describing the decision faced by Natasha Scott, a senior from Maryland, who posted this question on the popular college-admissions-advice website College Confidential. Her father is black, her mother is Asian, and, she wrote:

I just realized that my race is something I have to think about. It pains me to say this, but putting down black might help my admissions chances and putting down Asian might hurt it.

My mother urges me to put down black to use AA (African-American) to get in to the colleges I'm applying to. I sort of want to do this but I'm wondering if this is morally right.

More and more students are choosing both, Jacques Steinberg went on to report, noting that there were 8 "multiracial" applicants to Rice University in Houston five years ago, and nearly 600 during the last application cycle.

This is not necessarily because more multiracial students are applying, he noted, but because they identify themselves differently:

As a result of the new rules, a student who is white, with a distant ancestor of American Indian heritage -- someone who would likely have identified himself as white to a college just a few years ago -- would now have the option to claim both races, as well as to highlight relatives from other backgrounds on his family tree, as he saw fit.

Not so fast, writes Jamie Stevens, the Santa Fe mother of grade schoolers, in an essay on inCulture Parent recently. Clarifications have a way of creating complications, and she has found her choices newly muddled by forms and boxes designed to simplify things.

Her particular set of facts:

Although I have a diverse cultural background, I have always identified myself as a proud Native American woman. My family is from the Pueblo of Isleta, just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My grandfather was born and raised in Isleta, speaking our native language of Tiwa before learning English. I am blessed with the dark, striking features of my mother, features which identify me as Native. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time at our family home in Isleta...I have a deep respect for where we have been as a people, and how we got to where we are today. My Indian heritage has defined who I have been for most of my life, that is, until I became a mother. 

I left Albuquerque for San Francisco right after high school, but I clung to my Native roots to forage an adult identity for myself. I kept track of tribal affairs from 1,100 miles away, went to church every Sunday and made beans with ham hocks regularly. Then I fell madly in love with the fair-haired grandson of Hungarian immigrants and got married. My mother always says that Indian blood is thick, so I expected to produce dark-haired, dark-skinned babies. Instead, our children have their father's fair skin and European features. These are not Indian babies.

First, the tribe made that clear to Stevens:

When I wanted to register the birth of my firstborn with the tribe, I learned that my children would not have enough Indian blood to be recognized tribal members. Tribal membership in Isleta requires you to be at least one-fourth Isleta. I have the minimum amount, which means that my children, with one-eighth Isleta blood, do not qualify. Ritual dances, which are held regularly, are a large part of the culture of the tribe. They are like prayer services for specific purposes and only tribal members may participate in them. I realized that the culture that I have most identified with my entire life, a very part of who I am, cannot be fully shared with my family. How was I going to raise my children? 



Then the school system weighed in:

When the time came to register my son for kindergarten, one simple section on the registration paperwork troubled me greatly: "Ethnicity (choose one.)" Choose one? There was a box to check for Native American with a line to supply the Certification of Indian Blood (CIB) number. Since my children do not qualify for a CIB number, are they not Indian at all? What ethnicity do I check? Hispanic? Caucasian? I was floored. I knew that the main purpose of the question was for funding. Are Indian kids worth more to the school district? Less? I ended up classifying him as "Caucasian with some Hispanic decent" and walked away feeling like I failed.



In the end, Stevens found an answer that brought her some kind of peace (you can read her entire essay here ) based on tradition and values more than official labels, but she knows this is not the last time she -- and then her children -- will have to choose.

What race are your children? Their father's? Mother's? The one that does them the most "good"? Or that makes them most comfortable in their skin? Is it a a jumbled kind of progress that where parents once worried that children would be held back in life by checking a particular box, now they worry they will be denied that particular check?