Defining race has never been simply a matter of black or white, and for journalist Elliot Lewis, deciphering race is not only a personal choice but one that’s influenced by a person’s generational standards.
Lewis, a multiracial American TV journalist, spoke to students Tuesday as a part of Mixed Race Week at CSU about the process by which people choose by which race to identify themselves in an increasingly blurred racial society.
“Racial identity is not a mathematical equation; it’s a psychological process, and it unfolds differently in different people,” Lewis said, explaining that before the Civil Rights Era, it was abnormal for a person to call themself multiracial — a person who identifies with more than one race.
In the speech Lewis proposed five strategies that people use to define their identities. They can:
Choose to let society to classify them to one group,
Choose on their own initiative to belong to one group,
Try to embrace all heritages,
Reject them and form a new one, or
Choose to belong to one group but, symbolically or mentally, sympathize with the others.
From this he illustrated that each strategy is used differently by the individuals of different generations. Generations born before 1970 tend to classify themselves with one group, people born between 1970 and 1980 tend to accept or reject all, and people born after 1980 use all five.
Following the approval of a House of Representatives bill in 2000, which legally permitted people to identify themselves as multiracial on legal documents and college and financial applications among others, there was a spike in the national multiracial community.
Lewis’ parents were both mixed-race by birth but chose to live a single-race lifestyle. Lewis, who wrote “Fade: My Journey in Multicultural America,” has spent years discerning which group he belongs to and eventually accepted his multiracial character as both a Caucasian and black individual.
Krysta Atkinson, a freshman microbiology major and co-president of Shades of CSU, is a multiracial individual. For most of her life she claimed to be Mexican but accepted her father’s Caucasian identity upon entering college.
“Living in a multiracial family is a lot different than living in a family of a minority, or of a single race,” Atkinson said. “You’re brought up differently, you’re seen differently based on your skin color even though you are more than one race or part of another culture.”
Race is determined one of two ways, Lewis explained — by birth or by life experiences.
He said a person who is born to single-race parents who identify themselves as such generally accept that race for themselves. On the other hand, an individual may accept all aspects of their heritage and consider him or herself to be multiracial.
During Lewis’ speech he showed a documentary he made that featured a family with a black father, white mother and children somewhere in between.
The Harper brothers were seven and 10 years old and each had very different views on what race they were, which is not uncommon in multiracial families, Lewis said.
“This is what biracial people do, there is nothing odd or unusual about this,” he said. “Racial identity evolves as children and continues to evolve as adults.”
Mixed Race Week events continue throughout the week to celebrate the cultural blending of ethnic groups, language divisions and national origins.
Staff writer Scott Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.