In 1967, the United States Supreme Court declared state laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional [Loving vs. Commonwealth of Virginia]. This decision opened the courthouse door for men and women of different races to marry, procreate and bring up their legitimate children anywhere in the United States. According to the 1992 U.S. Census, there are about 1,161,000 racially mixed families in the United States. Of these, about 246,000 are married couples in which one partner is African American and the other “white.” The number of children born of these relationships must be hundreds of thousands.
One of these children, Bethany Godby, the teenage daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama couple, refuses to be classified by contemporary racial classifications. Bethany’s parents are considered a biracial couple … white father and black mother … in our race-conscious society and Bethany insists on claiming her whole heritage.
In a recent story in the Montgomery Advertiser, 13 year old Bethany said she was not allowed to run as a white candidate for homecoming queen at Cloverdale Junior High. The controversy stems from a school policy that allowed for the election of two homecoming courts, one black and one white. Bethany ran and won a white candidacy slot from her home room. According to the article, Cloverdale principal, Mr. Jethro Wilson, said that this first election was declared null for reasons not involving Bethany and her class did not nominate her in the second election.
The dual-race election policy was established by the school board during the time of transition from a racially segregated school system to an integrated one. The time for this transition has long past. Bethany and her parents took the correct action by challenging the dated and divisive school policy mandating separate black and white elections for homecoming court. The Montgomery County School Board acted properly by immediately eliminating the policy with a unanimous vote.
One can only ponder how many other children like Bethany, who don’t fit into our black/white political paradigm, suffer from loss of identity. How do these and “other” racially mixed children cope in our black or white racial social construction?
Writing in their book, Multiracial Couples: Black & White Voices, authors Paul C. Rosenblatt, Terri A. Karis and Richard D. Powell discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a child being biracial. The authors write, “The existence of biracial children are a challenge to racist thinking, in part because those who need to fit everyone into a clearly defined set of categories can be resentful when a child straddles the boundaries between categories.” Racism can burden a biracial child, but there are also some advantages in our society for these children. One major advantage “… comes from [the child] knowing two worlds and having a dual perspective.”
Fortunately help for resolving our racial identity dilemma for multiracial individuals may be on the way. The office of Management and Budget is revising its Statistical Policy Directive No. 15, Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting. A report is due out in 1997.
The current standards define 5 categories: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic and white. In recent years, these nearly 20-year old race classification standards have come under increased criticism. These five categories are not sufficiently descriptive to classify multiracial people. Children, like Bethany Godby, want their government to classify them in a way that does not exclude or deny their racial heritage from either parent.
On the surface, the easy solution is to get the government out of the business of classifying citizens by race. “But it’s not that easy,” Wayne Sabel, an attorney representing Bethany says. “There remains a need for race-based remedies to eliminate the effects of past discrimination.”
Children in Bethany’s racial category will and should continue to speak out against a government racial classification system that compels them to deny their heritage. These children want their government to assign to them a racial category that represents their individual reality. Children born of both black and white parents want to be classified in that manner. And for Bethany Godby, the teenage daughter of a white father and black mother, a Biracial category will be just fine.
Originally Published: 6 November 1996, Montgomery Advertiser