Originally published at The Time Is Always Right
In the past couple of years, I have noticed a certain complacency that I never noticed before, in my eleven years of leading Swirl. The same passion and the same excitement around building multiracial communities had faded a bit. In the one year leading up to the Presidential election, we launched five new chapters (the norm had been a chapter every year or every other year). People were excited by the energy created by Obama’s campaign, and they were motivated and eager to be a part of creating supportive and inclusive multiracial communities.
And then once Obama was firmly placed in the White House, something happened. It got quiet.
My theory was that it was all related to the claims that we were now in some sort of post-racial wonderland. I think it very much had to do with the fact that Obama is of multiracial heritage. This fact resulted in a sort of sitting back. A sentiment that sounded like, “we’re good now.” The idea that Obama understood so many of us, and that he cared about diversity was something that gave people a reason to relax. Take a breath. Stop pushing so hard. I understood this and even felt a bit of it myself. The other reality is that in an individual’s development, one may feel a strong desire to connect to community at one point and not at another. Swirl has always understood and been supportive of this.
Organizations, academics, student leaders still continued their work, but it was clear that a lot of people – our members, our “audience” – were….gone. I heard the same from other groups – that membership started to lull. Student campus groups folded. It seemed that people didn’t need our mixed groups in the same way they had, previously. Before Obama. Before “check all that apply” on the U.S. Census.
But had things changed all that much? Yes, we are counted now. We know the numbers of multiracial people and interracial couples in this country. But do people start understanding one another and become supportive overnight just because we have a tally? Do things feel different for a multiracial person or a mixed family on a day to day basis?
Yes and no. I have heard from many people that things are better. That they are not questioned nearly as much. That people no longer stare in awe as they talk about the fact that their mom is black and dad is white. That they feel comfortable being all of who they are, at all times. It always makes me happy to hear that this is what people are experiencing. It means that progress is being made.
But others still experience the awkward questions. The demand by strangers to “prove” they are one thing or the other. Moms being asked how long they’ve been babysitting their own children. Stares, rude comments, family tensions and sometimes divisions. This is all still real and still happening.
And your experience, in part, is impacted by your context. Your circle, your larger environment. Where you live. In pockets, multiracial people and families are supported, recognized, understood. In others, far from it.
There are many ways that we have to fight racism and ignorance. It’s absolutely critical that things happen on the institutional level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the corresponding changes automatically happen at the cultural or individual level. And vice versa. Just because a change occurs on one level doesn’t mean that the others follow neatly in line. We have the ability to “check all that apply” on the Census (which is huge), but that doesn’t mean that individuals immediately understand the complexity of multirace. Things don’t change overnight. We know this logically, but it seems that we sometimes want to pretend it isn’t the case (see “post-race”). I want to live in bliss too, believe me. But a real one, that we work hard to create for ourselves…not a superficial one that we wish into being.
This piece was prompted by today’s New York Times article on a mixed family. I hope that their story (and others) help to illustrate all that still needs to be understood.
Jen Chau is the Founder and Executive Director of Swirl. She is also an independent consultant, focusing on supporting non-profits with organizational development, change management, building HR processes, diversity work, and executive coaching. Jen received her BA in Women’s Studies at Wellesley College and her MS in Organizational Change Management from Milano, The New School for Management and Urban Policy. She currently lives in New York City and writes about her experiences in activism every now and then at The Time Is Always Right.