National Geographic’s article “Changing Faces” by Lise Funderburg looks at identity and how it is changing with time. These photos by Martin Schoeller are people of mixed race identities. They are compelling to me because they wrongfully prompt the question of “What are you?”; a question that is offensive, and reflects the categorization system that is embedded in our society. The US census bureau recognizes the flaw in the categorization system, and in 2000 allowed respondents to check more than one box. 6.8 million US citizens chose to do so. In 2010, that number increased by 32% again. This shows the need for a system beyond categories.
Identity is fluid. How one identifies is based as much upon experiences, politics and history as it is on biology; and the self-identification system is a step in the right direction in addressing the isolated and exclusive categorical definitions.
The National Geographic article delves into the problems with the census categorical system and identity. As the stats obviously show a steady increase in mixed racial individuals, these are issues that need to be addressed. The photos are used in a compelling way to push the viewers to realize the expectations embedded within themselves.
An article by Michele Norris in “Proof”—National Geographic’s online photography section—looks at another angle of the article. It delves into the perspective of mixed race individuals. Norris started the Race Card Project, which accumulates shared stories about race like a collection of post cards. These stories are limited in length (6 words to be exact), and works as a window into powerful experiences and perspectives. Here are some examples of the post cards, they link to greater length descriptions of why these words were chosen.
“Not ‘bi-racial’, not ‘mixed’, just human!”—Tyler Brown, Washington, D.C.
“I am only Asian when it’s convenient”—Heather Brown, Seattle, Washington
“My mixed background means ‘White Enough’”—Maximilian Willson, Olympia, Washington
“See a Soul, not a label.”—Susan Clementson, Bothell, Washington
“Don’t cry. Mama loves your curls.”—Hilary Roberts-King, Baltimore, Maryland
“Afraid children won’t look like me”—Alexandria Jones, Columbus, Ohio
“The future belongs to the hybrids.”—Skip Mendler, Honesdale, Pennsylvania
Norris calls these people edge walkers, a term coined by Dr. Nina Boyd Krebs, which refers to the movement between cultures. But balancing different identities often involves a sharp edge, and can be painful for those who are forced to maneuver along it.
Our diversity is the marvel of the world and represents one of our greatest strengths as a nation. It heralds progress but not without pain for those who live on the knife-edge of multiple cultures.”
In her original article, Funderburg celebrates the beauty of diversity and provides us with an image of the future. Like the census bureau now allows respondents to check more than one box, we need to realize that the boxes are irrelevant. Celebrating one’s culture is still important, but defining exactly where one’s culture originates is unnecessary in understanding them.
Funderburg ends with Walt Witman’s “Song of Myself”:
I am large, I contain multitudes”
And this is true for all of us, race and cultural backgrounds aside. To understand someone takes time, not boxes with checks.