Monday, December 14, 2009

Let heritage be self-defined

Dear Diversity Diva: At lunch, several of us were talking about the Tiger Woods affair and we kind of got into a debate about the right way to refer to someone who is more than one race. What is the right way? — Mixed Up About Mixed Races

Dear Mixed Up: It’s understandable why you would be confused. Most of us are blends of ethnic heritages. Some are just more obvious blends than others.

I had this very conversation with a co-worker who once asked why most famous people who have a black parent and a white parent identify themselves as black rather than biracial. I pointed out that people tend to self-identify by what the world repeatedly identifies them as. For example, can you imagine if actress Halle Berry or recording artist Alicia Keys or President Barack Obama identified themselves as white?

Tiger Woods tried to get around this when he first gained notoriety by referring to himself as Cablinasian. That not only made him the butt of jokes, ridicule and even some hostility, but it didn’t keep every media outlet and most people from generally referring to Woods as black.

In a nutshell, the correct answer is that a person of diverse heritage is to be called by whatever he or she chooses to be called — whether it’s mixed, biracial or just picking one race, even if you suspect from physical observation that person has a parent who is of a different race.

The reason you allow people to choose their own self-identification is because individuals have reasons they refer to themselves the way they do. For example, if an adult was raised by just one parent, the adult may identify with just the race of the person who raised him or her. On the other hand, someone who was happily raised by parents from two (or more) racial backgrounds may prefer the term “biracial” because it honors the heritages of both backgrounds.

In the workplace, however, unless someone chooses to tell you all this, it’s a highly personal matter that co-workers don’t need to know in respecting and honoring that person’s preferences. Though if your co-worker invents a cumbersome name such as Cablinasian, you may be allowed to ask that person for his or her second choice.

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