Book Review: Born Biracial by Susan Graham

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Born Biracial: How One Mother Took On Race in America 
Susan Graham 
Memories Press, 2019

♦♦♦
3.5 Stars

 

As with many movements, Susan Graham’s quests to allow multiracial people to self-identify as such began with her children, “as my young son would tell people, ‘Other makes me feel different, like a space alien.'” The mother of two biracial children, Born Biracial is Graham’s memoir about her work throughout the late 1980s, the 90s, and the first two decades of this century bringing to the fore of our culture awareness of multiracial realities. Graham was one of the prime movers of a nationwide movement to allow multiracial people to formally self-identify as such on official forms.

It would seem to be such a small thing, being allowed to say who you are. Yet, identity was historically and still frequently to this day an exercise of power over others. Graham provides a plethora of examples throughout her book, “in North Carolina, a teach asked a multiracial teenager in front of the class, ‘You’re so light are you sure your mother knows who your father is?’ I let them know about what happened in Georgia when a teacher said to a child, ‘You should go home and figure out what you are–you can’t be both. And how in Maryland, a school secretary came into a kindergarten class and announced she was there to decide a child’s race.” What we see here are practical examples of white supremacy in action, the systematic denial of agency.

Graham doesn’t just show us these obvious acts of bigotry, but also gives us the difficulties inherent in attempting to alter the system. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most staunchly resistant groups to allowing multiracial identity were the African-American community. It’s an understandable tension. The data governments collect determines the allocation of resources leading to the fear that a multiracial category would curtail this. Graham writes clearly how this kind of zero-sum thinking is false. But it doesn’t help that the allies Graham had to cultivate such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are famously disingenuous. Thus for lovers of cultural history, Born Biracial gives readers a glimpse into the difficulty and finesse needed to usher through even the smallest bit of policy or legislation. 

The book is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how a non-governmental organization or interest group has to navigate the byzantine machinations of bureaucracy. Graham speaks candidly about her ProjectRACE group not just for itself but for others who want to create an advocacy group, “It takes time, money, commitment, volunteers, bookkeeping, future funding, getting set up as a non-profit, which takes of paperwork for the IRS alone to make that determination, not to mention the savvy organizing, the connections for getting things done in Washington, and just plain hard work 24/7. It not easy. It is a thankless, non-stop bit of heartache each and every day.” The only significant flaws in Born Biracial come towards the end of the book where the narrative breaks down into a sort of impressionistic journaling and the insertion of more than a few somewhat petty swipes at rival organizers.

Given the contemporary debate about questions to be or not to be included in the upcoming 2020 census, readers will find Born Biracial a fascinating work showing just how difficult it is to make what seems obvious to many and most an official designation. Graham’s prose is smooth and easy, her personal story compelling, and her resilience inspiring.

 

About the Author

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Susan Graham is the founder, president and executive director of Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally). Specializing in race/ethnicity and public policy and an advocate for civil rights, Susan has testified before congressional committees in Washington. In addition to her work with Project RACE, Susan has been published in The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constititution, The Orlando Sentinel and in other major newspapers and magazines. She is married to Portuguese-American poet Sam Pereira.

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