Compensation's Secret
By Charles Michael Byrd

If you aspire to exalted places, then first learn what lowly stations to take.
If you would receive, then first learn how to give.
This is called "Compensation's Secret," where the soft overcomes the hard, the weak prevails against the strong.

From the Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu

In terms of sheer numbers, it wasn't wildly successful as the television networks didn't bother preempting their regular Saturday morning cartoons to broadcast it, but the July 20 Multiracial Solidarity March set a precedent. It was a first-of-its-kind event that dared suggest that individuals of mixed descent should have the right to choose their own identity, instead of passively accepting an "other-determined" set of "racial credentials."

An intriguing and recurring question is why no one had called for a rally, demonstration or some other event specifically designed to allow individuals to publicly and proudly proclaim their multiraciality sooner -- perhaps a decade ago instead of 1996. After all, the twentieth anniversary of "Loving vs. Virginia," the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down this country's remaining anti-miscegenation laws, was in 1987. That commemoration reminded us that while interracial couples were free to wed, interracial individuals in America were not yet free to self-identify. By the mid to late '80s there were forty to fifty local interracial support groups dotting the landscape, all flourishing and prospering to varying degrees within their communities. San Francisco's homegrown entry even spawned an association that held out the promise of being national in scope as it vigorously advocated for the rights of multiethnic and multiracial individuals. Surely, many thought, the interracial community would now adopt a more "proactive" stance against the political foes of a multiracial identifier.

So, what happened? Much of it boils down to how one defines "power" and how one pursues it. Many view "power" as that "might" wielded only by those who stroll the halls of Congress, those who sit on the boards of multinational corporations, those who are intimately involved in the ups and downs and manipulations of financial markets or those media moguls who feed us a steady diet of what they want us to know. At the risk of being accused of reverting to 1960s revolutionary-radical counter-culture phraseology, let me offer that too few view "power" as being derived from "the people." Corazon Aquino recognized this, however, and assisted in the overthrow of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Boris Yeltsin recognized this and prevented his country's nascent democracy from being strangled in its crib by a Communist coup. Why can't more recognize it?

When those who would be leaders of any community don't take their case to the people first, laying out in unequivocal terms the justification and necessity of a particular initiative, then no grassroots political support and power can or will ensue. When leaders don't inform those who would ostensibly benefit the most from any movement before making political concessions on their behalf, in their name, the people naturally come to possess a degree of suspicion.

A case in point concerning concessions revolves around the discussion over a "closed box" versus "open-box: check all that applies" multiracial category. The former says, "As the artificial construct yet social reality of race is construed, I'm of mixed-race, and the details are none of the government's business." One rationalization of the latter is "I'm of mixed heritage, and I wish to recognize the race and/or ethnicity of both my parents." That's fair enough. Another rationalization is, "I'm of mixed heritage, but to appease government demographers and civil rights leaders who feel their numerical strength and political agenda threatened, I'll check multiple lines below." We'll never know whether a majority of mixed-race folk favor one over the other since, well, no one polled us on the issue. According to Jane Gross, Los Angeles Times urban affairs writer, in her January 9, '96 article entitled, UC Berkeley at Crux of New Multiracial Consciousness, two national lobbying groups have urged OMB (Office of Management and Budget) "to include a box on the new forms for people of multiracial descent and then ask them, under that umbrella category, to indicate their various races and ethnicities. This dual approach is designed to mollify minority communities, especially some African-Americans."

Since there was no attempt to generate widespread popular support in the interracial community all those years ago, our leaders essentially deal from a position of weakness. Instead of the people, litigation becomes the fallback position if intelligent argument fails. (I.e., the government denies mixed-race, multiethnic folk equal protection of the law; the government denies them the basic benefits and civil rights protections, including special medical considerations, which other people enjoy because of being counted specially. Therefore, we'll see you in court, pal!)

Those leaders would do well to learn what "The Old Philosopher" knew some 2,600 years ago. To lead people, one must be in touch with them; one must have a natural and spiritual affinity for them, and what's real to the many must be real to the one. Shared communication, affinity and reality must exist today, for the people are the movement's and community's leaders of tomorrow.*

Leaders must learn that before they can receive power, they must first learn to freely give it. Empower those who occupy the "lowly stations" first, before you attempt to move on to "exalted heights." Loosely knit groups -- such as those that constitute the multiracial community -- and those unaffiliated individuals often don't know how to come together until someone or some organization makes it their specific effort to network everyone together properly. It takes charisma, leadership, and the honest will to unite folks -- to give the people a voice, a say.

One of the eight goals of the March was: To allow those individuals who have had to previously choose one side of their racial/ethnic heritage at the expense of the other to both publicly and proudly affirm their multiraciality, to allow them to see they no longer have to choose and deny to satisfy a particular political agenda. Before the event, one person suggested that the government doesn't care about either the self-esteem of anyone within this community or about doin' the right thing, that it would only respond to threats of legal recourse. Interracial Voice, however, cares about our community's self-esteem, whether the government or any other entity does or not.

If the leaders care only about aspiring to exalted places and not about fostering a deep sense of community coupled with a tremendous sense of self-worth amongst the people, then this movement will have missed the point -- terribly.

(* Yasmin S. D. Okino also speaks to this issue in a Point-Counterpoint response regarding the proposed Census category.)


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