Bridging cultural differences is challenging enough when people agree on the labels used to describe those differences. But when someone believes a label ascribed to them doesn’t fit, all kinds of hot buttons are pushed.

Let’s take race as an example. Most people assume that race is a biological concept. Whether this is true or not, though, is being hotly contested among physical anthropologists, the one group we would expect to have the definitive answer.

What we do know is that the meaning assigned to one’s race is what makes it significant. So how does it work when people believe that the label ascribed to them doesn’t fit?

Some people belong to more than one group

Tiger Woods is the informal poster child for those who refuse to be categorized in only one group. He famously invented the term “Cabalinasian” to describe his Caucasian, American Indian, Asian, and Black ethnic make-up.

In the early history of this country, Tiger Woods wouldn’t have had to invent a term. Racial classifications were viewed as unimportant. With the increasing slave trade, racial categories helped distinguish between those who were presumed to be free (White) or slave (Black). Even so, the question arose as to how to categorize people who were a mixture of both.

Before the Civil War and for a few decades afterward, people with mixed African and European lineages, for example, were referred to as “mulattos” to indicate mixed race. For example, in the 1920 US Census, my grandfather, grandmother, and other were classified as mulattos, even though my grandfather’s parents who lived in the same town were classified as “Black.”

The term mulatto ceased being used around 1930 when the “one-drop rule” was widely adopted to solidify the inferior social status of those who were not White. An eugenicist explained the one-drop rule this way:

“The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

In 1967, the Supreme Court officially declared that the “one-drop rule” was unconstitutional and could no longer be used to classify people racially. By the 1970 Census, people were able to choose one of several racial categories: White, Negro or Black, Indian (American), Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, or Other.

Fast forward a few more decades and people of mixed lineage began to rebel at being forced to choose one racial group only and successfully lobbied for a new category of “mixed race”. This created an outcry since the race and ethnic questions on the census provide the basis for monitoring compliance with laws against discrimination, determining voting districts, assessing fairness of employment practices, and monitoring health and educational disparities.

In response to the protest, rather than create a separate category which would move untold numbers of people of color into the “mixed” category, both the 2000 and 2010 US Census allowed people to check more than one race. For many multiracial individuals, this presented a difficult choice. Some advocated for biracial individuals to “think twice, check once” so that needed resources would go to underserved communities. Others argued for their right to check as many boxes as they chose.


Some people believe they were placed in the wrong group

Labels also don’t fit when people believe they have been mislabeled. Over the years, several of my friends and acquaintances have been viewed by others as White, while they thought of themselves as Black or another cultural group. One friend told me how as a child in an all-White community, her favorite stories were about African and Native American children. She longed to be one of them. A member of an activist Black group that I belonged to in the 1960s was a White male who identified as Black. He became one of us.

Then, there are people who moved in the opposite direction. I know several very light-skinned people who were raised as Black and who as adults moved out of town and began passing as Whites. They moved back and forth between the two worlds, coming home to their Black neighborhoods to visit family and friends and then returning back to their White worlds.

Some people do not identify with any racial or ethnic group

The most poignant examples of this have been a few White men I have known who have never felt accepted as “one of the boys.” Several years ago, one friend explained it this way:

“One reason I feel especially screwed by it all [racial identity] is that I don’t identify with the white male establishment either. I am excluded by and large as a non-golfer, church-goer, bass-fisherman, one-of-the-boys. I didn’t play football in high school…. I say sir at the wrong times…I don’t watch sports on TV or read them in the newspaper. I guess my point is that I think–deep down inside, I fear that I am group-less [belong to no group] altogether.”

Beyond these men are numerous Whites who, lacking a point of comparison, grew up believing that the norms of their community were American rather than reflective of a particular ethnic vantage point. With the emergence of Whiteness studies and more open discussion about racial and ethnic differences in this society, the number of people fitting this category is probably decreasing.

Then, there are those who are burdened with guilt about being White, particularly if they have family members who make overtly racially offensive remarks or actions. I refer any and all to Tim Wise’s excellent website and to other websites devoted to eradicating the ‘isms. I also take the firm position that they should embrace who they are, just as I do. Positive action, not guilt, is needed most.

Last, there are those who assert that racial or ethnic labels should be abolished altogether — we should all be color-blind. Jean Ramsey and I wrote about the negative effects of color-blindness in Reframing Change, Chapter 5 and I will probably talk about it in more detail in a future blog.

Gender and other group identities

I have written here about people who fail to identify fully with a particular racial or ethnic group. Similar descriptions can apply to people in other social groups. For example, with respect to gender identification, intersexed individuals have characteristics of male and female genders. Transgendered persons believe they were born into the wrong gender. Pansexuals fail to identify with just one gender.


What does it all mean?

What’s important to know is that we humans define ourselves partly by our group memberships and we want to choose our own labels for our groups. Regardless of the label, group identity — wanting to belong — is the common thread. The challenge for those of us who wish to lead consciously is learning how to embrace our own and others’ preferred group identities and to develop skills for using our differences to enrich our lives.


1.  What do you think of “mixed race” as a new category? Do you think it should be a separate category or should people be allowed to check as many as apply?

2.  Do you know people who are labeled one way and they think of themselves another way? How does this play out in their lives?


1.       Reframing Change, Chapter 5 (see especially the sections on color-blindness)

2.       Madison Grant, The Passing of The Great Race, 1916 cited in Wikipedia.

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Filed under: bridging differencesconscious use of self

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