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|October 9-15, 2008
Obama’s rise has some people of mixed race examining how they define themselves
by Lornet Turnbull
Rachel Clad’s parents are a black woman from Detroit and a white man from California who met in the Peace Corps in Africa.
Clad, 26, was born in New Zealand and spent her early years in far-flung parts of the world before her family settled into a middle-class lifestyle in Washington, D.C.
She’ll tell you she’s multiracial.
“People look at me and see African-American,” she said. “In my mind, that’s not who I am. I’m both and I’d like to be seen as both.”
Aaron Hazard’s mother was a French-Canadian white woman who met his African-American father at a dance in Boston in the 1930s, at a time when such unions were forbidden.
When he signed up for service during the Vietnam era, the Army listed him as white, although Hazard has never referred to himself as anything other than black.
“It’s what my father was and that’s what I am,” the 62-year-old South Seattle resident said. “Back then there were too many white people to remind me of it.”
Barack Obama’s rise to prominence has broadened the dialogue around race in a country that has always done a poor job talking about it. And this new attention is prompting some people of mixed race to more closely examine how they define themselves.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make in this discussion is assuming there’s only one correct way to be biracial,” said author Elliott Lewis, who grew up in Eastern Washington and has written about the biracial experience.
“There are all kinds of ways people process their identity, each one equally valid.”
These days, multiracial and biracial people see themselves everywhere — in public office, on movie screens, in the corridors at school and on the street.
Regardless of who their parents are, how they define themselves is influenced by many factors: their age, how they look, where they were raised and how they’ve lived.
And as personal as those circumstances are, they speak of common experiences, too — of the discomfort in overhearing derogatory remarks about one of the racial groups they belong to. Of their uncertainty about which race box to check when they can check only one on forms to enroll in school, get a mortgage or apply for health insurance.
And for many, exasperation with that inevitable query from sometimes perfect strangers: What are you? It’s a presumptuous question Lewis calls “racial interrogation.”
Increasingly, many racially mixed young people are choosing to define themselves not just by a single race but as a blend of races — multiracial, biracial or with some other label.
Golf superstar Tiger Woods, for example, coined the term “cablinasian” to describe his Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian heritage.
And Obama, in identifying himself as black, is quick to note his mother was a white woman from Kansas and his father a black man from Kenya. In his memoir, “Dreams from my Father,” he writes of his struggle in coming to terms with his own racial identity.
“For many of us who share Obama’s racial background, there’s a certain sense of pride in his achievement,” said Michele Peake Andrasik, board president of the Seattle-based MAVIN Foundation, which advocates on behalf of multiracial people.
Darlene Flynn, a former Seattle School Board member who is the daughter of a white mother and black dad, said that “suddenly we have a biracial presidential candidate and that elevates the curiosity, the need to know more about it.
“And if that furthers the conversation around race ... so much the better.”
In 1961, the year Obama was born, mixed-race marriages like that of his parents were against the law in at least 16 states.
Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional, along with the accompanying “one-drop” rule, which held that any person with any African ancestry be considered black.
In the years that followed, the country witnessed an increase in interracial marriages, although the legacy of the one-drop rule still drives the way some of mixed heritage are seen by others, and how they see themselves.
“There were historical rules... that if you were mixed and had a parent who wasn’t white, then you checked the census box of the parent who wasn’t white,” said Maria P. P. Root, a Seattle clinical psychologist who has written extensively on mixed race in America.
“There was this gate-keeping around whiteness. The public still hasn’t gotten around to the fact that you can be blended.”
In 2000, the U.S. Census allowed people for the first time to check more than one box to identify themselves. Nationwide, 6.8 million people did — 2.4 percent of the population.
The concentrations of mixed-race residents are highest in places like Seattle, where state laws never prohibited interracial marriages to begin with, and where the minority population is especially small compared with the white population, resulting in more racial mixing.
MAVIN’s Andrasik said that despite how society sees them, “multiracial people should choose whatever makes them comfortable.”
A clinical health psychologist with a white mother and African-American dad, Andrasik, 37, said that when she was younger she struggled like many of mixed race with self-identity. But over time, she said, she came to identify as African-American, in large part because of her work in health research, which focuses on helping disadvantaged black women get better physical and mental-health care.
“For some people, the way they feel about their racial identity can change over time; for others it remains static.”
Sometimes it can vary by circumstances.
Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell, 49, thinks of himself as being of mixed race — the son of a Japanese mother and an African-American father. “I love my mother and father equally and embraced both their cultures,” he said.
When filling out forms, though, Harrell said he selects African-American, because “historically there hadn’t been a box for mixed heritage.”
But ask him to describe himself and the councilman will tell you he’s a “big Japanese guy,” because that’s how he looks. “Most people would not know that my father was a handsome African-American man from Louisiana,” he said.
And then there are those who, because of how they look, do not have to confront their racial duality — unless they choose to do so.
As a child, Bryon Friel wondered if he really was adopted because his brother and sister constantly told him that he was.
His two siblings have the dark hair of their Cherokee mother while he, with his blond hair and green eyes, didn’t resemble anyone in the family — not even his brown-haired Irish dad. Now the 46-year-old finds he must produce his tribal card to prove to skeptical friends that he is indeed half Native American.
“Unlike most biracial people, I never get asked, ‘What are you?’ “ said Friel, branch manager for Sapphire Design, an engineering staffing agency in Lynnwood. “People simply assume I’m white.”
Even when given the option of choosing among the boxes that tell a fuller story of who they are, many multiracial people still stick to one.
That’s particularly true of those with a black-and-white mix who remember the worst of this country’s racial strife and who are more likely than their children and grandchildren to automatically identify as black.
Hazard, who retired from Boeing earlier this year, said, “For many, many years, ‘other’ was not a choice.”
Lewis, 42, the author who spent his youth in Pullman and now works as a freelance TV reporter in Washington, D.C., calls himself multiracial. His parents, both biracial, he said, didn’t have the same options.
“If you grew up during segregation there was no biracial water fountain,” said Lewis, who wrote the book “Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America.”
“You didn’t have the option of saying you’re half and half and therefore should drink from both.”
Root, the clinical psychologist, said younger people are changing the rules about self-definition, bucking convention that demands they choose a single race.
“The story is changing and the process of how people identify is changing from what it was 20 years ago,” she said. “There are a lot more people that look like them now and they have more options.”
Take Clad, who grew up in a mostly white middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C. That she doesn’t identify herself as black sometimes puts her at odds with conclusions others form when they look at her.
Yet to call her black, she said, is to completely misrepresent who she is.
After her parents moved back to the states in the 1990s, she attended a mostly white, private, all-girls school and later graduated from Georgetown University.
“I’ve traveled and lived in so many parts of the world. This is the only country where what I am seems to matter,” Clad said.
In Southeast Asia, some people thought she was Malaysian. In Paris they thought she was French. “Americans have a tendency to want to compartmentalize people” strictly by race, she said. And even at that, “You can’t be mixed. It has to be one or the other.”
She’s felt the sting of racism from both blacks and whites, she said, describing how a group of black girls on a train in D.C. once accused her of “trying to look black.”
Equally hurtful was the rejection she felt when the parents of a white guy she’d been dating for two years decided for reasons she never learned that it was time for the relationship to end.
“As biracial people, I feel we embody this whole racial struggle,” she said. “If you don’t identify solely as black then somehow you’re seen as distancing yourself from the struggle.”
Krystle Cobian so equally embraces the cultures of her Mexican father and Filipino mom that she never feels comfortable when forced to choose just one.
Cobian, 21, a Seattle University graduate student from Southern California, said her parents shared the immigrant experience and found wonderful similarities between their two cultures, which in turn enriched their children’s lives.
“When I was younger I used to alternate,” she said. “If I checked the Latino box last time, I’d try to remember to check Asian the next. I pretty much still do that now.”
Stefan Schachtell, a Capitol Hill music producer, moves easily between the cultures of his German father and Mexican mom.
Growing up in Boise, Idaho, he learned both languages, studied in both countries, joined the German American Club and listened for hours to the retelling of his mother’s colorful stories of Mexico.
When he was young, other kids taunted him with the nickname “MexiGerm.” But now, at 34, he has come to appreciate that description, seeing it as apt.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m German and Mexican and I would love to include both on a form.”
But some four decades after miscegenation bans were outlawed, race-mixing still remains taboo in some families.
Harrell, the councilman whose late father was black, said “many of my older Japanese relatives explicitly disapproved of my mother marrying my father. It took more than 20 years before they came to accept that he was a good father and husband.
“For my father’s mother I don’t think that was her first preference for her son, but over the years she accepted my mother as a daughter.”
Kouvon Stephens, a 34-year-old warehouse worker from South King County, said that when his white mother from Yakima married his dad, who is black, her parents stopped speaking to her.
And even after they reconciled, Stephens said, his grandparents made no effort to get to know him. He didn’t even meet them until he was 12, after his parents divorced and his grandmother came to live with them.
He was angry at them, he said, and “for a long time, there was a wall that I built up.”
Eventually, he let it go and developed a relationship with both maternal grandparents, who in turn got to know his 11-year-old daughter — their granddaughter — before they both died.
He said, “My grandmother ended up teaching me a lot of things about life.”
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