Multiracial families see Barack Obama as ‘Other’ like them

Reporting from Chicago — A rainbow runs through Tyler Winograd’s veins.

His mother, Maile, is half black and half Chinese American. His father, Jeff, is white and grew up Jewish in Evanston, Ill.

“I always check ‘Other’ on my college applications,” Winograd said.

But on election day, Winograd was filling out a different kind of form. The 18-year-old accompanied his parents to the polling place across the street from their Glencoe, Ill., home to cast a ballot for president for the first time.

Winograd was excited just to be voting — a simple act of citizenship that his African American grandfather told him people had died for. His parents were even more excited. The head of the Democratic ticket looked like their son. All of the Winograds voted for Barack Obama.

“I totally feel proud that he’s a black man and he’s mixed,” Maile Winograd said of Obama. “I identified with him so much. What he went through as a biracial person, I went through. And my son must look at Barack and say, ‘He looks like me.’ That’s a good thing. A very good thing.”

For the parents of multiracial children, Obama’s rise has been a vindication of sorts, a presidential rebuttal to a society that has not always been kind to their offspring, labeling them “half-breeds,” “tragic mulattoes,” “mutts,” “mixed nuts,” according to Susan Graham, the white mother of two multiracial children and the founder of the California-based Project Race, a 17-year-old nationwide group that advocates for a multiracial classification on all school, employment, census and other forms.

“Our membership has grown since the election,” Graham said. “We’ve been fighting for a long time. This is a great boost for us.”

But for Tyler Winograd, Obama’s biracial background is no big deal. Winograd is the legal and psychological beneficiary of past struggles for racial and social justice. He and his friends look at race and culture through a different lens than their parents, who lived through the not-so-distant days of segregation, rioting and political assassinations.

“I think it’s interesting that Obama is biracial,” Winograd said. “But I think it’s much more of a sense of pride for mixed-race people who are older or black people who are older, for people who went through the civil rights movement. . . . They had to fight for their rights. My rights were essentially handed to me.”

Race, however, continues to be a stubborn puzzle. It wasn’t until 2000 that Americans were allowed to check more than one box for race on U.S. census forms. At that time, about 6.83 million people, or 2.4%, checked two or more races on census forms out of a population of about 281 million.

Carolyn Liebler, a sociology professor specializing in family, race and ethnicity at the University of Minnesota, said she expected that the numbers of people identifying as multiracial would be higher in 2010 than they were in 2000 “because the number of mixed-raced marriages are going up” and because of Obama.

Tom W. Smith, an expert on race and demographics at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, calls it the “Obama effect.”

“He’s made being multiracial salient,” Smith said.

Glenna Reyes, 20, grew up on Chicago’s North Side, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Puerto Rican father. She calls herself a “Jewican.”

“Most of the people I know are mixed,” Reyes said. “Barack Obama represents what a lot of the people I know are. But my friends and I don’t see him as the face of biracial pride. We refer to him more as black than biracial. We compare him to Martin Luther King.”

Obama, 47, has historically described himself as “black” or “African American.” (Now he describes himself as “president-elect.”)

But younger multiracial people, such as Winograd, Reyes and Victoria Rodriguez, 27, seem more comfortable identifying themselves as multiracial.

“I personally feel if you’re mixed, you should say you’re mixed,” said Rodriguez, who is half black and half Latino. “Growing up, I had a lot of issues with race — people trying to define me, saying I wasn’t black enough. But I decided I love my mother, I love my father, so I’m mixed.”

Like Obama, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, 35, a professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey, identifies herself as black, although her mother is white and her father is African American.

“I was raised to be a black woman with a white mother, like a tall person with a short mother,” she said. “I was raised in the South. Biracial was not really an option.”

Harris-Lacewell said she did not “normally have mixed-girl emotions,” but added: ” I had more emotions about being biracial during this campaign then I’ve ever experienced.”

Eddie Heward-Mills, 38, a disc jockey and drummer, never thought he’d live to see a black U.S. president, let alone a black president with a white mother. In other words, a president with a story like his.

“I’ve heard for years people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ Now I’m starting to believe there are at least some white people who really do feel that way. More than before, that’s for sure.”

Terry writes for the Chicago Tribune.