Multiracial Americans see U.S. attitudes evolving

Rachel Lerman is the embodiment of melting-pot citizenry: Born in 1967 in Boston to a blonde, blue-eyed, Roman Catholic white woman and a black man from Nigeria, she was placed in foster care and shortly thereafter adopted by a white couple and raised Jewish.

After college, she met Alex Diaz-Asper, a Catholic born in Miami of immigrant parents from Spain and Cuba. At 33, she married him, then settled down in Washington, D.C., in Adams Morgan, a “multi-culti” neighborhood where folks can find Ghana on a map or, at the very least, a Ghanaian eatery around the corner.

Three years ago, the couple had twins: Alejandro, a brown-eyed, curly haired boy, caramel-colored from head to toe – “People say he looks like a kid in a Gap ad: very ‘ambi-ethnic.'” – and Miguel, a tot with straight, blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, and the ruddy cheeks of a windburned Irishman.

Their momma, who is brown-skinned and curly haired herself, couldn’t be prouder. And yet, when she and the boys are at the playground or the grocery store, she still draws puzzled looks, curious stares and the questions …

“Are you the nanny?”

“Is Miguel adopted?”

“What are you?”

Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a “post-race” era.

Clearly, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has revived a national conversation on racial attitudes. Likewise, it has drawn new attention to the unique perspectives and experiences of the roughly 5 million multiethnic people living in America.

Ask multiracial Americans and their family members whether things are changing, and you’re likely to hear there’s more outward acceptance now than in decades past for biracial couples, adopted children who don’t share the ethnicity of either parent, and so-called “non-mixed” members of multiracial families.

Still, activists who campaign to raise understanding of multiracial people say that acceptance is uneven, varying widely across regions, social classes and generations.

“Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you,” says Heather Tarleton, 28, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of the Interracial Family Circle, a support group founded by her mother, who is black, and her father, who is white.

“You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are.’ And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”

Which leads multiracial people to ask some questions of their own.

Is it possible, they wonder, that this nation – its history steeped in slavery, terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and illicit eroticism between black and white – is ready to embrace not just white or black, but shades of brown?

Why is it, they ask, that multiracial people, from the time they leave the stroller to time they go to their graves, are verbally poked and prodded to choose their “primary” ethnicity – lest it be chosen for them by their peers, based on a glance?

How is it that even today, when a highway patrol trooper spots a motorist with European and African heritage he sees a black man, not a white one?

At a more basic level, why are terms such as “race” and “mixed” – leftovers, sociologists say, from the misguided “racial science” of the 19th century – still widely used to describe genetic, cultural and social variations within our one human race?

Why are concepts such as the “one-drop rule” – the arbitrary, Jim Crow classification of anyone with any African heritage as black – still accepted by many blacks and whites, even as they serve to deepen racial divisions?

Rachel Lerman contemplates such questions, of course. Life as a biracial mother with a Spanish-speaking spouse in 2008 America doesn’t come with a laugh track as did the ’70s sitcom, “The Jeffersons.” But she has two boys to raise, groceries to buy, trips to the playground to make.

So, to avoid confusion when she’s out with her light-skinned son, she recently bought Miguel a T-shirt from a site called “multiculticutie.com.”

It reads:

“She’s my mommy, not my nanny.”

* * *

The year 1967 was particularly memorable for multiracial America: Hollywood came out with the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a comedy built around white parents’ acceptance of an interracial couple (a recent remake cast the parents as black); and, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute that barred whites from marrying nonwhites, a decision that overturned bans in 15 other states.

Since then, the number of interracial marriages has steadily risen, from 67,685 in 1970 to 440,150 in 2005, comprising more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples, according to the most recent census figures.

Likewise, attitudes toward interraciality appear to be growing more tolerant.

In 1972, 39 percent of Americans said marrying someone of a different race should be illegal; by 2002, only 9.9 percent felt the same way. In 2003, more than three-quarters of adults said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” up from 48 percent who felt that way in 1987, according to the Pew Research Center.

That’s not to say everyone signs off on interracial unions. Bob Jones University in South Carolina only dropped its prohibition on interracial dating in 2000. The following year, 40 percent of voters in Alabama objected when officials removed a non-enforceable ban on interracial marriages in the state’s constitution.

And there are occasional incidents involving taunts and threats. Last year in Cleveland, two men were sentenced to prison for harassing an interracial couple by spreading mercury around their house.

“I’ve interviewed people who’ve been disowned by their parents for marrying somebody from a different group – people who haven’t spoken to their parents in 30 years,” says Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University.

Nonetheless, he adds, as interracial unions increase, “there is a growing acceptance of this in American society.”

One sign of this came in 2000, the first year the Census Bureau allowed Americans to identify themselves as multiracial by checking as many boxes about race as there were distinct branches of their family tree. On the 1990 census, multiethnic people could only identify themselves with one ancestry or put an “X” in the “OTHER” box.

Some traditional civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund opposed the change, fearing that fewer self-identified black or Asian people would diminish their constituencies – and thereby make it more difficult to raise funds and monitor discrimination.

Those fears haven’t panned out, as it happens: As of July 1, 2007, the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of “two or more races” in the government’s annual Population Estimate shot up 3 percent from the previous year. That matched the growth rates for Hispanics and Asians, and exceeded the growth rate of the white population by 10 times, says Robert Burnstein, a spokesman for the census bureau.

And although multiracial Americans still only represent 1.6 percent of the nation’s 302 million residents, the intense media spotlight focused on celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and Jessica Alba is a clue that corporate sponsors and marketers sense a shift in attitudes toward multiethnicity. (Woods once famously described himself as “Cablinasian,” to acknowledge the Caucasian, African, American Indian and Asian within him.)

Rather than being a drawback, racial diversity is gradually being recognized by advertisers as intrinsically admirable and appealing.

“We’re now at the point where we’re talking about mixed-race ads – putting a black-and-white couple in an ad,” says Jerome D. Williams, a professor of advertising and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Advertisers remain skittish about potential backlash from consumers “who may feel that this is pushing the envelope, in terms race relations,” he says. Still, he’s noticed more “ethnically ambiguous” models in TV commercials.

“They may have somewhat of an ethnic look, but you can’t tell … You’re trying to straddle the fence, to get someone to appeal to an ethnic audience while at the same time making sure you don’t turn off a mainstream, white audience.”

One thing is apparent to Williams: The younger you are, the more likely you are to know someone who is multiracial – and the more likely you are to accept people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Opposition to multiraciality is aging out.

Once a semester, he and his students study a Valentine’s Day ad that depicts a black man presenting flowers to a white woman in a romantic setting. Most of his students don’t see anything wrong with it.

But “when I ask them to take it home to show their parents and grandparents, the reaction I get is still, ‘We’re not quite ready for that yet.'”

* * *

It’s not gone unnoticed among America’s multiethnic population that the mainstream media – indeed, a broad swath of Americans – tend to refer to candidate Obama as the first serious “black” contender for the White House.

Jennifer Noble, 31, a psychology professor at Pasadena College (and the daughter of a Sri Lankan woman and an African-American father), says some may use this to pigeonhole him as JUST black: “Whatever you look like to us, that’s how we’re going to treat you.”

Obama himself has said: “I self-identify as African-American – that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”

Multiethnic Americans wrestle with terms that others casually use to categorize them. They wonder whether “mixed” may have a negative, rather than neutral meaning to some people (as in, “mixed up”). Is the term “African-American” appropriate for black immigrants from, say, Haiti?

Megan Hughes, 32, a white woman who is raising a biracial daughter with her black husband in Washington, confesses that, “We are still searching for a term that identifies our relationship and our family. ‘Blended’ works for me but my husband thinks that sounds like a smoothie.”

Others speak of the feeling of sitting alone at the school cafeteria, or having to dismiss a chilly, sideways glance at upscale malls, of walking a tightrope between groups of friends on both sides of the racial divide.

Michael Cooley, 17, a high-school senior in Raleigh, N.C., has a white mother from Minnesota, a black father from North Carolina. At Wakefield High School, he has a group of black buddies, and a group of white buddies.

They don’t mingle much, he says.

“I’m the only intermixer. I’d say it’s like balancing time between them. Because if I hang out with one of them, well, my black friends will say, ‘I guess you got to hang out with your white friends tonight, don’t you?'”

At times, when he is in the company of only whites, or only blacks, he overhears racially-tainted jokes, or slurs, from both sides. “I think it’s dumb; I just don’t know what they’re thinking when they do that,” he says.

Strong, open-minded parents must, consequently, work to help their multiracial children embrace their complete heritage, even as they feel pressure to “fit” into stereotypical “color boxes,” says Nancy Brown, 55, a nurse and psychotherapist in Los Angeles.

That’s why Brown, a white woman of Jewish and German heritage who married a black man and had two biracial daughters, founded the support group Multiracial Americans of Southern California in the 1980s.

“I saw that parents in interracial marriages were getting more and more distressed when their children were being forced to choose one identity over another, which, frankly, meant choosing one parent over another,” she says.

In recent years, multiracial advocacy groups similar to Brown’s have sprung up around the country, and people of varied ancestries can now find themselves better reflected in books, in college courses and on Web sites, the likes of antiracistparent.com.

The multiracial movement is experiencing unprecedented growth, says Louie Gong, vice president for the Mavin Foundation, a national advocacy group for multiethnic people, based in Seattle.

“Barack Obama’s candidacy has energized the movement,” says Gong, who has American Indian, Chinese and European heritage. “It’s forcing all Americans to really understand the limitations of these political, racial categories and to understand that race and cultural identity are something very different.”

The road to understanding may be full of bumps and tricky balances, but at least multiethnic people are seen less and less as anomalies, says Susan Eckert, 39, a Long Island, N.Y., writer.

Her ancestors included a Spanish conquistador, an African slave, a Cherokee woman, and an Irish woman who was disowned by her family for marrying a half-black, half-Blackfoot man.

As a result, she says, “I am often taken to be black or Indian – depending on the individual’s particular lens – and have been mistaken for Ethiopian, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Sicilian, and others.”

Doesn’t that get tiresome?

Not at all, she says.

“I’m open to learning about other cultures, and I’m respected for that … When you are racially ambiguous, a wider pool of people want to associate with you, which is actually quite a pleasant feeling.”

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