Obama is the face of the mixed-race


Twelve-year-old Crissy Smith and her mother Debbie surf the Web. (Photo: John J. Watkins/The Times)

By now most people are aware of President Barack Obama’s ethnic background.

Obama, born to a white mother from Hawaii and a black father from Kenya, was reared for much of his childhood in a home with his white grandparents, who were originally from Kansas.

Kids such as Obama are labeled by different terms — multicultural, biracial, mixed race and interracial. But just as the terms change, times change, too, and for today’s biracial kids and the parents who love them, it seems as if there is finally a recognizable face to match the term.

And they hope that now, anything is possible for them.

Kristopher Irizarry-Hoeksema grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in South Holland, then a primarily white community with a large concentration of Dutch residents. He was known as Kristopher Hoeksema and later hyphenated to include the last name of his biological mother.

Not only did Irizarry-Hoeksema face the challenges of being the only biracial child in his neighborhood, but he also was adopted and reared by a white couple of Dutch descent.

“My father was a black Puerto Rican, and my mother was an Orthodox Sephardic Jew,” he said.

“When my mother’s parents found out she was pregnant out of wedlock and was going to have a black baby, they disowned her.” (His mother, whose last name was Starkman, then decided to go by her mother’s maiden name, Irizarry.) Irizarry-Hoeksema was born addicted to heroin and struggled to survive his first few days of life.

“First, I really want to extend that both of my (adoptive) parents really encouraged me to have a healthy identity and to feel proud that I was black. They really made me love myself and as an extension, black people from around the world. It is a gift, and I was very lucky to have parents like that.

“They also taught me that I did not have to absorb black stereotypes to feel strong in my identity.”

Despite his parents’ acceptance and encouragement, Irizarry-Hoeksema faced some difficulties growing up, mainly while attending an all-white private school where he was berated by teachers, beat up repeatedly and even had his hair set on fire.

He transferred to a more racially diverse public school where he said “they never discouraged me from embracing my ‘black side.’ They encouraged it.” He again faced some race issues while attending college in Wisconsin.

Tracking the number of biracial individuals in the country is a difficult task. Prior to 2000, an individual had to choose either black or white as their race for census reporting.

Today, biracial individuals have a separate category. U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2007 list 72,569 people in Indiana as being of two or more races. In Illinois, there are an estimated 148,588 individuals of two or more races. Because the multiracial category is so new, it’s difficult to assess how the number of biracial children in the country has increased.

Debbie Smith of Merrillville, who has been married twice, first to a white man and most recently to a black man, said she has seen an increase in biracial families.

When she first moved to the area there were no blacks in her neighborhood, and she believes her home was the target of a hate crime.

As the racial makeup of the community changed over the past two decades, she’s seen a better attitude toward her family and other black and mixed families.

Smith’s older daughter, 32, who is white, married a Mexican man and they have a son. Smith’s younger daughter, 12-year-old Crissy, is biracial.

“When my daughter was first born, there weren’t a lot of biracial kids then. I was nervous about when she was going to go to school. She never had much of a problem that she spoke of,” Smith said.

In Smith’s job working in retail, she’s encountered coworkers who have made racist comments, not realizing she had a biracial child. For the most part, she’s taken the opportunity to educate them and is pleased when she sees a shift in attitudes.

She noted it’s often older people who have made derogatory remarks to her. She has even come across biracial people who are racist toward either whites or blacks.

Smith said having several other biracial children at her daughter’s school probably makes it easier for her daughter. “There are quite a few. I can imagine being the only one would be very uncomfortable for her,” Smith said.

“Hopefully one thing that has changed is that people can be themselves and not have to fit in one way or the other.”

Irizarry-Hoeksema seemed to find acceptance in the military: “One of the most racially mixed segments of society that I have ever been in is the U.S. Army. I think the military has played a crucial role in bringing about acceptance of interracial children. The highest rates of interracial marriages are in the military, and I think that once grandkids come into the picture for people who have never experienced people from another culture or race, the love a grandmother or grandfather has for a child begins to melt away prejudice.”

He’s also come to feel comfortable in the Dutch community his adoptive parents have been a part of. His adoptive father, who died in 2006, was one of the founding members of the Pullman Christian Reformed Church, which Irizarry-Hoeksema described as “an interracial congregation founded in the wake of the riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.” He said he was raised in the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, and he was sad his father wasn’t able to see Obama elected.

“I think that Barack Obama discussing his own struggle with identity pushed that discussion to the forefront in a way that allowed people to talk about it in a factual way rather than a painful way,” Irizarry-Hoeksema said.

“It can be a very painful process for the parent, who thinks of his or her child as an individual, to watch their son or daughter go through that struggle. With Barack Obama’s book, the interracial family has a successful man to use as a narrative example. Obama’s story tells interracial children that one can go through that struggle and emerge as an intact person.”

Smith and her daughter agree Obama’s election will be positive for biracial individuals.

“There’s such a stereotype of black men not taking care of their children. Maybe he can help and be an influence that way and a good role model. It’s hard not to have the support of a father in the home, and I think he will be a good influence to hopefully change that a little bit,” said Smith, who saw Obama speak during his campaign at Roosevelt High School.

“The big thing he talked about was for men to step up and be dads,” Smith said.

Much like Obama, Irizarry-Hoeksema has been involved in community activism and is currently working on a project near Baltimore, where he now lives, with plans to link it to Chicago’s South Side to help displaced Section 8 residents and “to unite working-class poor and middle-class African-Americans.”

When asked if there was one thing she could change about race today, Crissy Smith said it was “for people to just be respected.”

While they both look to Obama as a positive model for the biracial population, who is it that they most aspire to be like?

For Crissy Smith, it’s Rosa Parks. For Irizarry-Hoeksema, it’s George Bailey, the main character in the holiday movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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