GEETHA Lakshminarayanan says it is easy for her to figure out
which guys to blow off at a bar. They are the ones who approach her
by asking, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?"
"It's always nice to be seen as attractive, but I don't want
people to date me because I'm exotic, like an animal at the zoo,"
said Ms. Lakshminarayanan, 22, who works for an organization in Ann
Arbor, Mich., that teaches management skills to nonprofit groups.
Ms. Lakshminarayanan, whose heritage is white and Asian Indian, is
mistaken for Latina or Filipina because of her olive skin and
straight black hair. "It's like they're taking a walk on the wild
side," she said. "I don't trust them."
Mass culture awakened some time ago to growing multiracial
demographics, and today public figures who are either mixed race or
part of an interracial couple are more visible than ever. It is hard
to miss Heidi Klum and Seal in celebrity magazines (among the
expecting couples of the moment) or Mariah Carey and Senator Barack
Obama of Illinois talking about their mixed heritage. Movies like
"Guess Who" use interracial relationships as a subject for laughs,
while in "Sideways" the relationship between a white man and an
Asian woman was treated as so unremarkable that it went without
The so-called ambiguous look is hip; so is borrowing ethnic
styles and cultures.
But scratch the surface, many multiracial Americans say, and the
reality is much more complex. Despite being perceived as cool,
people of mixed races say they often function in a world where
friends will eventually offend with a comment that overlooks a white
mother or an Asian father, and where exotic is another word for
"other." As they navigate social landmines that can be annoying and
funny at times, hurtful and depressing at others, young people of
mixed race are becoming increasingly assertive, starting groups and
"People make a lot of assumptions based on race, and they can't
put us into categories," Ms. Lakshminarayanan said as she sat
relaxing in her room at a Chinatown hotel. She was taking a break
during a 15-city road trip, called Generation Mix, that was
organized to raise awareness about the mixed-race experience and
issues like the need for more multiracial bone marrow donors. The
26-foot-long recreational vehicle, which she shares with four
others, was parked on the street outside.
Generation Mix is sponsored by the Mavin Foundation, an advocacy
organization in Seattle. Formed in the late 1990's, Mavin was among
the forerunners of the dozens of multiracial groups - with names
like Swirl, Fusion and Mixed - that have sprung up in the last five
years in an attempt to bring multiethnic issues to the fore. Some
efforts focus on earnest outreach; others are more irreverent.
On Race-O-Rama, produced by VH1 and the five-man humor collective
Ego Trip, Shakara Ledard, a model who is both white and black, riffs
about how she used to make fun of herself as an "Oreo cookie."
Meanwhile Web sites like mixedmediawatch.com keep tabs on the way multiracial
people are portrayed in the media, and T-shirt designers are busy
spreading their message. At the University of Maryland in College
Park, multiracial students are wearing the T-shirt with the message
"Mixed Terp," which plays on the university's mascot, the
Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington,
which studies issues of race, said today's multiethnic young people
are forging new racial terrain. "It's more of an internally
developed form of identity than just a social category, and it's
fundamentally different from the way race has been expressed in this
country before," he said.
The assertive attitude, along with this new crop of youth
organizations, is fueled in large part by the 2000 census, which for
the first time counted people of more than one race. Among the more
than seven million people identified as multiracial, 41 percent were
younger than 18, the census showed, compared with 26 percent for the
overall population. Now, nearly 40 years after the Supreme Court
struck down the last of the nation's anti-miscegenation laws, these
young people are challenging a society they say is still very much
hung up on racial labels.
"Most Asians perceive me as white, and most whites perceive me as
Asian," said Derrick Pfeffer, 21, who is Chinese and white and
founded the Multiracial Biracial Student Association at the
University of Maryland two years ago. As a result, he said, his
white friends are surprised that he's extroverted and outspoken
because it counters the Asian stereotype. His Asian friends are
surprised when he speaks Mandarin and talks about Chinese family
gatherings because they think of him as white. No matter what he
does, he said, "people won't completely embrace you."
Bethonie Butler, 20, who is a journalism student at the
University of Maryland, said many of the social slights multiethnic
people experience are hard to address because they seem inadvertent.
Not long ago, she said, she discovered a new posting on the
bulletin board she shares with her roommates. It read, "I'd rather
have a black woman take my man, but a white woman, I can't
Ms. Butler, who is black like her roommates, is also part white.
She said she did not make a big deal about the sign - "Wow, that's
nice," was her only comment to her roommates - but it bothers her
that people sometimes forget her father is black and her mother
"It's one of the weirdest things, but that happens a lot,
especially around dating," she said. "A lot of people say they are
against interracial dating and I'd take offense because what they're
telling me is that what my parents did was wrong."
Among the common complaints that many mixed-race people mention
are television commercials that only show families of one race,
school forms that pigeonhole students into one racial category, and
portrayals in the media that assume mixed means only black and
white. (According to a report issued this month by the Census
Bureau, of all the people who identified themselves as being of
mixed race in 2000, only 11 percent claimed their heritage to be
black and white.)
Matt Kelley, the 26-year-old founder of the Mavin Foundation
whose parents are Korean and white, said that rather than creating
yet another race-based category, groups like his want to expand
notions of race so that Americans "reject the idea that you have to
pick a team."
Still, the country has come a long way in shedding the historical
baggage that once made interracial couplings shameful if not
illegal, many of those interviewed agreed. In many communities in
the Northeast and on the West Coast, being mixed may not be a big
deal, and for many the idea of passing for one race when you are in
fact two or more is now unimaginable.
Away from those areas, however, "multiracial individuals may find
it economically advantageous not to advertise their heritage," said
Juanita Brooks, a clinical psychologist in Florida who ran a Web
site for multiracial people with "a white appearance" like herself.
With intermarriage rates on the rise, some multiracial groups are
trying to reinforce a positive self-image in younger generations.
Fusion, a group that formed three years ago in San Francisco, is
starting a summer camp this year for multiracial an multiethnic
children as well as for transracial adoptees so "they can interact
with role models and kids their own age," said Joemy Ito-Gates, a
third-grade teacher who founded the group.
Many young people of mixed race said they are heartened by the
increasing number of public figures like Tiger Woods, who refuses to
be singularly categorized. Jen Chau, 28, an administrative assistant
at New York University who also is a founder of mixedmediawatch.com
and Swirl, a social group in New York that has chapters in several
cities, said that there was a measure of respect for those like
Halle Berry, who accepted her Oscar for best actress in the 2001
film, "Monster's Ball," on behalf of African-Americans though her
mother is white.
"Mixed people should identify the way they want," Ms. Chau said.
"They shouldn't be questioned. That's how they feel."
Researchers who study questions of racial identity say
multiracial people vary in how they relate to their different
backgrounds, with some embracing all parts of their heritage
equally, and others choosing to be more one than another. And as a
group, said Larry Hajime Shinagawa, director of the Center for the
Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York,
"the multiracial population is too diverse itself to unite under a
banner. "People will still need a community of interest and
identification," he said.
Some, like Ms. Lakshminarayanan, say they are still exploring
their identities and questions like how being part white might lend
certain advantages. "This tour has made me think about the fact that
although I'm a person of color, my white background has in fact
given me a lot of white privilege," she recently wrote on Generation
Mix's Web log. "But this white privilege thing is a whole new
dimension for me."
Aaron Kendeall, 21, a student at West Virginia University and a
Generation Mix tour member, said appearing to be white sometimes
comes with its own problems. Mr. Kendeall, who grew up in
Pittsburgh, said his high school experiences included a fight with a
hockey teammate who used a racial slur about blacks while telling a
joke in the locker room. Mr. Kendeall looks white like his mother,
but his father is black, which he made clear immediately.
"I took my belt off and hit him," he said. His teammate had to
"When you're mixed," Mr. Kendeall added, "you're put in a lot of
awkward situations other people would not be put in."
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