If you want a good glimpse of the multiracial experience in America, get inside Louie Gong’s skin.
“I’m Nooksack, I’m Chinese, I’m French and I’m Scottish,” Gong tells viewers of a multimedia piece he placed on YouTube to help spark discussion of multiracial issues. “... When I was a kid, I drank my Ovaltine with real milk, and my cousins and I liked our fried rice with salmon.”
At the same time that the nation’s growing diversity and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the ranks of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of the white population, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has brought new attention, curiosity and discussion to their experiences.
Obama has faced an endless barrage of questions anchored to issues of race and class, from his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to whether, in his own words, he is “too black” or “not black enough.” As Gut Check America engaged msnbc.com readers in this re-emerging national conversation on race, it became clear that multiracial Americans offered unique perspectives on the topic and that the nation is far from entering a “post-race” era.
Gong, 33, is on the leading edge of what he calls the “modern multiracial movement.” A founder of the Mixed Heritage Center, a Web-based resource collection for multiracial Americans, Gong is also vice president and a key spokesman for the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle-based advocacy group for mixed-race people and families. As the educational resources director for the Muckleshoot Indian tribe’s college near Seattle, he is able to tailor programs to Native Americans of mixed heritage. He teaches classes and workshops on the topic and is helping prepare a museum exhibit on the mixed-race experience set to open in Seattle in the fall.
Obama candidacy drives new interest
As Gong’s schedule attests, it’s a busy, exciting time for folks who have worked for years to win understanding and acceptance of the unique path trod by multiracial Americans. “Barack Obama has stepped into the picture now and is shining a floodlight on these issues,” Gong told msnbc.com.
With interracial marriage illegal in 16 states until 1967 and racist sentiments against it remaining to this day in some places, the number of biracial and multiracial Americans is relatively small at less than 5 million. Although it includes a number of high-profile celebrities and athletes like Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Derek Jeter, Vin Diesel and Halle Berry, it’s well under 2 percent of the nation’s current 302 million residents.
“There’s kind of a lot of hype that makes people think there’s more, but there aren’t,” said demographer William H. Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
Officially, the number was even a mystery until 2000, the first year the U.S. Census Bureau allowed Americans to say they were of mixed race.
Census counts vary
Even now, there is confusion over various tallies offered by the federal agency. Some surveys, including the 2000 Census, allow respondents to choose “some other race” in addition to every possible combination of all recognized races. That inflated the count of multiracial Americans to 6.8 million.
But the agency’s annual Population Estimate Program, considered its most current breakdown, does not include “some other race” and results in a count of Americans who claim to be of “two or more races.” Based on birth, death and tax records, the figure “really is our official estimate of total population and population by race,” said Census spokesman Robert Burnstein.
The most recent data, released May 1, shows the number of Americans of “two or more races” was 4,856,136 as of last July. The headline, though, is growth. Up from 4,711,932 the previous year, the tally indicates a 3 percent gain, which is 10 times the 0.3 percent growth of the white population in the same period and three times the overall U.S. population growth of about 1 percent. It’s about the same as the growth rates of the Hispanic and Asian populations.
America’s mixed-race population is up 25 percent since it was first calculated in 2000, while the nation’s overall population has grown 7 percent in that time. Although still small in real numbers, the multiracial category is larger that the combined total of Native American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
One thing in common: marginalization
Such statistical exercises bring a warning from Gong.
“One of the most important things to understand is that the multiracial population is not a racial or ethnic group,” he said. ”What we are really is a long thread that runs through the spectrum of race.
“The only thing that bonds us together as a group is the common ways that we’re marginalized,” said Gong, who himself “had a very dynamic experience with race” while growing up. Reared on tribal lands by his paternal Chinese grandfather and Nooksack grandmother, his home life was steeped in Native American culture and tradition. At school, “I was poked and prodded” into a more Asian identity because of his last name.
As mixed-race Americans, “although we don’t represent a consistent experience, the way society has tended to respond to us has been consistent,” Gong said. “Those are the issues that we rally around.”
Despite their growing numbers, multiracial Americans and their family members say society’s response to them often remains a mixture of ignorance, judgment and downright rudeness.
Dr. Maria P.P. Root, a psychologist and researcher on multiracial families who has worked with the Mavin Foundation, has catalogued “50 Experiences of Racially Mixed People” as “a launching point for sharing, discussing, laughing, debriefing, and educating.” The list covers everything from the ubiquitous, insensitive “what are you?” question asked of multiracial people to them being told, “You have the best of both worlds.”
“Gut Check America” readers shared hundreds of observations and anecdotes via e-mail and interviews with msnbc.com to illustrate their own experiences.
Confusion over racial identity a common issue
For many, the confusion of others over their racial identity is the biggest, and thorniest, issue.
Take Sara Dale, a 33-year-old daughter of a black mom from Jamaica and a white dad from Pennsylvania. Caucasian in appearance, Dale said she has often been the recipient of racist comments about African-Americans from white co-workers and classmates. “People just assume that I’m white when they see me, so they talk freely around me,” said Dale, a resident of Boynton Beach, Fla. “As soon as the conversation turns a certain way, I start getting really nervous. I’m not a confrontational person but I feel like I have to say something.”
Or Evelyn Marie Lewis-Keene, 42, a health-care worker from Huntington, W.Va., whose father is an African-American and whose Hispanic mother was born in Puerto Rico. “When they ask what race I am, I don’t check black or white,” she said in an interview. “I can’t deny my mother and I can’t deny my father.” But others can and do, often elderly white residents at the care home where she works who plug her neatly into their racist stereotypes. “When a patient gives me the N-word, you know what I say? I say, ‘Wait a minute, if you’re going to say it, get it right, because you can’t deny my mom.’” And she insists they add “Rican” to the slur.
It comes from all sides. Lewis-Keene says her mother was disowned for a time by her Puerto Rican parents because she married a black man. And Lewis-Keene believes some members of her father’s family treat her mother disrespectfully because her English is hard for them to understand. “You can’t choose your family,” she said with a sigh.
‘You have a choice to be white or not’
Non-mixed members of multiracial families face their own special struggles. “When you’re in a biracial family, you have a choice to be white or not,” said Mary Semela, a white mom of two biracial sons who is married to a black immigrant from South Africa. Semela, who lives in Ellicott City, Md., said some members of multiracial families can grow so weary of stares and questions when they are with their relatives of different colors that they’ll intentionally go to public places alone at times. “You have that choice just to walk away from your family,” she said, adding that she would not do so herself.
While her husband and sons have faced the all-too-familiar trappings of white racism against blacks, Semela, 51, said her sons also are seen by some African-Americans as less than full members of that community because, with their father a recent immigrant, “they don’t have slave heritage.”
Despite that, her older son, 20, a scholarship student at Colgate, “feels very anchored as an African-American,” which is in keeping with the view of Semela and many other American parents of biracial black and white children that “as soon as your kids are old enough, they are black people in America, they are not half of anything.”
But that view is changing, said anthropologist Marion Kilson, who wrote “Claiming Place: Biracial Young Adults of the Post-Civil Rights Era.” Kilson, who is white, is also the mother of two biracial daughters and a son. She has been married for nearly 50 years to Martin Kilson Jr., the first black professor to receive full tenure at Harvard.
New resources, support seen
“I think there’s a generational difference,” Kilson, 72, told msnbc.com. “My perception, when my kids were little in the ’60s, was that biracial Americans didn’t have a choice about their racial identity, that the wider society would view them as being African-American.” Because of that, “I thought it was important to emphasize that they were African- American.”
“Now, people have an opportunity to proclaim all of their racial identities,” said Kilson, who is at work with colleague and friend Florence Ladd on a new book about rearing biracial children. “One thing that’s different for younger mothers today, there are many more support systems, quite a number of multiracial groups that exist, that involve parents and children, Web sites, clearly there are books that weren’t available before. There’s a lot more out there to support them today.”
Indeed, it’s a veritable boom time right now, said Gong, who recently attended a Northern California gathering with leaders of 13 groups that work on mixed-race issues. “There seems to be a sense that it’s time for the modern multiracial movement to expand into new fronts,” he said. “College campuses in the past have represented the low-hanging fruit” for those interested in organizing multiracial Americans. Various groups represented at the summit are looking to expand their efforts into other institutions and corporate venues. Gong is particularly interested in multiracial members of low-income communities.
A tricky issue for organizers like Gong is apprehension among some leaders of minority communities that a new focus on multiracial identities could lessen their numbers.
“If we look at what was important for communities of color during the civil rights movement, it was solidarity,” he said. “Solidarity served African-Americans and Native Americans very well in the past so now we see a desire to maintain ethnic solidarity still playing out, especially among older folks. We’re worried that we’re going to dilute the voice we have if people identify as being black and white or Native American and black.”
So while drawing attention to the needs of mixed-race Americans, “We really need to respect those communities’ needs to maintain ethnic solidarity," Gong said. "Those needs are very real.”
Frey, the Brookings demographer and author of a February paper on “Race, Immigration and America’s Changing Electorate,” said that while “race does matter” in U.S. elections, it’s often hard to figure out just how. With the nation’s single-race minority groups skewing Democrat but still vastly underrepresented on voter rolls relative to their overall numbers, he said, the impact of multiracial voters is especially hard to divine. “They’re really pretty small numbers,” he said. “We’re going to have to look down the road quite a bit before they’re going to become a major factor.”
Inspiration drawn from Obama candidacy
But Americans from multiracial backgrounds and families (some 5 million Americans are married across racial lines and millions more are members of racially blended families) seem universally happy and proud that a biracial man is the front-runner for a major party’s presidential nomination. Over and over again, in e-mail and interviews, regardless of whether they agree with his politics or intend to vote for him, “Gut Check” respondents said they were heartened by Obama’s candidacy.
“I like Obama,” said Ken Woodard of Wichita. “This is something that I’ve always dreamed of, someone who has the issues down pat, not just running as a black man, but running as a man who is sort of all of America, not just the black race but every race,” said Woodard, 61, a black man who has a son and daughter with his white wife of 27 years.
Lewis-Keene, the West Virginia health-care worker, said she sees Obama as someone who is “wholly true-hearted in his feelings of unity from the simple fact of where he comes from. … I feel like he is the kind of person who would be able to solve conflicts with other countries just as well as here in the United States.”
Despite the positive feelings from the Obama candidacy and other strides, ambiguity and confusion over racial identity will persist for many mixed-race Americans, said Gong, a fact experienced even in families such as his own that have been multiracial for generations. The palette of cultural diversity has often been smudged by outside influences like “all these federal policies that were designed to deconstruct native identity,” such as off-reservation boarding schools, the Indian Removal Act and urban relocation programs.
The ambiguity caused by such policies made planning a recent funeral for one of his aunts a bit of a puzzle, Gong said. “We did an eclectic ceremony, which is now becoming a family tradition, where everybody had a piece of the ceremony. It was in a Catholic church, based on the reservation, and we had a traditional Coast-Salish funeral song, and also a Shaker Church ceremony.”
The lesson is clear, said Gong, whose own excitement and enthusiasm for America’s changing colors is indomitable: America’s melting pot isn’t going to create a bland, homogenous porridge so much as a deeply flavored, spicy stew.
“Mixed race isn’t post race. It’s not less race. It’s more race,” Gong said. “In order to dialog about mixed race, we need more understanding. It’s not a dialog to forget about issues of race.”