4:11pm

Sun May 12, 2013
Code Switch

Checking More Than One Box: A Growing Multiracial Nation

Originally published on Sun May 12, 2013 6:35 pm

Larry Bright holds his 3-year-old son's hand while the boy steps through a leafy playground in Silver Spring, Md., and practices counting his numbers in English.

At the top of the slide, the boy begins counting in his other language: Vietnamese.

Bright, the boy's father, is African-American; his mother, Thien Kim Lam, is Vietnamese. The couple has two children.

"They are a perfect mix between the two of us," Lam tells Arun Rath, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Bright and Lam's son and 7-year-old daughter are multiracial, just two of thousands born in what's been called a multiracial baby boom. Today, 15 percent of marriages are interracial and inter-ethnic.

Six years ago, her firstborn was just a year old, and Lam was adjusting to life as a mother.

"I didn't have any friends with children, and I wanted to go out and meet other moms," she says.

So she took her daughter to Ellsworth Park in downtown Silver Spring, but everyone there — mothers and nannies alike — thought Lam was her daughter's nanny. The other mothers wouldn't talk to her, and the nannies questioned her techniques.

The nannies would ask Lam how the family felt about her speaking to the kids in Vietnamese and if they "hired her to do that."

It was a profound moment for Lam, and it inspired her to start a blog called I'm Not The Nanny. She was shocked by how many people experienced what she had, but she also thought it was a problem just the parents were having. That came into sharp relief when her daughter turned 2. She threw a tantrum about wanting to look like her mother, having light skin and straight hair.

"I froze because I thought, 'What did I do wrong? I never pointed any of these things out,'" Lam says. "So that was a big lesson for me; you can't not talk about race."

Lam and her husband both grew up in Louisiana, where society asked them to choose between white and black. But going forward, it seems their two children will have more choices.

"I think they'll go as multiracial; I'm trying to set a balance," Lam says. "Teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they're American. That's what makes them American; that they have this great mix of cultures."

That mix of cultures is uniquely American, and it's hard to ignore the growing trend that Lam and her family are a part of.

Mainstream Multiracial

President Obama is biracial, and in media, multiracials are everywhere. More than ever, they're touting their mixed heritage.

Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are biracial, half-black and half-white. They made their names playing black characters on MADtv. But last year, they premiered their own show, where they take on multiracial issues with glee.

But taking on such issues doesn't always go smoothly, as music diva Beyonce discovered in a commercial for L'Oreal. In it, she declared the secret to her skin was a "mosaic of all the faces before it." The screen flashed the phrases: "African-American. Native American. French."

The backlash was immediate. The singer was criticized for abandoning her black identity. But the multiracial community embraced her.

It's not just that there are more multiracial and biracial people. The government is now counting the group differently. For the first time in modern history, the 2000 Census allowed us to check off more than one box for race.

The last Census showed 9 million people, about 3 percent of the population, reporting more than one race. That's an increase of one-third from the decade before.

"The youngest age group, kids under 5 [years old], 7 percent are identified as having more than one race group," says Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. "If we look at the elderly, over 65, it's only 1 percent."

That means more people are choosing spouses outside their own race. The change, Passel says, comes from evolving attitudes. Over the past few decades, he says more people have simply come to view intermarriage as no big deal.

"More than two-thirds of people in our surveys, when asked how they'd feel about someone in their own family marrying someone of a different background, said they'd be fine with it," he says.

Ask young people — those under 40 — and the number rises to more than 80 percent.

Racial identity, however, is a little more complicated than just checking a box. Passel points to research that looked at kids with one black and one white parent.

When asked at home about their racial identification, Passel says most children tended to say they were biracial or white and black. When asked at school, a much higher proportion identified as black.

"[This suggests] that their peers or their teachers or their school identified them one way and at home they identified differently," Passel says.

Evolving Perspectives

Multiracial people identifying as just one race is part of a long trend. University of Southern California professor Marcia Alesan Dawkins' father was one such man: part black and part white.

"He has lived his life as an African-American man. He lived through segregation, he lived through civil rights," Dawkins says. "And though he acknowledges these other aspects of his identity, he sees the world from the perspective of a black man. That's how he chooses to identify."

But just one generation makes all the difference for Dawkins herself, who claims black, white and Latino heritage. Dawkins and her sister see the world a little differently, she says.

"I don't think it's better or worse, but I think it's a credit to the progress in both ways that people can choose to identify just as one, or choose to identify as two or more," Dawkins says.

Despite the trend, Dawkins says it is important to remember that it is still less than 3 percent of the population that indentifies as multiracial. The overwhelming majority of Americans identify as having one race only.

"That's not a bad thing, but we have to be really careful how we read and interpret and spin these census results," she says.

Dawkins also says multiracials need to take some responsibility and look at how their entrance into the conversation might "disrupt — for better and for worse — resources and communities that have worked really hard to be organized."

It's difficult to talk about multiracials as a group, because the issues each individual faces is different. Dawkins points out that, for better or for worse, we only have the model of the black-white dynamic to work with. To advance the discussion, we may need not just new categories, but perhaps a new way to talk about race.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

It's a day to appreciate mothers. When I was a kid going out with my white mother, she got asked: Is he yours? With a follow-up: Is he adopted? Which apparently in the '70s was easier to imagine than an English woman marrying an Indian. How different are things today? On this Mother's Day, that's our cover story: our multiracial nation.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible)

LARRY BRIGHT: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible)

RATH: This week on a sunny humid day in Silver Spring, Maryland, a little boy is practicing his numbers. His African-American dad, Larry Bright, holds his son's hand as the boy steps from post to post in this leafy playground just outside of Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Twenty. What comes after 20?

BRIGHT: Twenty-one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Twenty-one.

BRIGHT: And then twenty...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Two.

BRIGHT: Very good.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Twenty-three...

BRIGHT: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: ...twenty-four.

RATH: At the top of the slide, he starts counting in his other language.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

THIEN KIM LAM: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

RATH: Hi mother, Thien Kim Lam, is teaching their son Vietnamese.

BRIGHT: How do I say...

LAM: Slide. (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAM: Mm-hmm. My husband is African-American, and I'm a Vietnamese-American first generation. And we have two children, and they are a perfect mix between the two of us.

RATH: Larry and Kim's son is multiracial, and he's just one of thousands born in what's been called a multiracial baby boom. Fifteen percent of marriages today are interracial and interethnic. Six years ago, her firstborn was just 1 year old, and she was adjusting to life as a new mother.

LAM: I didn't have any friends with children, and I wanted to go out and meet other moms.

RATH: So she took her daughter to Ellsworth Park, but everyone there - moms and nannies alike - thought Kim was her daughter's nanny. The other moms wouldn't talk to her. The nannies questioned her techniques.

LAM: I mean, you're talking to, you know, this girl in Vietnamese. How does her family feel about that? Did they hire you to do that? I said, no. Actually, I want to teach my daughter my culture and my language as well.

RATH: It was a profound moment for her.

LAM: It never occurred to me that my motherhood would be questioned because I didn't look like my daughter.

RATH: It inspired Kim to start a blog, I'mNotTheNanny.com. She was shocked by how many people experienced what she had. She thought it was a problem just the parents were having.

LAM: We didn't really talk about race when she was younger because I thought, well, if I don't talk about it, she'll just think everybody is equal and the same. And that wasn't the case.

RATH: That came into sharp relief when her daughter turned 2. She threw a tantrum.

LAM: Yeah, I want to look like mom. I wish I had light skin and straight hair. And I froze because I thought, I don't - what did I do wrong? Like, I never pointed any of these things out. So that was a big lesson for me. You can't not talk about race.

RATH: Kim Lam and her husband, Larry Bright, both grew up in Louisiana where society asked them to choose between black and white. Even for Kim as an Asian-American, there was nothing in between. But going forward, it seems their two children will have more choices.

LAM: I'll think they'll go as multiracial. I'm trying to set a balance in teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they're American. That's what makes them American, is that they have this great mix of cultures.

RATH: That mix of cultures is uniquely American, and it's hard to ignore the growing trend that Kim Lam and her family are part of. Our president is a biracial man. And in media, multiracials are everywhere. And more than ever, they're touting their mixed heritage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADTV")

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Jordan and I are - we're biracial.

JORDAN PEELE: Yes. Half black, half white.

RATH: Even Michael Key and Jordan Peele made their names playing black characters on the TV show "MADtv." But last year, they premiered their own show where they take multiracial issues on with glee.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")

PEELE: Keegan and I both have white moms.

KEY: Yes, yes.

PEELE: This is true, we have white moms. And the thing about having a white mom being a black guy is as a kid, a white mom can't hit a black kid in public.

KEY: Can't do it. Can't do it.

PEELE: Gets too racial too fast.

KEY: That's right. It escalates. It escalates to this racial thing.

RATH: But it's not often so lighthearted and funny. Beyonce turned heads when she appeared in this commercial for L'Oreal makeup.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'OREAL COMMERCIAL AD)

BEYONCE: There's a story behind my skin. It's a mosaic of all the faces before it.

RATH: On the screen, three phrases flashed: African-American, Native American, French. The backlash was immediate. The singer was criticized for abandoning her black identity, but the multiracial community embraced her.

It's not just that there are more multiracial and biracial people around. The government is now counting the group differently. For the first time in modern history, the 2000 Census allowed us to check more than one box per race.

The last Census showed nine million people, about 3 percent of the population, reporting more than one race. That's an increase of a third from the decade before, and it's only going up.

JEFFREY PASSEL: The youngest age group, kids under 5, 7 percent are identified as having more than one race group. If we look at, say, the elderly, 65 and over, it's only 1 percent.

RATH: That's Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. More people are choosing spouses outside their own race. And as we said, about 15 percent of all new marriages today are interracial and interethnic. Again, Jeffrey Passel.

PASSEL: That's more than double what it was in 1980 and probably five times what it was in 1960. We've reached a point where over 8 percent of all the people who are currently married are in mixed marriages.

RATH: Why the change? Attitudes are evolving. Over the past few decades, says Passel, more people have simply come to view intermarriage as no big deal.

PASSEL: More than two-thirds of people in our surveys, when asked if it - how they would feel about someone in their own family marrying someone of a different background, said they'd be fine with it.

RATH: Ask young people - those under 40 and those who are find with it - rises to more than 80 percent. But racial identity is more complicated than just checking a box. Passel points to research that looked at kids with one black and one white parent.

PASSEL: When they are asked at home about their racial identification, the children tended to say that they were biracial or white and black. When they were asked at school, a much higher proportion of them identified simply as black, suggesting that it may be that their peers or their teachers or the school identified them one way, and at home, they identify differently.

RATH: That's part of a long trend of multiracial people identifying as just one race. Marcia Alesan Dawkins is a professor at the University of Southern California. Her father was one such multiracial man: part black, part white.

MARCIA ALESAN DAWKINS: He has lived his life as an African-American man. He lived through segregation, he lived through civil rights. And though he acknowledges these other aspects of his identity, he sees the world from the perspective of a black man, and that's how he chooses to identify.

RATH: But just one generation has made a world of difference for Dawkins herself, who is part white, black and Latino.

DAWKINS: My sister and I see the world a little differently. I don't think it's better or worse, but I think it's a credit to a lot of the progress that has been made both ways that people can choose to identify just as one or choose to identify as two or more.

RATH: There are a lot more people who identify solely as one race. Do you know anything about who is doing that and why?

DAWKINS: Yes. The Census reports to us that white people are most likely to report having one race only. And one of the reasons sociologists and historians suggest for that is because of the way in which whiteness has been defined. It comes to us through law and history and custom that to be white, you actually can't be anything else.

RATH: This is the one-drop rule.

DAWKINS: Exactly. So if you're going to say you're white operating with this mindset, then it makes sense to say you're only white. And then African-Americans are next most likely to say they only have one racial background. And I think that's the other side of this one-drop rule, right? So you may have all of this white or other ancestry going on, but because of the one-drop rule, you identify only as black.

So what's been interesting for me, and this also hits home with my own personal experience, is what I call Blatinos, right? So Latinos who also identify as black are more likely to identify as multiracial than people who are black and who are mixed also, but don't have Latino or Latino roots.

And so there's something, I think, about ways in which Latino cultures think about race and think about identity that allows for some more fluidity that is also intersecting and affecting this conversation and leads us to think about things like immigration and public policy and education in ways that are really affecting our nation at the moment.

RATH: And does this make things a lot harder for researchers?

DAWKINS: Absolutely. At the end of the day, this is less than 3 percent of our nation's population. So I think we still have to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Americans identify as having one race only, that that's not a bad thing, but that we have to be really careful about how we read and interpret and spin these census results.

RATH: What are some of the other downsides to these racial categories becoming less stable?

DAWKINS: Yes. Colleges are having a really tough time now managing diversity and affirmative action programs. And we're seeing this in cases that are coming up before the Supreme Court as well that this two or more population goes to college the most with the exception of Asian-Americans. This is generally a very highly educated population. The Census suggests that they also come from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds than mono-racial groups.

So a lot of people are fearing that traditional mono-ethnic or mono-racial groups might be discriminated against at the expense of this new population that's coming better prepared and able to tick off all those boxes in terms of diversity, but may or may not be having the same experiences as someone who is Latino American, someone who is African-American or Native American.

And so just as we've seen historically that mono-racial groups need to take responsibility for maybe not giving multiracials the freedom to be all of who they are all the time, multiracials also have to take some responsibility and say, hey, wait a minute. How does our entrance into this conversation disrupt, for better and for worse, resources and communities that have worked really hard to be organized?

RATH: It is difficult to talk about multiracials as a group. The issues I face as an Anglo-Indian are utterly different from what Marcia faces as a black, white and Latina person. As she points out, for better or for worse, we only have the model of the black and white dynamic to work with. To advance the discussion, we need more than just new categories. Perhaps we need a new way to talk about race in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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