April 18, 1999

San Jose Mercury News

Changing face of the future

As mixed race births surge, old racial divisions could become obsolete.

By BEN STOCKING, Mercury News Staff Writer

 

Mary Johnson’s face will confound anyone who tries to fit her into a tidy racial box. It is

not quite black, not quite white; not quite American Indian, not quite Hispanic.

It is all of those things. And if current demographic trends hold, it could be the face of

the future.

 

Between 1980 and 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available, mixedrace

births in California surged from 40,877 to 70,787, more than three times the

increase of same-race births. In California and Santa Clara County, one of every seven

babies born in 1997 had parents of different races.

 

As the multiracial population grows, traditional racial lines are blurring. At some point, if

the trend continues, it seems inevitable that Americans will be forced to reassess their

notions of race.

 

The growing mixed-race population has spawned a fledgling political movement — much

of it based in the Bay Area — as mixed-race people band together to demand

recognition.

 

It has inspired some optimistic predictions about the future of race relations. As more

people cross racial boundaries, some mixed-race people maintain, racial divisions will

slowly melt away.

 

And it has emboldened some critics of affirmative action to predict the gradual demise

of racial preferences. How can society grant someone preferences based on race, they

argue, if the day is coming when we can no longer figure out exactly what that person’s

race is?

 

The conventional racial categories are too narrow, Johnson says, to describe mixedrace

people like her.

 

”I have relatives in just about every racial group that you can identify,” said Johnson, 38,

a human resources manager from San Jose. ”To attempt to lock me into one is to deny

that I have a foothold in the others. I identify with all of them.”

 

The rapid growth of the multiracial population is occurring during a period of dramatic

demographic change in Santa Clara County, where the white population is falling below

50 percent for the first time.

 

In 1997, when more than 500,000 babies were born in California, mixed-race babies

were the third largest racial category after Latinos and whites, but ahead of Asians,

blacks and American Indians.

 

And the state’s mixed-race population is likely to keep growing, said Mary Heim, a

demographer with the state Department of Finance. ”I don’t see it as a trend that’s going

to stop.”

 

While the number of mixed-race births is rising nationally, the trend is particularly

pronounced in California. Of the nation’s estimated 2.7 million interracial married

couples, 23 percent live in the Golden State, according to William Frey, a demographer

at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.

 

The Bay Area, in particular, is recognized as a mecca for mixed-race people and

interracial couples because its population is diverse and the region is perceived as

racially tolerant. Ethnic magazines rate San Jose among the top 10 cities for interracial

couples.

 

Aga Goodsell, a San Jose resident who is half-Korean and half-white, couldn’t imagine

a better place to live. She grew up in a Maryland suburb where virtually everyone was

white. ”When I came to San Jose, I blended in,” said Goodsell, 35. ”It’s so multicultural.

Nobody asks me, ‘What are you?’ anymore.”

 

While mixed-race people extol the region’s virtues, some caution that it isn’t nirvana.

Racism exists here, they say, as it does everywhere.

 

A political movement has sprouted to force multiracial issues onto the national agenda,

and it is rooted in the Bay Area. Multiracial organizations have sprung up in Berkeley,

Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento. While some have focused on political issues, such

as getting a multiracial category added to the U.S. Census, others are social groups, a

comfortable place for multiracial people to exchange ideas.

 

Their members are devoted to disproving one of the central arguments advanced by

people who oppose interracial marriages: that the children of such relationships will

inevitably be confused.

 

”The biggest concern was, ‘What about the children?’ ” said Ramona Douglass, 49, a

San Jose resident and president of the national Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans.

”Well, what about us? We are productive, viable members of this society. We’re not

tragic, we’re not confused, and we are able to speak for ourselves.”

 

Many mixed-race people say they must cope with stresses that same-race people never

experience. Some experience racism and rejection from all sides. Some feel pressure to

choose one parent’s race and reject a fundamental part of themselves. Many feel like

outsiders — a blend of several races, but a member of none.

 

Douglass acknowledges that multiracial people grapple with issues that often become

the focus of their quest to develop a sense of personal identity. But virtually everyone,

not just multiracial people, goes through some form of identity crisis as they attempt to

figure out who they are, she points out.

 

As recently as 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws, 16

states still had statutes on the books that outlawed interracial marriages.

 

But since the days of the civil rights movement, interracial relationships have slowly

become more common. As segregation was dismantled and minorities gained greater

access to universities and the workplace, members of different races had greater

opportunities to get to know one another.

 

”As people began to interact with each other, we began to see this increase in biracial

births — a biracial baby boom,” said Herman DeBose, a sociologist at California State

University-Northridge.

 

Meanwhile, the state’s population has become more diverse in recent decades due to

heavy immigration from Asia and Latin America. As members of different groups have

moved into the same areas, more mixing has occurred.

 

As the mixed-race population grows, DeBose said, more people — especially family

members of mixed-race people — will be forced to re-evaluate their racial views. If a

grandfather doesn’t like Asians, for example, and he suddenly has a grandchild who is

half-Asian, what does he do?

 

”Do you disown this person who shares your flesh and blood? Or do you begin to ask,

what is this person about? All of a sudden, they are part of you and you are part of

them,” DeBose said.

 

Many multiracial people see themselves as living proof that even races that have been

separated by laws and hate can unite and thrive. As their numbers grow, they argue,

race relations can only improve.

 

”I see myself as a symbol of racial unity,” said Elizabeth Atkins Bowman, 31, the halfblack,

half-white author of the novel ”White Chocolate,” which explores biracial themes.

”I represent love between two races that at times have had a pretty violent history. The

more people there are like me, the more we can erase that hatred.”

 

Not everyone shares her optimism. Al Tervalon, a 33-year-old San Jose engineer, fears

that people will always find some basis for bigotry, even if so many multiracial people

are born that conventional racial distinctions become obsolete.

 

If race no longer serves as a dividing line, he said, perhaps people will separate along

class or religious lines. ”I don’t know if we’re ever going to get away from the us-vs.-

them situation,” said Tervalon, who is a blend of black and white, Cajun and Creole.

 

Being multiracial has persuaded Tervalon that racial distinctions are meaningless.

”If I have to think of myself as a member of a race, it would be Homo sapiens, which is

the only one that I’m incontrovertibly a member of,” he said. ”Down at the

chromosomes, down at the DNA, there’s no difference.”

 

It’s impossible to predict what percentage of the multiracial babies born each year in

California will eventually identify themselves as multiracial or biracial. Many might

ultimately choose to describe themselves as black, Latino, Asian or white.

 

That fact highlights just how subjective and arbitrary racial categories are, said Heather

Dalmage, a sociologist who teaches about race at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

”We are taught in the United States that you are born a race, that race is genetically

determined,” said Dalmage. ”But race is not biological. It’s a social construct.”

 

During the days of slavery, whites developed an arbitrary standard to safeguard their

privileged position. Known as the ”one-drop” rule, it declared that anyone with even a

single drop of black blood was black.

 

Today, racial combinations are becoming increasingly elaborate. Some argue that the

more difficult it becomes to pinpoint a person’s race, the more likely it is that we will

simply stop trying.

 

Stephan Thernstrom, a well-known foe of affirmative action, hopes that the growing

number of multiracial people will ultimately undermine support for racial preferences.

Eventually, he said, it will become so difficult to define a person’s race that their claim to

racial redress will become too fuzzy to sort out.

 

”The more we have these mixtures, the more likely we are to say, ‘What good does it do

to classify someone as one-quarter Japanese, half-this, an eighth-that?’ ” said

Thernstrom, a Harvard historian. ”We should be getting rid of these absurd racial

categories.”

 

Yet many people would prefer to preserve traditional racial distinctions. To some —

black and white, Asian and Latino — the idea of crossing racial lines in marriage is still

objectionable.

 

Many feel more comfortable within their own group, others simply believe that interracial

relationships are too complicated to work. And some are motivated by a desire to

maintain ”racial purity” — the conviction that other racial groups are inferior to their own.

But to many multiracial people, the future of America is clear. They see traditional racial

boundaries inexorably melting away as more people plunge into interracial relationships

— especially in California, with its diverse population.

 

”We will have a multiracial majority someday,” said Stacy Thompson, 41, a black

Oakland educator who has two biracial children. ”Soon we’ll all have Asian features,

olive skin and wavy hair.”

 

PROFILES:

Christy Nguyen

Age: 26

Occupation: student, Mission College

Ethnic mix: Vietnamese/Cambodian/African-American/Latino

Hometown: San Jose

 

Christy Nguyen tries on different identities like hats, seeing which feels comfortable,

which suits her mood. Some days she feels black, other days Vietnamese. Sometimes,

she feels in between.

 

”I’m still getting to know who I am,” she says. ”Each day is different.”

She was born in Vietnam and adopted as an infant by a Vietnamese family. She has

never met her birth parents: a mother who was Vietnamese and Cambodian, and an

American father who was black and Latino.

 

When she was a child, her relatives would sometimes spew stereotypes about blacks.

Her mother told her that she would be prettier if her skin were lighter.

Until her 20s, Nguyen thought of herself as Vietnamese. But she gradually came to

realize that she had a more complex identity.

 

She went through an awkward phase during which she tried to get in touch with her

blackness. She started wearing a hair weave, attaching a set of thick black braids to her

hair. She scoured San Jose in search of soul food restaurants and enrolled in a

”Beginning Hip-Hop” class at Mission College. She spent a lot of time in the sun,

darkening her skin.

 

Lately, though, she’s embracing all parts of herself. ”I’m learning to be proud of who and

what I am.”

 

Aga Goodsell

Age: 35

Occupation: aerospace engineer

Ethnic mix: Korean/white

Hometown: San Jose

 

There’s a phrase invoked so frequently by mixed-race people, it could serve as a

biracial slogan: ”The best of both worlds.”

 

While many people are restricted to seeing the world through the prism of just one race,

mixed-race people can see things from the perspective of two or more. Aga Goodsell

considers it a blessing that she’s both Asian and white.

 

”I think of myself as like a bridge between East and West,” she says. ”I have Asian

friends, and I have Caucasian friends. I feel like I can be close to both.”

 

And she gets to be part of yet another community: the mixed-race community. In the

valley, she’s constantly running into other mixed-race Asians with whom she feels an

instant connection. ”There’s sort of a closer bond there, because we understand what

it’s like to be mixed race. I feel a kinship with them.”

 

Some biracial and multiracial people identify more strongly with one strand of their

ethnic identity. But Goodsell and many others feel equally comfortable around each of

the ethnic groups whose identity they share.

 

In the Bay Area, where multiculturalism reigns supreme, she sometimes feels like being

biracial is almost trendy. ”I’m kind of on the cutting edge. I epitomize multiculturalism,

because I am dual-cultural. I don’t have to fall into one or the other mold. I can be a mix,

and it’s OK.”

 

Alexis Perry

Age: 23

Occupation: counselor

Ethnic mix: Japanese/African-American/Filipino/Guamanian

Hometown: Monterey

 

To anyone blunt enough to ask her the ”What are you?” question, Alexis Perry has a

quick response: ”I’m a mix of cultures and races.”

 

But as much as she embraces her multiracial identity, Perry seems especially

comfortable with her blackness. Like many mixed-race people who are partly black, she

says the African-American community has always been the most welcoming, the most

eager to invite her in.

 

At the University of California-Berkeley, from which she recently graduated, Perry would

often see Asian students on campus, circulating fliers for parties. They wouldn’t hand

them to her.

 

”They were so exclusive,” Perry says. ”They were very much into pure Asian. It seemed

weird to be at an institution of higher learning and see people segregating themselves

and excluding others from the group.”

 

Perry’s circle of friends looks like a billboard for the Rainbow Coalition. They are black,

white, Latino, Asian and everything in between. She looks more Asian than black.

But when it came to student activities, Perry gravitated toward African-American

organizations. She volunteered at the Black Recruitment and Retention Center and

encouraged black high school students who were interested in attending Berkeley.

Her father, who is half-Japanese, half-black, identifies strongly with his Asian heritage.

His house is decorated with Japanese art and samurai swords.

 

Alexis identifies with each strand of her identity. But when it comes to culture —

especially music — it’s hip-hop, all the way.

 

Spencer Sikes

Age: 34

Occupation: diversity consultant

Ethnic mix: African-American/American Indian/Latino

Hometown: Fremont

 

In his high school days, Spencer Sikes conducted what he calls a self-imposed

campaign of ”ethnic cleansing.”

 

”I wanted to be more American,” he said. ”Back then, that meant more white.”

 

He found it difficult to fit into a racial landscape with rigid categories that left no

comfortable spot for him. He remembers Latino friends complaining that he was acting

”white,” a burly white kid harassing him for being black and black classmates taunting

him with names like ”Oreo.”

 

”I wasn’t black enough to be considered black, I wasn’t Latino enough to be considered

Latino,” Sikes said. ”I was on the fence.”

 

After college, a roommate invited Sikes to a diversity workshop where he had an

epiphany. As he listened to people discussing racial stereotypes, he suddenly came to

see how he had bought into negative notions about minorities — including the very

groups of which he was a part.

 

”I cried for a week after that workshop,” Sikes said. ”I started to see what my essence

was. I realized that the very things I had been pushing away were the things I needed

the most. The more I embraced them, the stronger I became.”

 

These days, he embraces each piece of his identity with equal fervor. He is into Afro-

Caribbean drumming and he dances at salsa clubs. He even attended an Indian

”sweat,” sitting in a steaming hot tepee and getting in touch with his spiritual side.