Moving beyond black and white


Identity: Legal changes and rises in interracial marriages and role models are leading multiracial youths to embrace their backgrounds.

March 07, 2000|By Vanessa E. Jones | Vanessa E. Jones,BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- Cody Jones will patiently explain to friends that he's the son of a white mother and black father. But with all the world-weariness that a 15-year-old can muster, he'll sigh, "You are what people think you are," a fact that makes him identify more with his father.

Now meet his sister, Julia Jones, who is less constrained by age-old codes of racial classifications that once compelled people with even one drop of black blood to call themselves black. When people want to know her racial background, she tells them she's black, white and Native American. "I don't feel as strong a need to see myself as strictly black," said the 19-year-old Columbia University freshman.

Neither does Mikiko Thelwell, the daughter of a Japanese-American mother and Jamaican father who proudly calls herself Afro-Asian. "How can I consider myself either/or?" asks Thelwell, 15, a student at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts. "Because I don't look either/or and I'm not."

A new generation of biracial people is refusing to be categorized within the slim confines of black, white, Hispanic, Native American or Asian/Pacific Islander. Call it the Tiger Woods syndrome, after the golfer who invented the word "Cablinasian" to describe his Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian roots. He's part of an increasing number of cultural role models, including musicians Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, who proudly acknowledge their multifaceted heritages.

The force of the change is so strong that on Census 2000 forms hitting mailboxes this month, people will for the first time be able to check more than one box for racial identification. But census officials believe that less than 2 percent of the population will do it.

"There still are biracial people who prefer to identify themselves as one race or the other," says Pearl Gaskins, who interviewed multiracial youths for her book "What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People," published last year. "But I think there is a growing number of people who feel that that's not adequate for them. They want to define themselves as mixed-race, multiracial, which recognizes the different ethnic and racial backgrounds that they have."

Among specialists in the field, there's palpable excitement about the effects of widening racial categories in a nation that has long resisted racial and cultural blending.

"It's going to be harder and harder to define people in easily definable ways," says G. Reginald Daniel, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has written extensively on the subject. "It will force us to think twice before we jump to any conclusions about people."

Powering the change is a rise in interracial marriages as racial boundaries soften and pop culture offers diverse icons such as Michael Jordan and Jennifer Lopez. In 1960, only 149,000 interracial marriages were reported, according to Census Bureau statistics. By 1998, 1.3 million were reported.

These new families are creating a rapidly expanding biracial and mixed-race community. Information culled from the Census Bureau indicates that 7 percent of the population could have claimed mixed ancestry in 1995, say demographers Barry Edmonston, director of Portland State University's Population Research Center, and Jeff Passell of the Urban Institute in Washington. By 2050, they believe, that number could climb to 21 percent.

Lise Funderburg, an author who specializes in issues of integration, credits the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia for changing attitudes. The decision shattered bans on interracial marriage across the country. Couples began uniting under more positive circumstances, says Funderburg, which affected how their children viewed them.

The original black-white unions were at best illegal and at worst faced forceable conditions, said Funderburg, the product of an interracial marriage that began in 1955. "More recently, these are families where the parents love each other, are married and stay married. Why wouldn't you want to identify with both of them?"

That love and mutual respect make new parents more reluctant to define their children within rigid racial categories, Funderburg adds. Consider how Penny Wells and Frank Jones, Julia and Cody's parents, guided their children on issues of identity.

"Frank and I both agree," says Wells, 48, seated in her suburban Boston home as her children look on, "that she should be Julia Jones and he should be Cody Jones. They shouldn't have labels attached to them, either white or black."

Parental intervention plays a strong role in helping biracial children develop their sense of self. These informal life lessons teach them how to navigate in a society where strangers strive to fit them into racial categories and greet their biracial status with such questions as "What's it like?"

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