Mixed race, mixed emotions
The Arizona Republic
May. 13, 2005 12:00 AM
Multiracial children face challenges of identity, community

Janie Magruder

Aaron Foster was 3 years old the first time the question came.

"What are you?" asked the barber, out of earshot of his mother.

"I'm a boy," Aaron replied, bewildered.

"No, what are you? Black? Chinese?"

"I do gymnastics."

That exchange, in 1997, made Christina Cooper-Foster, the preschooler's Taiwanian-born mom, realize that issues of race haven't changed much. Cooper-Foster was raised by White adoptive parents in rural Florida in the 1970s, and the same hurtful queries and curious stares she got were now plaguing her son, who is mixed race.

"The good news is there are a lot more people who are different," said the 35-year-old single mom from Phoenix. "The bad news is there's still a mind-set that different is not good."

Her sons, Aaron, now 11, Ethyn, 5, and 3-year-old Eli, whose father is African-American, are among the estimated 4.5 million multiracial children younger than 18 in the United States. Given that interracial marriages nearly tripled to more than 4 million in 2000, from 1.5 million in 1990, these kids are the fastest-growing segment of the population. They also represent a large part of the mixed-race population, at 42 percent, according to a report released in April by the Census Bureau.

Yet, despite the popularity of multiracial celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, mixed-race kids often are forced to choose one race over another but may not be welcomed by either.

They also are more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, sleep problems and various illnesses, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Their 2003 study of 90,000 U.S. adolescents found students who called themselves biracial were more likely to have sex at younger ages, access to guns and poorer experiences at school.

"It did not matter what races the students identified with," said J. Richard Udry, a professor of maternal and child health and lead researcher. "The risks were higher for all of them if they did not identify with a single race."

Udry concluded that multiracial children live with stress that their single-race peers do not.

"The most common explanation for the high-risk status is the struggle with identity formation, leading to lack of self-esteem, social isolation and problems of family dynamics in biracial households," he said.

Multiracial adolescents and teens often suffer through their high school years, wondering if they'll ever meet anyone who looks or is like them.

"Coming to college often is the first time they even get to meet with other people who shared their same experiences," said Michelle Porche, a research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts who recently did a pilot study about the development of racial identities. "They are finally with other people who are of mixed race and feel like they can form

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?, disagreed with Udry's results, saying the study's sample was too small. Parents of mixed-race kids have the power to change the outcome, Nakazawa said.

"Parents can help children make that essential leap from 'what's wrong with me?' . . . to 'what's wrong with them?' " she said. "Society is confused about who these people are."

Who are they?

They're people like Nathalie Conte, a past president of SIMBA - Students Identifying Multiracial and Biracial at Arizona State University - who helped host a mixed-race event last month on campus. Tempe was among 15 cities on the Generation MIX tour, aimed at focusing attention on the challenges of multiracial people. It ended Tuesday in Seattle.

Conte, a 22-year-old ASU senior, has a Black mother and a Caucasian father.

"The biggest issue is we have to choose our race on application forms, and it's kind of frustrating when you have to pick 'other,' because you don't think of yourself as 'other,' " she said.

Marva Whitaker recently went through that when she applied for a job at ASU. The 22-year-old Mesa resident, who is African-American and Caucasian, did not check a race box and got the job anyway.

One of Whitaker's younger brothers has asked her advice for dealing with the curious.

" 'What do I do when I get into a situation where race is an issue?' " said
the green-eyed, curly haired woman. "It's odd. You would think in this day and age people would be more aware."

For the first time, the 2000 census allowed Americans to check more than one race box. Of the 281.4 million total population, 2.4 percent, or 6.8 million people, said they identified with two or more races. That population in the Phoenix metropolitan area is slightly higher, almost 3 percent.

Bobra Crockett-Doiron of Chandler, who is African-American, is raising two children with her husband, Daniel Doiron, who is Caucasian. The kids, Jacob, 5, and Joia, 4, are surrounded by mixed-race schoolmates and people at their church. Crockett-Doiron doesn't let questions or stares bother her, and she's already had conversations with her preschoolers about who they are.

"Jacob explained it to me when he was in preschool," she said. "He said that Daddy was pink and Mommy was brown and he was tan and Joia was more tan. He wasn't upset about it, nor did he make a big deal about it."

Tonya Gray is half Thai and part Native American, African-American and Caucasian. As a girl, her grandfather forbid Thai to be spoken, and although she tagged along to the Buddhist temple with her mother, she was raised Catholic. Her only exposure to Native Americans was in museums.

The 26-year-old Scottsdale resident attended high school in New Mexico, where she often was - and still is - mistaken for Mexican-American. She felt the most accepted by African-Americans.

"I was always accepted by the Black community, much more so than the White community," said Gray, expressing sadness that the Thai community doesn't recognize her at all because she's "not Thai enough."

But Gray, a co-founder of SIMBA, has found her comfort zone as multiracial.

"I'm mixed race. To me, that now is a community and a culture in itself," said Gray, whose boyfriend is Mexican-American. "My parents didn't raise me as mixed race because they wanted me not to worry about it. And of course, I did. I want my children to realize it doesn't define you, but it shapes your experience."

Growing up in Hawaii, Jason Skinner was in the majority as a mixed-race kid. The questions started when Skinner, who's Korean and Caucasian, moved to Arizona in 2001.

"Some guy came up to me and started speaking Spanish, and I'm like, 'I'm not Mexican!' " said Skinner, 22, who also is mistaken for Native American, Filipino and Eskimo.

Cooper-Foster's eldest son currently identifies as African-American because he doesn't see many Asian faces around him. She plans to take him to Taiwan one day and agrees her sons can benefit from being multiracial.

Citing the African proverb of it taking a village to raise a child, she said, "I get more than one village to raise my children. That's the power of diversity."

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8998.