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