Emerging mixed-race generation eager to embrace multiple heritages

Tuesday, March 08, 2005
se@kalamazoogazette.com 388-8554

Last year when it was Olivia Hodge's turn to lead prayer for her second-grade class at St. Augustine Elementary School in Kalamazoo, she accented her job with the hip-hop gospel grooves of Kirk Franklin and the religious flavor of a black Baptist preacher, her mother recounted.

The musical and religious appreciation Olivia picked up from her father, Vincent Hodge, and his church, the nondenominational Christian Life Center in Kalamazoo.

It was a part of herself she wanted to share with her class, a group of mainly white youngsters at St. Augustine school, affiliated with the church her mother, Ruth Hodge, grew up in and still attends.

"It's good knowing that I have two different cultures that I can think about and ask questions about," said Olivia, 8, now a third-grader at St. Augustine. "I like the fact that there are interesting things in (both of) the cultures that I have."

For instance, she associates varying styles of dress with her father's African-American culture and a close-knit family with her mother's Italian-American heritage. In her estimation, she has the best of both worlds.

"It's fun to have friends that are different from you because you like to stand out and you like to make friends with friends that are different with you," Olivia said. "It's fun being biracial."

Olivia is among a growing number of biracial or multiracial children and adults in this country, and this group is gaining increasing attention as its members refuse to define themselves as just one race or another, bringing about changes in attitudes and in the way racial data are collected.

In 2000, for the first time, the U.S. census allowed people to more accurately indicate their racial background by checking more than one of six boxes to identify their race; previously, they were restricted to checking only one box. Of those who identified themselves as belonging to two or more races, 42 percent were younger than 18. In contrast, among people identifying as one race, the under-18 population was only 25 percent of the total.

The number of biracial or mulitracial people in the United States in 2000 was nearly 6.8 million, or 2.4 percent of the total population. In Michigan, 1.9 percent of residents classified themselves as belonging to two or more races in 2000.

According to Newsweek magazine, one in almost every 20 children in this country was of mixed race in 2000, compared to one in every 100 children in 1970. States such as California and Washington led the way, with almost one in every 10 children being of mixed race in 2000.

Although Olivia is among a very few biracial or minority students at her school, youngsters like her find more company in some of the area's public schools.

Area districts with the highest reported percentages of biracial or multiracial children younger than age 18 in 2000 were Cassopolis Public Schools, with 6.1 percent, or 136 children out of 2,212; and Kalamazoo Public Schools, with 5.7 percent, or 1,227 young people out of 21,351, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Proud to be biracial

Olivia's embracing of her different heritages signals a growing acceptance of the offspring of mixed-race unions, according to her mother, Ruth Hodge, and experts in the field.

Before Olivia was born, her parents talked about the challenges their daughter might face growing up biracial.

"She is who she is," her mother said. "And she's black and she's white, and I think it was equally important to know that she would be immediately immersed in both cultures, so it wouldn't be an issue. We don't preach to her. I think it's just the way we live."

Donna Talbot, a Western Michigan University professor who teaches about multiculturalism and who is herself multiracial -- the daughter of a Japanese woman and a French-Canadian man -- two years ago interviewed a particular subgroup of biracial children: those born after 1970 who are the offspring of two minority races.

What Talbot found was that the more dominant an individual's physical characteristics, such as dark skin color or a certain eye shape, that link them to a particular race, the more likely they are to identify solely with that race.

She said she thinks, however, that young people of biracial and multiracial heritage today benefit from having role models, language and permission to identify with both or all of their racial cultures.

"The most amazing thing is how many people mention Tiger Woods, and that was their permission, finally, to identify as biracial and to not say 'I'm African' if one parent was black," Talbot said.

It was in 1997 that Woods, in an interview on the "Oprah" show, said he identified himself as a "Cablinasian" -- his made-up term for his Caucasian, African-American and Indian-Asian heritage. Woods' father is part African-American, Native American and Chinese, and his mother is half Thai, and one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth white.

In addition to Woods, biracial children and adults have many other well-known figures to look to, such as Oscar-winning actress Halle Barry, actor Vin Diesel and politicians like newly elected Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Talbot said she believes that acceptance of biracial and multiracial people and self-identification by this group will increase in the future, because they are one of the fastest-growing minorities in the country.

Problems persist

Francis Wardle, executive director of the Denver-based Center for the Study of Biracial Children and author of "Tomorrow's Children," agrees that attitudes are changing, but only to a certain degree.

"It's a lot more acceptable, but we've got a h--- of a way to go," said Wardle, the father of four multiracial children, all now young adults.

"It's a double-sided issue," Wardle said. "On the one hand, we're making enormous progress ... but on the flip side, we're not really addressing those needs (of biracial children)."

Wardle contends, for instance, that biracial children are prone to being stereotyped as being psychologically or emotionally dysfunctional; that professionals will deal with them based on the "one-drop rule," meaning that they will be viewed as black, and treated as if they are of lower status, if they have any African ancestry; and that professionals aren't well-equipped to deal with biracial and multiracial children who are harassed because of their identity.

When learning about the genesis for this story -- the community Reading Together selection "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" -- Wardle took umbrage at the book's subtitle, questioning why author James McBride, who is the son of a white woman and a black man, called himself black.

Sometimes biracial children might not have a clear sense of how to identify themselves because issues of race are not discussed at home, said Diane Jones, a retired teacher from Kalamazoo Public Schools.

During her 32 years teaching in the district, Jones said, she went from seeing no interracial children at the segregated Northglade Elementary School in 1967 to seeing "a handful" in each class during her days at Indian Prairie Elementary School. She also continues to see biracial youths in her work as a volunteer at Kalamazoo's Northglade Montessori Magnet School.

"Sometimes it's not ever addressed at home," just as the subject was never broached in author McBride's home, Jones said.

She believes it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to set the tone for how children interact with each other, especially with biracial youngsters.

"Kids don't see themselves as color; they see friends," Jones said. "It all depends on how the teacher, who has that information, handles it."

In the not-so-distant past, and even now sometimes, biracial children are denied the chance to identify themselves as biracial, said 34-year-old Joseph Ely, who is biracial and works as a juvenile probation officer for the Kalamazoo County Circuit Court.

He told the story of how he tried to fill a form out at predominantly black Jackson State University in Mississippi that asked for a racial identification. Although he drew his own box and labeled it "other," he said the form was returned to him with a request to check either black or white.

Only after consulting with his guidance counselor was he told that if he identified himself as white, he would be considered a minority at the school and eligible for a scholarship.

"I think we place the onus on what the kids are going to feel, when society is the one dictating or trying to place them in (the) category that they see fit," Ely said.

Changing tide

But the tide is changing. These days biracial and multiracial children are more likely to have their own category to check -- mixed, biracial or other -- when they fill out questionnaires.

Biracial and multiracial children also can find books on multiracial people and, often, a classmate who shares their experience.

Wardle attributed much of the societal change to the power of the Internet, which allows parents like himself to share their challenges and joys with each other.

"The Internet has, in fact, bypassed the traditional gatekeepers, who are about 20 years behind," Wardle said. "(The Internet spawned) the multiracial revolution, because now we can post information without going through the gatekeepers of journalists and college classes."

In April, a Seattle-based group called the MAVIN Foundation will sponsor five 20-somethings as they crisscross the country for about a month to discuss the growing number of mixed-raced families and their biracial and multiracial offspring. The tour will bypass Michigan but makes a pit stop May 3 in Chicago.

One thing that the group, like Wardle, would like to do is to encourage the U.S. Department of Education to start collecting data from individuals indicating whether they are more than one race. They believe this will present a more accurate indication of the country's mixed-race population.

Corianna McDowell, 21, of Portage, remembers growing up being called names and stereotyped for being biracial, although she doesn't feel that those experiences negatively affected her in the long run.

"In school I had to deal with the various nicknames for being biracial, such as 'Oreo,' 'wigger' or 'zebra,'" McDowell said. "There also were times when people would not like me because I acted like a white girl or acted black."

But now, like Olivia Hodge, McDowell enjoys being able to interact with people of both her races.

Perhaps everyone can learn a lesson from Olivia, who says her uniqueness enables her to appreciate other people's individuality.

"We're not different from anybody else," Olivia said of biracial children. "Like, we do the same things even though we're biracial, and some of us have friends that have way different cultures, but they're just normal kids just like us."

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

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