Rachel Lerman is the embodiment of melting pot citizenry: Born in 1967 in Boston to a blonde, blue-eyed, Roman Catholic white woman and a black man from Nigeria, she was placed in foster care and shortly thereafter adopted by a white couple and raised Jewish.
After college, she met Alex Diaz-Asper, a Catholic born in Miami of immigrant parents from Spain and Cuba. At 33, she married him, then settled down in Washington, D.C., in Adams Morgan, a “multi-culti,” or multicultural, neighborhood where folks can find Ghana on a map or, at the very least, a Ghanaian eatery around the corner.
Three years ago, the couple had twins: Alejandro, a brown-eyed, curly haired boy, caramel-colored from head to toe — “People say he looks like a kid in a Gap ad: very ‘ambi-ethnic’” — and Miguel, a tot with straight, blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, and the ruddy cheeks of a windburned Irishman.
Their momma, who is brown-skinned and curly haired herself, couldn’t be prouder. And yet, when she and the boys are at the playground or the grocery store, she still draws puzzled looks, curious stares and the questions:
“Are you the nanny?”
“Is Miguel adopted?”
“What are you?”
Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a “post-race” era.
Clearly, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has revived a national conversation on racial attitudes. Likewise, it has drawn new attention to the unique perspectives and experiences of the roughly 5 million multiethnic people living in America.
Ask multiracial Americans and their family members whether things are changing, and you’re likely to hear there’s more outward acceptance now than in decades past for biracial couples, adopted children who don’t share the ethnicity of either parent, and so-called “non-mixed” members of multiracial families.
Still, activists who campaign to raise understanding of multiracial people say that acceptance is uneven, varying widely across regions, social classes and generations.
“Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you,” says Heather Tarleton, 28, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of the Interracial Family Circle, a support group founded by her mother, who is black, and her father, who is white.
“You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are,’” she says. “And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”
Which leads multiracial people to ask some questions of their own.
Is it possible, they wonder, that this nation — its history steeped in slavery, terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and illicit eroticism between black and white — is ready to embrace not just white or black, but shades of brown?
Why is it, they ask, that multiracial people, from the time they leave the stroller to time they go to their graves, are verbally poked and prodded to choose their “primary” ethnicity — lest it be chosen for them by their peers, based on a glance?
How is it that even today, when a highway patrol trooper spots a motorist with European and African heritage, he sees a black man, not a white one?
At a more basic level, why are terms such as “race” and “mixed” — leftovers, sociologists say, from the misguided “racial science” of the 19th century — still widely used to describe genetic, cultural and social variations within our one human race?
Why are concepts such as the “one-drop rule” — the arbitrary, Jim Crow classification of anyone with any African heritage as black — still accepted by many blacks and whites, even as they serve to deepen racial divisions?(p2)