Rachel Lerman contemplates such questions, of course. Life as a biracial mother with a Spanish-speaking spouse in 2008 America doesn’t come with a laugh track as did the ’70s sitcom “The Jeffersons.” But she has two boys to raise, groceries to buy, trips to the playground to make.
So, to avoid confusion when she’s out with her light-skinned son, she recently bought Miguel a T-shirt from a site called “multiculticutie.com.”
It reads: “She’s my mommy, not my nanny.”
“A growing acceptance”
The year 1967 was particularly memorable for multiracial America: Hollywood came out with the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a comedy built around white parents’ acceptance of an interracial couple (a recent remake cast the parents as black); and the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute that barred whites from marrying nonwhites, a decision that overturned bans in 15 other states.
Since then, the number of interracial marriages has steadily risen, from 67,685 in 1970 to 440,150 in 2005, comprising more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples, according to the most recent census figures.
Likewise, attitudes toward interraciality appear to be growing more tolerant.
In 1972, 39 percent of Americans said marrying someone of a different race should be illegal; by 2002, only 9.9 percent felt the same way. In 2003, more than three-quarters of adults said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” up from 48 percent who felt that way in 1987, according to the Pew Research Center.
That’s not to say everyone signs off on interracial unions. Bob Jones University in South Carolina only dropped its prohibition on interracial dating in 2000. The following year, 40 percent of voters in Alabama objected when officials removed a non-enforceable ban on interracial marriages in the state’s constitution.
And there are occasional incidents involving taunts and threats. Last year in Cleveland, two men were sentenced to prison for harassing an interracial couple by spreading mercury around their house.
“I’ve interviewed people who’ve been disowned by their parents for marrying somebody from a different group — people who haven’t spoken to their parents in 30 years,” says Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University.
Nonetheless, he adds, as interracial unions increase, “there is a growing acceptance of this in American society.”
One sign of this came in 2000, the first year the Census Bureau allowed Americans to identify themselves as multiracial by checking as many boxes about race as there were distinct branches of their family tree. On the 1990 census, multiethnic people could only identify themselves with one ancestry or put an “X” in the “OTHER” box.
Some traditional civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund opposed the change, fearing that fewer self-identified black or Asian people would diminish their constituencies — and thereby make it more difficult to raise funds and monitor discrimination.
Those fears haven’t panned out, as it happens: As of July 1, 2007, the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of “two or more races” in the government’s annual Population Estimate shot up 3 percent from the previous year. That matched the growth rates for Hispanics and Asians, and exceeded the growth rate of the white population by 10 times, says Robert Burnstein, a spokesman for the census bureau.
And although multiracial Americans still only represent 1.6 percent of the nation’s 302 million residents, the intense media spotlight focused on celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and Jessica Alba is a clue that corporate sponsors and marketers sense a shift in attitudes toward multiethnicity. (Woods once famously described himself as “Cablinasian,” to acknowledge the Caucasian, African, American Indian and Asian within him.)
Rather than being a drawback, racial diversity is gradually being recognized by advertisers as intrinsically admirable and appealing.
“We’re now at the point where we’re talking about mixed-race ads — putting a black-and-white couple in an ad,” says Jerome D. Williams, a professor of advertising and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Advertisers remain skittish about potential backlash from consumers “who may feel that this is pushing the envelope, in terms race relations,” he says. Still, he’s noticed more “ethnically ambiguous” models in TV commercials.
“They may have somewhat of an ethnic look, but you can’t tell,” Williams says. “You’re trying to straddle the fence, to get someone to appeal to an ethnic audience while at the same time making sure you don’t turn off a mainstream, white audience.”
Coupled with a steady flow of immigrants from all parts of the world, the surge of interracial marriages and multiracial children is producing a 21st century America more diverse than ever, with the potential to become less stratified by race. More »
When Xavier Garcia and Foley Ibidapo decided to film one another talking about their experiences with racial attitudes in their native Stoneham,
they took the first steps toward a much larger project — “Cultura Ijile,” a documentary intended to look their hometown square in the eye and find “a better tomorrow.” More »
When Xavier Garcia and Foley Ibidapo decided to film one another talking about their experiences with racial attitudes in their native Stoneham, they took the first steps toward a much larger project — “Cultura Ijile,” a documentary intended to look their hometown square in the eye and find “a better tomorrow.” More »
A "blog for parents who are committed to raising children with an anti-racist outlook," www.antiracistparent.com features regular Web columns about multiracial culture, compilations of mainstream media stories about America's changing face and user-generated content like the feature "Ask ARP," where readers can share their experiences. More »