Building community out of a swirl of races

What group gets together over Chinese food and potato latkes? That's just one normal dinner combo for members of Swirl, a group in New York for people who come from more than one racial, ethnic, national, or religious group.

The 2000 Census was the first to include mixed race as a classification. Unofficially, the category's ranks have been swelling in the United States, and, as they do, mixed-heritage people are finding benefits and challenges.

"A mixed perspective really is unique. It gives you access to both groups in ways that are beneficial, but it also isolates you in other ways," says Roya Babanoury, a New Yorker whose mother is a white Southerner and whose father is Iranian.

While many minorities or cultural groups have strong, bonded communities in the United States, those who embody a mix of races or religions often feel only half accepted - or rejected.

"In terms of discrimination, I go through the same thing that all black people go through, but I'm also discriminated against by black people because they'll say I'm not really a black person, I'm only half black," says Nathan McCabe, who is black and Italian and was raised by Irish parents.

Although other biracial people are around, there are not enough of them to identify with one another as a separate group. "A lot of minorities love to come together; they have their own language," Mr. McCabe says. "We don't have anything like that."

Ms. Babanoury points out that mixed-heritage people also have almost none of their own literature. Two years ago Tara Bahrampour, a woman like Babanoury with an American mother and Iranian father, wrote a memoir about her experiences. "I heard about this book and was so excited I went running out to get it, because it's been the only one," Babanoury says.

What has started to happen is that "mixies," as they call themselves, are realizing that together they share the common experience of being different.

Jen Chau, whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Chinese, has been bringing together mixed-heritage individuals since college, when she formed a campus group. When she moved to New York City, she was surprised not to find a mixed-heritage group already in existence, but decided to create her own.

"I had a very hard time growing up with my mixed heritage. I wanted to create a group where we could have discussion and feel like a community, because most people who have a mixed heritage are not among people like themselves," Ms. Chau says.

In February of last year she formed Swirl, a nonprofit that she runs part time for the mixed community. "There isn't a place where we all congregate," she says. "Hopefully that's what Swirl will become. It's a basic need for people to be able to be among people like themselves - it's a comfort zone. It doesn't have to be constant, but occasionally."

Swirl doesn't have "mixed-race" in its mission statement or description. It is open to mixed individuals, whether that means a racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural mix, or someone in a mixed relationship or part of a mixed adoptive family.

McCabe, who lives in Boston, drives down to New York to attend Swirl meetings and events. The events are mostly social in nature, like a film series exploring interracial themes, or potluck dinners featuring menus as eclectic as the guests.

Although the most active members so far are singles in their 20s, Swirl is open to individuals, children, and families.

Kids won't feel like 'aliens'

One goal is outreach to mixed-heritage children. Chau and others say that the difficulties they had growing up could have been eased by attending such events.

"If we just do events - picnics, a play - if kids just come, they'll get it," Mr. McCabe says. "It'll impress upon them that it's OK to be mixed, you don't have to feel like an alien."

That's why Alexis Danzig, a Jewish woman in New York whose 2-year-old son is second-generation biracial, joined Swirl. "The more people around him who look like him and are delighting in the fact that they're mixed, he won't feel like he's the only one," she says, adding that the group has also given her insights as a parent.

Not every person with a mixed background would want to be a part of a community like Swirl, because for some heritage is less of an issue. "The people coming to Swirl are the ones who've had major difficulties," Chau says. "They have issues to deal with on an everyday basis and there's something to talk about."

The group's e-mail discussion list, with about 130 members nationwide, generates about 10 messages daily. Recent threads included a discussion of biracial actress Halle Berry's latest movie, derogatory origins of the term "mulatto," using the N-word in popular culture, and experiences of growing up mixed in mostly-white neighborhoods.

One thing that mixed-heritage individuals have in common is constantly hearing the question "What are you?" "It's often the first thing people want to know about me, and I don't think it's the most important thing," Chau says. "It's always based on appearances, it's never based on anything that has meaning. That's very annoying."

Ms. Danzig says that her former partner's identity was a constant mystery to New Yorkers. "He was taken for Dominican, Egyptian - anyone who had that skin tone in his culture would claim him," she says. "There were people who were annoyed that he didn't speak Spanish, when what he is is Jewish and African-American."

Babanoury first became aware she was half-Iranian during the 1979 hostage crisis. She was in grade school, and some of her classmates called her "an Iranian spy." She says that, as an adult, it seems that not much has changed. "I've been in meetings where someone has joked about Iranian terrorists, not knowing I'm half Persian," she says.

While mixed-race people don't fit into any one category, they do act as natural bridges connecting their communities - a unique and positive role, they say. When McCabe was growing up, his Irish parents encouraged him to identify with the black community as well as the white one.

"They knew enough to say, 'We don't know much about this, but we know he needs to go explore this,' " McCabe says. Consequently, he grew up with both suburban white friends and inner-city black ones. Now, he says, "There's nowhere I can't go. I feel very comfortable in affluent, predominantly white communities, but I'm also comfortable in the inner city, where other white kids might be afraid to go."

Seeing an end to race hatred

Danzig, who also wants her son, Tariq, to grow up with exposure to various communities, delights in his mixed heritage.

"It's so positive. That's one thing I'm unequivocal about," she says. "To me it's the beginning of being able to envision the end of race hatred. My son has these connections in his body - how can he put down those people when he is those people?"

Visit www.swirlinc.org

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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