Facing race

Multiracial young people describe how it feels to be mixed race in an all- or-nothing culture

Matt Kelley has the multiracial statistics from the 2000 census in hand and is already looking forward to what the 2010 census might reveal.

As an emerging spokesman on mixed-race issues, he is convinced that multiracial people are beginning to redefine diversity in America. "The 2000 census was remarkable because it was the first ... in which people could check more than one race box," he says. "Many people don't understand what that means, because it's ingrained in our society that [individuals] are one race.

The son of a Korean-American mother and white father, Mr. Kelley knows firsthand the complexities, frustrations, and personal revelations of the multiracial experience. For the past several years, he has foregone a regular paycheck to found a magazine, Mavin, for multiracial young people.

A muted buzz is in the air on this day as Kelley and about half a dozen volunteer interns get out the first issue of the magazine after a 14-month hiatus. Passion, not profits, are the driving force behind the magazine, which is now under the umbrella of a not-for-profit foundation. It operates out of modest offices of the Mavin Foundation, located in the historic Pioneer Square district of downtown Seattle.

Heartfelt letters and e-mails stream in from readers, who speak of finding a sense of group identity and community for the first time in their lives.

Multiracial people, in a sense, are discovering themselves and ways of connecting, thus removing feelings of isolation many have felt.

Kelley's own experience is illustrative.

He grew up on Bainbridge Island, a ferry hop from Seattle, in a small community where race, or how one looked, wasn't as important as where you went to school or church.

But then he switched to an affluent, predominantly white private high school in Seattle, and things changed. "No one knew anything about me, so the way they judged who I was was by how I looked," he says. "They knew I didn't look like any of the white or Asian kids."

His facial features triggered a barrage of questions that made him realize that he didn't fit into any one group.

"That was difficult," he observes. "That's when I started to internalize this idea of not belonging, which created a lot of anger and frustration."

His racial awareness took a turn for the better when, as a high school senior, he taught a group of mostly multiracial 4- and 5-year-olds at a therapeutic day-care center for children who had been abused or neglected. That opened his eyes to society's growing racial gumbo and inspired a "coming of age" in terms of of his own identity.

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where about one-third of the students are people of color, he took ethnic-studies classes and joined a multiracial student organization. When he eventually floated the idea for Mavin: The Mixed Race Experience magazine on the Internet, it met with such favorable response that he took a year off from school to launch it. (In Hebrew, Mavin means "one who understands.")

The publication's content is a blend of topics just as it is of people, with lifestyle stories and profiles alongside issues-related articles. The readership of about 45,000 is built largely on word-of-mouth.

Mavin is available at selected, big-city newsstands. Many copies are donated to schools, which is how Mariko Harman, a senior at Holy Name Academy in Seattle and now a Mavin intern, first encountered the magazine.

"I was looking through our school library and found Mavin," she says. "It really drew me in." In particular, she likes how it blurs racial boundaries, mirroring her own mix of white and Japanese backgrounds.

Parents don't always understand the issues

Seattle is a good fit for the magazine, given the region's multiracial leanings. According to a Seattle Times study, the number of babies born to mixed-race families in King County is second only to those born to white parents.

As open as American attitudes may have become about race - and 60 percent of teens say they have dated someone of another color or ethnic group - mixed-race individuals still struggle to find their place in a "check-one-box" culture.

Part of the challenge, Kelley points out, is that even in families that discuss multiracial issues at home, monoracial parents can't speak from experience.

"Parents of multiracial children may be immigrants or minorities themselves; they may encounter degrees of prejudice and racism because of their background," Kelley says, "but most likely they don't know what it's like to be multiracial. The children can sometimes feel even more isolated because they don't feel like they can look to their parents for knowledge and sympathy and understanding."

When this happens, some strike back at society. In fact, in Oregon, multiracial youths are the fastest-growing segment entering the juvenile justice system, according to the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs. And there are suspicions that this is true in other places.

The situation is not helped by an absence of resources to aid parents, teachers, and social workers in dealing with mixed-race youth. One project of the Mavin Foundation, therefore, is to produce a resource book to be used in breaking the cycle of disenfranchisement.

"Our role," Kelley says, "is to try to be the preeminent organization in terms of helping majority society know a little more about what it means to be multiracial and to prepare society for what inevitably is going to happen. We expect America to become more mixed and for the number of multiracial people to increase rapidly."

Right now, census data shows only scattered areas with significant multiracial populations: Seattle, California's Bay Area, Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Oklahoma, and metropolitan New York.

Overall, 7 million Americans identify themselves as multiracial, and that number could grow exponentially in years to come.

Kelley says there are 30 to 40 multiracial student organizations on campuses across the country and a similar number of community organizations.

In some ways, it's almost chic to be multiracial, especially in the fashion world, where multiracial models can lend an exotic or cross-cultural look.

Still, monoracial society often is hard pressed to get beyond two responses to mixed-race people: curiosity or rejection. Many share the experience of being approached by total strangers, who want to know what, not who, they are.

The tendency toward racial pigeonholing is so strong, though, that a celebrity like Tiger Woods essentially quit trying to identify himself as Cablanasian, that is, as a mix of Asian, African-American, and other backgrounds.

"He's said he's the product of at least two excellent cultures and [is] equally proud of both, which seems like a difficult position to criticize," Kelley observes. "But in America today he's been attacked for it, and that's why he's said he's not going to talk about race anymore."

One thing that Kelley says Mavin needs to do, is to present a different model of racial community.

"I think too often racial community is based on exclusion instead of inclusion," he explains. "I don't think it makes sense for mixed-race people to simply mimic the old model of community and create this hermetically sealed mixed-race community."

Tired of being asked, 'What are you?'

Looking ahead, he says his greatest concern is that multiracial people might just let things happen, and not work proactively to deal with the issues that affect them.

As he sees it, multiracial individuals exist at a cultural crossroads and have an opportunity to help widen the definitions of what it means to be Asian-American, Latino-American, or African-American in a positive way.

Mavin's efforts are ultimately focused on incorporating multiracial people into mainstream society, without ignoring separate identities and heritages.

This can be tricky, and Kelley admits that while it might be nice to dispense with racial labels, their existence doesn't lack interest, even for multiracial people.

"From going to conferences, I know people love to tell their stories," he says. "They talk about being sick of being asked, 'What are you?', but at the first opportunity we want to know what each other's background is."

Eventually, though, Kelley wants to live in a world where racial heritage doesn't necessarily disappear, but it isn't the overarching source of identity.

Kelley considers himself a multifaceted person - a publisher, a former classical piano player, and a lover of the arts - who too often is seen in one dimension.

"Race is an important part of who I am," he says, "but I want people to see it in context."

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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