The New York Times
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — In another time or place, the game of “What Are You?” that was played one night last fall at the University of Maryland might have been mean, or menacing: Laura Wood’s peers were picking apart her every feature in an effort to guess her race.
“How many mixtures do you have?” one young man asked above the chatter of about 50 students. With her tan skin and curly brown hair, Ms. Wood’s ancestry could have spanned the globe.
“I’m mixed with two things,” she said politely.
“Are you mulatto?” asked Paul Skym, another student, using a word once tinged with shame that is enjoying a comeback in some young circles. When Ms. Wood confirmed that she is indeed black and white, Mr. Skym, who is Asian and white, boasted, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” in affirmation of their mutual mixed lineage.
Then the group of friends — formally, the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association — erupted into laughter and cheers, a routine show of their mixed-race pride.
The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.
One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data from 2008 and 2009 that was analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And experts expect the racial results of the 2010 census, which will start to be released next month, to show the trend continuing or accelerating.
Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”
They are also using the strength in their growing numbers to affirm roots that were once portrayed as tragic or pitiable.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that,” said Ms. Wood, the 19-year-old vice president of the group. “If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”
No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.
Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.
And some sociologists say that grouping all multiracial people together glosses over differences in circumstances between someone who is, say, black and Latino, and someone who is Asian and white. (Among interracial couples, white-Asian pairings tend to be better educated and have higher incomes, according to Reynolds Farley, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.)
Along those lines, it is telling that the rates of intermarriage are lowest between blacks and whites, indicative of the enduring economic and social distance between them.
Prof. Rainier Spencer, director of the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of “Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix,” says he believes that there is too much “emotional investment” in the notion of multiracialism as a panacea for the nation’s age-old divisions. “The mixed-race identity is not a transcendence of race, it’s a new tribe,” he said. “A new Balkanization of race.”
But for many of the University of Maryland students, that is not the point. They are asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.
“All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” Ms. Wood said. “I want us to have a say.”
Americans mostly think of themselves in singular racial terms. Witness President Obama’s answer to the race question on the 2010 census: Although his mother was white and his father was black, Mr. Obama checked only one box, black, even though he could have checked both races.
Some proportion of the country’s population has been mixed-race since the first white settlers had children with Native Americans. What has changed is how mixed-race Americans are defined and counted.
Long ago, the nation saw itself in more hues than black and white: the 1890 census included categories for racial mixtures such as quadroon (one-fourth black) and octoroon (one-eighth black). With the exception of one survey from 1850 to 1920, the census included a mulatto category, which was for people who had any perceptible trace of African blood.
But by the 1930 census, terms for mixed-race people had all disappeared, replaced by the so-called one-drop rule, an antebellum convention that held that anyone with a trace of African ancestry was only black. (Similarly, people who were “white and Indian” were generally to be counted as Indian.)
By the 1970s, Americans were expected to designate themselves as members of one officially recognized racial group: black, white, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean or “other,” an option used frequently by people of Hispanic origin. (The census recognizes Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.)
Starting with the 2000 census, Americans were allowed to mark one or more races.
The multiracial option came after years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children who objected to their children being allowed to check only one race. In 2000, seven million people — about 2.4 percent of the population — reported being more than one race.
According to estimates from the Census Bureau, the mixed-race population has grown by roughly 35 percent since 2000.
And many researchers think the census and other surveys undercount the mixed population.
The 2010 mixed-race statistics will be released, state by state, over the first half of the year.
“There could be some big surprises,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, meaning that the number of mixed-race Americans could be high. “There’s not only less stigma to being in these groups, there’s even positive cachet.”
The faces of mixed-race America are not just on college campuses. They are in politics, business and sports. And the ethnically ambiguous are especially ubiquitous in movies, television shows and advertising. There are news, social networking and dating Web sites focusing on the mixed-race audience, and even consumer products like shampoo. There are mixed-race film festivals and conferences. And student groups like the one at Maryland, offering peer support and activism, are more common.
Such a club would not have existed a generation ago — when the question at the center of the “What Are You?” game would have been a provocation rather than an icebreaker.
“It’s kind of a taking-back in a way, taking the reins,” Ms. López-Mullins said. “We don’t always have to let it get us down,” she added, referring to the question multiracial people have heard for generations.
“The No. 1 reason why we exist is to give people who feel like they don’t want to choose a side, that don’t want to label themselves based on other people’s interpretations of who they are, to give them a place, that safe space,” she said. Ms. López-Mullins is Chinese and Peruvian on one side, and white and American Indian on the other.
That safe space did not exist amid the neo-Classical style buildings of the campus when Warren Kelley enrolled in 1974. Though his mother is Japanese and his father is African-American, he had basically one choice when it came to his racial identity. “I was black and proud to be black,” Dr. Kelley said. “There was no notion that I might be multiracial. Or that the public discourse on college campuses recognized the multiracial community.”
Almost 40 years later, Dr. Kelley is the assistant vice president for student affairs at the university and faculty adviser to the multiracial club, and he is often in awe of the change on this campus.
When the multiracial group was founded in 2002, Dr. Kelley said, “There was an instant audience.”
They did not just want to hold parties. The group sponsored an annual weeklong program of discussions intended to raise awareness of multiracial identities — called Mixed Madness — and conceived a new class on the experience of mixed-race Asian-Americans that was made part of the curriculum last year.
“Even if someone had formed a mixed-race group in the ’70s, would I have joined?” Dr. Kelley said. “I don’t know. My multiracial identity wasn’t prominent at the time. I don’t think I even conceptualized the idea.”
By the 2000 census, Dr. Kelley’s notion of his racial identity had evolved to include his mother’s Asian heritage; he modified his race officially on the form. After a lifetime of checking black, he checked Asian and black. (...)
“When we go back home, let’s say for a weekend or to the mall, they see us walking and I get this look, you know, sort of giving me the idea: ‘Why are you with her? You’re not black, so she should be with a black person.’ Or comments,” Mr. Banda, 20, said at a meeting of the group. “Even some of my friends tell me, ‘Why don’t you date a Hispanic girl?’ ”
Mr. Banda and Ms. Coleman are thinking about having children someday. “One of the main reasons I joined is to see the struggles mixed people go through,” he said, “so we can be prepared when that time comes.”
And despite the growth of the mixed-race population, there are struggles.
Ian Winchester, a junior who is part Ghanaian, part Scottish-Norwegian, said he felt lucky and torn being biracial. His Scottish grandfather was keen on dressing him in kilts as a boy. The other side of the family would put him in a dashiki. “I do feel empowered being biracial,” he said. “The ability to question your identity — identity in general — is really a gift.”
But, he continued, “I don’t even like to identify myself as a race anymore. My family has been pulling me in two directions about what I am. I just want to be a person.”
Similarly, Ms. López-Mullins sees herself largely in nonracial terms.
“I hadn’t even learned the word ‘Hispanic’ until I came home from school one day and asked my dad what I should refer to him as, to express what I am,” she said. “Growing up with my parents, I never thought we were different from any other family.”
But it was not long before Ms. López-Mullins came to detest what was the most common question put to her in grade school, even from friends. “What are you?” they asked, and “Where are you from?” They were fascinated by her father, a Latino with Asian roots, and her mother with the long blond hair, who was mostly European in ancestry, although mixed with some Cherokee and Shawnee.
“I was always having to explain where my parents are from because just saying ‘I’m from Takoma Park, Maryland,’ was not enough,” she said. “Saying ‘I’m an American’ wasn’t enough.”
“Now when people ask what I am, I say, ‘How much time do you have?’ ” she said. “Race will not automatically tell you my story.”
What box does she check on forms like the census? “Hispanic, white, Asian American, Native American,” she said. “I’m pretty much checking everything.”
“Being in M.B.S.A., it really helps with that, Finding a group of people who can accept you for who you are and being able to accept yourself, to just be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m O.K. just the way I am!’ — honestly, I feel that it’s a blessing.”
Over dinner with Ms. López-Mullins one night, she wondered: “What if Obama had checked white? There would have been an uproar because he’s the first ‘black president,’ even though he’s mixed. I would like to have a conversation with him about why he did that.”
Absent that opportunity, Ms. Wood took her concerns about what Mr. Obama checked to a meeting of the campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. last year. Vicky Key, a past president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, who is Greek and black, joined her. The question for discussion was whether Mr. Obama is the first black president or the first multiracial president.
Ms. Key, a senior, remembered someone answering the question without much discussion: “One-drop rule, he’s black.”
“But we were like, ‘Wait!’ ” she said. “That’s offensive to us. We sat there and tried to advocate, but they said, ‘No, he’s black and that’s it.’ Then someone said, ‘Stop taking away our black president.’ I didn’t understand where they were coming from, and they didn’t understand me.”
Whether Mr. Obama is considered black or multiracial, there is a wider debate among mixed-race people about what the long-term goals of their advocacy should be, both on campus and off.
“I don’t want a color-blind society at all,” Ms. Wood said. “I just want both my races to be acknowledged.”
Ms. López-Mullins countered, “I want mine not to matter.”
Some Asians' college strategy: Don't check 'Asian'
Jesse Washington AP
National Writer on Race and Ethnicity for The Associated Press
Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.
"I didn't want to put 'Asian' down," Olmstead says, "because my mom told me there's discrimination against Asians in the application process."
For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it's harder for them to gain admission to the nation's top colleges.
Studies show that Asian-Americans meet these colleges' admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6 percent representation in the U.S. population, and that they often need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, along with the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, prove the existence of discrimination.
The way it works, the critics believe, is that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.
Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.
For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don't give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy. Harder are the questions that it raises: What's behind the admissions difficulties? What, exactly, is an Asian-American — and is being one a choice?
Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People's Association. In high school she had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and scored 2150 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, which she calls "pretty low."
College applications ask for parent information, so Olmstead knows that admissions officers could figure out a student's background that way. She did write in the word "multiracial" on her own application.
Still, she would advise students with one Asian parent to "check whatever race is not Asian."
"Not to really generalize, but a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, ... so it's hard to let them all in," Olmstead says.
Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the "white" box on her application.
"As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn't want to be grouped into that stereotype," Halikias says. "I didn't want to be written off as one of the 1.4 billion Asians that were applying."
Her mother was "extremely encouraging" of that decision, Halikias says, even though she places a high value on preserving their Chinese heritage.
"Asian-American is more a scale or a gradient than a discrete combination . I think it's a choice," Halikias says.
But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in Korea and came here at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends.
"I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to hide half of my ethnic background," Balfe says. "It's been a major influence on how I developed as a person. It felt like selling out, like selling too much of my soul."
"I thought admission wouldn't be worth it. It would be like only half of me was accepted."
Other students, however, feel no conflict between a strong Asian identity and their response to what they believe is injustice.
"If you know you're going to be discriminated against, it's absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box," says Halikias.
Immigration from Asian countries was heavily restricted until laws were changed in 1965. When the gates finally opened, many Asian arrivals were well-educated, endured hardships to secure more opportunities for their families, and were determined to seize the American dream through effort and education.
These immigrants, and their descendants, often demanded that children work as hard as humanly possible to achieve. Parental respect is paramount in Asian culture, so many children have obeyed — and excelled.
"Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best," wrote Amy Chua, only half tongue-in-cheek, in her recent best-selling book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."
"Chinese parents can say, 'You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you,'" Chua wrote. "By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out."
Of course, not all Asian-Americans fit this stereotype. They are not always obedient hard workers who get top marks. Some embrace American rather than Asian culture. Their economic status, ancestral countries and customs vary, and their forebears may have been rich or poor.
But compared with American society in general, Asian-Americans have developed a much stronger emphasis on intense academic preparation as a path to a handful of the very best schools.
"The whole Tiger Mom stereotype is grounded in truth," says Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father. She did not check "Asian" on her application.
"My math scores aren't high enough for the Asian box," she says. "I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects."
"I was definitely held to a different standard (by my mom), and to different standards than my friends," Holmes says. She sees the same rigorous academic focus among many other students with immigrant parents, even non-Asian ones.
Does Holmes think children of American parents are generally spoiled and lazy by comparison? "That's essentially what I'm trying to say."
Asian students have higher average SAT scores than any other group, including whites. A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600 (today it's 2400). Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100.
Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.
Steven Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon and a vocal critic of current admissions policies, says there is a clear statistical case that discrimination exists.
"The actual dynamics of how it happens are really quite subtle," he says, mentioning factors like horse-trading among admissions officers for their favorite candidates.
Also, "when Asians are the largest group on campus, I can easily imagine a fund-raiser saying, 'This is jarring to our alumni,'" Hsu says. Noting that most Ivy League schools have roughly the same percentage of Asians, he wonders if "that's the maximum number where diversity is still good, and it's not, 'we're being overwhelmed by the yellow horde.'"
Yale, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania declined to make admissions officers available for interviews for this story.
Kara Miller helped review applications for Yale as an admissions office reader, and participated in meetings where admissions decisions were made. She says it often felt like Asians were held to a higher standard.
"Asian kids know that when you look at the average SAT for the school, they need to add 50 or 100 to it. If you're Asian, that's what you'll need to get in," says Miller, now an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
Highly selective colleges do use much more than SAT scores and grades to evaluate applicants. Other important factors include extracurricular activities, community service, leadership, maturity, engagement in learning, and overcoming adversity.
Admissions preferences are sometimes given to the children of alumni, the wealthy and celebrities, which is an overwhelmingly white group. Recruited athletes get breaks. Since the top colleges say diversity is crucial to a world-class education, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders also may get in despite lower scores than other applicants.
A college like Yale "could fill their entire freshman class twice over with qualified Asian students or white students or valedictorians," says Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, a former college admissions officer who is now director of college counseling at Rye Country Day School outside of New York City.
But applicants are not ranked by results of a qualifications test, she says — "it's a selection process."
"People are always looking for reasons they didn't get in," she continues. "You can't always know what those reasons are. Sometimes during the admissions process they say, 'There's nothing wrong with that kid. We just don't have room.'"
In the end, elite colleges often don't have room for Asian students with outstanding scores and grades.
That's one reason why Harvard freshman Heather Pickerell, born in Hong Kong to a Taiwanese mother and American father, refused to check any race box on her application.
"I figured it might help my chances of getting in," she says. "But I figured if Harvard wouldn't take me for refusing to list my ethnicity, then maybe I shouldn't go there."
She considers drawing lines between different ethnic groups a form of racism — and says her ethnic identity depends on where she is.
"In America, I identify more as Asian, having grown up there, and actually being Asian, and having grown up in an Asian family," she says. "But when I'm back in Hong Kong I feel more American, because everyone there is more Asian than I am."
Holmes, the Yale sophomore with the Chinese-born mother, also has problems fitting herself into the Asian box — "it doesn't make sense to me."
"I feel like an American," she says, "...an Asian person who grew up in America."
Susanna Koetter, a Yale junior with an American father and Korean mother, was adamant about identifying her Asian side on her application. Yet she calls herself "not fully Asian-American. I'm mixed Asian-American. When I go to Korea, I'm like, blatantly white."
And yet, asked whether she would have considered leaving the Asian box blank, she says: "That would be messed up. I'm not white."
"Identity is very malleable," says Jasmine Zhuang, a Yale junior whose parents were both born in Taiwan.
She didn't check the box, even though her last name is a giveaway and her essay was about Asian-American identity.
"Looking back I don't agree with what I did," Zhuang says. "It was more like a symbolic action for me, to rebel against the higher standard placed on Asian-American applicants."
"There's no way someone's race can automatically tell you something about them, or represent who they are to an admissions committee," Zhuang says. "Using race by itself is extremely dangerous."
Hsu, the physics professor, says that if the current admissions policies continue, it will become more common for Asian students to avoid identifying themselves as such, and schools will have to react.
"They'll have to decide: A half-Asian kid, what is that? I don't think they really know."
The lines are already blurred at Yale, where almost 26,000 students applied for the current freshman class, according to the school's web site.
About 1,300 students were admitted. Twenty percent of them marked the Asian-American box on their applications; 15 percent of freshmen marked two or more ethnicities.
Ten percent of Yale's freshmen class did not check a single box.
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.