Color My World

It was one of the toughest assignments of senior year--a 4,000-word argumentative essay on a controversial topic. Groans echoed down the halls of Denver's George Washington High School, but Nicole Caldwell was secretly pumped. All her life she had been required to categorize herself by race. Sometimes the ivory-skinned, green-eyed teen checked black. Sometimes she checked black and white, the races of her father and mother. Occasionally, when she was feeling defiant, she checked simply "other." None of the choices felt quite right. This was Caldwell's chance to speak up. Race is a divisive tool of "outdated institutions," concluded the outspoken 18-year-old on page 12 of her polemic against race politics. It "doesn't really even exist anymore."

OK, racial divisions still exist. But "people don't trip on it so much now," says Ian Simmons, a 17-year-old biracial student from Oakland, Calif. "It's like everybody is mixed these days." Thirty years ago, only one in every 100 children born in the United States was of mixed race. Today that number is one in 19. In states like California and Washington it's closer to one in 10. The morphing demographics give many teens a chance to challenge old notions of race. But these fluid notions of identity also create new tensions of their own.

Multiracial kids still catch their share of grief, and ugly slurs like "Oreo," "half-breed" and "mutt" are still slung in school parking lots, bathrooms and locker rooms around the country. And there are still pressures to "hang black," "go white," "kick it Latino" or "roll Asian." But the rising numbers of mixed-race kids translate into something all important in the teen universe: a tribe with which to identify, headed by sexy pop icons like Mariah Carey and Tiger Woods.

The relative comfort level that teens experience now is new. Most of today's mixed-race adults didn't have other biracial kids in their schools and neighborhoods, let alone on their favorite TV shows or on the covers of magazines. "Back then there was more of a sense of isolation, of being ignored," says author Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, 42, who was born in Tennessee, the daughter of a Japanese mother and white father. "There wasn't a consciousness that being mixed was, in and of itself, an identity. It was lonely." The organized push for acceptance started in the late '70s with the formation of I-Pride, the first social and political organization for mixed-race adults. More than 30 colleges now have mixed-race student organizations, and high schools are catching on with groups of their own. There are a slew of Web sites and chat rooms for multiethnics, and Mavin magazine, started two years ago by a college student to explore the mixed-race experience, now has a circulation of 32,000. The quarterly's spring issue went out to more than 9,500 high schools nationwide. "Young people today want to mix it up and continually blur the boundaries," says Mavin founder and publisher Matt Kelley, now 21.

The kids at Carson High, in the working-class South Bay section of Los Angeles, are blurring as fast as they can. The 25-member Mixed Heritage Multi-Racial Alliance meets weekly in a classroom lined with posters proclaiming one world for us and no color lines. The group sponsors multicultural events and diversity campaigns. Three years ago club members descended on shopping malls gathering signatures for a nationwide initiative to get a multiracial category on the 2000 Census. Their efforts paid off. Census respondents this year could check more than one box for race, allowing for 63 possible categories.

Even some so-called monoracial kids are down for the cause. Not long after the Carson group's signature drive, an entire history class at the school decided to show solidarity by checking every racial category on a standardized test. Coordinators sent the tests back to the school and made each student erase all but one box. But the multiracial students felt validated.

In places less diverse than California, mixed-race teens have to look outside their neighborhood or school for strength. When Xiomara Braceful switched to a new Catholic middle school in Detroit last fall, where there were few mixed students, kids splashed the bathroom walls with oreo and other racist names. The 12-year-old, who is Cuban and African-American, with Jamaican, Spanish and Indian mixed in, ran home in tears. After getting solace from her stack of Mariah Carey CDs, Braceful told the girls they couldn't break her with their nasty names. They backed off. Now, Braceful is on the cheerleading squad and the baseball and basketball teams; her own mom marvels that she's "superpopular."

Even with backup from Mariah, that kind of confidence takes time to develop. "I used to think I wasn't pretty or smart enough," says Braceful, who was named for a Cuban actress. "But I woke up one day and realized I'm special." That's hard to do when kids are bombarding you with age-old race cues like "good hair" and "bad hair," "white music" and "black music," "Asian eyes" and "Anglo eyes." Junior high and high school, with their harsh social delineation, can be particularly tough. But multiracial teens who run the gantlet often emerge with a stronger sense of self.

That's the key to being accepted, say many mixed-race kids--claiming your own identity, no matter what other kids want to make you. Still, identity can be as much a product of social sphere as it is of physical appearance. A kid who grows up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood may identify as more Latino, even if he looks more Japanese. A kid in a mostly black school may identify as more black, even if she looks more white. When people ask Stephanie Taylor what she is, she tells them, "Cappuccino. Half coffee, and half light cream." Taylor says it's only natural that she identifies more with white culture: she was raised by a white mother and attends a predominantly white school. Some of her biracial friends feel the need to switch their behavior, depending on which racial group they're hanging out with. She thinks it's a waste of time. "I will talk about the Backstreet Boys to a black person," says the 17-year-old from Ann Arbor, Mich. "I'm myself and if they don't like me, that's too bad."

For many mixed-race teens, parents are the cheerleaders for their multiethnic pride. Sure, parents can be corny (like white mothers who celebrate Kwanzaa to get in touch with their kids' black side). But they offer advice when kids at school make dumb cracks. They can help build bridges to extended family, when one set of relatives is uncomfortable with the other side of a child's heritage. And they can teach a tough-minded acceptance of the fact that it's still, in many ways, a racist world. Stephanie Taylor's mother, Virginia Taylor-Godden, tells her kids not to feel pressured to identify solely as black or white. But she also reminds them that other people may choose to define them by race--including police who may target them because they look black. "I tell them you have to be on your guard constantly," says Taylor-Godden, who is white. "I make sure they are aware of the stereotypes."

With friends of all races, Cameron Caldwell didn't expect to have to deal with stereotypes. He got a reminder last fall. It was football season and the 6-foot-2 freshman was changing out of his gear into his favorite FUBU sweater. "Why are you wearing that? You're not black," joked one of the white kids, not realizing that his fair-skinned teammate was biracial. When Caldwell told him that he was half black, the guy stopped speaking to him. "It really bothered me," says Caldwell, 15. It bothered big sister Nicole even more. "This jerk messing with Cameron expected him to wear Abercrombie and Fitch like the white kids," she fumed. "He couldn't take it that there was this other part of our family that wasn't what he is."

The terrain gets even trickier when it comes to dating. At Lakeshore Ice Cream and Donuts in Oakland, a group of friends from Generation Pride, a local group for mixed-race teens, sits eating donut holes and rapping about the rules of the race game. All are children of black and white parents. "Whatever the race of the person you're dating, people take it to mean you're going that way," says soft-spoken Helena Turner, 16, the only girl in the group.

"Yeah, people take it like a statement, even though it's not," adds Gino Jackson, the group's president.

"I think I'd catch some stuff if I dated a white guy," Helena jumps back in. "It's like, if you're mixed you can be too white, and that's a bad thing. But you can't be too black or whatever else."

"Word," says Ian Simmons, nodding.

Helena doesn't have a steady boyfriend. Gino and Ian get around the issue another way. "Mixed girls!" declares Gino, as his younger brother Sergio howls with laughter across the table. "That's the way to go! All the mixed girls I know are fine."

The broader the affirmation, the better it feels. On the green lawn of Wellesley College, high-school junior Liz Short is beaming. She's one of roughly 200 multiracial students at a mixed-race symposium sponsored by student groups and Harvard and Wellesley. The daughter of a white American serviceman and a Korean mother, Short has treaded the landscape of race both in Korea and her new home in New York. "I've always been proud of who I am, but this makes it more fantastic," she says. "Just look around. It's great! Nobody is plain white, or plain black, or plain anything. Eventually I'm hoping every place will be like this." It's a vision that many mixed-race kids can share.