How Multi-Ethnic People Identify Themselves

Guests

Nikki Khanna, lead author, "Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans"
Casey Gane-McCalla, lead blogger, NewsOne
Kip Fulbeck, art professor, University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Mixed: Portraits Of Multiracial Kids

A new study shows that most people who are biracial self-identify as "biracial." But in many instances, multi-ethnic Americans change the way they self-identify depending on who they're talking with. The study was published in December in Social Psychology Quarterly..

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

What are you? People of mixed race hear that question throughout their lives. The question comes in parts: half-black, half-white, part Asian, a quarter Native American. Sometimes the answer may vary depending on the situation. Sometimes it may change for good.

During the era of Jim Crow segregation, a percentage of those with lighter skin chose to pass as white. Now, it looks as if that's reversed. In a study published earlier this month, in Social Psychology Quarterly, sociologists found that among black-white biracial adults, more and more self-identify as black.

What's changed, and what is your story? If you're of mixed race, how do you identify yourself and why? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what's ahead for both sides after the DREAM Act died on the Senate floor. But first, we begin with Nikki Khanna. She's the lead author on the study "Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans" and joins us from her home in Vermont. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. NIKKI KHANNA (Lead Author, "Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans"): Hi, Neal, thank you so much.

CONAN: And I think one of the things we should make clear is your study finds most people who are biracial identify as biracial.

Ms. KHANNA: Absolutely, absolutely. So this study looks at black-white biracial Americans and how they racially identify themselves, and that was the first thing we found, that most identify themselves to others as biracial or multiracial or mixed-race. These terms are certainly becoming much more common today. But in some situations, they identify themselves mono-racially, as black of white.

CONAN: In some situations. For example?

Ms. KHANNA: So for example, so we found individuals would present themselves as black or white. As white, you know, not uncommon were people presenting themselves as white in the workplace, for example, to, you know, they perceived it was advantageous for them to do so to move up in the workplace and move ahead, climb that ladder.

So we see some of that still happening today, although less so than individuals who are presenting themselves as black. And there were a number of situations where that seemed to come in handy. So, for example, during adolescence to fit in with black peers, you know, in adolescence, we all want to fit in.

So it's not surprising. So in these situations, they oftentimes conceal their white ancestry, the fact that they had a white parent, to present themselves as black.

In other situations, they presented themselves as black when they found whiteness to be somehow stigmatized and negatively stereotyped, and they didn't want to be associated with it. So they might have perceived whiteness as somehow bad.

Or one individual talked about perceiving whites as oppressive or the oppressor and not wanting to have basically anything to do with that. So in those situations, they would present themselves exclusively as black.

And in the last situation, respondents presented themselves as black oftentimes in filling out race questions commonly found on applications. So they would check the black box basically when they found it beneficial to do so. And this most often occurred on financial aid forms or college university application forms, scholarship application forms.

CONAN: Was there any inclination as to - or any finding that the more biracial people they knew, the more they might just stay with biracial?

Ms. KHANNA: Yeah, I mean, it's very interesting. For many people that I interviewed in this study that they didn't know other people who were biracial. So while, you know, it's becoming increasingly common that there are more and more biracial Americans, oftentimes they didn't even know other biracial people other than their siblings or another family member.

So we don't have any way of knowing if that would, you know, increase their likelihood of always identifying that way, but for the most part, they still did have strong biracial identities. But in those certain situations, they found that identifying as black or white was beneficial in that situation. So their identity would shift.

So the main thing we found was that identity was very contextual in terms of how they presented themselves.

CONAN: And very different from the context of the Jim Crow era, where to pass, well, yeah, it could mean just taking a sip from the white water fountain, but for some people, it meant changing your whole life, denying your family background and undergoing some psychological damage as a result.

Ms. KHANNA: Absolutely. And, you know, many people - exactly. They might have passed on a sort of discontinuous basis, where they just might want to enjoy, you know, a movie in a white-only theater. So they would do it temporarily.

And other people broke ties with their black community, with their black families, just to be able to pass as white. And so certainly there was a lot more effort involved in that.

And the passing that we're talking about today is not that continuous. It's a very short-lived. It's very situational. So it's certainly very different from more traditional passing that we saw during the Jim Crow era.

CONAN: And I wonder, how big a deal do you think this is?

Ms. KHANNA: I mean, I think it's a - I think it's a big deal in the sense that it does happen a lot. So like I said, identity is very contextual. So while they oftentimes understand and see themselves as biracial, you know, in some situations, it just isn't advantageous for them to present themselves as white or black. And it's just easier. And so we see that happening.

Certainly today, as it happened during the Jim Crow era. It just looks differently than it looked during the Jim Crow era.

CONAN: We're talking with Nikki Khanna, the lead author of the study "Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans." And, well, we want to know your story. If you're biracial, do you identify as one or the other? Is it transient? Has it changed over time? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And let's get Victoria on the line, Victoria with us from Ann Arbor.

VICTORIA (Caller): Hi. I am biracial, and I grew up in Detroit, in a largely black neighborhood. I grew up knowing my father's parents and my father's family - they're black - a lot better than I knew my mother's family because they lived on the East Coast, and so we never got to see them as well.

CONAN: Right.

VICTORIA: And for a good part of my life, I did identify more as black. As I got into high school and then later college, I began identifying myself as biracial because I really didn't feel any more connection to one group or the other. And in fact, if anything, I felt stigmatized by both groups at any point in my life.

I went to a majority white, Catholic school for a good part of my elementary school, and I felt stigmatized there. And when I went to a majority black middle and high school, I felt stigmatized there because I wasn't black enough, and in the white schools, I wasn't white enough.

CONAN: Were there any - were there also other biracial kids in your grammar school and your middle school and high school?

VICTORIA: Well, there weren't. The only other biracial kids I knew were this one family who lived down the street from me, and, you know, that was it. It was just me, my sister and this one particular family.

And, you know, their - you know, but my biracial friend was - his experience was a little bit different because most people looked at him, and they thought he was Italian. So they never questioned that.

But when they looked at me, they saw my skin color, and then they saw my hair, which, you know, the two didn't match up, I guess, in their minds. And so they sort of questioned who I was and, you know - I didn't like the fact that I was forced to take a side when I was in middle school, and so I just really began identifying myself as biracial as a way of, you know, claiming both of my families' heritage.

I'm proud of both my mom and my dad. I love them both dearly.

CONAN: Um-huh.

VICTORIA: And I don't want to say I'm any more one than the other because I'm not. You know, I do relate more and better with the black community than I do with white people, and that's just because of how and where I was raised. I was raised in Detroit, and I was raised around blacks.

CONAN: Victoria, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

VICTORIA: Thank you.

CONAN: And I don't think her story would surprise you, Nikki Khanna.

Ms. KHANNA: No, not at all, and in fact, listening to her talking, she's sort of reiterating what many of the people in the study talked about, you know, that they strongly did identify as biracial or multiracial, that they didn't want to deny any particular parent.

And they did have these strong biracial identities, but then in certain situations, they would talk about how they might present themselves as mono-racial, whether white or black.

But overall, they oftentimes had very strong biracial identities, just like this caller. So it's very interesting to see that parallel and certainly not surprising.

CONAN: Joining us now is Casey Gane-McCalla. He's the lead blogger for NewsOne.com, and he joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. CASEY GANE-McCALLA (Assistant Editor, NewsOne): Yeah, thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: And you are half-black and half-white. How do you identify yourself?

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: I identify myself as both black and biracial. Obviously, I'm biracial, which is two races, but biracial is a very large term. You can be biracial and Mexican and Chinese. You could be biracial, and you could be Indian an Aborigine.

So biracial is a kind of broad term, and I believe that throughout history, black has kind of encompassed biracial. Like, biracial has had a little spot in the Venn Diagram of blackness. If you look from slavery to Jim Crow, if you were mixed, you were a slave. You might have been able to work in the house, but you were still a slave.

Or if it was during Jim Crow, and you tried to - there was no mixed water fountain. There was the two because - due to mostly because of social constructs, I identify as black, and I feel I'm part of the black struggle. I work for a black news website.

But I'm also - I'm definitely not ashamed of my mother's family, and my mother fought against apartheid in South Africa. And again like the previous caller said, like, I knew a lot of my family, my father's family from Jamaica, but all my mother's family is in South Africa. So I didn't know them that much.

CONAN: Just to clarify again on Nikki Khanna's study, I think it was you were just studying black-white biracial.

Ms. KHANNA: Absolutely, yes, black-white biracial Americans.

CONAN: So that didn't include those other categories, not that you were contradicting her, I just wanted to clarify the point.

And Casey Gane-McCalla, there is a legacy, as you mentioned, of the one-drop rule. Are things different for people with black ancestry from people who are of other mixed races, do you think?

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: I think so because of the stigmas of slavery and Jim Crow and sort of like, for being white has been like an exclusive club. Like, if you have one drop of anything else, you can't be white. If you're poor and white, you're not white, you're white trash. While being black, if you are, you know, a mix of something, you were just kind of thrown in that category.

For, you know, many - it hasn't been until recently for - Latino has become a new, like, racial category.

So yeah, I think the history has a lot to do with it. Current society -if I'm walking down the street, and the police see me, they'll say a number one male. They won't say a number 1.5 male or, you know, a biracial man. And the categories that are kind of set up.

But I think as - you know, society is progressing, and you're seeing a lot more biracial Americans becoming more prominent in the media and sports and in life. And I think you're having a lot more biracial Americans.

I think we are the fastest growing group in America right now, biracial, so...

CONAN: And did you - I mean, did you ever change your self-identification, you know, to suit a situation?

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: I wouldn't say so. I wouldn't say so. I was always -in high school I was in the black student union. In college I was in the black student union. You know, like I said before, I work for a black news website right now.

So I've never seen too much of an advantage either way. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where you might have had more biracials than your average place.

CONAN: Than in Detroit, perhaps.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Yeah, than in Detroit or, you know, in Nebraska or places that might not have been as progressive. But I think people have to realize that 50 years ago, in 16 states it was illegal for a black person to have sex with a white person. And so it's almost amazing today we have a biracial president 50 years after that fact.

CONAN: It still happened, I think, though. But anyway...

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: ...stay with us, if you would. But we're going to say goodbye to Nikki Khanna, and thank you for talking about your study, "Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans." She joined us by phone from Vermont.

And when we come back, more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Stay with us, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

During the last presidential campaign, we heard a lot about the first African-American president in U.S. history. President Obama, of course biracial, identifies himself as black. Other people who are mixed-race self-identify as biracial.

The reasons for those choices can often be deeply personal. If you're of mixed race, how do you identify yourself and why? Tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Casey Gane-McCalla, lead blogger for NewsOne.com, also biracial. Mom is white from South Africa, his father is black from Jamaica.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Shirley, Shirley with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SHIRLEY (Caller): Yeah, I'm 71 years old and born of a white mother and black father. And this is something really, really puzzling to me because in my neighborhood, which was black, there were five white, mixed families, I'll say that, and nobody even thought about it.

We didn't realize, in my neighborhood, St. Louis, Missouri, that there was this type of thing. We knew plenty of people that were passing because they wanted good jobs. They wanted to go to the movies. But my mother just always went where she wanted to go. My sisters did, too, because they looked white.

But to me, this is just a new thing. This is not something that's new. This is something that's new that's being studied.

CONAN: Well, new that people self-identify as biracial. I think when you were growing up...

SHIRLEY: Right.

CONAN: ...as Casey Gane-McCalla pointed out, there was no choice. If you...

SHIRLEY: Well, you would just - I just lived in a black neighborhood. But you had a choice if you wanted to be called biracial because in most states except three, I think, if you have any white blood in you, you can claim white and only three states where you have to say you're black.

But I'm just - you know, I'm just astonished by all this, that people are so amazed at this because I'm 71 years old, and this is old to me. I mean, this has been around so long.

CONAN: What did your parents tell you?

SHIRLEY: Pardon?

CONAN: What did your parents tell you?

SHIRLEY: What did my parents what?

CONAN: Tell you about your background?

SHIRLEY: They didn't tell me anything because I always saw white and black in my household. So I just didn't even know the difference. I just - they were just people to me. And in the neighborhood, which was segregated when I was a little kid, there were all kind of businesses and people to look up to, and a lot of blacks went to college.

When I was in high school, the schools became integrated. And so that's all I was used to. They didn't have to tell us anything. We didn't think anything about it.

CONAN: Casey...

SHIRLEY: There were Italians and Jews had stores in the neighborhood, and we were treated like their children. You know, they would tell us to go home, tell your mother this. I'm going to tell your mother if you do this. So we just - it was just every - just people. We didn't see the white culture. Therefore, we didn't identify it as far as just the whole culture. And we had no problem with that.

And I've known many mixed families. You know, I went to school with them. And so I just don't understand the new - this is all being searched now. So I guess it is a new thing. Since Obama became president, everybody seems to be...

CONAN: Well, I think as Casey Gane-McCalla was saying, there are more and more biracial people who identify as biracial in the country, and...

SHIRLEY: Well, yeah, that's true. I mean, it's...

CONAN: So I think it's becoming more important. And I wonder, Casey Gane-McCalla, as you listen to Shirley talk, obviously times have changed. That's no startling news. But the idea of self-identification, that's more optional, it seems to me, these days.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Yeah, I do think it's more optional. In terms of social circumstances, you know, it matters a lot to people because still, you know, racism has not gone away. A lot of people still identify as black, and people identify as white, as well.

So if you are, you know, a child, you know, which I think is very important, when you first begin developing your racial identity, you want to identify with one or the other because you don't want to be by yourself. But now you have more biracial Americans. So I think you can identify with both.

And, you know, if you're half-Italian and half-black, you might be able to identify with some of your black friends, and then you might be able to identify with some of your Italian friends.

But I think race is such a monolithic thing. So obviously, the previous caller had an experience being mixed that was greatly different than mine, being mixed.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: And, you know, you might have, you know, a famous family, and they have a biracial kid, and he's rich, and what do you have in common if you have a working-class white parent who has a kid with a working-class black parent. They're going to be very different, culturally, from, you know, upper-class (unintelligible).

And then you have so many other things. With immigration now, you have, you know, you have Africans. You have West Indians. You have, you know, black people from America, from the South. You have black people from the North. You have, you know, it's just a cultural thing. And I think it's an identity thing. People want to have an identity, and they want to identify with something, and they don't want to feel, you know, all alone. So...

CONAN: You mentioned earlier, obviously this affects more than black and white. Joining us now is Kip Fulbeck, professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks. And nice to have you with us today.

Professor KIP FULBECK (Art, University of California, Santa Barbara; Author, "Mixed: Portraits Of Multiracial Kids"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You're also of mixed ethnicity, one parent Asian, the other white, and you call yourself hapa?

Mr. FULBECK: I do. Hapa is a Hawaiian word for half, and it refers to people who, like myself, are part Asian Pacific Islander and something else.

CONAN: So that is, in its own way, saying biracial?

Mr. FULBECK: Exactly.

CONAN: You've embraced this third racial category exclusive to people of white - Asian and white parents. Why? Why not just say biracial?

Mr. FULBECK: Well, Neal, the whole thing about being biracial, it's such a huge, giant nebula because race, if we really want to talk openly, everyone listening to the show right now is African. It doesn't even exist, biologically, in terms of DNA. We're all African.

But when we break down to a society where every one of us has had to fill out these forms, saying check a box for your job form or for your school questionnaire, et cetera, and growing up, when they say check one box only, that essentially says to me pick mom or dad. I didn't think that was a fair thing. So I didn't have a word to refer to myself. I didn't know anyone else who was mixed as a kid. And friends from Hawaii said oh, you're hapa. And I said oh, okay.

CONAN: Hapa, okay, hapa. Did you ever feel the need to pass or prove yourself, your loyalty to one group or the other?

Mr. FULBECK: Absolutely. You know, race being a social construct, it really depends on the situation you're in. For me growing up with almost entirely a Chinese household, my mother was widowed in China, so my siblings and my mother are full-blooded Chinese from China, so growing up, I was the white kid, the one that didn't speak the language, couldn't get the culture, didn't like the food.

Then I went to school, and I'm the first Asian kid to go to my school. And they're like let's beat the Chinese kid up, and in my head, I'm like sure, that sounds like a good idea, let's beat the Chinese kid up, not realizing it's me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's you, yeah. So yeah, it can cut both ways. And did you get, then, very little comfort when you went back home and said they beat me up for being Chinese?

Mr. FULBECK: Well, it's a place of trying to find a place to fit in. That's the main thing, having some, exactly what you said, comfort.

When I did this last book on these multiracial kids, what's interesting is out of these hundreds and hundreds of kids I photographed and had them answer the question who are you, the kids hardly ever refer to race. They don't talk about their race.

They say, who are you? I'm a ballerina. I'm a football player. You know, I'm a ninja. They don't default like we do as adults to race.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation, Patricia, Patricia calling us from Berkeley. Patricia, are you there?

PATRICIA (Caller): Yes. Oh, hi. Yes, hi. Yes, my name is Patricia from Berkeley. And I just wanted to bring up the issue that race, even though - I'm actually Asian, my parents - I was born in 1969 to immigrants from Taiwan. And even though my sister and I are fully Asian, we were thought of and have been perceived as being biracial because - and constantly asked if we were mixed because we don't - we have, you know, double eyelids, and I have a big nose, and my sister particularly has never had black hair. Her hair has been red and brown.

And so I just wanted to note that the question of being biracial and being mixed (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: We're losing you, Patricia.

PATRICIA: Excuse me?

CONAN: Oh, we were just losing you there, and now you're back.

PATRICIA: Oh, okay. So can you hear me now?

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

PATRICIA: Yes. So it's also being - you know, someone is kind of being asked by others and questioning you about your own identity. In fact, I grew up outside of Boston in a very white neighborhood and so often -actually didn't really - had very problematic Asian identity until I went into my 30s and actually came out here to Berkeley, actually here and got my Ph.D., actually late 20s, 30s.

And so also I think it also should be noted that, you know, the whole issue of being biracial, certainly with things like Asian, you know, it's really not until the 1967 Miscegenation Act, where you have the legalization of marriage. That was a big thing.

My father, when he came to graduate school in 1963, he was in Tennessee, and he was told that many times, you're allowed to drink in the white water fountain, are allowed to sit where the whites sit in the bus, but you're a guest, constantly remember you're a guest, and you have to go home.

CONAN: It's interesting, Kip...

PATRICIA: So I just wanted to raise those issues.

CONAN: Yeah, Kip Fulbeck, to point out the (unintelligible), not just biracial, which Patricia of course is not, though - racial stereotypes, a lot of people asked her questions about that, but nevertheless this whole other aspect within the black-white construct of being, well, yet a third. How do we fit the Asians in?

PATRICIA: And I...

Mr. FULBECK: Yeah, she did - she brought up this, you know, the case of Loving versus Virginia in '67 which legalized, supposedly, interracial marriage. You know, I was born in '65, so my parent's marriage was technically illegal. And we thing everything got away of '67. But like your caller was saying earlier, that she's 71, this is new to her because this is still happening all the time.

It was just 2000 that the U.S. even allowed people to check more than one box in the census. It was in 2000 that there was still a university that forbid interracial dating on campus and that was just found out. I mean, there was last year, it was 2009, where the Justice of the Peace in Louisiana refused to perform a marriage ceremony for a black man and white woman. And, fortunately, they went to the media and it got publicized. So it's still happening every day.

CONAN: And Casey Gane-McCalla, another interesting point from Patricia. Growing up around Boston, largely white area, then moving to California and discovering a new identity, a lot of this depends on your surroundings and the people you see.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Yeah, it definitely does. Like I said, I grew up in Cambridge, which is in Massachusetts, isn't as white as maybe some of the areas outside Boston. It was a pretty racially-diverse place. So I felt comfortable because I knew other mix people.

And I think it came when I - when I came to private school, I kind of realized when I was the one black kid in my class or the one kid with, you know, African blood in the class, how different I was from, you know, the rest of these other people. But then when I would come home and I'd play with my friends who are black, I didn't feel as different. So I think you have different societies. Like in South Africa, you had, you know, you had a very rigid apartheid system where you had whites, blacks and...

CONAN: And you...

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: And you had colored.

CONAN: Colored, yeah.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: So you - they were - there was a specific and you had to have the pass and the coloreds lived away from the whites and the blacks, and then maybe you can could see in New Orleans, when they had the creoles, when you had a specific label or group for biracials to follow in.

CONAN: They had quadroons and the octoroons and so forth.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Exactly. So they would, you know, fall into those groups. But I think America has been - you know, there hasn't been that third box in American, and I think it's kind of coming out now, because of - I think biracials are Americas little dirty secret, because Strom Thurmond had a biracial daughter. All sorts of - you know, George -Thomas Jefferson...

CONAN: Thomas Jefferson, mm-hmm.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: ...had several biracial children. We're not new. We've been - we - biracials have been in this country since day one. But I think it's been a kind of, you know, dirty little American secret that race mixing goes on. And, you know, now that we're - we've passed the civil rights movement and we have an African-American biracial president, we can kind of, you know - I think biracials can feel - be proud of themselves. You know, you have - Bob Marley is biracial. You know, your Sharday, Lenny Kravitz, Drake, Blake Griffin, who's a very good basketball player. So you're seeing all these biracials coming into prominence.

CONAN: Here's - we're talking about biracial identity and self-identity. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I should just reintroduce our guests. Casey Gane-McCalla, you just heard, a lead blogger at newsone.com. And also with us, Kip Fulbeck, a professor of art at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

This email from Darrel(ph) in Portland. I'm a 30-year-old black male with a white mother. I have never felt comfortable with the term biracial. Race is a social construct, one which often exposes ideological bias. I often have my blackness called into question, being treated by white people as being more acceptable than typical black people. It disgusts me when people assume my speaking pattern or intelligence are the result of my having a white parent rather than coming from an educated family or growing up on a university campus, especially considering the first thing people would use to describe me if I, say, stole their car would be my race.

I'm proud of my Scottish, Irish and German heritage just as I am of my West African heritage. However, my social experience in this country is that of a black man.

Now let's see if we go next to - this is Julia(ph), and Julia is with us from Davidson in North Carolina. Julia, are you there? Julia is not with us. Let's see if we go instead to - this is Cedric(ph), Cedric with us from Oakland.

CEDRIC (Caller): Hi. A pleasure to be here. I just want to give a call and let you know that I'm biracial. I'm white and black, 25 years old in Oakland, California. And my whole experience has been - I really haven't had to think about it up until this point. I switched my racial identity from black to white depending on whichever situation I feel would benefit me more. When I'm with friends, with a bunch of white friends, I'm the black guy. When I'm with black friends, I'm the white guy. I just switch along whenever it needs to be done. I don't really see an issue with it.

CONAN: And no fuss, no muss.

CEDRIC: Pretty much. I mean, it's like I said, whenever I fill out the forms on the - in the ballots and everything, I'll be mixed. I'm biracial. But whatever helps me the most, I'll just be that.

CONAN: I wonder, Kip Fulbeck, if I could ask if this is a geographic thing to some degree. Growing up on the East Coast, it was very important, whether you were Irish, Italian or Ukrainian or Polish or black or Hispanic. Growing up on the West Coast was that the same?

Prof. FULBECK: Certainly, it's very, very different. Your last caller was from Oakland and it's a very, very diverse area, heavily African-American, heavily Latino in areas, and I can see why he says I actually, you know, switch identities like many people do. And I think that's completely up to the person themselves. I think a lot of people criticize the president, Neal, one of your caller was saying I wish that he identified as biracial. And I've heard that sentiment a lot.

But ultimately, it is every person's individual right to identify the way they want to identify. And that's the key point. And so, while I may not do it, if I was mixed, I would choose to say that, but it's completely a personal decision. Identity is a personal process.

CONAN: And there's no - and again, going back to the days of Jim Crow, Casey Gane-McCalla, somebody passing as white - an African-American passing as white could be seen, by at least some of the black community, as a traitor.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Yeah, definitely. Actually I - during Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with my uncle who actually served in our World War II and he told me about a story about how he - you know, he was with a group of black soldiers and they were hanging out and they were having fun and then they were in, you know, training ground in Texas and they, you know, got kicked out, harassed a lot of police. He had a horrible time. And he said, that was the last time I associated myself or identified myself with other black soldiers because if you have, you know, such a negative experience doing it, and, you know, it could be convenient and you could - you know, and it's a way a lot of people avoided a lot of the pain and injustice of segregation, while maybe not being true to their own identity, so...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right. Cedric, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CEDRIC: Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And thanks to Casey Gane-McCalla, lead blogger for news.one.com -newsone.com. Excuse me.

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: Newsone.com.

CONAN: I'll get that straight - joined us from our bureau in New York. And thanks to Kip Fulbeck, professor of art at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is "Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids," with us from member station KCOU in Thousand Oaks. Appreciate your time today.

Prof. FULBECK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, the DREAM Act died on the Senate floor. What's next for both sides of the debate? Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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