Growing Up Mixed, Blended In The New American Family

New census figures show that the number of mixed-race Americans has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last ten years. And that rise in number is most pronounced in the South. Census data also reveals that 17 percent of kids in the U.S live in blended families. In Tell Me More's weekly parenting conversation, host Michel Martin explores the experiences of mixed-race and blended families. Weighing in on the discussion is Suzy Richardson, founder of the website, MixedandHappy.com, Karyn Langhorne Folan, author of Don't Bring Home A White Boy: And Other Notions That Keep Black Women from Dating Out and NPR editor Davar Ardalan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we turn to a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Now, on this program, we spent a lot of time looking at the different ways that the American family is changing.

Today's conversation is prompted by new census data that shows that the number of mixed-race American children has increased by nearly 50 percent since the year 2000. And that population growth has been particularly pronounced in the South.

Now, we're seeing the changing face of the American family reflected in popular culture. A lot of television shows like "Modern Family," "Parenthood" and "Brothers and Sisters" all feature characters who are in mixed-race families. Today, we wanted to talk to some real-life moms at the head of these new families.

And I'm joined by Suzy Richardson, founder and editor of the Website MixedandHappy.com. Suzy is white. Her husband is African-American, and together, they have four children. She's with us from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

Also with us is Karyn Langhorne Folan, author of the book "Don't Bring Home a White Boy: And Other Notions that Keep Black Women from Dating Out." She's African-American. Her husband is Caucasian. They have a daughter together, and they also have a daughter from Karyn's previous relationship. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Also with us is Davar Ardalan. She's an editor here at TELL ME MORE. She is Iranian and a mother of four. And her fiance is Caucasian, and he also has four children of his own. So that's going to be interesting vacations. I mean, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Ladies, welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. SUZY RICHARDSON (Founder and Editor, MixedandHappy.com): Thanks so much.

Ms. KARYN LANGHORNE FOLAN (Author, "Don't Bring Home a White Boy: And Other Notions that Keep Black Women from Dating Out"): Thanks.

DAVAR ARDALAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, we mentioned these new census figures, and I just wanted to get your reaction. Are you surprised? Karyn, why don't you start. What do you think?

Ms. FOLAN: I am not surprised at all. You know, in writing my book over the last few years, I had the chance to look over the census data and see how, with every census, the number of children who identified as mixed race was doubling. So seeing this sort of expansive growth between 2000 and 2010 was not all a surprise to me. It was a little bit more than I had expected to see, but I'm not all surprised by - just the growth in these numbers is amazing.

MARTIN: And, Suzy, I'm interested because the numbers from the South are particularly striking. I was curious why you think that is, particularly given that, you know, the racial history of this country has been that, you know, relationships as we know and, you know, some Southern states interracial marriage was illegal...

Ms. RICHARDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...in many states in the South until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled...

Ms. RICHARDSON: Absolutely. Well, I think there's - you know, there's not just one thing that we can point to. But I think there's various things like, you know, today, we don't have to hide these relationships anymore. So I don't think it's that this is anything new. I think, you know, we've always had these relationships with each other. But now we don't have to hide. You know, there's less fear of public reaction, of physical harm, you know.

Forty-three years ago, when it would've been illegal for me to marry my husband, you know, he would've been concerned about what would've happened to him physically for even just looking at me. So I think that's one of the things. And, you know, I also think that with the numbers growing, as we look around and we kind of see our world changing, people become more comfortable with that. And they think, you know, well, the rest of the world looks like this. You know, there's nothing to hide.

MARTIN: Davar, your situation, a little different. You are Persian, and your fiance is Caucasian. So it's not so much at least a physical racial difference that people will identify, but the fact is, you are Muslim.

ARDALAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And your fiance - your intended is...

ARDALAN: Catholic.

MARTIN: Is a devout Catholic.

ARDALAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And with all we know about the way sometimes Islamic faith is discussed in the popular culture, I'm interested in - what's your experience?

ARDALAN: Sure. I mean, yeah, I mean, you know, I have four biological children, and the oldest is 27. The youngest is 12. And definitely, between my 12-year-old, 14-year-old and 21-year-old, they've each had instances in high school where - my daughter's name is Samira(ph). She was called Osama at one point, and teased.

I've been in conversations with high school principles over my son being called Muhammad and being, you know, harassed in high school. And so clearly, it's a difficult time for identities of those of us who are Muslim by birth. And I think that what you said earlier about the "Modern Family" and the TV shows, it actually really helps to be able to see these TV shows that are now showing blended American families.

Because when we watch it together as a family, we look at ourselves in the living room, and it makes us feel more comfortable that the popular culture is actually showing people that sound different and, you know, it's okay to be different. So for my children, I think it's been incredible because they have had to be open about the things they are ashamed of in school. For example, embarrassed about the, they get teased being Muslim. But at the same time, you know, we talk to them as parents about how they have to be confident and not embarrassed about their culture, so it's an ongoing conversation.

MARTIN: I'm interested - what about your stepchildren though? Because this isn't something that they have been raised with.

Ms. ARDALAN: Well, it's interesting. We were just on the summer - at summer vacation with each other in North Carolina and my sister-in-law wears a scarf. And I was really fascinated to see how Michael, Daniel and Joseph would react to their, a family member who was traveling with them on a beach wearing a headscarf. But I just thought it was incredible how they were very open to understanding where she was coming from.

And then in terms of John, who is my fianc�, as I said, he's a devout Catholic, but he takes a lot of inspiration in my older son, Sayeed(ph), who is a practicing Muslim, and he does the month of fasting - the Ramadan every year, which is very difficult, because you do it from sunrise to sunset. And John who's currently practicing Lent, says that he gets inspiration from Sayeed in the sense that it takes a lot to be able to do what he does. And so he decided, for example, this year to add - eliminating coffee and chocolate from his Lent sacrifice just because Sayeed gives him more inspiration. So that's interesting.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new American family. New census figures show that number of people identifying as mixed-race has increased since the year 2000. With us are Karyn Langhorne Folan, author of the book "Don't Bring Home A White Boy: And Other Notions That Keep Black Women from Dating Out"; Suzy Richardson, founder and editor of MixedandHappy.com; and Davar Ardalan, editor here at TELL ME MORE.

And as you might have guessed, these are all the moms in blended families or mixed-race families. I want to ask what's the biggest challenge, but I don't want it to imply by my question that, you know, life is full of tragedy and you're just getting up every day being tragic, because this is kind of one of the stereotypes about being in a mixed, you know, family. And I think that people are very kind of tired of that. But I would like ask, are there specific challenges that might not be obvious to people who are not in mixed-race families? Suzy?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, for me I would have to say we lived in South Carolina for a time and so it was different there than it is here in Gainesville, Florida. So the way I have to answer that question is, when we were in South Carolina, my children were the only mixed-race children in their school, and we would go to a restaurant to eat and the place would quiet down and people would look at us. And one time my husband and I were actually asked to eat outside at a diner. I was seven months pregnant and they told us that there wasn't enough seating and that we needed to take our food outside and there was only a bench outside, and I told them, I said, you know, I just want a side of fruit, I'm not feeling well. And she said, well, if you don't order the whole buffet, you can just take it outside.

MARTIN: But did you think that has something to do with your race?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Oh, abs - when we walked in, the whole place stopped. And I'm not, you know, always - that's not always the first thing that I jump to, is oh, it's because we're a mixed-race couple. No, but it was clear and the woman looked at me with such disgust that there was no question in my mind.

MARTIN: Well, let me just speak on this for a minute.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I am interested if you feel that there are differences in how you are treated as the white part of the couple...

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...versus how Karen, what Karen experiences as the African-American part of the couple.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, we had a lot of problems with my husband's family for -since when we got married. Quite a few of them did not want to show up and I had the most, just to be completely blatantly honest, I had the most problems with the black women in his family.

MARTIN: Because why?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Because I was a white girl.

MARTIN: Because they felt what?

Ms. RICHARDSON: They felt that - in their words - that white women were crazy, that I would get him in trouble, and that if anything ever happened, it would be my word against his and that he as a black man would get in trouble. You know, just that kind of thing.

MARTIN: That you were endangering him...

Ms. RICHARDSON: Right, right.

MARTIN: ...with your presence.

Ms. RICHARDSON: It's hard to talk about it, but there is a woman, a neighbor of ours who actually vocalized it to me. When I first had my son and we kind of lived in a really poor area, and she just said you're going to ruin his life. You know, and he's such a good man. You're going to ruin his life. And so...

MARTIN: Karen, what about you? Does anybody think you're going to ruin your husband's life?

Ms. FOLAN: I think he's probably gotten looks like, why would you do that kind of...

MARTIN: From whom?

Ms. FOLAN: You know...

MARTIN: From who? From white people?

Ms. FOLAN: From white people. From white people. But, you know, I've also been wrong about that too. You know, we also have the occasions where we walk in and the room gets a little quieter or you notice that people are looking. And like Suzy, you know, you get used to your own family. So the first thing out of my mind isn't, oh, it's because we're mixed. It's oh, which one of us, you know, is looking crazy today? Is one of my kid's hair all over her head? You know, who's acting nutty? And then - oh, it's that. It's that. And I have had the experience of having black men - because I do think that it's an alternate sex same-race kind of reaction. So...

MARTIN: So black men you feel experience - somehow have a feeling of rejection to be with a white man...

Ms. FOLAN: Come back, sister. Come back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Really? Have people said that you?

Ms. FOLAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. Or, you know, similar kind of vibe. You know, like to being mad-dogged by a black man...

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Ms. FOLAN: The mad stare, the angry stare, the mad dog stare.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible)

Ms. FOLAN: Yeah, so I've gotten that. But, you know, I think you can be wrong about it, because sometimes the stare is not what you think it is. I remember one time we were on a cruise and an older white man was just staring my husband down and I think I took the girls to the bathroom or I went to the buffet or something, and he was uncomfortable, and my husband was kind of like, you know, are we going to need to move? Am I going to need to say something to this guy, whatever? When we came back, he and the gentlemen were sitting there talking and the guy shook his hand when I came up and said, you know, said hello and walked off. And Ken said...

MARTIN: What was...

Ms. FOLAN: He said I thought he was upset. But it turns out the second you all left he just wanted to come over and say what a beautiful family you have and that it made him feel good to see a couple like ours and a family like ours, because it meant that things had changed so much from when he was a child and when he was growing up.

MARTIN: Davar, I did want to ask about - do you ever experience that, given the - given that there is some - I don't even want to imply this is a universally held opinion. But there is, we do live in a time when some Americans do feel threatened by Islam.

Ms. ARDALAN: Sure.

MARTIN: Does your fiance's family ever feel - a network of people ever feel that in some way sort of worried about him...

Ms. ARDALAN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...that he's now connected to a group of people that...

Ms. ARDALAN: Well, I mean...

MARTIN: ...other people are in fact afraid of? And I'm also wondering whether people in your Muslim community ever wonder about the same question: loyalty?

Ms. ARDALAN: Yeah. I mean John is the quintessential American. His name is John Smith from Lima, Ohio, and his sister, you know, it's John, Jane, Jim and Joan. But I think that for us sort of one of the challenges that we're facing right now is one of my children is curious about Christianity and is intrigued. And so the question is, you know, do you encourage him to become Catholic and go to church with John, or do you have a conversation about are you embarrassed by your religion because of what you're seeing in the larger public? And do we need to address that as opposed to encouraging you to go to church?

Even though we're both incredibly, you know, big on our faiths, but the point is, I want to make sure that my children aren't confusing being embarrassed with, you know, wanting to convert. But I mean I've honestly just been fortunate because I have never had a situation where any one of John's family members have, you know, thought of me as an odd person out. But I do think of the next generation. So I want to make sure that my children make decisions based on their rituals and traditions that are thoughtful and are educated as opposed to emotional, and again, based on peer pressure.

MARTIN: Before I let you all go, is there any advice that you would offer to others who are in families like yours as they make their way, you know, forward?

Ms. ARDALAN: This is Davar, and I mean I think that it's just the commonality of you come together as blended families. And what brings you together is the love of family and, you know, the values that you have. So the fact that I'm Muslim or Iranian-American has nothing to do with, you know, taking anything away from Easter and the rituals and traditions that John and his family have had. So it's embracing the traditions that you have and blending them together. I think that's the best combination. So we've been together eight years and we're getting married May 14th. And we waited until all eight of our children encouraged us to get married.

I have Middle Eastern features, Persian features, and an unusual name. My first name is actually Iran, as in the country. So the idea that I could go into a restaurant and say I'm Mrs. Smith is actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARDALAN: ...a little bit - gives me a little bit of satisfaction that I don't have to explain...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FOLAN: Michel, I don't know...

MARTIN: Well, you could use Martin if you wanted. (Unintelligible) I don't know that that would help you very much, but you're welcome.

Karen, what about you? Do you have some thoughts here? I am also curious -again, this is such a rich conversation and we could have many conversations about this, about the kids, because it used to be that talking about blended families, people from different backgrounds getting together, people would always talk about the kids. What about the kids? What about the kids?

Ms. FOLAN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: So what about them, Karen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FOLAN: Talk to them. Talk about everything. Everything. Everything. Talk, talk, talk, talk. I mean I think communication is absolutely the cornerstone of any relationship, but it's definitely got to be at the very top of the list when you're talking about a family that has the sort of additional issues that, you know, obviously we're a step-family in part, but we're also a multicultural family, so all of that requires a lot of communication, a lot of communication with your kids.

And also, the children, mixed children, I think you have to both teach them about both sides of their culture. But you also have to prepare them for how the world might perceive them, because there's just a whole other level out there about the projections that other people bring to mixed children. You have to talk to them about that.

MARTIN: Do you envision a time when we won't be having a conversation like this?

Ms. FOLAN: I'm an optimist. Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Suzy, any advice? Mm-hmm.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, I also wanted to say that it's really important to teach our children all of their cultures. But also, like with my daughter, when people come up into the grocery store, like women will come up and they'll want to touch her hair and say she has such beautiful hair. They want to ask her questions and kids will ask her - what are you? And I'm teaching her that it's okay. It's okay for people to ask and it's okay for you to tell them what you are and to do that with a sense of pride and happiness, you know, about who you are. So I think it's a conversation that we need to embrace and we need to teach our children to embrace as well.

MARTIN: Suzy Richardson is the editor of MixedandHappy.com and together she and her husband have four children. Karyn Langhorne Folan is the author of "Don't Bring Home A White Boy: And Other Notions That Keep Black Women from Dating Out." She and her husband have two children together and they're a blended family. And Davar Ardalan is an editor at TELL ME MORE. She is Persian and her fianc� is Caucasian and together when they tie the knot later this year, they will have eight children together. And we all want pictures.

Ms. ARDALAN: Yes. Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We all want pictures. We want pictures. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Thank you.

Ms. FOLAN: Thanks for having us.

Ms. ARDALAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And finally, at TELL ME MORE will be celebrating National Poetry Month in April. An occasional series called Muses and Metaphor will combine two passions of this program: social media and poetry. We would like you to go on Twitter and tweet us your original poetry, using fewer than 140 characters, of course. We will choose our favorites, and if your poem is chosen, we will help you record it for us and we will air it. Tweet us using the hashtag TMMPOETRY.

You can learn more at the TELL ME MORE website. Go to npr.org. Click on the Programs tab to find TELL ME MORE. And again, hashtag TMMPOETRY.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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