A Generation of Mixed Race Youth Speaks Out

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Nearly 7 million people in the 2000 U.S. Census checked off multiple boxes under the category of race, and many of them were young people. Some of those youth are on a speaking tour called "Generation Mix."

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a story about a group of young people with something to say about who they are. Like nearly seven million people in the 2000 Census, they checked more than one box under the category `race.' NPR's Audie Cornish introduces us.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Meet Geetha Lakshminarayanan, Charles Yesuwan and Ashley McDermott.

Ms. ASHLEY McDERMOTT: I identify as African-American and Irish and...

Mr. CHARLES YESUWAN: When people ask me what my ethnic background is, I just tell them that my mom is Chinese and my dad is Taiwanese. A lot of my friends think that I'm, like, Chinese or Filipino or Japanese...

Ms. GEETHA LAKSHMINARAYANAN: And my racial background is that my mother is white and my father is from India. Most frequently, I think I get that I am Latina or Mexico. So people, when I say I'm Indian, they'll say, `Red dot or feather?'

CORNISH: That's how these three young Americans describe themselves, but you may know them simply as `other.' That's the box under the race category that was pretty much their only choice on past Census forms. Now that the Census Bureau says it's OK to check off more than one box, multiracial people like these 20-somethings are not passing up the chance.

Ms. LAKSHMINARAYANAN: We really challenge the way race is played out in America. We don't fit into the typical boxes, into the typical hierarchy, into the typical stereotypes, into the typical anything, really.

CORNISH: It's a challenge that Lakshminarayanan and her friends are taking on the road.

Ms. McDERMOTT: Over here--wait, never mind. We have the map right here.

Ms. LAKSHMINARAYANAN: Repeat that. OK.

Mr. YESUWAN: Everybody in, doors locked.

Ms. McDERMOTT: Let's go.

(Soundbite of vehicle driving off)

CORNISH: The Seattle-based MAVIN Foundation has crammed five college-aged students into a 26-foot RV to tour the country heralding the so-called mixed-race baby boom. The Generation MIX Tour has rolled through more than a dozen states, visiting universities and community centers and talking to mixed-race youth.

Unidentified Woman: And pretty much we've been on the road for about three weeks now. And we started in Seattle...

CORNISH: At a recent pit stop in Washington, DC, the group is speaking at the Asian and Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. They take questions from an audience of interracial couples, families and multiethnic college students. One of them is Rashmi Lal. Lal's got at least half a dozen races in her background, from French, Portuguese and black American to Fiji and Indian. People like her grow up knowing that almost every other day, someone will ask them about their race.

Ms. RASHMI LAL: All people want to know when they ask you what you are, they just want to know what kind of pile can they shovel you into. `What category can they force you and scoot you into so that I can take all my preconceived ignorant notions and apply them to you?' And I...

CORNISH: Lal says it's empowering to see people her age sharing their experiences. She says some people can't seem to understand why she makes a point of her mixed-race heritage.

Ms. LAL: Because we're here, you know, and we're not going away; we're not going anywhere. African-Americans can say, `Because we're here; we're not going anywhere. And we deserve it as much as you do.' And that's actually what's going to happen to multiracial people.

CORNISH: Demographers agree, although they say calling it a mixed-race baby boom might be a bit of an overstatement. The Census, after all, is based on self-reporting, and the Census Bureau says at least a third of those reporting mixed-race are Hispanic or Latino. And all kinds of questions could be raised about what is race and about how many ancestors does it take to be considered multiracial. The only sure thing is that there are more people willing to identify themselves that way.

Analysts say it could be that the Census is simply reflecting the rise in interracial marriages, but it could also mean a cultural shift in attitude that is freeing multiracial people from having to choose sides. At least that's what Geetha Lakshminarayanan hopes.

Ms. LAKSHMINARAYANAN: We're not on a lot of radars. When people talk about race, they really leave us out; it's usually talking about monoracial things. So we just want awareness that there is a growing mixed-race population. I don't know exactly what it means for the future of race, but it's definitely going to have an impact on the way race is viewed in the country.

CORNISH: So far that's pretty much what this journey's all about. These young people say they want to get beyond tragic mulatto stories about the hardships of growing up between races. And so, back on the RV.

(Soundbite of RV on the road)

Mr. YESUWAN: OK. what's the clearance on this?

CORNISH: The Generation MIX Tour has already logged some 6,000 miles, but the group says they still have a long way to go. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Washington.

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