LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Mixed-race Americans are among the country's fastest growing demographic groups, and they're helping to change the way America thinks about racial identity. On the 2000 census, for the first time, Americans were given the opportunity to check more than one box for race. At the time, nearly seven million people identified themselves as being multiracial.
Nicholas Jones is the chief of the U.S. Census Bureau's Racial Statistics Branch.
Mr. NICHOLAS JONES (Chief, Racial Statistics Branch, U.S. Census Bureau): There has been a substantial increase in the multiracial population through our population estimates data. The numbers have actually increased about 25 percent from 2000 to 2008, according to the population estimate. And these are mainly driven by birth to children from interracial parent couples.
HANSEN: Researchers say with more interracial marriages, there is more social acceptance. Alan Goodman is a professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
Professor ALAN GOODMAN (Biological Anthropology, Hampshire College): There were certain barriers to having individuals of different ethnic groups and cultures coming together. The first one was barriers of space, but in 1492, those barriers began to fall. Then there were barriers of law in the United States and those finally fell in the 1960s. And then I think the real change that's taking place are changes in the way people think about themselves.
HANSEN: Today, we begin a three-part series on race we're calling Beyond Black and White. And the topic of multiracial identity is the focus of a new book called "Blended Nation." It combines portraits of mixed-race Americans with their stories of living beyond the sometimes rigid notions of race.
Mike Tauber and Pamela Singh are the husband and wife team who compiled the book "Blended Nation." They join us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Welcome to the program.
Mr. MIKE TAUBER (Co-Author, "Blended Nation"): Thank you very much.
Ms. PAMELA SINGH (Co-Author, "Blended Nation"): Thank you.
HANSEN: Why publish a book about this particular topic and why now?
Ms. SINGH: Well, the face of the nation is changing at a rapid rate due to an expanding demographic of mixed-race individuals in the U.S.
Mr. TAUBER: Yeah, and we felt that, you know, to really tap into that - and Pamela's mixed, and she's always dealt with the what are you question and sort of floated the idea of writing a book about it. And as a photographer, I felt the most powerful way to explore this would be through photographs and also to interview the people that we photographed.
HANSEN: You've been working on the book for some seven years now, but did the rise in success of Barack Obama, the first multiracial president, affect this at all?
Ms. SINGH: I think, well, from the beginning of this project seven years ago, you know, with Obama now in the White House, you know, I would say, you know, as Rebecca Walker wrote in her foreword, that it's currently hip to be mixed. What's interesting to us is that Obama chose to self-identify as black and not mixed race.
But I think he was able to use his biracial heritage to appeal to a much broader audience than he would've been able to if he was just black or white. And it's what's fascinating to us is that many people think that this topic is no longer relevant now that we have Obama as our president, that we live in a post-race America. And, if anything, we've found the opposite to be true, you know, in the past year.
HANSEN: Pam, what is your mixed-race heritage?
Ms. SINGH: I am East Indian and black.
HANSEN: So, how did your own life experience, the sense of existing between two perceived racial categories inform your work on this book?
Ms. SINGH: Well, I would say, like many people in the book, during the teenage years, you know, there's definitely a sense of confusion and identity issues where you don't really know where you fit in. Later on in your 20s, you start seeing it as more of a benefit, that you're able to have a much broader worldview, since you're coming from two different, you know, having two different backgrounds, I should say.
HANSEN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Mike Tauber and Pamela Singh. They're husband and wife and authors of the book "Blended Nation."
As we mentioned, 2000 was the first year Americans were given the chance to choose more than one racial category on census surveys. Why are these racial boxes even relevant? I mean, isn't race more of a social construct than a biological one?
Ms. SINGH: The concept of race and ethnicity and ancestry, they're so highly muddled and they're so nebulous and they're so strongly linked to the visual in terms of skin color and hair texture, yet so many of our educational and social and business and governmental policies are based on fixed racial categories.
Mr. TAUBER: And we really wanted to know what it was like for somebody who checks more than one box, what it's like to exist in that realm. What's it like to not be...
Ms. SINGH: It's basically a no man's land.
Mr. TAUBER: ...yeah, what it's like to not be wholly part of one or another, but yet, be all.
Ms. SINGH: But a lot of these individuals are caught in the middle of racial categories, you know. And we've had a few people in "Blended Nation," one girl in particular looked black - she's half-black and half-white. She was raised by white grandparents, and she identifies as white. But if you look at her, she looks like me, she looks black.
Mr. TAUBER: It varies within families too. You know, there's - one girl shared a story about her father who's black, white and Native American who was considerably darker than his sister. And his sister back during segregation was able to drink out of the whites-only fountain. He was not.
So, you know, even if you have the same mix as somebody else, if you happen to be darker or lighter or if you happen to be raised by, you know, one half of your heritage as opposed to another, that can really play into your whole sense of identity.
HANSEN: In a moment we're going to speak to one of the people that was profiled in your book and there are several people and several stories who categorize themselves in ways that conflict, as you say, with how society sees them. But skin color, of course, is a determining factor in one's mixed-race experience, but socioeconomic status is too. Can you elaborate on that?
Ms. SINGH: Well, it's socioeconomic, it's geography and it's a type of what mix you are. We've found that the people who are black and white have a very different experience maybe than someone who's Asian and black or Asian and white.
Mr. TAUBER: And I guess it depends on, you know, the community you grew up in. Oftentimes, if you're half-white and half-black, for instance, and you grow up in a predominantly minority or black or non-white community, you're going to get some people that say you're not black enough. But if you grew up in a white community, you're going to get people saying you're black.
HANSEN: Mike Tauber and Pamela Singh are the authors of "Blended Nation," and they joined us from NPR member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Thank you both.
Mr. TAUBER: Thanks for having us.
Ms. SINGH: Thanks for having us.
HANSEN: Cheryl Quintana Leader is among the dozens of mixed-race Americans profiled in the book "Blended Nation." She's a filmmaker, and we reached her in Long Beach, California. Hi, Cheryl. Welcome to the show.
Ms. CHERYL QUINTANA LEADER (Filmmaker): Oh, thank you very much.
HANSEN: Since racial perception is closely linked to visual clues, describe to us what you look like.
Ms. LEADER: I have fair skin. It's a little on the yellow side. I have blue eyes, wide cheekbones, full lips.
HANSEN: The blue eyes, where do they come from in your family?
Ms. LEADER: My mother's Mexican and my father's Caucasian. And so, the blue eyes came from the Germans, who hid out in Mexico during World War II to escape, you know, being convicted or punished for their crimes. And of my mother's background, that's where my blue eyes came in.
HANSEN: You say in the book, because you are fair-skinned and you have blue eyes, many people assume you're white. But how do you identify yourself?
Ms. LEADER: I identify myself as an American, Mexican, Indian, Russian, German, Polish, French descent.
HANSEN: So, what do you check on the census? What did you check on the 2000 census?
Ms. LEADER: I checked other and I was proud to put in all the various pieces of the puzzle that make me up.
HANSEN: You mentioned in the book "Blended Nation" that some of your white friends encourage you to take advantage of being Latina. What do they mean?
Ms. LEADER: I work in the entertainment industry, and they felt that competitions like Hispanic film projects or, you know, diversity programs that would allow other writers of other ethnicities into that career, they're, like, oh, aren't you Hispanic? You know, why don't you take advantage of this? Or sometimes they would say it in a more sarcastic way, meaning that, they don't get those privileges but I guess we do.
HANSEN: Why do you say that some in the Latino community have said that you aren't Latina enough?
Ms. LEADER: Oh, because then later on I joined an organization for Latina filmmakers and I was in a room and because you don't speak fluent Spanish or you don't come from the neighborhood or you don't look a certain way, I guess it's based on a degree of, you know, Latino enough or Latina enough or Mexican-ness.
And I recall telling them that, you know, if anybody has any issues about why I'm in an organization fighting for rights for Latinas to be in entertainment and have the rights to, you know, write and direct and produce, then, you know, they need to come to me. They didn't say a word the whole time, and I find out later on, no one said a word when I said that because no one at the table spoke fluent Spanish. And they were all from the neighborhood, they were all Mexican, they were all - they grew up in the '60s and '70s. So, you know, they had different social rules that said they couldn't speak Spanish either, even though they were Mexican or El Salvadorian or Peruvian or Colombian.
HANSEN: But you identify yourself as American.
Ms. LEADER: Yeah, I say American.
HANSEN: California-based filmmaker Cheryl Quintana Leader is profiled in the book "Blended Nation."
You can see images from the book, including one of Cheryl, at our Web site NPR.org. While you're there, share your own thoughts and insights about the conversations you heard today. Our series Beyond Black and White continues next week when we'll examine the tensions in one of the country's most racially diverse states - Hawaii.