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Multiethnic Adults Grapple With Questions of Identity

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How do families handle racial issues and celebrate who they are? (iStock)

In his 1964 Nobel Prize lecture, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described humanity as a "world house," filled with family of all backgrounds who must somehow learn to live with each other.

Within the borders of our countries, cities and states, our own homes are increasingly becoming multiethnic, multiracial microcosms of the greater world house to which King refers.

Today, nearly one in six newlyweds marries across racial or ethnic lines. If we continue in this direction, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the multiracial population will triple by 2060.

On the most recent episode of So Well Spoken, we dove into the complex world of multiethnic families, interracial marriages and cross-cultural adoptions. How do families handle racial issues and celebrate who they are?


We asked for stories about how families handle uncomfortable situations. Allegra Guinan's mother is from Brazil and her father is from New Jersey. She says her mother never conformed to white American culture.

They never truly understood each other for their cultural differences and therefore I never understood who I was. There was a constant tension in my childhood home and I think a lot of it was not having open dialogue about melding two different cultures together. It was never talked about that we might experience certain social obstacles for being mixed. I often felt like I had to "choose a side” because I didn’t feel like it was okay to be both.

—Allegra Guinan

The guests on the show all agreed that it's confusing to navigate through a world where race is defined one way and ethnicity is an afterthought. Each person had a different approach to answering that one inevitable question that multiracial people often get: What exactly are you?

Bay Area hip-hop artist Tom Shimura, aka Lyrics Born, says that in the past he felt pressure to give a simple one-syllable answer when people asked him what he is.

"The language of the culture in America hasn't really caught up with what the cultural reality is for many of us," Shimura says.

He identifies as Asian and Italian-American, and says he would much rather keep things complex than give in to the argument that we all share one universal "American" identity.

"I don't really buy into the 'Oh, I'm just American thing.' There's nothing wrong with seeing a person for who they are. You just need to appreciate and learn those aspects," Shimura says.

Anthony Spears of Vallejo, a KQED employee, sees it differently. His family consists of 10 different nationalities, and he thinks they should be checking an "American" race box.

"I'm teaching my kids that we are American. Being the light-skinned African-American with blue eyes ... what box do I mark off? Do I mark off black, African-American? What is black? What do my kids mark off, Filipino? I don't know if that's a box everywhere."

According to a book by Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, the rate of interracial marriages has steadily increased since Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down the remaining bans on interracial marriage in over a dozen states.

When it comes to checking that race/ethnicity box, things have gotten easier. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau allowed Americans to check more than one race box when filling out the census form. This is about the same time that the "other" box began to pop up as well.

Aiko-Sophie Morisette-Ezaki, a resident of Sonoma whose father is Japanese-American and mother is French-Canadian, remembers the first time she encountered a box marked "other" that she could finally fill in. She says she feels comfortable checking "other."

"I remember marking both boxes, Caucasian and Asian, when I was told only to mark one. I was defiant and I marked two, until they introduced other. It was this moment of 'Yes! Yes that's me,' " she says.

And when people ask her how she identifies without the box, she replies: "I'm a brown person."

Here is what some of you had to say about discussing identity on Twitter:

When people ask you what you are or how you identify, what do you say? Share in the comments below. Be sure to keep the conversation going with your friends on Twitter using the #KQEDSpoken hashtag and on Facebook.

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