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Obama reflects growth of biracial America

The scene: the office of a Center City pediatrician. Meredith Broussard has brought in her 1-year-old, who has a rash on his back. The boy seems well otherwise, and she wonders if the condition can be safely ignored.

'I want my boys to be proud to be black, proud to be Spanish,' says Lori Tharps, with sons Addai , 4, Esai, 7, and husband Manuel  in their Mt. Airy home. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
'I want my boys to be proud to be black, proud to be Spanish,' says Lori Tharps, with sons Addai , 4, Esai, 7, and husband Manuel in their Mt. Airy home. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

The scene: the office of a Center City pediatrician.

Meredith Broussard has brought in her 1-year-old, who has a rash on his back. The boy seems well otherwise, and she wonders if the condition can be safely ignored.

"It is unusual," Broussard recalls her doctor saying. "I've seen this kind of rash before, but only in African American children."

Broussard is stunned into silence.

Like the incoming president of the United States, Broussard had a black father and a white mother. But unlike Barack Obama, Broussard has pale skin, and she married a white man.

Broussard, 34, and David Grazian, 36, a Penn professor, are among this country's more than three million interracial households.

Never have biracial, multiracial, multicultural, mixed Americans been more visible.

And, it must be noted, the approaching inauguration, a particularly poignant moment for African Americans, is a milestone for mixed-race people, too.

Broussard has never hidden her background, but in the doctor's office she realizes for the first time that her pediatrician sees her - and her child - as white.

"I didn't think I read white," Broussard says in an interview. Scott's rash turned out to be minor, especially compared with Broussard's shock at how quickly the question of race arose in the life of her little boy.

"I knew the question was going to come up eventually," says Broussard, who teaches writing at the college level. "But I was unprepared."

In 2000, census officials ended a decades-long "check one" policy and allowed people to identify as both black and white. Nearly 6.8 million considered themselves "mixed."

Obama provides a model for them. From his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, to his extraordinary talk on race in Philadelphia last year, he has kept his multiracial biography in the forefront while identifying as black. In doing so, he demonstrates how to embrace one reality without ignoring another.

"Four years ago, emphasizing my biracial background alienated me from both sides," says Heidi Durrow, 39, who had a black father and a Danish mother.

To claim her white mother "was like shouting, 'I'm not black!' It was making yourself separate. It was like holding yourself up as better than black.

"Now biracial is part of the public conversation."

'No biracial water fountain'

Laws barring interracial marriage started with Maryland in 1661; they were widely adopted and would remain in effect for 300 years.

Finally, in 1967, the year the first Super Bowl was played, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man. The couple had been sentenced to one year in prison and banished from Virginia for the crime of interracial marriage.

Labels such as mulatto, quadroon and octoroon were institutionalized in the 1890 census. But throughout American history, in the interest of perpetuating slavery and the myth of white superiority, anyone with even one drop of black blood was deemed black.

That criterion would be brought into play as late as 1983, when Louisiana denied a request by a white woman, Susie Guillory Phipps, to change the "colored" designation on her birth certificate. The state refused because Phipps was 1/32 black.

And when Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation, some biracial people were able to pass as white and others more deeply identified as black. The notion of being mixed was inconsistent with the one-drop rule.

"If you grew up in the time of segregation, there was no biracial water fountain," says Elliott Lewis, 42, whose parents were both of mixed race. "You couldn't drink from both fountains - only the colored fountain."

"My parents identified as black because that was their social reality," says Lewis, the author in 2006 of Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America.

"They were multiracial by birth but black by life experience; I am multiracial by birth and by life experience."

'Rorschach test for strangers'

Growing up first in Denmark and later in a black section of Portland, Ore., Durrow always felt she had to pick sides, she says. And she frequently changed the side she picked.

At 18, she attended a black debutante ball with her extremely blond, pale mother. When she was 22 and pining for the comfort of a country where race did not matter as much, Durrow says, she spoke about wanting to be white in Black, White, Other, a landmark book on biraciality by mixed-race Philadelphian Lise Funderburg.

Durrow and Fanshen Cox, a mixed-race friend, now conduct an online conversation at Last spring, they coordinated the first Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival in Los Angeles. Durrow's book Light-skinned-ed Girl won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change.

Still, she says, "I'm a Rorschach test for strangers. Recently a New York cabdriver mistook me for a Bollywood star."

'The individual cannot choose'

In her 2008 book,

Kinky Gazpacho

, Lori Tharps struggles with the decision to enter into an interracial marriage and raise mixed-race children.

The number of such children - 900,000 in 1970, 3.4 million in 2000 - has been growing. Tharps, a black woman raised in Milwaukee, and her Spanish-born husband, Manuel, moved to integrated Mount Airy so their sons would not stand out at school or on the playground.

But the boys look different from each other.

Esai, 7, has dark skin, eyes and hair; Addai, 4, has, Tharps writes, "skin the color of the inside of an almond."

And much to Tharps' dismay, Esai speaks increasingly in terms of race: I'm black like Mommy, he'll say. And Addai is white like Pops, right?

"I want my boys to be proud to be black, proud to be Spanish, and to know what that means," Tharps says.

"One positive that comes out of categorizing people is that it creates a place for you, a feeling that you belong," she says.

"But I think it is important to realize that you as the individual cannot choose. Those who see you decide whether you are black or white or mixed. If you look one way, the world is going to treat you that way."

For that reason, Tharps says, "in the years to come, I'm sure there are still going to be people who pass, because we still live in a society where whites have privilege, whether they want it or not."

'Identity is more fluid'

Bliss Broyard's 2007 memoir,

One Drop

, recounts her shock at learning, as her father lay dying in 1990, that he was "part black."

Anatole Broyard, a celebrated book critic for the New York Times, had passed his entire life for white - never acknowledging his black and Creole ancestry even to his children or his employers. Suddenly Bliss Broyard, who had thought of herself as white, was questioning what she knew about her identity.

In the years since her father's admission, Broyard says, her perspective has evolved. She is married now, a mother with one child and another on the way.

"Having a child certainly makes the question of how you are going to pass along parts of your history more pressing, more relevant," says Broyard, whose husband is a Sephardic Jew with roots in Greece and Turkey.

She, too, is excited about the Obama presidency.

"By example, the new president shows that our racial identity is more fluid than history would have us think."

'It's a matter of context'

Meredith Broussard recognizes, in retrospect, that there are times when medical science must take race and ethnicity into account.

David Harris, who did extensive research on racial identification before becoming deputy provost at Cornell University, agrees. As the father of racially mixed daughters approximately the ages of the Obama girls, Harris also sees the issues in intimate terms.

"We need to collect different information about people," Harris says, "and we need to collect it differently.

With the What are you? question, Harris says, must come an awareness of the basis for the question (ancestry, appearance, culture, speech?), the perspective (according to you or in the eyes of others?), the context (1909 or 2009?), and the reason for asking.

"Lena Horne was seen as black, but Mariah Carey is mixed," Harris says. "It's a matter of context. And it depends on who is doing the observing."