Monday, February 05, 2007

Multi-Culti Mix-Ups

Two very different articles in the Washington Post this weekend set my mind making connections about race and education. The first was an anecdote by Soledad O’Brien. When her parents were dating while attending Johns Hopkins here in Baltimore they were constantly refused service at restaurants because they were an inter-racial couple. That her mother was black came as a complete surprise to me. I have been ogling watching Soledad since her days as geek eye candy on MSNBC’s The Site. She is now the morning co-anchor on CNN and you have to read pretty deep into her official bio to learn she has been featured by both Essence and Irish American Magazine. That O’Brien surname comes from her Irish-Australian dad.

It turns out that a lot of celebrities are multi-racial. The interminably long Super Bowl preshow featured Hines Ward who has a Korean mother. Many public figures we tend to associate with one race or another actually have much more complicated and interesting ancestries than fit into the random pigeonholes we have established. This website has a rather eclectic list of just a smattering of famous people of mixed race heritage.

Race wouldn’t matter, but people still make decisions based on the ethnic make-up of areas. An article titled "How Not To Pick A School" in the Washington Post Opinion section was perhaps the most nuanced and comprehensive article I have ever read about race and performance in public schools. Brigid Schulte defends her decision to send her kids to a public school where her kid would be in the ethnic minority. She quotes some researchers that note:
White students are the "most racially isolated group of students" in the country, with the average white student attending a school in which only one in five students is of another race.

That can’t happen in my son’s school district. The most lily-white high school in the county is only 71% white and the system regularly posts the best scores in the state. My son’s school brags that they have the most diverse student body in the county. The ethnic demographic breakdown is as follows:

White: 48%
Black: 30%
Asian: 14.5%
Hispanic: 7.5%

Where does my son fit in on this scale? I am about as “white” (or European-American as I prefer to call myself) as anyone can be. I am a blend of Irish, German, and Scottish, all very pale people. My wife was born in Vietnam, but she keeps finding more and more ethnic Chinese in her background. My son doesn’t look identifiably Asian, particularly when in a group like the Math Team. On the other hand, nobody is going recognize him as a son of the Old Sod. Nonetheless, the recessive red hair and blue eyes are in his DNA and could reappear some generation down the line.

It makes me very mad when forms asking for demographic information are not multiple choice. If he answers “Asian”, then what am I, chopped liver? Several years ago, I read a news story about another local school district where two Asian girls were denied a transfer to a magnet school because it would lower the “diversity” of the school they currently attended. Nobody is handing out money to Asian kids to attend college and some very prestigious universities have been caught with informal quotas against Asians. For these arbitrary reasons, I have my son say “white” on forms that make him choose one or another.

Even the word “Asian” is astoundingly broad. Howard County is a mecca for Korean immigrants because of the quality schools. There are also substantial Chinese and Indian communities in the area. According to a 2005 study, the top five foreign languages spoken in the county are Spanish, Korean, Chinese (three different dialects), Urdu, and Vietnamese.

The quasi-city of Columbia was one of first deliberately integrated developments in Maryland. As a result of the aggressive integration, inter-racial couples and their offspring rarely raise an eyebrow in this area. I have no idea how these kids fill out their ethnic check boxes either. My guess is many just skip it altogether.

Call America a melting pot or a mixing bowl or whatever you want. When you put different groups of people together the boundaries blur. We are all more alike than we are different. Hopefully someday the differences that separate us will disappear. My son is proud to be of mixed heritage and I am proud of him.

Updated (2/6/07): I updated the ethnicity percentages to match published 2005-2006 school year information.


Elizabeth said...

You should be proud of him, he looks like a great kid!

Anonymous said...

Prince is of mixed racial heritage as well.

Impetua said...

Here there are a fair number of Eastern European immigrants and sometimes the demographics information surveys (for instance at the storytime we go to at a public school) lists that as a choice. My daughter is half Russian, but we are culturally plain ol' Caucasian-Americans, so my assumption is that we mark the "white" box. It is confusing.

And you have a great kid, from what you write. Involved parenting makes a huge impact. Go, yello! And Spawn of yello!

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

The whole idea of having check boxes on forms anymore is ridiculous. With every generation the ethnic mix of children is blending and blurring beyond distinction. My hope is that eventually the only "race" that will be referenced is the human race.

Anonymous said...

more Soledad at

Anonymous said...

Despite her parents' schooling here in Baltimore, Soledad O'Brien and I grew up a few miles from each other on Long Island.

We didn't know each other or anything.

That's all I've got. Sorry.

Mooselet said...

When I was a youngster I would agree that I was 'racially isolated', and even when my kids started school in the US it was pretty true. Where I am now they've meet and go to school with kids from all over - more so my oldest in high school.

I, too, hate ticking those ethnicity boxes even though like you I'm as white as they get (mainly Irish).

yellojkt said...

My high school was pretty lily white also. My wife was the only Asian person I knew of in our class of a thousand.

NPR Junky said...

Y'know, whenever I'm traveling and happen to catch American Morning, I always wondered what it was that Soledad saw in Miles. I mean, COME ON!

And now...I feel awfully foolish for not checking into it further.

Karen said...

Prince IS NOT of mixed heritage; no moire than the rest of the world. Purple Rain was a movie that poptrayed his mother as something other than Black. It was just a movie! He's 100% Black.