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The Blues and Blessings of Being Biracial

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September 2005
The Blues and Blessings of Being Biracial

Even in melting pot America, South Asian and Western cultures are worlds apart. What happens when you are a product of both? Khabar scratches the surface to better understand the core sensibilities of these individuals. How is their outlook towards their South Asian identity? How does the community look at them?

By REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN

Rudyard Kipling may have been a brilliant poet, but a prophesier he was not. In this, the early 21st century, the East and West not only do meet, but they also mingle with and marry each other. Different as they still may be, they are increasingly learning to tango together.

One only has to look at the changing face of the Indian and the larger South Asian community in the United States to see the increasing variation in tints of brown. From a small community picnic to a wedding it is now common to spot interracial couples. The community is slowly transforming to include mixed spouses and children in its fold. The ethnic diversity and openness of the second and third generation is steadily changing the face and spirit of our community.

If the impending launch of MTV-desi is any indication, there is a marked change in the demographics and social fabric of the country as well?where big media houses are now increasingly catering to ethnic markets. Not surprisingly, this trend is in keeping with the broader national shifts. America has come a long ways from the quaint old days of the early ?60s when interracial marriages were outlawed in some states. Today, there are close to two million children who have parents of different races. What's more, instead of bending these individuals out of shape to fit neatly into a designated racial category, society is being coaxed to make way for them. The 2000 census allowed, for the first time, to identify individuals with two or more races. According to this census, 2.4 percent of the total population reported as belonging to "more than one race."

Let me guess?

How is society coping with these exciting but rapid changes? After all, it has been in our nature to instinctively categorize people into absolute classes. Our built-in label makers get jammed when we interface with individuals who are not instantly classifiable. For example, people often refer to Tiger Woods as black but he prefers to be called "Cablinasian," a word Woods coined to outline his racial heritage?Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Asian.

Strangers often take it upon themselves to identify the ethnic framework of those whose appearance doesn't lend them to a predictable classification. As though on a quiz show, they embolden themselves, "Wait, wait! Don't tell me: Mexican? Latin American? Indian? Pakistani? Italian? Greek? Iranian?"

The seemingly innocent question, "Where are you from?" can often be a bit tiresome to any second-generation immigrant with ethnic looks who considers herself firmly from the U.S. The same question, understandably, is dreaded even more by those who have two sets of national roots.

"It is not your previous residence they mean. I know exactly what they are asking. I tell them where my parents are from." This sums up the position of most of those interviewed for this story towards the loaded question of where one is from. While they may all respond to this question in a similar manner, the sentiments it raises varies widely. Forty-one-year-old Porscha Ober of Peachtree City, who has an Indian father and a German mother, has dreaded that question for years. On the other hand sixteen-year-old Anita Raheja of Alpharetta, who has a Taiwanese mother, is carefree about the curiosity her appearance evokes. "It's cool," she says.

Society as a whole has yet to learn acknowledging and empathizing with biracial families. As a result, even casual and innocent conversation starters could turn out to be quite off the mark. For example, people often ask the white mother of a decidedly Indian-looking Rohan Verma if he is adopted.

Thankfully the self-image of biracial individuals rarely coincides with how others perceive them.

Who am I?

It is widely accepted by psychologists that establishing one's identity is a continuous process. "Reconciling the conflict between internal experience of differences and external attribution of the meaning of this difference is likely a lifelong developmental process?" writes Dr. Maria Root in her book, Racially Mixed People In America. Since such a process is prolific during the rapidly developing phase of childhood, questions about one's ethnicity are most pronounced during this stage. Psychologists believe that a single instance of labeling may be enough for the child to modify his self-image.

Not surprisingly, adjustment and ownership of their biracial identity is an evolving process in children. "I am Indian and American, and I live in America," says four-year-old Aalia Meera Garrett most of the times. Aalia's mother Malika Garrett, however, acknowledges that there are times when her daughter does not want to be Indian and questions how she can possibly be Indian when she lives in America? Malika is not troubled by this confusion. "My son Miles went through a similar phase. At nine he seems to have a good understanding of who he is. He is proud of his heritage."

Having a German mother and Indian father was tough for Porscha as a child. "I was a bit of an anomaly when I was growing up. I lied. I lied a lot. Depending where I was I would tell them my mother was German or that I was German. If I were around Indians I would tell them that my father was Indian. I just eliminated the other parent." According to Dr. Maria Root "an individual's sense of self is emotionally mediated rather than defined merely by identification with his or her physical attributes."

For others, the fact that their parents come from differing racial backgrounds has not been much of an issue. Atlanta-based Matthew Rao never identified with the multiracial tag. "Having an Indian heritage and being Indian is not the same thing." Born to a Californian mother of Italian roots and an Indian father, he thinks of himself as simply American. Though, the obvious price one pays for such ease about one's biracial identity comes from having to loose ties with one or the other of one's dual racial lineage. Rao does wish his father had introduced him to Indian traditions and mythology when he was at an impressionable age. A designer by profession, he now finds himself drawn to authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, who explore Eastern mores within the Western context.���

Are you "full" or "half"?

Race is often seen as being absolute; a group with strict, solid boundaries. Biracial people are seemingly forced to fit into one or another racial category. According to Anita Raheja, many in the South Asian community are skeptical of her ethnic credentials. "They ask me questions like ?Do you eat Indian food?'" The fact that her Taiwanese mother cooks Indian food just fine surprised them. It appears as though one is expected to prove one's legitimacy, pass a litmus test, before one is allowed access into the inner circle of the community. Given her likeable nature, Anita, however, had no trouble making friends though she does find some of her "full" Indian peers a tad conservative.

If holding on too rigidly to racial boundaries where no one is allowed to penetrate is one end of the extreme, the other is total abandonment of one's roots. According to Anita's father, Manohar Raheja, some Indians with American spouses abandon their ethnicity in an attempt to fit in. Their children simply get swallowed by the popular culture. Shuling Raheja, Anita's mother, emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the parents to introduce their children to both the cultures. "We encourage Anita to explore, and she asks a lot of questions." This helps them form a fluid identity that is representative of more than one ethnic pool.

Robin Verma was concerned that her son Rohan was not getting enough Indian exposure even though he attended the Bal Vihar in Alpharetta. She often urges her husband Amar to teach Rohan about the little things that would help him understand the nuances of his culture. "Why do you call your son raja beta, or why do you crave pakoras on a rainy day?" She believes in sharing as much information as possible. "We should not hold back as much as we do. Whether they are questions about eating with one's hands, or why grandma never comes to visit, or how mommy and daddy eloped years ago, or why Hindus pray to an elephant God?nothing should be taboo." It is essential to Robin that their son be exposed to both ways of life in their entirety.

More often than not those with multicolored genealogy in the South Asian context don't necessarily want to be either "half" or "full." Just like any child who embodies characteristics of both parents in an unpredictable ratio, a person with a mixed heritage cannot be figured out merely on the basis of his lineage. "Part Indian, part American" is not a blueprint for a classic, Indian-American hybrid with 50 percent resting on either side of the hyphen. The dash is not indicative of an even split in a biological merger?instead, it symbolizes a dynamic interplay. Besides, there is more to such an individual than being part this and part that. As Gestalt psychology proposes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Twenty-two-year old Natasha Paracha has a white American mother and a Pakistani father. She doesn't appreciate being squeezed into a stereotype. "It is annoying when people label me. Some American will say, ?Oh, I met this Muslim girl.' I am a lot more than that."

"I am Pakistani and American?not one more than the other. When I am with my cousins in Pakistan I blend in so well they can't believe I can fit into the American culture just as well. Sometimes they ask me why I don't pray five times a day or agree to an arranged marriage." Natasha knows how to wiggle out of a corner without offending the people who love her. She is not a rebel. To her it is all about striking a balance, to be both American and Pakistani in one breath, to be fluent in both English and Urdu, and be at home in both countries. It is not about being half or full. It is about being open-minded and thus complete.

Oh, God!

The coexistence of two religions appears to be one of the greatest challenges in a biracial household. When two religions are present in a single family, one often tends to take precedence. "It depends on the religiosity of the parents," explains Jennifer B. Saunders, professor of religion at Denison University, Ohio. If either parent is orthodox and lives by the faith on a daily basis then that religion will obviously dominate.

Malika Garrett converted to Christianity when she married her husband Russell, but she remains Hindu at heart. She teaches both her children Miles Mayon and Aalia Meera about Hinduism through festivals, pujas, food, and fables. Miles is especially fascinated by Amar Chitra Katha comics. The Garrett family goes to both the Hindu temple and the Episcopal Church. Pertinent questions about God and why they receive a fruit (prasad) in a temple and not in a church are addressed. "Russell and I don't push anything. Our job is to present the information and let them process it," says Malika. Having spent the early part of her life as a liberal Hindu attending Christian schools in Calcutta, she does not get into a theological tug-of-war.

For New York-based Sheela Whelan, an associate professor of Mathematics, it is the absence of religion that was unsettling. "We never went to a church or a temple; we were not brought up with any formal religious training. Growing up I found it rather troublesome that I did not belong to one group or another. I always wished I was something?I didn't care what it was." Sheela's Hindu father, Paul Loomba believed religion to be the root of all evil. He did not pledge his allegiance to any orthodox ideology. "In hindsight, I think my father wishes he would have done things differently." Married to a non-practicing Catholic herself, Sheela's two boys are being brought up without any religious affiliation? "it [the absence of religion] has been perpetuated."

Porscha Ober does not subscribe to any one organized religion either. "If Christians believe that two-thirds of the world is going to hell because it does not believe in Jesus Christ, I don't buy it." She and her three children follow a more liberal path. They attend pujas and Bengali festivals and go to church. "I expose them to everything. I need the spirituality, but I don't have any room for the dogma."

Natasha endorses Porscha's opinion. "When I go to church I am told that my Muslim father is going to hell, and when I am at a mosque I am told my Christian mother is going to hell. That is where I draw the line. I am Muslim on paper but really I am agnostic." Having researched Islam, Christianity, and other faiths Natasha notices similarities in all religions. Likewise, Porscha's mother would point out parallelism between the teachings in the Gita and the Bible.

Nevertheless, in many instances, people like Natasha have their own take on religion, a unique ability to see across fundamental boundaries and highlight common ideologies. Instilling a belief in a higher power and the need to be a good human being appears to be more important to parents versus an absolute endorsement of their individual faiths.

Multiracial people epitomize the synthesis of two parent philosophies in a flowing, yin-yang self. A patchwork heritage makes them world citizens?more tolerant, curious and appreciative of diversity. Bible-thumping Christians and Hindu fundamentalists versus a more progressive generation sympathetic to all cultures.

The blues and blessings

"A part of me wishes that my parents had never got married," says Porscha, recalling how as a young child she dreaded having friends over. She feared they would see her parents, check out her stuff and never return. There where times when Sheila Whelan did not want to be Indian: "It did not have anything to do with being Indian per se, I just wanted to be like everybody else."

Being at odds with one's perceived identity is par for the course. Who doesn't have trouble teething? However, when you throw in a significant difference in skin color, features, and your family's appearance and accent into the mix, the struggle is compounded.

When Porscha moved from Michigan to Texas as an eighteen-year-old, she says, "Oh, my God, talk about a culture shock. As soon as people discovered I was not ?American,' they pretended I did not exist." Her internal struggle almost held her back from giving Khabar this interview. It has been a tough ride but she also acknowledges that overcoming social stigma and being exposed to two diverse cultures while living in a third? a middle ground ?has made her life richer. "The other part of me would not have it any other way. I have experienced so much more than others."

With a family tree that has roots in various continents, multiracial children have to confront myriad differences, but they also have to nurture the similarities. "Contact with extended families of both parents tends to provide a congruent interracial experience as well as a diverse array of possible role models." Anita Raheja loves shopping on Linking Road in Mumbai with her Indian cousins and celebrating Lunar New Year with her Taiwanese family. Natasha Paracha has a close relationship with cousins on either side of her family, both in America and Pakistan.

Though, it is not unusual for kith and kin to reject a mixed couple and their children. Some members of Robin Verma's family choose not to associate with her. Children pick up on such attitudes. All the more reason to encourage children to ask questions, says Robin. "Get it out in the open."

When mixed children are of an age to marry, they may again meet prejudices. According to Susan Ghosh who is married to a Bengali, "Increasingly, white Americans are including nonwhites in their family, especially Indians or Indian-Americans, who have such good reputations academically and socially. On the other side, however, if mixed young adults would like to stay more closely tied with their Indian heritage, unexpected rejection can erupt. They may be associating with others of Indian heritage, but when a possibility of marriage emerges, the Indian family may say, "No, my child will only marry an Indian!" Being rejected for something that you are born with, when your character and values are not at fault, can be wrenching. Would these strict Indian families require mixed young adults to be restricted to marrying only other mixed individuals? The possibilities are then sadly limited."

"When our children were growing up, there were very few Indian families in America. The exposure to Bengali culture was therefore very limited. Today, the social circles are plenty, the functions are endless," says Porscha's father Satyen Guha Biswas. Porscha believes that the present generation of mixed children is better accepted as their numbers are increasing and there is increasing awareness about other cultures. "My ex-husband was an American country boy who had no clue of the outside world," says Porscha.

In addition to making everyday choices, biracial individuals have the burden of selecting their ethnic persona. Abundant choices, however, are not always a blessing, confesses Porscha. Children are also torn between loyalty to parents and the desire to be accepted by peers. "I love my father dearly, but it was really hard feeling other people's discrimination towards him and then trying to align myself with either defending him or protecting myself and disassociating from him." The pressure, internal and external, to make the "right" choice is omnipresent. Nonetheless, most of the individuals interviewed for this story would not trade in their experiences for anything else.

Acculturated Americans

"Here everyone has the freedom to be what they want to be," observes Matthew Rao describing, in effect the reason he is comfortable being just American, nothing more nothing less.

"Most of us came to America from somewhere. Mommy just happened to come here a few decades later than my parents," Russell Garrett gives Miles and Aalia an abbreviated lesson in American history and their place in it. There is a general consensus among researchers that gene pools do in fact overlap. By that token we are all interracial.

As far as the freshly minted "mixed" generation goes, they don't look or think like the one before. Biracial children are unwilling to be strapped into ethnic straightjackets. At ease with their part?South Asian heritage they are acculturated Americans?irrespective of their skin tone.


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