It was one of the toughest assignments of senior year--a 4,000-word argumentative essay on a controversial topic. Groans echoed down the halls of Denver's George Washington High School, but Nicole Caldwell was secretly pumped. All her life she had been required to categorize herself by race. Sometimes the ivory-skinned, green-eyed teen checked black. Sometimes she checked black and white, the races of her father and mother. Occasionally, when she was feeling defiant, she checked simply "other." None of the choices felt quite right. This was Caldwell's chance to speak up. Race is a divisive tool of "outdated institutions," concluded the outspoken 18-year-old on page 12 of her polemic against race politics. It "doesn't really even exist anymore."
OK, racial divisions still exist. But "people don't trip on it so much now," says Ian Simmons, a 17-year-old biracial student from Oakland, Calif. "It's like everybody is mixed these days." Thirty years ago, only one in every 100 children born in the United States was of mixed race. Today that number is one in 19. In states like California and Washington it's closer to one in 10. The morphing demographics give many teens a chance to challenge old notions of race. But these fluid notions of identity also create new tensions of their own.
Multiracial kids still catch their share of grief, and ugly slurs like "Oreo," "half-breed" and "mutt" are still slung in school parking lots, bathrooms and locker rooms around the country. And there are still pressures to "hang black," "go white," "kick it Latino" or "roll Asian." But the rising numbers of mixed-race kids translate into something all important in the teen universe: a tribe with which to identify, headed by sexy pop icons like Mariah Carey and Tiger Woods.
The relative comfort level that teens experience now is new. Most of today's mixed-race adults didn't have other biracial kids in their schools and neighborhoods, let alone on their favorite TV shows or on the covers of magazines. "Back then there was more of a sense of isolation, of being ignored," says author Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, 42, who was born in Tennessee, the daughter of a Japanese mother and white father. "There wasn't a consciousness that being mixed was, in and of itself, an identity. It was lonely." The organized push for acceptance started in the late '70s with the formation of I-Pride, the first social and political organization for mixed-race adults. More than 30 colleges now have mixed-race student organizations, and high schools are catching on with groups of their own. There are a slew of Web sites and chat rooms for multiethnics, and Mavin magazine, started two years ago by a college student to explore the mixed-race experience, now has a circulation of 32,000. The quarterly's spring issue went out to more than 9,500 high schools nationwide. "Young people today want to mix it up and continually blur the boundaries," says Mavin founder and publisher Matt Kelley, now 21.
The kids at Carson High, in the working-class South Bay section of Los Angeles, are blurring as fast as they can. The 25-member Mixed Heritage Multi-Racial Alliance meets weekly in a classroom lined with posters proclaiming one world for us and no color lines. The group sponsors multicultural events and diversity campaigns. Three years ago club members descended on shopping malls gathering signatures for a nationwide initiative to get a multiracial category on the 2000 Census. Their efforts paid off. Census respondents this year could check more than one box for race, allowing for 63 possible categories.
Even some so-called monoracial kids are down for the cause. Not long after the Carson group's signature drive, an entire history class at the school decided to show solidarity by checking every racial category on a standardized test. Coordinators sent the tests back to the school and made each student erase all but one box. But the multiracial students felt validated. …