Feiler Faster

Peggy Ornstein writes in the NYT Magazine about an underdiscussed side of Barack Obama and the unspoken reality of Interfaith America: The rising number of bi-racial, cross-cultural Americans. The term of choice: Hapa.

Mixed-race marriages were illegal in at least 16 states when Obama was born, though the taboo was historically inconsistent — white men could marry Asian women in some places, for instance, while marriages like mine, which go the other way, were forbidden. Since 1967, when those laws were declared unconstitutional, the rate of interracial marriage among all groups has skyrocketed. And those couples have children. Of the seven million Americans who identified themselves as mixed-race in the 2000 census (the first in which it was possible to do so), nearly half were under the age of 18. Almost 5 percent of Californians now identify themselves as mixed-race; by comparison, fewer than 7 percent are African-American. Hawaii, Obama’s childhood home, is the most diverse state in the Union: 21 percent of residents identified as “Hapa,” a Hawaiian word meaning “half” that has gone from being a slur against mixed-race Asians to a point of pride — and has increasingly been adopted by multiracials of all kinds on the Mainland.
But the rise of multiracialism is not all Kumbaya choruses and “postracial” identity. The N.A.A.C.P. criticized the census change, fearing that since so few in the black community are of fully African descent, mass attrition to a mixed-race option could threaten political clout and Federal financing. Mexican-Americans, a largely mixed-race group, fought to be classified as white during the first half of the 20th century; during the second half, they fought against it.
Among Asians, Japanese-Americans in Northern California have argued over “how Japanese” the contestants for the Cherry Blossom Queen must be (the answer so far: 50 percent, which is less rigid than San Francisco’s Miss Chinatown U.S.A., whose father must be Chinese, but more strict than the 25 percent Chinese required to be Miss Los Angeles Chinatown).
Hapas muddy discussions of affirmative action and the gathering of health-care statistics. When a Centers for Disease Control researcher who called to survey me about my daughter’s vaccinations asked about her race, I answered, Caucasian and Asian. There was a pause, then she asked, “Which would you mainly identify her as?”

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