Americans find 'race' less black-and-white

Alex Wong poses for a portrait with his Alex Wong poses for a portrait with his parents Vivienne and Robert at their home in Huntington. (March 4, 2011) Photo Credit: Jason Andrew

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Alex Wong usually puts down "American" when asked to choose his ethnic or racial category. If the options don't include that choice, he'll check "other."

If the recent University of Pennsylvania graduate still lives on Long Island for the 2020 census, he'll probably be among those listing their race as "two or more."

The 22-year-old Huntington resident, who was a member of Penn's pan-Asian cultural group, also belongs to the Ancient Order of Hibernians and hopes to be grand marshal of the Huntington St. Patrick's Day parade one day.

"I have the best of both worlds," said Wong, whose father was born in Shanghai, and his mother in Dublin.

"I can't distinctly say I'm Caucasian because I love the Chinese culture, and I can't say I'm distinctly Chinese because I love Irish and Western cultures, as well," he said.

The number of Americans who identify themselves as multiracial is small but growing.

The 2000 census was the first to allow respondents to select more than one race in identifying themselves. Nationwide, about 2.4 percent of the population, more than 6.8 million people, marked an identification with two or more races.

In the 2010 results released Thursday, 2.4 percent of Long Islanders were in that category, up from 2.1 percent a decade earlier.

The higher percentage, though, understates the actual share of the population with mixed-race heritage, said Ann Morning, an assistant sociology professor at New York University.

"We tend to get people identifying as mixed race if they are the offspring of an interracial couple," she said. "But what that leaves out then is all the Americans who have some kind of racial mixture further back in their family trees."

That includes the vast majority of the African-American population and many Latinos, she said.

"Our best guess is that people with some African ancestry overwhelmingly identify as black," Morning said, given the country's history of legal racism that ended with U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recently the 1960s.

President Barack Obama, who had a white mother and a black father, has identified himself as black on his census forms.

Justin Toulon, a 21-year-old film major at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University who grew up in Lake Grove, has a white mother of Irish descent but thinks of himself as African-American.

He attributes that to his identification with his father and his family name, and said both parents imbued him with a sense of African-American identity and history.

But, he said: "If 'multiracial' were an option, I would pick that, because that's what describes me the most."

New acquaintances often ask him about his nationality. When he tells them he's African-American and Irish, the typical response is, "That's awesome," he said.

There's a growing movement on college campuses to establish groups for multiracial students. Experts, however, say the stigma about being multiracial has eased significantly in recent years.

"It's pretty safe to say there's a lot more acceptance today of mixed race people, certainly compared to a couple of decades ago," said NYU's Morning. Marriage between whites and others was illegal in many states as recently as 1967, the year the Supreme Court ruled such bans unconstitutional.

Now, she said, "if anything, some people would argue it has a certain cachet to it, a certain kind of prestige" in part because of high-profile mixed-race celebrities and sports stars, such as Halle Berry and Derek Jeter.

Toulon and Wong, who works for a Manhattan-based Internet firm, describe their mixed heritage as a positive.

Growing up on Long Island, Wong said kids looked at him as just Chinese. But those he was closest to "just saw me as me. . . . My friends would wish me both a happy Chinese New Year and a happy St. Patrick's Day.

"I don't feel the need to identify with any one group to fit in," he said. "I can be both and be very happy."

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