When she got her first job in retail as a teenager, co-workers teased Latoya Gates for not knowing Spanish.
Her co-workers–and sometimes customers–assumed she was Latina because of the color of her skin. They judged her for not speaking the language they felt matched how she looked.
“One of my co-workers would always say, ‘You should know Spanish,'” Gates said. “I asked him why. I knew he was only saying this because he was mistaken about my racial identity. He wouldn’t believe me that I wasn’t Latina.”
Like an ever-growing number of Americans–Gates identifies as biracial. Her father is black and her mother is white.
The multiracial and multiethnic population is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S. The 2010 U.S. Census showed 2.3 percent of Michigan residents defined themselves as two or more races, which is deceptively small–it’s a 19.7 percent increase from 2000.
Michigan’s biracial population is slightly below the national average, which was 2.9 percent of the population, or about 9 million people, according to 2010 Census data. That’s a 32 percent increase from 2000.
One in seven U.S. marriages in 2008 and 2009 was between people of different races or ethnicities, according to the Pew Research Center.
Looking back, Gates believes the misunderstandings and insensitive remarks made her more attune to others’ feelings about racial identity.
“I work with some Latino students now who don’t speak Spanish,” said Gates, assistant director of multicultural education at Hope College. “I empathize with their feelings of embarrassment and ‘not being Latino enough’ in a way I never could have, had I not faced similar prejudice.”
‘My identity is much stronger’
Even though she is biracial, Amy Otis-De Grau realized at an early age that strangers often saw only part of her ancestry.
Sitting on the school bus as a teen, she noticed another student staring at her. She asked the student if anything was wrong.
In response, the student asked: “Do you see as much as I do?”
“I was stunned,” said Otis-De Grau, 36. “I realized then that I couldn’t just blend in, but that people would always first see the Asian in me.”
Although her mother is Japanese-American, Otis-De Grau knew little about that part of her racial background growing up in Germany. Her father is of European ancestry and an American.
“My mom would cook some Japanese meals for us . . . but I didn’t necessarily associate it with my heritage,” Otis-De Grau said.
It wasn’t until after she moved to the U.S. and attended Hope College that she began to explore her Japanese ancestry.
“In college, one of my best friends was a Japanese-Italian-Irish guy from Hawaii. He could not believe how little I knew about my Japanese heritage,” she said. “At one point, he even jokingly said that I was a disgrace to the Asian race and that I needed to start figuring out who I truly was.”
After that, Otis-De Grau started to dig into her family’s history, which included relatives being forced into internment camps during World War II. She took a Japanese language course. She made several trips to Japan.
“My identity is much stronger today than when I was in college and, in part, it’s because I’m more comfortable with having multiple identities,” she said.
Otis-De Grau’s husband is Mexican, which means their future children will have even more cultures to explore.
“When people find out that my husband is from Mexico, they often talk about how cute our kids will be,” she said. “And then they start asking how we are going to raise them–speaking Spanish, English or German at home.”
The best of both worlds
In raising her 2-year-old son, Daniel, Sarah Salguera and her husband look for “teachable moments” when it comes to how his ethnicity compares to others. The U.S. Census categorizes Hispanic origin as an ethnicity, not a race.
“If we’re reading a book, we’ll point out the different races of people on the page,” said Salguera, 29. “His skin color is different than mine and different from his dad’s. We want him to know it’s something we’re comfortable talking about.”
Salguera is a South Haven native with German, Irish and English ancestry. Her husband, Francisco, is Nicaraguan. The two met when Salguera studied abroad. After Salguera graduated, the couple spent about three years in Nicaragua before moving to Michigan and marrying, she said.
Some people have been less than kind to her family in public, but racism is “not something you can nail down easily,” Salguera said.
“There are times when people have been extremely rude beyond all reason,” she said. “You notice it in the way someone yells at you if you’ve parked your car in the wrong place. We’ve had instances where we go out and people don’t react in a friendly way. Since I’m white, and I grew up in a white family, I never had to think about the fact that not everyone gets treated the way I do.”
Salguera credits the Institute for Healing Racism–a program examining the roots of prejudice–for helping her consider what life is like for her husband, an immigrant.
Since taking the course, Salguera accepted a position as program director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, host of the institute.
Whatever society’s view of multiracial or multiethnic families might be, “in our house, we celebrate it,” Salguera said.
“We can pick the positive things out of each of our cultures and integrate them into our lives,” she said. “We can have the best of both worlds.”