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America's Mixed-Race Kids Examine Their Identity

Photographs celebrate richness and beauty of multiracial society

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Faiza Elmasry

At least seven million Americans identify themselves as belonging to more than one race, and interest is rapidly growing in issues of multi-racial identity.

In his new book, "Mixed," writer and artist Kip Fulbeck presents a collection of portraits celebrating the faces of mixed-race children.

'Mixed' presents of collection of portraits of mixed race children.
'Mixed' presents of collection of portraits of mixed race children.

Personal experience

Kip Fulbeck grew up in a multi-racial family.

His father was English, Irish and Welsh. He had a Chinese mother and Chinese step-siblings. At home, he says, he was considered the white kid, but at school he was the Asian kid. Exploring the multi-racial identity has inspired Fulbeck's works, including his recent photography book.

"What I wanted to do here is try to capture the essence of kids 12 and under who are multiracial," Fulbeck says. "And the reason I started making it is, my wife and I had a baby boy last year. I want to make sure that I do my best to let him grow up in a world that's different and more accepting than the one I grew up in."

Artist and author Kip Fulbeck grew up in a multi-racial family.
Artist and author Kip Fulbeck grew up in a multi-racial family.

Seventy multi-racial children from across the United States are featured in "Mixed." To learn how they perceive themselves, Fulbeck asked each one, who you are?

Who are you?

"What's nice about the question, 'Who are you?' is that kids, especially younger kids, they don't default to certain answers the way we as adults do," he says. "We may say, 'I'm American,' 'I'm Chinese,' or you may say, 'I'm a banker,' 'I'm a teacher.' Kids have these unusual statements. They say things like, 'I'm 12, guitar, video games, period, that's all  I do.' I had one kid who wrote a statement that said, 'I'm Keyan. I'm brown like President Obama. One day I'll be a pro football player and the president.'"

It was exciting, he says, to discover the surprising mix of racial and cultural backgrounds.

"There is one kid who has very bright red hair and very fair skin," he says. "And you look at his background, and he is Vietnamese and Mexican and Peruvian and Swiss and Irish. You would look at that kid and never imagine that. The dad said, 'Oftentimes, people ask, where did I get him? - like he is not really my kid because he has red hair,' which is really funny."

Camryn and Dylan are a mix of Hawaiian, Chinese, Swedish, English, Irish,Scottish, French and Native American.
Camryn and Dylan are a mix of Hawaiian, Chinese, Swedish, English, Irish,Scottish, French and Native American.

Five-year old Kailani, a Japanese-Dutch American, explains how she felt when she was photographed.

"Happy, a little bit shy," Kailani says. "I closed my eyes."

'Mixed'

Youngsters who couldn't express themselves in writing were asked to draw. For others, their parents answered. That's what Kailani's mother, Youshie, did.

"She's interested in the Japanese culture and language," Youshi says."That's why when she was asked if she was half Japanese, she said, 'I'm lots of Japanese.'"

10-year-old Alison also appears in "Mixed." Her heritage is Japanese, black, Irish, English and French. "It's cool to take a picture for the book," Alison says. "My teachers were excited, too."

Alison's father Hank says his daughter perceives herself just as a 10-year-old girl. "She knows where she comes from, but it's not something that defines her," he explains."It's not something other people use to define her either, which I think is a great thing."

Marcellus is African-American, Japanese and Spanish.
Marcellus is African-American, Japanese and Spanish.

Hank is bi-racial himself; African American and white. Unlike his daughter, though, he says he did not grow up in a racially mixed society.

Changing attitudes

"When people asked me [what my race was], I thought they were trying to label me or trying to judge me, when I was a child growing up," he says."When people ask us about our children's background, they are more interested. There is no judgment attached to it, which I think is a great thing. Now, my daughter is growing up in a new world. She's growing up where she is not different, she is just a part of this truly global community that we finally have in the United States, or that we've always had, but that we're finally acknowledging and celebrating."

And that, says photographer Kip Fulbeck, is what he wanted the portraits in his book to show.

"We're moving very, very slowly in the right direction," Fulbeck says. "In the United States, we have the census going on right now, and 10 years ago in the year 2000, that was the first census that actually allowed people to check more than one box to define your race. Before that, you could only choose one. So for me, who has a Chinese mother and an English-Irish father, when they say 'pick one box,' that essentially was asking me to pick my mother or my father. It's not a very fair decision to have a kid have to do. I think we're changing in that way and becoming much more aware of this right now."

Fulbeck asked President Obama's sister, who is white and Indonesian, to write the foreword for "Mixed." Maya Soetoro-Ng did, explaining some of the advantages and disadvantages of being mixed. The book's afterword is written by singer-actress Cher, who is part Cherokee.

"That was very difficult to get, but I wanted Cher to write the afterword because when I was a kid, the first record I ever bought when I was about 7 or 8 years old, was a song called, 'Half Breed,' which was written by Cher in 1973 and went to number one (on the sales charts) in the U.S," he says. "I thought she was one of the first artists ever who talked about being mixed in pop culture. That's why I wanted her to do it and I'm grateful that those two amazing women wrote for the book."

Artist Kip Fulbeck says he wanted "Mixed" to give multi-racial kids a chance to define themselves. By showing that they see themselves as just ordinary kids, he hopes other people will see and accept them as perfectly ordinary, too.

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