Who are Americans? It’s complicated, especially in terms of race

A mixed-race family (Courtesy of Mike Tauber)
(Courtesy of Mike Tauber)

“Where are you from?” The question, seemingly simple, is anything but clear in the United States. It could be asking where you were born, where you grew up, where you now live or where your ancestors lived. And in a country built by immigrants, answering the question has proven difficult.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting a new kind of data: nuanced responses on racial makeup. Before, people of mixed race had to choose which part of their racial identity they were going to acknowledge on the form. Black? White? Asian?

For the first time since the census began in 1790, responders could check off more than one box. Nearly 7 million people did, and a decade later, the multiracial category was among the census’s fastest growing. “These comparisons show substantial growth in the multiple-race population, providing detailed insights to how this population has grown and diversified over the past decade,” said Nicholas Jones, director of Race and Ethnic Research and Outreach at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Close-up of Cheryl Quintana (Courtesy of Mike Tauber)
Cheryl Quintana, white and one-eighth Aztec Indian (Courtesy of Mike Tauber)

Thinking outside of the box

In 2001, Mike Tauber and wife Pamela Singh, who is a mix of Indian and African, started looking closely at data collected by the census. They were interested in “hot spots,” areas with high concentrations of mixed-race Americans. In the years that followed, they traveled from New York to Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities, meeting Americans who could check off more than one box for race.

One question guided them as they interviewed and photographed multiracial Americans: What does it feel like to look at yourself one way and be seen by society in another way? The answers were captured in words and photographs in Blended Nation.

“When people define me as Asian it really pisses me off because that’s…disregarding the other half of my DNA,” Maya Hatch, who is half Japanese and half white (German, English and Scottish), said in the book.

“It’s really hard to be yourself when everyone questions who that self is,” said black, Russian and Native American Shira Howerton.

A few subjects couldn’t find the core of their feelings, and Tauber waited years to receive their responses. In looking back, Tauber said, “As people got older, they grew to embrace it. They saw that they could inhabit two worlds.”

Close-up of Andre Johnson (Courtesy of Mike Tauber)
Andre Johnson, Native American (Cherokee, Blackfoot), white (Spanish/Dutch from Curaçao) and African American (Courtesy Mike Tauber)

Embracing diversity today

As the U.S. grows more diverse, the way Americans perceive one another is shifting. Beauty magazine Allure conducted a “beauty census” in 2011, polling 2,000 men and women across the country. It found that 69 percent of people believe there is no such thing as an “all-American look.” The magazine also found that 64 percent viewed women of mixed race as the epitome of beauty.

“I was excited to be part of the study,” said Alison Caporimo, then an editorial assistant at the magazine. “One of the special things about America is its diversity and the idea that there really isn’t an American look. America is everybody.”

The rise of multiracial celebrities is also eye-opening. The Pew Research Center claims that the stars — such as Selena Gomez with a Mexican father and Italian-American mother, and Bruno Mars with a Puerto Rican father and a Filipina mother — reflect a shift in U.S. demographics.

Portrait photo of Selena Gomez (AP Images)
Entertainer Selena Gomez, Mexican and Italian American (AP Images)

The trends continue

Globalization, immigration and the ease of modern-day travel draw people from all over the world to the U.S., as they do other nations. But today, more Americans are choosing to build futures with people of different races than ever before.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans in 2013 approved of marriages between white and black people, compared to 4 percent in 1958, according to Gallup. The census also revealed that one in 10 marriages — more than 5 million — are between people of different races or ethnicities, a 28 percent increase since 2000.

What will the world be like for their children?

Do you value diversity? Learn about diversity visas and engaging in research opportunities through the U.S. Department of State. Check out a blog on race run by Swirl, a community committed to engaging in cross-cultural dialogue.