Holding Onto The Other Half Of 'Mixed-Race'
NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.
Again and again, The Race Card Project receives submissions dealing with mixed-race identity; from a child of a mixed-race union, from a parent of mixed-race children or from someone who is trying to figure out how to identify a mixed-race student or colleague, for example.
Those kinds of stories are the largest single category of six-word submissions the Race Card Project receives, says Michele Norris, who curates the project. Many of these entries have a lot to do with labels and identity.
Wilma Stordahl, a Seattle resident who's an account manager for a national landscape company, offered one such submission: "Norwegian with Nappy Hair Doesn't Fit."
'What Are They?'
Stordahl is Norwegian, and she and her husband are both white. Together they have a 15-year-old white son, but she also has two older sons, Kevin Stordahl, 25, and Kazon Stordahl, 19, who both have a black father.
Wilma Stordahl gave them her last name in part because she wanted to make sure they had had a very specific and highly identifiable link to her family heritage.
"Typically, we think of Norwegians as being tall and blond and blue-eyed," Stordahl says. "And my sons are tall — but they're not blond and blue-eyed."
When the boys travel around with their tall, blonde mother, Stordahl says they draw quizzical stares and even questions from strangers.
"They'll usually lean in and quietly say, 'What are they?' And what they really want to ask is, 'What race are they?' "
Stordahl typically answers with "handsome," but she knows it's also more complicated than her tongue-in-cheek answer.
"In my 20s, I wanted to call them mixed-race. I wanted to say that they were some other thing, some other category than what was listed on all the forms that you fill out," Stordahl explains. "But I was repeatedly corrected, and actually, I was most frequently corrected by African Americans."
They would tell her, " 'No, honey — your son is black,' " she says. "Like, just get used to it, because that's how the world's gonna see them."
Stordahl did get used to those conversations, but she also wishes that people would move away from what she considers instinctive labeling of people based just on skin color or appearance — especially as more children are born of mixed-race couplings.
Not Mixed-Race, But Mixed-Heritage
When her son Kazon is asked these kinds of questions, he prefers to answer that he's mixed-race and leave it at that, Stordahl explains. But Kevin, she says, rejects that label for something more precise; he prefers the term "mixed-heritage."
"He is rebelling against that idea that he's not just black and he's not just white," Stordahl says. "He's of mixed-heritage. There's all these other customs and traits and things like that that also come with heritage."
Kevin, a sociology major who wants to focus on the study of mixed-race identity, has also taken a keen interest in his Norwegian background, pursuing Scandinavian studies in college and studying Norwegian.
His mother is thrilled, but she also has some concerns. "There's another part of me that has a little bit of maybe guilt, that perhaps if it wasn't that he was of mixed-heritage, that perhaps he would be spending his time pursing something that would produce a more lucrative career," she says.
"I worry that perhaps he's ended up spending all of his energy and time and tuition on this question of identity — and maybe that he's searching for something within himself."
But, she says, Kevin assures her this is the path that makes him happy, "so I'm gonna leave it at that."
Stordahl knows that when people look at her tall, brown-skinned boys — now young men — that they might not immediately recognize their Norwegian heritage. That makes her sad, but she also knows that if people take the time to really look hard at them, the Stordahl family is there, in their height and in their faces.
"I often have joked that my sons don't look a whole lot like me," Stordahl says. "But in fact ... we all have the same eyes. Not the color, but the shape. They're all tall, like me — they're actually taller than me now.
"They are a part of me, and I a part of them. And yeah, I want that to be acknowledged."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear another six words from the Race Card Project. Our colleague Michele Norris invites people to send six words about race. Again and again she gets submissions about mixing races. Submissions like this...
WILMA STORDAHL: My name is Wilma Stordahl and these are my six words: Norwegian with nappy hair doesn't fit.
INSKEEP: A lot to talk about there, and Michele Norris is with us to talk about it. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. So we're going to hear more about Wilma Stordahl, but let's just mention, this is something you do get a lot.
NORRIS: It's the largest single category of six-word submissions that we get.
INSKEEP: Dealing with mixed race.
NORRIS: In some way or another. Someone who's a child of a mixed-race union, someone who is the parent of a mixed-race child, someone who's trying to figure how to identify a mixed-race student or a mixed-race colleague. And the stories often have to do with questions of labels and identity. I'll give you a few examples. My son's not half, he's double. In my blood, not my face. White mom of bi-racial child forgotten.
INSKEEP: Wow. We could talk for a long time about any one of those. But let's talk about Wilma Stordahl here. And again, her six words: Norwegian with nappy hair doesn't fit. Who is she?
NORRIS: Quick sketch: She lives in Seattle. She's an account manager for a nationwide landscape company. She is white. Her husband's white. Together they have a 15-year-old son. But Wilma also has two older sons. They're 25 and 19.
INSKEEP: OK. So when she says Norwegian with nappy hair, is she referring to herself?
NORRIS: Not exactly. Wilma Stordahl, as her name suggests, is Norwegian, and her two older sons - the 25-year-old and the 19-year-old - they carry her last name. She gave them her last name because she was the last in her family who carried that last name in her generation. But there was another reason that she gave them that name. She wanted to make sure that they had a very specific and highly identifiable link to her family heritage.
INSKEEP: Because they don't look Norwegian.
NORRIS: Well, we should hear her describe this.
STORDAHL: Typically, we think of Norwegians as being tall and blond and blue-eyed. And my sons are tall but they're not blond and blue-eyed.
NORRIS: Wilma's two oldest sons are tall and brown-skinned. Each sports and afro. Each has a father who is black. And when they travel around with their tall blonde mother, Wilma Stordahl says they draw quizzical stares.
STORDAHL: They'll usually lean in and quietly say, well, what are they? And what they really want to ask is what race are they.
INSKEEP: So what's the answer she gives?
NORRIS: Well, it's interesting. I asked that same question of her and she said handsome.
INSKEEP: I'm sure it's true.
NORRIS: And it is true, and she'd like to leave it at that. But she knows that it's also much more complicated.
STORDAHL: In my 20s I wanted to call them mixed-race. I wanted to say that they were, you know, some other thing, some other category than what was listed on all the forms that you fill out. And - but I was repeatedly corrected, and actually I was most frequently corrected by African-Americans.
NORRIS: What would they say to you?
STORDAHL: Well, it would be like, well, my sons are mixed race. No, honey. Your son is black. You know, it's like just get used to it, because that's how the world's going to see 'em. And your sons are black.
INSKEEP: OK. Does she accept that then?
NORRIS: Let me explain. There is a difference between getting used to something and fully accepting it. She's used to it because it happens so much, but she wishes that people would move away from this sort of instinctive knee-jerk labeling that's based just on skin color or just on appearance, and especially as more children are born of mixed-race couplings. And she wants this to change, and she thinks that one way it might change is if people who have a very high profile in society and a good deal of influence would use their position of power and influence to challenge some of those labels that we so easily reach for.
STORDAHL: I wish we called President Obama mixed race, or mixed heritage for that matter. Because it does negate his mother's side of the family.
INSKEEP: And we should mention, President Obama very publicly when he was running for president said he identifies as black and that's what he would prefer to be called. Now....
NORRIS: But he acknowledges that he is of mixed parentage, but when he fills out the census, he checks the box that says black.
INSKEEP: So how do Wilma Stordahl's sons handle this situation?
NORRIS: In varying ways. Wilma's 19-year-old son Kazon says he's mixed race and just leaves it at that. But her 25-year-old son, Kevin, is looking for a different label, a label that is a bit more precise.
STORDAHL: My eldest son will typically tell people that he is of mixed heritage. He is rebelling against that idea that he's not just black and he's not just white. He is of mixed heritage. There's all these, there's other customs and traits and things like that that also come with heritage.
NORRIS: So it's more than skin color - the holidays you celebrate, the food that you serve at your table.
INSKEEP: Well, I like that a lot.
NORRIS: Well, she likes it because in our conversation she found herself saying mixed heritage instead of mixed race, and that does really make sense. It is all-encompassing. But you know, as with so many other things involving race, it's a lot more complicated than that. On one hand she's thrilled that he's decided to take Scandinavian studies, and he's taking Norwegian 101.
INSKEEP: Great language, I'm sure.
NORRIS: Yeah, but she wonders what's he going to do with that, you know, in life. And on the other hand, she's concerned that he's on this journey of discovery that even sort of spills over into his academic studies. He's a sociology major and he wants to focus on the study of mixed-raced identity, and that's a bit of a concern for her.
STORDAHL: There's another part of me that has a little bit of maybe guilt, that perhaps if it wasn't that he was of mixed heritage that perhaps he would be spending his time pursing something that would produce a more lucrative career. I worry that perhaps he's ended up spending all of this energy and time and tuition on this question of identity - and maybe that he's searching for something within himself. He assures me that that's the thing that makes him happy, so I'm going to leave it at that.
NORRIS: Steve, before we leave it at that, one last thing: Wilma Stordahl knows that when the world looks at her tall, caramel-colored, be-afroed boys - or now young men - that they might not immediately recognize their Norwegian heritage. And that makes her sad, but she also knows that if people really take the time to really look hard at them, the Stordahl family is there. It's in their height and it's in their face.
STORDAHL: You know, I sent my picture in and I often have joked that my sons don't look a whole lot like me. But in fact, I looked at the picture and it turns out that we all have the same eyes. Not the color, but the shape. They're all tall, like me - they're actually taller than me now. And they are a part of me, and I'm a part of them. And yeah, I want that to be acknowledged.
INSKEEP: That's Wilma Stordahl. She sent her six-word submission to Michele Norris, who curates the Race Card Project. Michele, glad you came by once again.
NORRIS: Always good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And over the next few weeks we plan to spend more time with the Race Card Project, exploring the question of racial identity when cultures are blended. At our website you can submit your own six-word story to the Race Card Project. It's at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.