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Twenty-Somethings: Multiracial 20-somethings resist pressure to choose 'one box'

Jamie Malernee
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Alionna Gardner, center is joined by Farah Manigat, left, and Irlanda Bessard as they dace at the student center at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, in August 2006. (Andrew Innerarity/South Florda Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- What are you? People ask Sara Gama that question all the time, thanks to her bronze skin and dark, exotic eyes.

Growing up, Gama let everyone assume she was Hispanic, like her mother, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. If she brought friends home, she asked her dad not to cook curry or speak Hindi. "I never told people I was Indian because people would make fun of it. You know, `Dot on your forehead,' `Towelhead,'" she said. "I guess I was embarrassed. When you're little, you don't want to be different."

Alionna Gardner, a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, recalls a different problem: not of rejecting her heritage, but being rejected by others. Gardner was born in Cuba, but because she is also black -- both sets of her grandparents are from Jamaica -- she found many Hispanics dismissed her.

The first time, it happened in school. Because her native language is Spanish, she was assigned to a Spanish class for fluent speakers. She tried to walk into the classroom.

"There was this boy at the door, and he stopped me and said, `You don't belong here,'" she recalled.

All young people struggle to find belonging and a sense of self as they enter adulthood, but for a growing number of young people, the process is more complex. They can be pressed to choose between their different ethnic or racial backgrounds or to forge unique -- and at times, lonely -- identities.

As a result, long after most young adults have moved on to questions about their careers, relationships and life goals, many mixed people in their 20s are also still grappling with who they are at a fundamental level, said Marta Cruz-Janzen, professor of multicultural education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"You're supposed to be in `one box' because we still have a fear in this country about people whose boundaries are blurred," said Cruz-Janzen, who is of Puerto Rican, African and Asian decent.

It is generally accepted that young children start with no concept of race or ethnicity. Then, Cruz-Janzen said, multiracial and multiethnic young people learn that they are somehow different and are pressed by both adults and their peers -- most of the time at school -- to pick a single label.

Thomas Harrison, 26, a teacher at Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., identifies himself as both black and white. But he says this has long confused others.

"It hit me around the first grade. My mom came to school to chaperone a field-day trip, and all the kids, they're like, `That's not your mom! She's white!'"

As multiracial and multiethnic young adults mature, however, they are often able to let go of their parents' and society's expectations and explore multiple identities based on their own preferences and new experiences, said Marie Miville, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University.

"College is a big time for people to experiment and put on new hats as they develop a more complex sense of who they are," said Miville.

The idea that one's ethnicity can change over time may sound strange, but it's been documented in the children of immigrants in Florida and California, according at a Princeton University study published last year. The long-term study included interviews with more than 2,000 children who had at least one immigrant parent.

From age 14 to 17, about half of the children changed the ethnicity by which they identified themselves.

By age 24, most had developed a third, "hyphenated-American" identity that showed more complexity, said Alejandro Portes, director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton.

"They had developed a more mature understanding of their place in the world," said Portes.

Gama didn't openly acknowledge her Indian heritage until after she began college.

Before that, she said, she didn't know how to deal with her dual identity. There weren't any Indian kids at school, and she felt alienated from the traditional Indian values of her grandmother, who wanted Gama to have an arranged marriage to a wealthy man. Gama rejected the proposal outright, telling her grandmother she could make her own money.

"She said, `You're so American!'" Gama recalled, "and I said, `Well, Granny, I am American!"

But during Gama's freshman orientation, she discovered the Indian Student Association, a group of young students who were like her -- born in America, modern in their way of thinking -- yet also open and accepting of their Indian heritage.

Gama began attending the group's meetings. At first, she says, she encountered some resistance -- some Indian students thought she didn't look or act "Indian enough" -- but now she is accepted and active in the club. She has also come to see her grandmother's family-focused values as one of the best things about the Indian culture.

"I opened my eyes more and realized, `I should be proud,'" she said.

Gardner, 19, a black Cuban-American has never lost her Cuban pride. But she has accepted that most Hispanics do not see her as one of them.

Today, most of her friends are black. She has even stood up to her parents, who have accused her of turning her back on her heritage.

"My parents thought I was trying to get away from my culture. `Oh, you don't want to be Spanish anymore?'" she said. "(But) it was easier to go into a black community because they were more accepting."

Michelle Sheikh, 24, also felt pressure to choose sides from an early age, even though her parents brought her up to embrace both her mother's Colombian heritage and her father's Pakistani background.

In both families, religion was an inseparable part of ethnic identity, and she faced a no-win situation: choosing her faith.

Her father's relatives would debate why Islam was best. Yet Sheikh saw how important the Catholic Church was to her mother. At 12, she chose Catholicism.

"You have stereotypes. Even my mother has them, that women (in Islam) are oppressed or that there is a lot of violence," said Sheikh, admitting that she had them, too.

It wasn't until her 20s that Sheikh began to question that decision. She went to her priest with her doubts, but they remained.

Then she met her future husband, a Muslim. His first gift to her was a necklace, a Christian cross.

"It was the first time anyone from that `side' said, `I can accept you for who you are,'" Sheikh said.

As soon as she had that unconditional acceptance, Sheikh said she had the strength to look at choosing a religion not as choosing which ethnicity she identified most with, or which parent she favored, but as a personal decision.

At 22, she began exploring Islam, slowly taking on some of the beliefs and lifestyle changes. While she continues to celebrate Christmas and goes to church with her family, Sheikh also prays toward Mecca, abstains from alcohol and fasts during Ramadan.

"I practice both faiths," she said. "I know that's hard for people to understand, but it works for me."

___

(South Florida Sun-Sentinel correspondent Jeremy Milarsky contributed to this report.)

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