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Inventing Identities: Raising Multicultural Kids

Thirteen-year-old Paul Yem picked up his pencil but didn't know what to write down on the form he was handed in health class.

"It asked, 'What nationality are you?'" he recalls. "I put down 'Asian,' but I wasn't really sure."

That's because Paul is, by his family's own description, "Kmer-ican." It's a name they invented to describe their unique cultural heritage. Paul's dad is Cambodian; his mother is white. Although many psychologists warn that children of mixed races or cultural heritages can suffer identity problems, Paul reacts to questions about his race and ethnicity with a shrug. When asked, "Who are you?" he simply tells an interviewer his name.

"I like being different, actually," he says. "If you look into a crowd and someone sticks out, you sort of want to go up and talk to them."

Paul's sense of who he is represents a decidedly new take on a centuries-old issue. During the pre-Civil War era, southern states adopted a "1-drop rule," requiring the mixed-race offspring of slaves and slave owners to be identified as Negroes in order to keep them categorized as property. Today, while many mixed-race adults and children continue to identify with the race of their minority parent, some, like golfer Tiger Woods, choose to embrace the totality of their heritage (Woods' father is black; his mother is Chinese.) Still, the fact that society continues to ignore parts of who they are grates on many members of multicultural families.

"It bothered me (filling out census forms)," says Paul's mother, Susan Yem, author of All Kinds of Families (New Hope Publications.) "It gave me the sense that my children were inferior because I had to invent a category for them."

This year for the first time, the federal government is allowing people to check off more than one category in the census section on racial identity. But some critics say the change is insufficient.

"Ultimately there shouldn't be any categories," asserts Francis Whardle, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver, Colorado. "But until we get there, what happens is educational models like curriculum guides and textbooks get written according to census categories. So 99 percent of multicultural materials don't include any mention of children of mixed heritage! And that means our kids end up invisible, at worst, or at best are forced to reject part of who they are."

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