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Olsen: A multiracial, multiethnic future

Published December 28, 2012 6:50 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Recent political analysis has focused on the decline of the white vote, and a corresponding rise in the number of minority voters. According to exit polls in November, President Barack Obama won the votes of about 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Hispanics (crucial to his victory in Colorado) and 73 percent of Asians. Mitt Romney took 59 percent of the white vote.

Looking at these numbers, you'd think all voters fit neatly into one — and only one — racial or ethnic category. Pretty strange, considering that the guy who got re-elected doesn't fit neatly into one category himself. Black father, white mother: Obama may identify as African American, but it doesn't take Nate Silver to do the math and conclude that our president is biracial.

So why were mixed-race voters ignored in election reporting and analysis? After all, according to thenewvoters.news21.com, a website that looks at how demographic trends influence American voting behavior, "People who identify as multiracial make up the fastest-growing demographic in the country."

We're the fastest-growing demographic in the country. I'm part of this hard-to-quantify, difficult-to-poll group. I'm Norwegian-Swedish-Korean American.

Born in 1966 in Los Angeles, I was in the demographic vanguard. Today, being mixed race isn't unusual in California.

I've got it easier than President Obama. My name's white bread — or should I say lefse, the Norwegian flatbread. Only my middle name, Soon, is Korean. No one asks for my birth certificate.

In California, I fit in. But I live now in the Four Corners area, that odd bit of geography where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together. Not many Asian Americans in our rural high desert country. Once, filling out new-patient forms at a clinic in southeast Utah, I went to check all of my race boxes because I hate checking "other." Asian wasn't even an option.

In this area, with my looks, I'm sometimes mistaken for American Indian. I usually take this as a sign I'm wearing too much turquoise jewelry.

Seriously, though, as a mixed-race person I'm skeptical of attempts to peg identity as just one thing. I'm not Scandinavian American or Korean American; I'm not Caucasian or Asian. I'm mixed.

Is it my heritage that makes me question categories? Or is it part of the American condition?

Take the lines separating the Four Corners states on the map. Out here, we know the Four Corners is not only where four states meet, but also a place on the Navajo Reservation, American Indian land.

My mixed-race heritage makes me a demographic thorn in the side of the Republican Party. The party of Bill O'Reilly, who notoriously said on election night, "it's not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority."

People like me aren't necessarily a gift to Democrats, either, who may be over-reliant on a "minority establishment."

Mixed-race identities defy easy matching with political attitudes. In a world of Democrats and Republicans, blue states and red, mixed identities remind us that we're all individuals, with beliefs that are mixed, as well.

As a fiction writer, identities — and the stories we tell about ourselves — grab me more than overtly political issues. Who is a Westerner? With my mixed heritage and newcomer status in the Four Corners, am I one?

For me, the personal is political. The decline of the white vote, the rise of minorities — that's an old story I'm ready to leave behind.

As we begin a new year, let's recognize America's multiracial, multiethnic future. And then let's start talking to each other.

Erica Olsen is the author of "Recapture & Other Stories" (Torrey House Press), a collection of short fiction about the once and future West. A former resident of Blanding and Moab, she currently lives in Dolores in southwest Colorado.