Edgewalking in Multiracial America

Heirs to many cultures, multicultural youth are creating an identity of their own

| September-October 1999

When he won the U.S. Open in 1995, golf phenomenon Tiger Woods stepped onto a new frontier, an edge of complexity where people own and live their mixed heritage. "I am the product of two great cultures," he said. "On my father's side I am African American. On my mother's I am Thai. . . . I feel very fortunate, and equally proud, to be both African American and Asian. . . . The bottom line is that I am an American and proud of it."

Even our commercial images are replacing stereotypes. Betty Crocker, who has reigned over General Mills products for decades, is no longer a white housewife. Her new portrait—a computer-generated composite of 75 women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds—reflects a real change in modern life.

"My friends and I realize we are part of the first generation of racially mixed people in this country. The last antimiscegenation law was repealed in 1967, in Arizona," says Basho Fujimoto, a recent college graduate with an Irish Welsh mother and a Japanese American father. "We call ourselves 'fitties,' 50 percent this, 50 percent that. Our interest is not in taking traditional elements from our old cultures and mixing them all together, making a nice, evenly distributed multiculturalism. It is more like taking the consciousness of all of our heritage . . . and working with that to create something new."

Basho Fujimoto speaks from a new center, a psychological center built on edgewalking. Edgewalkers do not shed one skin when they move from their cultures of origin to the mainstream and back. Edgewalkers maintain continuity wherever they go, walking the edge between two cultures in the same persona. They handle the implied or direct criticism that their difference stirs up and explain what they are trying to accomplish. Mixed race is as legitimate a classification as white, African American, Asian, or any other designation. And why not?

In The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society , Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that it is essential for America to have some kind of cohesive center: "Our task is to combine due appreciation of the splendid diversity of the nation with due emphasis on the great unifying Western ideas of individual freedom, political democracy, and human rights. These are the ideas that define the American nationality and that today empower people of all continents, races, and creeds," he wrote.

That cohesive center is not dissolving, but it is sliding from where it has been to someplace new. White Christian men defined and shaped it; up to this point, the way to join the establishment was to pare off vestiges of difference in order to melt into that center. But the Anglocentric values and standards that have defined it are no longer widely cohesive.