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 The last antimiscegenation law was repealed in 1967, in Arizona," says Basho Fujimoto, a recent college graduate with an Irish Welsh mother and a Japanese American father.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.
So is the world ready for a new look?
"What are you?" is not a pretty question. Race mixing, understood by some to contribute to the threat of mongrelization, is still seen as negative. Half-breeds, mixed bloods, métis historically have been objects of scorn—as if having two parents who match ethnically is a requirement for being whole. These genetic edgewalkers often identify with one side of their heritage or another rather than claiming both. When Tiger Woods publicly asserted the legitimacy of his racially mixed background, he broke the mold.
Edgewalkers typically don't feel they are part of the unifying center. They see themselves as outsiders, different, yet they care deeply about making our country better for everyone, and they see the potential for doing so. Many of them want to be part of a new center, to develop a new sense of what it means to be American.
"Right now, 'American' still conjures up an image of baseball-playing, apple-pie-eating, Chevrolet-driving people," says Basho. He and his friends are direct about being "fitties," creating a forum for confronting the ugliness of the Ku Klux Klan slur, "mud babies," and other insulting attitudes toward miscegenation.
"It definitely is about trying to find a place where voices can be heard. For us, it's in the music," he says. "We sing about being 'fittie' and make jokes about it. We say, 'We're the Free Association and we officially sponsor race mixing!' People are shocked. They like it. It gives them a chuckle. But they're uncomfortable. In what other situation would you hear someone say [that]? It's kind of an inside joke for us. We try to do it in a positive light.
"Yet the whole thing can be frustrating—finding your identity and having to deal with figuring out what it means to be black, Japanese, Native American in a society where you don't have your traditional culture. People look at you and assume you must be culturally astute. That can be a detriment, leaving me blank, or feeling left out, or feeling like a sellout, or at a loss. It is almost like there is a responsibility to reiterate the old and be traditional, without being able to explore a new self.
I don't identify with being white," Basho adds. "It has to do with my own life with a lesbian mother. She can't lump herself in the mainstream of everything I think white stands for. A lot of confusion comes up in the definitions of white, especially in our discussions about race with friends and colleagues and other contemporaries.
"My friends and I are mixed bloods, but we're not a new race. People have been mixing for a long time. It's just that in our country right now we're part of the first generation where it's OK."
Until relatively recently, many immigrants, not only to America but also to other countries around the world, embraced the melting pot idea and worked diligently to lose accents and Old World ways, wherever Old World happened to be. People persecuted for their religious or ethnic ties clutched the anonymity of blending as a protective shield; some avoided sharing family history with younger generations and refused to teach them Old World languages or traditions.
At the opposite extreme, other newcomers surrounded themselves with like souls. They settled near their cultural neighbors, learned little of their adopted country's spoken language, and reconstructed a microcosm of their Old World, transplanted.
Neither approach is quite right for the cultural complexity that's brewing in the world. By next year, people of color will compose more than half the population of California. In America, as well as in other countries, collections of Asian, Latin American, Eastern European, and African progeny make it clear that previous assumptions about the identity of inhabitants of a particular nation can't be taken for granted.
People of mixed race are growing more vocal. Hapa Issues Forum, a five-year-old mixed-race organization with 500 members nationwide—along with other such groups—is determined to promote a new, race-free consciousness. "People here don't have hang-ups about race," co-founder Greg Mayeda told the Sacramento Bee. "Connecting all these diverse people builds a chain with links in each community and tears down the walls that divide people."
This idea of linking is more powerful than legislation because it is personal. In recreating our country's center, it is essential to "crisscross commonalities," as Martha Minow suggested in her book Not Just for Myself: Identity, Politics & the Law. Cultural change becomes real through overlapping communities, families that extend over marriages and divorces, and groups that make music, play sports, or stage benefits together.
Edgewalking isn't just about minority people moving into mainstream culture or back and forth between different groups. It's also about mainstream people getting comfortable with people outside that mythical center. If the melting pot ideal is not the model for dealing effectively with diversity, experimenting with edges and finding new models is the challenge.
Adapted with permission from Edgewalkers: Defusing Cultural Boundaries on the New Global Frontier (New Horizon Press).