For Alison Perry, being multiracial has meant moving through life as if she had a giant question mark drawn on her forehead. Strangers frequently approach and begin a vexing guessing game: "Are you Israeli?" "Are you a Latina?" "Where are you from?"
Yet for this slender, almond-colored woman with delicate features drawn from both her black American father and her Italian-American mother, race is not what defines her.
"I definitely say that I'm interracial," Perry said. "I do not identify myself as a black woman. I definitely don't identify myself as a white woman, either."
The very existence of multiracial people such as Perry challenges the United States' traditionally rigid notions of race.
On Saturday, about 200 mixed-race Americans gathered in Washington in a display of pride, power and unity. Organized under the banner of the Multiracial Solidarity March, the afternoon demonstration was intended to celebrate multiracial identity and to pressure the federal government to add a multiracial category to the next census.
Although thousands were expected at the Mall on Saturday, march organizer Charles Byrd said he wasn't disappointed at the low turnout. "We are no longer invisible," said Byrd, who has a black mother and a white father.
No one knows exactly how many Americans consider themselves multiracial, though the 1990 census counted 2-million children younger than 18 whose parents are of different races.
"People of mixed race in this country haven't belonged anywhere," Bryd, editor and publisher of Interracial Voice, an Internet news journal based in New York City that has backed the march, said earlier last week. "The march will, in effect, allow people to come out and be themselves _ not just be black, not just be white, but just be a human being."
The misfit myth
For generations, the image of the tortured mixed-race outcast who cannot find peace in any world has been a staple of American mythology _ the character of Julie in the musical Showboat, for instance.
But today, many multiracial Americans say the image of the racial misfit, overblown from the start, is especially outmoded.
Mixed-race Americans who grew up before the civil-rights movement were, by local practice, considered nonwhite, part of the custom of labeling as black anyone who had even "one drop" of black blood. Now more Americans are free to choose their identity.
Daniel Glover, whose brown skin and dreadlocks make him a standout in the otherwise all-white comedy group known as The Jones's, revels in his entree to two worlds.
The 21-year-old New York comic is the son of a black father and a mother of French-Armenian descent. His background did not plague him during his childhood in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York because there were many other multiracial children around. That confidence has carried into adulthood.
"I can interact with white people and at the same time I feel comfortable being in a crowd of all black people," Glover said. "I have that crossover appeal."
Increasingly, multiracial people are arguing _ and many scientists agree _ that race is a social construct, not a biological absolute. Many historians and social scientists, said Steven Gregory, a professor of anthropology and African studies at New York University, believe that the notion of race was largely invented as a way to assign social status and privilege.
Unlike sex, which is determined by the X or Y chromosome, there is no genetic marker for race. Indeed, a 1972 study by a Harvard University geneticist, Richard Lewontin, found that most genetic differences were within racial groups, not between them.
But in the United States, race even divides multiracial people themselves. While some proudly claim their multiracial identity, others think it is a sham, an effort to identify with the dominant and privileged white culture at the expense of a stigmatized minority.
"There is a tremendous amount of denial," said Scott Minerbrook, who has a black father and a white mother, but who considers himself black.
Minerbrook, who is on the staff of Time magazine and lives in Islip, N.Y., says that many people "fall into the trap that they don't want to be identified with failure _ they think blackness equals failure." But there is no escape, he argues; that is how the rest of the world labels multiracial children.
Some multiracial Americans, believe, as Anthony Robert Hale, a graduate student in American literature at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "in most cases, "mixed race' means no race."
These issues haunted many multiracial Americans in childhood. Linda Chandler, who has a Korean mother and a white father, remembers the day she was forced from a swing by her white cousins because she was Asian.
"Growing up, I always felt inferior," she said. "I always felt that there was something wrong with me."
Stafford Gregoire, Chandler's husband, has a black father and a white mother. He, too, still feels the sting of childhood racial taunts. He said that some of the whites on his Boston high school hockey team, in a clumsy, insulting effort to make him feel he belonged, would tell him, "It's all right, Stafford, you're half white."
In one of the many incongruities that leave multiracial people torn between amusement and despair, Alison Perry found that society both narrowed her racial choices and rewarded her for accepting its labels.
Perry, 24, a researcher for a violence mediation program in New York, grew up in a middle-class home in suburban New Jersey. Her parents always taught her to claim both their backgrounds, but she felt set apart in schools where most students were black or Hispanic.
But when she had to decide what race to declare on her college applications, she soon discovered that deciding to be black might hold some promise.
"Was I not supposed to take advantage," she asked. "I wanted to go to a good college, and I was coming from a school where there weren't a lot of black people. I was the only one in the honors classes."
She checked "black."
A different path
Ernest White II, 18, is a student at Florida A&M University whose father is black and whose mother is part black and part Romanian. The head of the university's Organization of Multi-Ethnic Students, White planned to drive the 700 miles to the march in search of a community that disregards arbitrary racial boundaries.
Chandler and Gregoire think they had a glimpse of such a place on a recent family trip to Hawaii. There marriage between races is common, and many local people are considered multiracial.
"I've never blended so easily anywhere in my life," Chandler said wistfully. "A woman said Chandler (their 17-month-old daughter) could pass as a local."