Mixed-race teen in the middle: who will she choose?

Published Dec. 22, 2013

Her dark eyes scanned the fluorescent-lit lunchroom, locking onto her friends in the center of the chaos. Her thoughts sprayed in many directions: the upcoming eighth-grade formal, a surprisingly bad grade she recently got on an English paper, her role in the school play.

She passed a table full of white girls and one of them high-fived her. She passed a table full of white boys and one of them called her name. She arrived at a table full of black girls — the table where she sits almost every day. As she set her notebook down, one of her best girlfriends ignored her and moved to another table.

Asianna Williams, 14, wanted to ignore the drama. She is a light-skinned mixed-race girl trying to discover who she is in a society that still carves up territory by race. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lunchroom at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School. Table after table, as far as the eye could see, white faces congregated around one table, black faces around another.

Asianna's father is black and her mother is white. Years ago, this might have relegated her to a no-man's land, not fully welcomed by either blacks or whites. Now, thanks in part to sheer numbers (last year, there were 42 other mixed-race students at Thurgood Marshall), Asianna doesn't feel ostracism. But she does feel pressure.

Pressure to choose black kids. Pressure to choose white kids. Like the tables in the lunchroom, nearly everything Asianna does — and she does a lot of things — comes with an overlay of race.

But what if you were someone who didn't want to choose?

As she nibbled on a salad with ranch dressing on this April day, a teacher got on a microphone and called out the names of half a dozen science award winners. White kids made their way forward.

From the next table over, one of Asianna's black friends nodded to the award recipients.

"Asianna," she asked, "why you not up there?"

The implication was clear: Why was Asianna not with her own kind, the kids who always win everything? Asianna just shook her head.

• • •

There have always been people of mixed race in American society. Cultural taboos and prejudice often meant they simply identified themselves as black, or if their skin was sufficiently light-colored, tried to pass as white.

Changes in laws (the U.S. Supreme Court struck down interracial marriage bans in 1967), and the irresistible power of physical attraction in a diverse society have gradually overwhelmed negative attitudes. Eighty-six percent of people today approve of marriage between blacks and whites.

In 2000, three years after Asianna was born, the government, for the first time, offered people the option to choose more than one race on the census. The total number of multiracial individuals counted that year: about 6.8 million.

By 2010, that number had jumped 32 percent to about 9 million. The biggest increase — 134 percent — was among those who checked black and white.

But even though Americans have changed physically, they haven't caught up psychologically. There are still black neighborhoods and Hispanic churches and white country clubs. Even some schools are largely black or largely white.

Thurgood Marshall is a racially diverse middle school on the edge of Gulfport with 922 students, 32 percent of them black. More than half are white, the rest Asian, Hispanic, American Indian and mixed.

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Kids still make snarky racist comments. But in general they get along — dating, providing each other with homework answers, raiding each others' lunches, touching each others' hair.

Still, most self-segregate when they can. In the lunchroom. In the classroom. In the second-floor hallway, where white kids hang out at one bank of lockers, black kids at another.

Under the former principal, who is black, the school tried to alter this social order earlier in the year by getting kids to eat at lunch tables based on the color of a Lifesaver they selected. The experiment failed miserably. Kids just traded the candy so they could be with their friends.

• • •

Asianna loves volleyball, dance, musical theater, Forever 21 clothes, Chipotle's vegetarian burrito bowl and Victoria's Secret Pink Soft & Dreamy perfume. She straightens her hair in her bedroom most mornings in front of a life-sized picture of Marilyn Monroe.

When people ask Asianna what she is, which is annoyingly often, she ticks off all her identifiers. In addition to being black and white, she's Hispanic, French, Ukrainian, Cuban, Jewish.

Her wide-ranging gene pool has bestowed on her a creamy cafe-au-lait skin, large deep-set dark eyes, high cheekbones, full lips.

Like President Barack Obama, Asianna has been raised by her white mother with help from her grandparents. And like the president, her mother's racial attitudes have shaped her life.

In high school during the early '90s, Asianna's mother, Melissa Lewis, secretly dated one black boy and then another. Her mother, a Cuban emigre, wasn't happy when she found out. How could her Hispanic mother criticize her, Melissa argued, when she had married a white Jewish man from Philadelphia?

"He's the same color as me," her mother had said.

Melissa and Asianna's black father dated for six years before she got pregnant. Three years after Asianna was born in 1997, they split. In Melissa's version of events, he stopped being a father to his daughter after he married another woman.

Despite his absence, Melissa pushed for Asianna to connect with her black family. She feared ignoring it would be harmful in the long run.

"I made a conscious effort to make sure Asianna was exposed to everything," said Melissa, 36, a patient representative for a cardiology practice.

As a child, Asianna spent her days in a day care inhabited almost entirely by black children. She danced at a mostly black studio that was owned by her father's aunt. Melissa had her join a youth leadership group sponsored by the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

In elementary school, Asianna made mostly black friends. But as she grew up, it became clear that Asianna had the ability, and the desire, to fit in both cultures. At one point, she befriended the only white Jewish girl and the only white boy at her dance school.

By the eighth grade, Asianna, bubbly and outgoing, had grown to have equal numbers of black and white friends and spent a lot of time ping-ponging between them. It wasn't easy to keep everyone happy.

While her white friends claimed more of her attention, her black friends were growing impatient. They called her a "white black girl" or said she was "white on the inside." She didn't talk or dress like a lot of them and they didn't understand why she felt this need to run for student president or try out for roles in the school play. Some thought she was "uppity," that she believed she was better than everyone else because she had lighter skin.

Her white friends appeared more accepting. But she couldn't relate when they talked about their beach houses and their parents' fancy cars. She felt like an oddity when they asked to touch her hair or told her she was their first black friend. It was awkward telling them she had to go hang out with her black friends.

Sometimes she wished there were a third option, a third lunch table that still didn't exist, one that didn't force her to choose.

• • •

One cloudy morning in early May, Asianna got to science class late and saw a substitute teacher. Many of her classmates had used the opportunity to trade their assigned seats. Black girls huddled around one cluster of desks, white girls around another.

Asianna walked past the globe and the map of the earth. Sat down with the black girls.

She began answering questions about tides on a worksheet. But she kept getting up to visit her white friends.

"I got a fish with my grandmother," she told Jessica Brumit, 14, who is white and the owner of two ducks. "I kept begging her for a duck. But she wouldn't let me get one."

Back and forth she went. Topics included who was going to the upcoming eighth-grade dance with whom, and who was running for prom court.

In English, she sat with four black girls and one white friend. In social studies, she sat with a black girl, a Filipino girl and another mixed-race girl.

In language arts, she sat near several black and mixed-race friends. The teacher asked them to write about their most interesting experience in middle school.

Asianna stalled.

"I can't think of an interesting day," she said. "Every day is boring."

The teacher stopped in front of her desk. "When you were running for (eighth-grade) president and on the campaign trail? There's nothing exciting about that? When you were in Seussical? There was nothing exciting about that?"

Asianna smirked. She didn't want to write about herself. Instead she wrote about her math teacher and his collection of 25 pairs of black pants.

Asianna ended her day in the musical theater class.

She hopped around the room in her black Converse sneakers with a radiant smile on her face. Kids who were black, white, Asian, Hispanic and mixed tumbled across the room in a giant chorus of jabs and jokes and giggles.

Asianna headed off to a corner with her best friends — a white girl, a white boy, a black girl, a mixed-race girl — to practice a scene from 13 the Musical for their end of the year project. They whispered and laughed and fell into each other.

Here, where the races mixed over a common interest, Asianna didn't feel pressure. And it felt good.

• • •

A week later, Asianna's guidance counselor, Valerie Santos, stood on the edge of the second-floor hallway as a vortex of teenagers migrated from one class to the next.

Santos knew that some mixed-race kids struggled with their identity.

"I tell them the biggest thing is finding out who they are and being comfortable with it," Santos said. "So many think they have to choose one race. They feel like one side doesn't accept them."

"Often, the lighter the skin, the harder time they are going to have fitting into the African-American community," said Traci P. Baxley, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University who has written about biracial children.

Asianna transcended cultural divides.

She fit in with the bubbly white girls who gathered for pool parties and mooned over One Direction. With the mixed-race girls who called themselves "Reds" and listened to Kesha and Usher. With the black girls who kept to themselves and channeled Diggy, Drake and Kanye. With the musical theater junkies who sang Seasons of Love from Rent in the hallways.

Later that day, Asianna stood in the lunch line behind one of her best friends, Mahogani Anderson, who was trying her best to ignore Asianna.

Asianna had known Mahogani since fifth grade. Just weeks before, Mahogani, an honor roll student, and Asianna had traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of their youth group. They had all sorts of inside jokes. Like when they didn't get what they wanted, one would say: "The struggle is real."

But over the last few months, an odd tension had filtered into their relationship. Asianna had been making more and more white friends. She'd started getting together outside of school with a pair of white girls who she'd gotten to know in her classes: Jessica Brumit, the duck owner, and Alexis Hagman, a tall girl with high cheekbones.

Then, over the weekend, Asianna was supposed to go see the Avengers movie with Mahogani and another friend, Niaya White. Instead, Asianna attended a pool party with her white friends.

In the lunch line, Asianna leaned into Mahogani, who was decked out entirely in Hollister blue.

"Are you going to stop ignoring me?" Asianna asked, smiling brightly.

Asianna hugged her and mock fell into her. They laughed.

"How come you didn't hang out with me and Niaya?" Mahogani asked. The question hung in the air. Mahogani had seen a Facebook post on the pool party. She knew where she'd been.

"I went swimming," Asianna replied, vaguely.

• • •

One Sunday in May, Asianna stepped into the Paulette Walker Johnson Performing Arts Center. She was wearing a white halter top, black Lycra shorts and olive combat boots. Her hair was piled in a tiny bun.

She was excited to see her cousin, Ebone Johnson, 26, a dancer who'd appeared in the movie Step Up 2. Ebone was going to teach Asianna and the other dancers a hip-hop routine for an upcoming award ceremony at the Mahaffey Theater.

Asianna had grown up worshiping Ebone, her father's cousin. She was one of the few black family members with whom Asianna still retained family ties. Others included Ebone's mother, who owned the dance studio, and Asianna's grandmother, her father's mother, who often manned the front desk.

Once when Asianna's mother broached the subject of giving up dance because it might conflict with volleyball, Asianna reacted quickly.

"That's my only connection to my black family," she said.

On this day, Asianna's grandmother greeted her.

"Asianna, I brought you some fruit in there," Janie Williams, 64, said. "There's also some water."

Just then, Ebone walked in the door. She had long, flowing dark curls and tattoos up and down her arms.

"Oh, my god," she exclaimed, spotting Asianna.

"I'm so excited," Asianna squealed, bouncing on her toes.

Ebone turned to Melissa.

"She has hips," she said. "I don't like it. She used to hang on my leg when I was 10 years old."

Melissa nodded. Her daughter was growing up.

"Boys, they like her," Melissa replied. "She likes them a few days and then she doesn't like them anymore."

Melissa worried about whether Asianna would ever let anyone in close.

Later Melissa said: "I tell her there are people in your life who are branches and people who are leaves and people who are roots and you can't treat everyone the same."

Asianna, she said, treated everyone like leaves.

• • •

Up on the stage at the Mahaffey Theater, Asianna thought she saw him. She and her cousin, Ebone, and a half dozen others had just finished an intense '90s hip-hop routine. She was panting.

Her father was sitting near the front with his wife and his young daughter. Asianna's older stepbrother and her grandmother were there, too.

She hadn't talked to her father in maybe seven years. He declined to be interviewed for this story. Twice she'd run into him at the mall. Each time, he'd looked the other way. The first time, when Asianna was about 11, Melissa scolded him loudly in the crowded mall. "It's okay, Mom," Asianna had said.

As the show closed, he and her grandmother left without saying a word to Asianna.

In the car on the way home, she cried.

"It was the first time he's ever seen me dance and he wasn't even there to see me."

• • •

Asianna's middle school years were grinding to a close. Yearbooks had been distributed. Thurgood Marshall's eighth-grade formal dance was just weeks away.

Several white boys asked Asianna to the dance. Asianna preferred black boys "for sure, but not ghetto black boys." She'd dated one black boy in sixth and seventh grade, but she'd never held his hand or kissed him.

A ninth-grade black boy had asked her out recently. She had said yes, but backed out a few days later.

White boys flitted around her, offering secret handshakes, high-fives, mischievous smiles. But she wasn't sure if she liked them any more than as friends.

"I don't know, it would be awkward," she said, of dating a white boy.

Still, she accepted an invitation from a white skateboarder to go to the formal. He had blond hair and blue eyes and was in the school's gifted magnet. But he was a couple inches shorter than the 5-foot-6 Asianna. Asianna said she agreed to go with him because he asked first. Besides, none of the black boys had asked.

Asianna also announced her intention to run for prom queen. Some of her black friends were not happy about the decision.

In her Spanish class one day in early May, another black girl gave her a hard time. "Don't talk to me, Asianna," the girl said. "You are already president."

Asianna tried to ignore the criticism. She yearned for acceptance by her black friends. But she refused to let that need limit her choices.

"I take opportunities," she said. "I want to make sure people know my name and who I am and that I'm always remembered. I don't want to be a distant memory."

• • •

At the eighth-grade formal, Asianna teetered on 4-inch heels. Inside the darkened cafeteria, she shuttled between her date and her black friends. She smiled when one of her black girlfriends won prom queen.

At the end of the night, she and her white date hugged each other on the dance floor and said goodbye. Her date went home. She went with her black friends to T.G.I. Friday's.

• • •

Asianna threaded through the crowded hallway. It didn't feel like the last day of middle school. None of her close black friends were going to her high school. This made her sad.

"We'll hang out during the summer," Mahogani said.

Asianna knew it wouldn't be that easy.

She made her way downstairs and was enveloped by a throng of white kids. Everyone was crying.

The black kids passed by, not nearly as emotional.

"Y'all should be jumping up and down," said Niaya, as she passed the red-eyed girls. "We're free."

"I'll see you tonight," Mahogani said to Asianna, smiling.

Out on the sidewalk, Asianna hugged Jessica and Alexis, her white girlfriends.

"Are you going to my party?" Alexis asked.

"Um," Asianna hesitated. She already had plans with Mahogani and her other black friends. "I'll come over later."

But she didn't.

• • •

One night in the middle of the summer, Asianna reclined on her side on the carpeted floor of Jessica Brumit's loft room. A set of golf clubs stood in the corner. Jessica's collection of Arizona iced tea cans was lined up on the windowsill.

Asianna was comfortable here. Her mother had asked her why she liked hanging out with the white girls. "You're the only black girl," Melissa had said.

"They don't see me as a black girl," Asianna replied.

They didn't tell her she was too white or too black. Much to her mother's annoyance, she'd even adopted some of their expressions, abbreviating her words so that sorry came out "sor" and embarrassing came out "embar."

She'd only seen Mahogani once during the summer. But this was her second sleepover with her white friends. A third would follow a week later.

"What are we doing tomorrow?" Asianna asked.

The white girls wanted to work on their tans.

"I like a little tan," Asianna said. "I just don't want to get black. I like being mixed."

"If you're black, embrace it," Alexis said.

"Then I'm not different anymore," Asianna said. "I'm just black."

• • •

Melissa sat on the bleachers at Eckerd College, watching her daughter at a high school volleyball camp. Of the more than 100 girls in the gym, she noted that Asianna was one of two black girls. Asianna also wanted to try out for the lacrosse team, another mostly-white sport.

"Volleyball has been a godsend," she said. "She's building relationships with these girls and to be honest, I think she'll have a white welcome wagon right off the bat at high school."

Melissa knew there was only so much she could do for her daughter. Asianna wanted a stake in both worlds, but her interests were taking her into white social circles. She'd even started liking some white stars, like Zayn from the band One Direction and actor Channing Tatum. Coincidentally, Melissa herself had after many years of dating black men just recently begun seeing a white man.

"I think if she had a positive African-American girl or a girl of color, she'd latch onto that," Melissa said.

Her eyes were drawn to Asianna, who had just spiked the ball over the net.

"Go, Asianna," she yelled.

"To be honest, I see her more hanging out with white kids," Melissa added. "I don't want that to be the case. But because of her interests, that's what she's got. It's not a bad thing or a good thing. It's how it is right now."

Melissa said Asianna would continue to attend the black youth group. And she had called Asianna's grandmother, asking her to be more a part of Asianna's life even if her father wasn't.

"That's important to me," Melissa said.

• • •

For her 15th birthday, Asianna texted all her friends last minute to come to Acropolis in downtown St. Petersburg for dinner. Some of her white volleyball friends showed up, as did some of her white middle school friends.

Of the 12 people who gathered, Mahogani was the only other black girl.

After the dinner, Mahogani and Asianna and another friend went to see the movie Possession. They offered a boisterous running commentary on the action.

"Damn," she and Mahogani yelled during the scary parts.

Despite all the new white friends in Asianna's life, Mahogani reminded Asianna of how much fun it could be to tap into her black side. How much she needed that.

"It's important to get both sides in," she said. "That's what makes me me."

• • •

One morning at St. Petersburg High School, Asianna left her drama class in search of a lunch companion.

The first few weeks at St. Petersburg High School had been a little lonely. But playing junior varsity volleyball, she had amassed an entire team of white friends. Her mother and her grandparents had been coming to her games and now her father's mother had been making an effort to be there, too.

Asianna scanned the courtyard for a friend. She had lots more choices now. The white volleyball girls. Her white Thurgood friends. Some new white friends she'd met in her classes.

But she was looking for one friend in particular, a mixed-race girl who was part American Indian, part Puerto Rican.

"Come on," the girl said, as they spotted each other.

They left a courtyard inhabited mostly by white kids and headed to another courtyard in the back. This is where the black and mixed-race kids hung out.

They paused to talk to a pair of mixed-race girls. A black boy playfully knocked the back of Asianna's knee. Asianna bummed a french fry from a mixed-race girl.

Just then, Asianna got a text. It was one of her white friends.

Come to the junior courtyard.

Asianna told the girls she'd be back. She just had to see a friend.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.