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Monday, January 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Race isn't as clear as black and white

Seattle Times staff reporter

Race isn't static, argues Matt Kelley, entrepreneur and twentysomething provocateur.

In his case, there isn't one answer to that ubiquitous question, "What are you?"

At a Japanese-American community function, Kelley might answer the question with "hapa" — but that word might be meaningless to a Korean-American crowd.

When he was interviewed on CNN, he's pretty sure he replied, "multiracial."

But when he's feeling a bit more in-your-face, his answer is, "mixed."

Kelley's mother is Korean, and his father's roots are Irish. That, in the eyes of most people, ought to make his answer "half-Asian," which is what hapa, a Hawaiian word, means.

But, first, the word isn't widely known. And Kelley isn't half anything, he argues.

There are two central arguments he wants to make about race: Racial identity is something to be claimed and not defined by someone else. And no matter how much the public might want it to be so, race doesn't fit neatly into any sort of box.

"We mixed-race folks force our society to re-examine oversimplistic definitions of race," says Kelley, president and founder of the MAVIN Foundation, a Seattle-based advocacy group for mixed-race people and families.

At 26, Kelley's is an already established voice; he's a trailblazer pushing the envelope about who is a racial minority. (He prefers the term "minority," arguing that "people of color" sounds too much like "colored people.")

He founded MAVIN seven years ago in his dorm room at Wesleyan University, and ever since he's been tapped as a public speaker and consultant. Over the weekend, he addressed audiences in Bellingham at Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

MAVIN, now a nonprofit with an annual $287,000 budget, publishes a quarterly magazine that's read by an estimated 48,000 people. Kelley has co-authored a multiracial child-resource book. His foundation sponsors student conferences and runs a one-of-its-kind project to recruit mixed-race bone-marrow donors.

Next month, with $14,000 from the city of Seattle, MAVIN will unveil a community plan for how best to support Seattle's mixed-race community. In the 2000 census, 5 percent of Seattle residents identified themselves as belonging to two or more races. And in the fall, MAVIN plans to strengthen its national profile with a national "Generation Mix" tour: five mixed-race twentysomethings traveling on a bus to visit 17 colleges, accompanied by a documentary crew.

Until recently, the mixed-race generation didn't have its own voice.

Those at the forefront, Kelley says, were parents of mixed-race children or parents who had adopted a baby from outside the country. Now a youth-driven movement is making itself visible, elbowing to the table when it comes to talk of health care, schools and even sexuality.

Kelley and MAVIN, a name based on a Yiddish word that means "one who understands," have been widely lauded for their public awareness and advocacy work.

"Matt's shone a light and forced us to take a look at what our expectations are. No one else had that vision," says Janet Arenz, executive director of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs, a statewide advocacy group.

"Being from the older generation, I remember when you had to pick one [race] and couldn't embrace the other," says Anne Takekawa of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, who has worked with Kelley on a project.

"All the past decades of the civil-rights movement, diversity and better communication about race has resulted in a generation of people that has the latitude to embrace all racial backgrounds."

Finding a community

Kelley, equal parts sanguine and spirited, is a natural leader for his generation.

A snapshot of that generation is his own staff, working out of funky, sixth-floor offices in Pioneer Square. The offices are painted blue and orange (Get it? Orange is a blend of two primary colors, Kelley points out).

On this day, the salsa music's been turned off for a meeting: a magazine strategy session. The employees are in their 20s; bright and amiable; "dressed up" in jeans; phenotypically white, Asian, Latino and black but, on any sort of data form, unlikely to check only one box under the race category.

"From the census perspective, I'm white, and Latino is my ethnicity. But I identify as Latino and white, and to me that means I'm multiracial," says Alfredo Padilla, 27.

Kelley, born in Spokane and raised on Bainbridge Island, started MAVIN for selfish reasons: He wanted a community with which to identify. That's not to say he wasn't comfortable among other minorities. As a freshman, his closest friends were black and Latino, and with them he shared what it's like to be perceived as an "other" in white America.

But a black person or a Latino person has a specific identity. If you say you're one or the other, he says, the words mean something to people.

His is a racial classification relatively new. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't strike down the last state laws banning interracial marriage until 1967. And it wasn't until the 2000 census that multiracial people earned some institutional recognition and were allowed to check more than one of the six boxes under "race." Some 7 million people, or 2.4 percent of the nation's population, checked two races. An additional 400,000 checked three.

Now Kelley's making sure even "mixed" doesn't get boxed in.

Consider what happened shortly after the last census. Kelley, who had just begun publishing MAVIN magazine, was being tapped for all sorts of media interviews. But twice, television producers courted him for interviews and then dropped him. Why? They figured being mixed meant he was part black, and when he explained he wasn't, the producers lost interest, he recalls.

"I guess I didn't represent the right taboo," he says.

"Society is too enamored of a binary notion for everything: black / white; us / them; straight / gay," he continues, criticizing the media for feeding into those notions. Which is why Kelley was surprised at and pleased with a recent Newsweek issue.

"Seeing Purple," reads the cover story about red and blue America. What was also appealing? The accompanying photo of newly elected U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is of mixed race.

Kelley understands his campaign has its hurdles: a movement connected to the civil-rights movement but inherently unique; a generation whose members have faced racial prejudice but who might also have experienced some amount of "white privilege."

Mixed people, he says, know what it's like to be cast as an "other," but also what it's like to be eye candy. There are expectations, MAVIN staff members point out, that mixed means good-looking, which carries its own pressures.

And in addition to the "What are you?" question, there's always a second, nosier question, Kelley says: "So, how'd your parents meet?"

"Which is really about sex," he says.

Until now, MAVIN has aligned itself with community groups such as The Atlantic Street Center, which counsels teens, rather than with traditional racial advocacy groups such as the NAACP or the Urban League.

That could change, explains Kelley, who'd like the organization to make stronger forays into addressing wider issues of inequality.

Another short-term MAVIN goal: opening additional offices elsewhere in the country.

Says Kelley: "We're young and we're saying, 'We have a lot of potential.' "

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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