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Thursday, March 31, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Seeing mixed races through the eyes of new generation

Charles Yesuwan is about to take a road trip around the United States with four other young people, all of whom have parents whom you or I would assign to different racial or ethnic groups.

"My parents are excited," he said. "Actually, they're happy that I'm actually getting out of the house. They are a little worried though, because all five of us (have only lived) in our home towns so we will be seeing the country for the first time."

The Mavin Foundation in Seattle has picked five 20-somethings to travel around the country stirring up conversations about mixed-race people, raising awareness of a mixed-race baby boom and connecting people with resources relevant to mixed-race people and anyone who has contact with them.

Of course, it isn't as if there were no mixed-race people in America before these young people were born, but there is more freedom now to make that mean something positive.

According to the 2000 Census, which was the first to count multiracial persons, 7 million people, 2.4 percent of the population, said they were of two or more races. For comparison, there were 5.2 million Jewish Americans in a 2000-01 survey of that community. So 7 million is a noticeable chunk of people. In Seattle, 5 percent of the population claims two or more races.

Mavin picked the crew for what it's calling the Generation MIX tour to reflect this new generation, people who've grown up since the civil-rights era, who have been told they can be whoever they want to be.

There is Aaron, 21, of Pittsburgh, African American, Creek and European American; Ashley, 20, of Boise, African American and European American; Charles, 23, of Seattle, Chinese American and Thai American; Jamie, 23, of Berkeley, Calif., Chinese American and European American; and Sangeetha, 22, of Ann Arbor, Mich., Asian Indian and European American.

They'll be riding 8,000 miles together across the country in an RV, making 16 stops at college campuses and community centers down the West Coast, across the South, up the East Coast and back across the Midwest, starting Tuesday and ending back in Seattle May 10.

This week the five are finishing two weeks of training, learning about racial issues from people who have some expertise in the area, such as Maria P.P. Root, whose books on race mixing in America are often used in college classrooms.

Matt Kelley, the founder and president of Mavin, says one reason for the training is that young mixed-race people like him (he's white and Korean American) need to fill in the gaps in their own experiences.

"A lot of us don't have the same really painful in-your-face experience with racism that past generations had and that some people of color still have," he told me yesterday while taking a break from washing the RV.

It's important, he said, for multiracial people asserting their freedom from an assigned identity to also embrace a commitment to racial and social justice.

He thinks they'll be able to play a role in tearing down walls. The way we talk about identity in this country is far too polarized, he said — gay/straight, Democrat/Republican, black/white and so on.

"We have the exciting potential to move away from conflict-based dichotomies," he said.

"As a kid I wanted nothing more than for the next nine or 10 strangers to call me the same thing. It didn't matter what it was." He just wanted to fit somewhere — but why should strangers get to say where, or even to say that he must choose?

His hope is to be a catalyst for getting people to see that something supposedly static really isn't.

Yesuwan, the Seattle crew member, was picked partly because he isn't what people expect. He looks (hey, looks is nine-tenths of this race thing) 100 percent Asian, and, in fact, his mother is Chinese American and his father is Thai American, and both are immigrants from Thailand. At home, they spoke Thai to Charles, but he responded in English. He didn't feel Thai or Chinese.

He said non-Asians just took him as some variety of Asian, but other Asians were always asking him what he was. They wanted to know which sub-category he fit.

He attended Japanese nursery school as a kid. "I was constantly teased for having big eyes. I would go home staring at mirror, pulling the creases of my eyes up. Why aren't my eyes like this."

Nothing about race is simple.

Mavin's Generation MIX tour starts Monday with an activities fair open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. in the Mary Gates Commons at the UW, followed by the crew's keynote from 5-6:30 p.m. in Kane Hall, Room 100.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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