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This City Is A Multiracial Mecca
“Black. Ivory. Shadow.”
I repeat the words to make sure I heard them right.
“Black. Ivory… Shadow?”
“Yeah.” Jasmin Baker, 25, is cracking up.
“When I was younger I made it my thing.” She lowers her voice, making it seductive. “Like… yeah. I’m black ivory shadow.”
“Right.” Now her boyfriend, Grant Wyena, 28, is laughing too. “Real dark and mysterious.”
We’re at the Evergreen Café in downtown Tacoma, Washington early one July morning where they’ve agreed to talk to me about multiracial identity in Tacoma. Unlike many places in America, this is a city where Baker and Wyena can stroll along the Tacoma waterfront hand-in-hand and not be seen as the least bit unusual.
Baker identifies as African-American, although her great-grandmother was Irish, and Wyena’s family is enrolled in the Yakima band of nations. He comes from both Muckleshoot and Wanapum descent, as well as additional Native Canadian tribes on his mother’s side. His father is from Tijuana, Mexico. He identifies as both Native American and Hispanic.
“I only bring it up when people ask me, ‘What are you?’” says Baker. “I say, ‘I’m Black.’ Then when they’re not satisfied with that answer, I say, ‘Black and Irish.’ And they say, ‘Ohhhhh, okay.’ Like there has to be an explanation for why I’m light-skinned.”
According to the U.S. Census, people of multiracial descent in America are just 2.1 percent of the population but a groundbreaking 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that the population was closer to 6.9 percent.
South of the Chinese Reconciliation Park, there is a sanctuary called Point Defiance where, rising above the rocky shoreline and the black-beaked ducks, you can climb a wooden staircase and walk past a 10-inch shell from the USS Maine used during the Spanish-American War. There is a Black Samoan family along the way. Then, past the weeping sequoia and a witch hazel tree trimmed to look like a bonsai, you settle in. A deer grazes by, slowly. You survey the manicured gardens built by early Japanese strawberry farmers with wonder. This place — Tacoma, Washington — is one of those rare cities in America where it almost seems like no one cares about race.
According to the U.S. Census, people of multiracial descent in America are just 2.1% of the population but a groundbreaking 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that the population was closer to 6.9%. Multiracial people are concentrated in states like Hawaii, Alaska, and California.
But Tacoma, Washington is also a bastion — albeit a less obvious one — for multiracial people and their families. Here in this little-discussed corner of the country, at the far edges of the Pacific Northwest, a full 7.2% of the Pierce County population reports being of two or more races, according to June 2019 census data. Among youth, that number is even higher. In the Steilacoom School District, where many residents say mixed-race students are most prevalent, the figure is as high as 17.2%.
“The demographic surprised me,” says Onnie Rogers, who visited three Tacoma schools for a 2016 study on race and gender. Rogers estimates that as many as 30% of the more than 200 kids she interviewed were multiracial. “We didn’t anticipate that.”
It’s likely that these numbers continue to be underreported across the country.
Bridget King is a White speech therapist for elementary school students in the Steilacoom District. When first asked about the population, she doubted the number of multiracial students was that high, she told me in a phone interview. The more she began to talk about the subject with colleagues and friends, however, the more apparent the reality became.
“I was sitting outside at the Steilacoom Pub the other day,” she says, “and 10 kids walked in. I realized… they were all completely mixed. I think when you turn your lens on it, you notice it more.”
The last two Tacoma mayors have been multiracial women, says Dr. William Baarsma, a former mayor himself and current president of the Tacoma Historical Society. Victoria Woodards, the current mayor, is White and African American, and Marilyn Stickland, who was elected in 2009 and was the first Black woman to serve, is Korean and African American.
Like many Tacoma residents, Stickland is part of Tacoma’s massive military community that make the city unique in terms of mixed-race heritage. Interracial marriages were common for enlisted men who married war brides from the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and brought them home to military bases in Tacoma.
The McChord Air Force Base and the U.S. Army’s Fort Lewis (consolidated and renamed the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2010, or JBLM) is located just nine miles southwest of Tacoma and is home to some 210,000 active duty inhabitants and 120,000 military retirees, making it the fourth-largest military installment in the world. The Madigan Army Medical Center, founded in 1944, is also one of the largest military hospitals on the West Coast.
It’s more than just the military presence, though, say experts like Michael Sullivan, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington, Tacoma. In the 1930s, Latinos and Filipinos emigrated to the Northwest en masse to work in the fishing and salmon canning industries. There was a “lot of intermarriage” between these groups and Native Americans, says Sullivan. And one can go back even further, to the founding of the Northern Transcontinental Railroad in 1873. “All the steamship lines from around the Pacific Rim came here,” says Sullivan, who has taught a course called “The History of Northwest” for the past 25 years. “It didn’t matter if you were Japanese, Hawaiian, or Native American. If you could tote an ax or lift a sail you could find work.”
And what about the Buffalo Soldiers? Those Black calvary men who fought in the Spanish-American War were sent to the Philippines, and when the war was over, they too came home to Tacoma. From 1904 to 1912 there were 4,000 Black soldiers on the part of city land that would later be called Dupont, said Sullivan. “Every summer, they came as units on horseback and camped there for drills and training.”
In fact, the entire Tacoma area sits on the traditional lands of Puyallup people, says Michelle R. Montgomery, an associate professor in American Indian studies and ethnic, gender & labor studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. “There could easily be a representation of over 80 tribes in the Tacoma area alone.” What’s more, U.S. military confiscated more than 3,000 acres of Nisqually Tribal land to build the Fort Lewis Military Reserve.
At the Lakewood Farmer’s Market, the food carts reflect some of this deep and multilayered history. There is Hamhock Jones BBQ Soul Shack, Kama’aina Grill, Chai Pyala, Burrito Boy, the Bautista Family Farm. At Mama Q’s Caribbean food, owner Catherine Quinland, 61, says that her food is a mix of “Caribbean and Spanish” based on her heritage as the child of a Dominican mother, a father from Antigua, and a Puerto Rican stepfather. As we talk, her grandson, Amir, 18 (who has trouble remembering where his grandmother is from) rolls dough at the back of the booth.
“And if he were to marry someone of another race?” I wonder aloud.
“It wouldn’t bother me,” says Quinland. “A lot of things are changing now. I see Asians and Spanish together. We all have red blood.” She gestures toward a stack of hot, round paddies. “Johnnie cake and empanada is basically the same thing.”
Kristina Gautier, a Navy veteran who is Filipina and African American, is at the market with her toddler twins. Her husband, Christopher, spent ten years as a structural engineer in the Air Force and her mother, father, and brother have served in the Army, Air Force and National Guard. “Most of our friends are mixed-race,” she says. But being multiracial isn’t of much interest to people in Tacoma, Gautier adds. It only becomes a topic of conversation when she leaves.
“My husband is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” There, she says, people are sometimes “confused” by her appearance and her family. Reactions in Virginia were strong as well. But Alabama was downright hostile. “Black people thought I was trying to be better than them because of the way I talk. But that’s just the way I speak.”
Lokelani Brunoski, 21, agrees that traveling outside of Tacoma has been an eye-opening experience. Korean and Puerto Rican on her mother’s side, and Hawaiian, Thai, and Filipino on her father’s, she too comes from a military family, in which both grandfathers served, as did her father and grandmother.
“I think it’s something we’re all used to,” says Juan Rosales, 21, Brunoski’s boyfriend, who I met with Brunoski at a Starbucks in Lakewood. “Growing up here, you get used to seeing a lot of people who look like you.” Rosales was born in Durango, Mexico and came to Tacoma with his parents when he was two. His brother married a Korean woman.
A person who is white and Asian, for example, enjoys “a different kind of cultural capital” than someone who is darker-skinned.
Once, the couple went to visit Brunoski’s father at the Fort Knox Army base in Kentucky. “Out of a whole convenience store setting I was the only one who was dark-skinned,” says Rosales. “I got accused of having fake money. The cashier said she couldn’t accept my $20 bill.”
It was uncomfortable, agrees Brunoski. So was North Carolina. “It was hard to find a Korean market in North Carolina. My father and I were the only Asian/Pacific Islanders around.”
Tacoma’s ease with multiracial identity is what convinced Amy Frazier that this was the place to raise her family. Born in Portland, Oregon, she says that her daughter Malia, who is African American and White with some Walla Walla descent, experienced bullying in Portland schools, starting at about the age of five, where kids talked about her hair, asking why it was so frizzy, and why her skin was so dark. “Did you take a shower… is that dirt?” they asked. Some were more direct, telling Malia that they couldn’t be her friend because of the color of her skin.
Malia assumed this was normal, says Frazier, because the family never talked about race at home. “I assumed race wasn’t an issue at such a young age,” she explains, “So I never talked about it, and I think it created uncertainty for Malia about what was okay to talk about and question.” Her daughter “held it in,” says Frazier, and never told her mother about the experiences until she was 12 or 13 years old.
When Frazier planned to remarry and move to Washington state, she carefully researched school districts. She and her Japanese and African American husband would now have a large blended family with six multiracial kids between them. “I was literally online every day… looking at diversity scores,” Frazier recalls. The first time she drove through Steilacoom, “it just felt different. There was no segregation. I knew right away that this was going to be it.”
Hatcher Brown, 18, who is African American, Blackfoot, Cherokee, German (and possibly Choctaw) also didn’t learn much about race at home. He thought he was White until he was in eighth grade, when someone at his Steilacoom school made a joke about him being Black. The thought had never occurred to him, he says. “I think because I was surrounded by women in my life and most of them were White.”
“Multiraciality is something that I don’t hear a lot about on campus,” says Michelle Montgomery, the author of Identity Politics of Difference: The Mixed-Race American Indian Experience. “It’s a tricky conversation to have. But it’s an important conversation to have.”
Also, being multiracial can mean different things in different contexts, says Montgomery. A person who is White and Asian, for example, enjoys “a different kind of cultural capital” than someone who is darker-skinned.
Montgomery, 46, is Haliwa Saponi and Eastern Band Cherokee, but because she was raised in the South and attended a historically Black college, she believes that her experience was very different than it would have been if she’d been raised in the Northwest. “Growing up as a Brown woman in the South, your privilege spectrum is much lower. It doesn’t matter if you’re native or African American. You’re Brown.”
But having a large multiracial demographic doesn’t suddenly insure the end of racism. Despite the fact that Tacoma sits on Native land, it wasn’t until 2014 that the University of Washington hired its first full-time, Native Americans: two faculty members, one of whom was Montgomery.
Nor does living in a multiracial community mean the end of grappling with identity questions, or questions about interracial relationships.
“I’m curious about what’s going to happen when people start getting their DNA tests and find out they’re 10% Asian,” wonders Bridget King, the White Steilacoom speech therapist. “What are they going to check?”
At times, says Grant Wyena, he has felt family pressure to choose a Native woman. “My family’s not really gung-ho about it,” he says about his relationship Jasmin Baker. As he talks, her reaches for Baker’s hand reassuringly. “They say, ‘It would be nice if she was a Native girl just because there are so few of us. It’s like, ‘Let’s get some more Native babies out there.’”
Once, he dated a White girl, but he felt “exoticized” by the experience, says Grant, like she just wanted to be with a Native guy. “She had this idea that she was set for life because of my per capita check,” he says, referring to the monthly check from his tribal membership. “I was kind of fetishized. It made me feel really gross.”
As for Baker, who is originally from San Bernadino, California, her nine siblings (most of whom are from different mothers and consider themselves fully Black) didn’t make her life easy. They teased her, calling her “bourgie.”
“When you grow up, you’re going to marry some nerdy White guy,” they’d say. “There were your mama jokes,” says Baker. And what she calls “playfully mean” roasts about being light-skinned. “In the Black community when you’re seen as being ‘mixed,’ it’s like you think you’re better.”
In California, her friends were Black, White, or Mexican. Period. Choose one.
“I had an uncle who married a Mexican woman and at barbecues there was a little isolation. It was like, ‘What are you going to bring to the cookout?’ ‘No, don’t bring that.’ She had to try to be more ‘Black’ to fit in,” recalls Baker. “Anything that wasn’t Black, it was like… Eeeeyuuuh,” she says, making a tortured face.
When Baker was 11, her family moved to Tacoma and it has only been in recent years that she’s realized that she, too, still has some learning and growing to do when it comes to racial perceptions.
“I haven’t really recognized and appreciated a lot of Black culture. I’ve realized there’s a lot that I need to learn,” she says. “Like things that are taught in school, that are misconstrued, and stereotypes that I held in my mind… Like the connotation that Black men are kind of sneaky. I had a lot of Black men in my life that weren’t the best examples.” Or “the idea that Black women are stubborn and loud. Don’t see me as that. I’m not like that. But I’m realizing that those are stereotypes.”
For Lokelani Brunosky, the fact that she doesn’t speak a second language has been a sticking point that has made her feel less authentic, as if she’s somehow not a “legitimate” member of the groups she belongs to. “People ask me all the time, ‘How come you don’t speak Tagalog or Spanish?’” she says. “I feel like they wouldn’t frown on me as much if I did.”
In the Steilacoom area where her friends are Puerto Rican and Peruvian, Korean and Salvadoran, and Mexican and Filipino, Brunosky says that multiracial identity is “a lot less complicated for them” because they speak another language. Although her Thai grandfather and Korean grandmother tried to teach her bits of language, and although her mother can read Korean and understand it, Brunosky is not a native speaker of any language other than English.
In college, she took some Spanish classes but got frustrated when her boyfriend Juan made fun of her accent. “I wish I was brought up that way,” she says.
Identity is never simple.
Amy Frazier’s grandmother was Native American, of the Walla Walla tribe, but Frazier identifies as White because she doesn’t know much about that heritage, or look Native. When we spoke, her daughter Malia, now 16, was visiting her father in Hawaii, together with her 13-year-old sister. “They go every summer,” says Frazier. Because of her name and the fact that she’s brown-skinned, Malia is often mistaken for Hawaiian there.
“I’ll bet she likes that,” I offer.