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Holding Onto The Other Half Of 'Mixed-Race'

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NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

Again and again, The Race Card Project receives submissions dealing with mixed-race identity; from a child of a mixed-race union, from a parent of mixed-race children or from someone who is trying to figure out how to identify a mixed-race student or colleague, for example.

Those kinds of stories are the largest single category of six-word submissions the Race Card Project receives, says Michelle Norris, who curates the project. Many of these entries have a lot to do with labels and identity.

Wilma Stordahl, a Seattle resident who's an account manager for a national landscape company, offered one such submission: "Norwegian with Nappy Hair Doesn't Fit."

'What Are They?'

Stordahl is Norwegian, and she and her husband are both white. Together they have a 15-year-old white son, but she also has two older sons, Kevin Stordahl, 25, and Kazon Stordahl, 19, who both have a black father.

Wilma Stordahl gave them her last name in part because she wanted to make sure they had had a very specific and highly identifiable link to her family heritage.

"Typically, we think of Norwegians as being tall and blond and blue-eyed," Stordahl says. "And my sons are tall — but they're not blond and blue-eyed."

When the boys travel around with their tall, blonde mother, Stordahl says they draw quizzical stares and even questions from strangers.

"They'll usually lean in and quietly say, 'What are they?' And what they really want to ask is, 'What race are they?' "

Stordahl typically answers with "handsome," but she knows it's also more complicated than her tongue-in-cheek answer.

"In my 20s, I wanted to call them mixed-race. I wanted to say that they were some other thing, some other category than what was listed on all the forms that you fill out," Stordahl explains. "But I was repeatedly corrected, and actually, I was most frequently corrected by African Americans."

They would tell her, " 'No, honey — your son is black,' " she says. "Like, just get used to it, because that's how the world's gonna see them."

Stordahl did get used to those conversations, but she also wishes that people would move away from what she considers instinctive labeling of people based just on skin color or appearance — especially as more children are born of mixed-race couplings.

Not Mixed-Race, But Mixed-Heritage

When her son Kazon is asked these kinds of questions, he prefers to answer that he's mixed-race and leave it at that, Stordahl explains. But Kevin, she says, rejects that label for something more precise; he prefers the term "mixed-heritage."

"He is rebelling against that idea that he's not just black and he's not just white," Stordahl says. "He's of mixed-heritage. There's all these other customs and traits and things like that that also come with heritage."

Kevin, a sociology major who wants to focus on the study of mixed-race identity, has also taken a keen interest in his Norwegian background, pursuing Scandinavian studies in college and studying Norwegian.

His mother is thrilled, but she also has some concerns. "There's another part of me that has a little bit of maybe guilt, that perhaps if it wasn't that he was of mixed-heritage, that perhaps he would be spending his time pursing something that would produce a more lucrative career," she says.

"I worry that perhaps he's ended up spending all of his energy and time and tuition on this question of identity — and maybe that he's searching for something within himself."

But, she says, Kevin assures her this is the path that makes him happy, "so I'm gonna leave it at that."

Stordahl knows that when people look at her tall, brown-skinned boys — now young men — that they might not immediately recognize their Norwegian heritage. That makes her sad, but she also knows that if people take the time to really look hard at them, the Stordahl family is there, in their height and in their faces.

"I often have joked that my sons don't look a whole lot like me," Stordahl says. "But in fact ... we all have the same eyes. Not the color, but the shape. They're all tall, like me — they're actually taller than me now.

"They are a part of me, and I a part of them. And yeah, I want that to be acknowledged."

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