Geetha Lakshminarayanan says it is easy for her to figure out which guys to blow off at a bar. They are the ones who approach her by asking, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?"
"It's always nice to be seen as attractive, but I don't want people to date me because I'm exotic, like an animal at the zoo," said Lakshminarayanan, 22, who works for an organization in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that teaches management skills to nonprofit groups. Lakshminarayanan, whose heritage is white and Asian Indian, is mistaken for Latina or Filipina because of her olive skin and straight black hair. "It's like they're taking a walk on the wild side," she said. "I just don't trust them."
Mass culture awakened some time ago to growing multiracial demographics, and today public figures who are either mixed-race or part of an interracial couple are more visible than ever. It is hard to miss Heidi Klum and Seal in celebrity magazines (among the expecting couples of the moment) or Mariah Carey or Senator Barack Obama talking about their mixed heritage. Movies like Guess Who use interracial relationships as a subject for laughs, while in Sideways the relationship between a white man and an Asian-American woman was treated as so unremarkable that it went without note.
The so-called ambiguous look is hip, so is borrowing ethnic styles and cultures.
But scratch the surface, many multiracial Americans say, and the reality is much more complex. Despite being perceived as cool, people of mixed race say they often function in a world where friends will eventually offend with a comment that overlooks a white mother or an Asian father, and where "exotic" is another word for "other." As they navigate social land mines that can be annoying and funny at times, hurtful and depressing at others, young people of mixed race are becoming increasingly assertive, starting groups and demanding recognition.
"People make a lot of assumptions based on race, and they can't put us into categories," Lakshminarayanan said as she sat relaxing in her room at a Chinatown hotel. She was taking a break during a 15-city road trip, called "Generation Mix," that was organized to raise awareness about the mixed-race experience and issues like the need for more multiracial bone marrow donors. The long recreational vehicle which she shares with four others was parked on the street outside.
Generation Mix is sponsored by the Mavin Foundation, an advocacy organization in Seattle. Formed in the late 1990s, Mavin was among the forerunners of the dozens of multiracial groups -- with names like Swirl, Fusion and Mixed -- that have sprung up in the last five years in an attempt to bring multiethnic issues to the fore. Some efforts focus on earnest outreach; others are less relevant.
On Race-O-Rama, produced by VH1 and the five-man humor collective Ego Trip, Shakara Ledard, a model who is both white and black, riffs about how she used to make fun of herself as an "Oreo cookie." Meanwhile Web sites like mixedmediawatch.com keep tabs on the way multiracial people are portrayed in the media, and T-shirt designers are busy spreading their message. At the University of Maryland in College Park, multiracial students are wearing T-shirts with the message "Mixed Terp," which plays on the university's mascot, the diamondback terrapin.