Growing up biracial in Utah

Story and photo by CHRISTIE TAYLOR

According to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white!” But what about being black and white, or any other biracial mix for that matter?

According to 2010 Census research, people who claim two or more races in Utah make up .027 percent of the total population of 2.7 million. That means just 75, 518 people identify as mixed-race. Eighty-six percent of Utahns, or 2.4 million, are white.

Kenna Scott, 28, whose mother is half white and half Italian and father is African-American, is among those of mixed races. Growing up biracial in Utah proved difficult for her. With little diversity in the state, she learned early that she was different.

Scott, whose darker skin, brown curly hair and big brown eyes are a complete contrast to her fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed mother, recalled her first experience with racial discrimination.

While attending a preschool in Cottonwood Heights, she was told by a fellow classmate “that their mother did not want me playing with them because I was black,’” she said in an email interview.

It had an enormous impact on her at the time because she never thought of herself as anything but a person, she said.

“I never realized I was black, it never came up,” she said. Her parents divorced prior to her birth and Scott never met her father.

Her mother, who had always taught her to love and accept everyone equally, contacted and met with the parents of the child. “I can remember playing with the other child while our parents yelled in the background,” she said.

It was the first of many times her mom would have to defend her daughter against racism.

While in the first grade a child came into class with mud on his face saying, “Look, I’m Kenna, a black pig,” she said. All the kids in the class laughed, and she spent the rest of the day crying. The hurtful nickname stuck with her through elementary school.

“I could not understand why my skin color affected people, why was I different? What was wrong with me?” she said.

Scott recalled the first time she finally had some answers to those questions.

While in the third grade she learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and saw other people being treated poorly because of their skin color, she said.

“For many reasons I remember that day clearly and remember feeling confident in my skin color, feeling proud,“ she said. Scott realized that being treated poorly by others wasn’t a reflection on her, but on those who saw her only as a black person.

After that life-changing moment, she began telling kids who were teasing her, “You were taught to hate, you do not have to hate me because your parents tell you to,” she said.

While at Butler Middle School, she experienced some diversity and met kids of other races, which helped her feel less lonely, Scott said. The experience was short-lived.

When Scott attended Brighton High School, in Cottonwood Heights, it was a lot less diverse and she was exposed to more extreme adversity. The first week of school someone wrote on her locker, “Your mom is a nigger lover,” she said.

When she complained to the principal, she was told she would need to stay after school to clean it off.

Scott’s mother met with the principal. She told him he better find out who wrote the slur and punish those individuals, not her daughter, Scott said. Two weeks went by and the racial remark remained on her locker. It was finally removed after Scott’s mother threatened to sue.

Shortly after the incident, Scott remembers being ecstatic when she met an African-American girl at school, and the girl seemed equally excited to meet her.

As an attempt to better fit in with the majority white student body, Scott had blond highlights dyed into her hair and wore blue contacts to school. She was shocked when her new friend reacted by telling her she was trying to “act white,” she said.

The girl accused her of being a “traitor” and continuously barked like a dog at her in the hallways over the next couple of weeks. “Without knowing it, she made me dislike or be afraid of black people. Would they all say this?” she remembers thinking.

She felt betrayed by white and black people and wondered where she fit in being both, she said.

“This constant battle is the ultimate metaphor of someone growing up biracial in Utah. We simply do not know where we belong,” Scott said.

Raising Biracial Children,” a book by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy, tries to help parents and professionals build a better understanding of multiracial identity issues, like those experienced by Scott.

The book, written in 2005, tries to decrease “a wide divide between academics who research biracial identity, and the everyday world of parents and practitioners who raise and deal with mixed-race children.”

Roquemore and Laszloffy’s book description states, “As the multiracial population in the United States continues to rise, new models for our understanding of mixed-race children and how their conception of racial identity must be developed.”

The idea was timely, because five years after the book was published new research showed an increase in interracial marriage.

The Pew Research Poll released in February 2012 shows 71,227 couples entered into interracial marriages in Utah from 2008 to 2010.

The data showed the overall interracial marriage percentage has increased nationally from 6.7 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 2010.

The poll stated, “43 percent of Americans say that more people of different races marrying each other has been a change for the better in our society.” That is more than four in 10 Americans who feel the change has been positive (44 percent had no opinion either way and 11 percent found it a negative change).

With 22 percent of national, interracial marriages happening in Western states, growing up biracial in Utah seems to be have a new tone for the generations after Scott.

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The Usserys at Maddi’s 2012 graduation from Tooele High School. From left: Morgan, Ben, Maddi and Diana.

Diana Ussery and her husband, Ben, moved to Tooele, Utah, from Illinois when their daughters were 6 and 2 years old. Maddi, now 19, and her sister Morgan, now 15, are half white and half black.

“No one has been blatantly rude or excluding to the girls,” Ussery said in an email interview. Maddi has brought up discussions with friends who were curious about her race, but she’s never mentioned any fights about it.

She said the racial tone in Utah is overall friendly and feels it has been a good place to raise her girls. Some people have been surprised when they discover her husband is black, but they’ve never been rude about it.

“I don’t see actions, mine or others, coming from the race perspective,” Ussery said.

Trying to connect her girls to both sides of their racial identities hasn’t been a big issue in raising them either. “I am very open and I encourage the girls to be so as well. I’ve tried to teach them to look at the person, not the race,” she said.

A part of her does wonder if race has contributed to the lack of close relationships her family has with other families in their community. She also considers religion as a possible problem. The Usserys, who are not Mormon, live in a tight-knit Mormon community.

Karen Henriquez and her husband, Tony, have two kids, Nia, 11, and Ben 6. Karen is African-American and Tony is Salvadoran. Growing up in Midvale, the Henriquez kids have been exposed to a bit more diversity than that offered in Tooele.

In an email interview, Henriquez said her kids “assumed they were Mexican because their sitter is, and a lot of their friends are,” in reference to their racial identities.

When the couple explained to the kids that their dad was actually from El Salvador and mom was African-American, their response was, “but mom you are from Colorado.”

Ben also asked once, “I just thought dad was brown and you were browner, but you are black?” she said.

“I have known black children that have grown up in all-white communities that have struggled when exposed to primarily black communities,” she said.

A trip to Texas last summer to visit Henriquez’s family proved her children didn’t have a problem making that adjustment. The children got along great with their African-American side of the family, she said.

The children had a great time in Texas and can’t wait to go back for a visit, but they seem happy in Utah for the most part, Henriquez said.

As a way of helping their kids develop healthy identities in a state with little diversity, they spend quality time with each child and support and encourage their interests, Tony said in an email interview.

When they were younger, the children were enrolled in a Spanish-speaking daycare. And, even though the provider spoke mostly English, they were surrounded with Latino foods and culture, Henriquez said.

More than anything else, both parents hope their children “have a good education, succeed in life and have patience to deal with the remaining people that do not have the education and wisdom to see past the differences of skin color.”