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.”

Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah

by BRADY LEAVITT

In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

Newspaper struggles to achieve media diversity on U campus

by DAVID SERVATIUS

In a way, the name of the newspaper tells its story. Venceremos! It is determined and defiant, a rallying cry during the Cuban revolution and an echo of the U.S. civil rights movement. Literally translated, it means, “We will win.” Or, in some cases, “We shall overcome.”

Venceremos is the University of Utah’s Spanish-English bilingual student newspaper and, as the name suggests, its history over the years has been a struggle to simply stay in existence. In January 2008, the paper returned to campus after being shelved and abandoned for more than four years.

Editor-in-Chief Stephany Murguia, a senior majoring in mass communication, said in a recent interview that the first issue of the resurrected quarterly publication took more than six months to produce and that 10,000 copies were printed and distributed across campus. The issue focused on immigration, which dominated the news while the Utah legislature was in session this year, but also looked at crime and what Murguia called “other underreported stories.”

Murguia was born in Mexico and grew up in California. She has lived in Salt Lake City for the last seven years and graduated from Copper Hills High School before attending the University of Utah. She said Venceremos isn’t just valuable because it will publish stories others aren’t interested in, but because it can actually get the stories others can’t.

“We build up a trust relationship within the community,” she said. “We can get the sources to talk to us that other publications can’t. I know people at the [Salt Lake] Tribune who have trouble getting access to parts of the community, and especially getting pictures.”

She said she ultimately wants to expand readership beyond the student body and encourage community members from the larger Salt Lake Valley area to contribute stories in both English and Spanish on a regular basis.

“We want to create a space that’s really accessible,” she said. “We want to create a community space, something bigger than just us at the university.”

Venceremos was first created in 1993 by a small group of students in order to address what they saw as a dearth of coverage in the local media of the issues that concerned their minority communities. For almost a decade the staff at the paper worked to change that.

Then, in 2003, Venceremos was forced to halt production. Luciano Marzulli, who was an editor then and who advises the current team, said in an email statement that staff members at the time had become somewhat overextended with community activism and were suddenly asked to give up the space and equipment they had been using.

“The momentum of the paper was slowing down anyway and the loss of equipment and office space was like the final straw that pushed the publication into hiatus,” he said.

The paper may have gone on hiatus, but the need for it in the community did not. Marguia, who was in high school at the time and had written a couple of columns for the paper, said that she and Marzulli recognized this need and kept alive the idea of re-launching the newspaper at some point.

“Year after year it was a constant thought with us,” Murguia said. “There was a group of about four of us and we kept copies around and we kept saying to each other that we would bring it back.”

A 2005 study by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists looked at coverage of Latino communities and issues in American weekly news magazines. It showed that, in the few stories that were published about these communities, the coverage was focused almost exclusively on migrants as a problem for U.S. society.

A report on the study’s findings said the number of Latino sources in stories was too low, the word “illegal” appeared too frequently and hurtful stereotypes were rarely challenged. It concluded: “Sadly, such representations may often make it difficult for Latinos to also see themselves beyond these one-dimensional depictions.”

Marzulli put it more bluntly. “The driving force to re-launch the paper has been the consistent and steadfast anti-immigrant and downright racist reporting that takes place in the majority of, if not all, mainstream media outlets,” he said. “The importance of Venceremos is the voice and perspective that it offers to counter that racism.”

Last year Murguia was able to use a communication department internship to finally do what she and Marzulli had talked about for years. Venceremos is in production once again, but the small staff still struggles to keep the newspaper afloat. Murguia said the first issue had to be written, designed and laid out on her personal laptop computer. The staff shares space with the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs in the Olpin Student Union building.

She said they were able to get funding from the University Publications Council, which provided half of what they needed. Other sources, including the departments of humanities and social work, provided the rest.

“That was enough to just do the first issue, to cover the cost of printing and distribution,” Murguia said. “But it didn’t help us to get any equipment or our own space to produce the next issues.”

She said similar funding has been secured for the production of future issues and she is also selling advertising space.

“It’s frustrating starting from scratch again,” she said. “Not only raising money, getting funding, but also a lack of existing infrastructure. But it’s something I have to do.”

Sandra Plazas is the co-founder and current editor of local Spanish-language newspaper Mundo Hispano. She understands Murguia’s drive to make Venceremos a reality. Plazas and her mother worked alone for months in the dining room of their two-bedroom apartment to create their publication, and for many of the same reasons.

“You feel a sense of mission, a need to give voice to your community,” Plazas said during an interview at her office. “You also want to let people know the things that are important for them to know. You want to show what services are available and educate newcomers about what they need to do in order to live here.”

Murguia said the second issue of the new Venceremos will be distributed in late April and an issue will follow every three months after that. Eventually she would like to make it a monthly, or even a weekly, publication. At some point, if her plans succeed, Murguia may be forced to consider a name change for the newspaper — to something like Ganamos! We won.

Straight allies are voices, advocates of LGBT community

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

“Allies are those who are willing to be vocal and advocate for equal opportunities,” said Whit Hollis, director of the Olpin Student Union, in a short video presented at the beginning of “The Straight Ally: Putting the A in LGBTQ” panel at the University of Utah on Oct. 17, 2007.

In support of the LGBT Resource Center’s Pride Week 2007, U students and faculty filled more than 50 desks in a classroom at the Union building to listen, learn and ask questions about what it means to be an ally of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer community. “You have the choice to help everyone, but you don’t have the time or resources to save the world so you choose your passion,” said Esther Kim, a panelist and student at the U.

A straight ally is someone who accepts, supports and respects members of the LGBTQ community. An ally also can be someone who is an activist for equality, fairness and justice.

“As a student of color, I have always felt comfortable making connections with a minority group and my experience has been that I am the voice and advocate for the LGBTQ community,” Kim said.

While Kim appreciates the ally to be acknowledged as part of LGBTQ, panelist Matt Basso, a professor of gender studies, feels uncomfortable because it’s “normalizing” something. “It is a reminder for ‘normal’ individuals to remember to be activists, but the ally tag should remind me to not walk in life easily,” Basso said.

Allies can be some of the most effective and powerful voices for the LGBTQ community. Not only can they assist in the coming-out process, but they can also inform others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance. “Allies are people who take the time to consider how other people affect them and their identities, and work towards a better understanding of people who might be different than themselves,” said Bonnie Owens, staff intern for the LGBT Resource Center.

When it comes to creating awareness of LGBTQ issues, Octavio Villalpando, a panelist and the associate vice president for the Office of Diversity, believes one of the failures in the education system is not exposing students to inequality and issues of diversity. “Students going to school for 12 years and still not knowing about LGBTQ issues until college is a problem,” he said.

Kari Ellingson, associate vice president for student development, shared a personal story with the audience. While driving her son and his friend to West High School, Ellingson overheard her son’s friend say “that’s gay.” When she pulled the car over and asked what the phrase meant to him, he was speechless and didn’t realize how his words had impacted someone else. “It’s for us parents to take action and advocate our children on issues they may not face or hear about in high school,” Ellingson said.

Panelist Becky McKean, who works as an administrative assistant for the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, believes everyone needs access to education without barriers. “I am LDS and when I accepted my current job, I was honest and asked permission to ask questions about the people I would be working with,” she said. “I discovered how many things I take for granted. For example, I rarely have to question being accepted or go to a place where I feel unsafe.” As an ally, she supports the idea of allowing individuals to be who they are and encourages people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before making assumptions.

Although Pride Week is a step toward celebration and forming conversations, “there never is only one issue and if you open up conversations, you will get new ideas from everyone,” McKean said. Ellingson admits that there still are battles to fight, but she also recognized the LGBT Resource Center for doing a great job at reaching out to students, faculty and the community.

Basso believes it’s about finding common ground and knowing that you can somehow relate to everyone you encounter without having any expectations. “At universities, it is easier to be an ally and have those discussions, but we need to create more dialogue and awareness,” Basso said.

Owens says allies are a growing part of the community and represent new theoretical terrain for the fields of gender and sexuality. “I thought it was important to host the straight ally panel because it shows dedication and commitment to our ally community on campus and it reaffirms our relationship to academics and the growing awareness of our communities and identities,” Owens said.