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October 24, 2005
CNN's O'Brien embraces her own diversity
CNN news anchor Soledad O'Brien will visit Indianapolis Wednesday as part of Butler University's Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series. The fifth of six children born to a black Cuban mother and an Australian father of Irish descent, she can claim multiple heritages, and embraces them all.
O'Brien chatted by phone with Star reporter Courtenay Edelhart recently about racial identity and the challenges of being a working mom.
Question: Your full name is Maria de la Soledad O'Brien, which kind of says it all for a diversity conference speaker. How did your parents deal with the issue of race as you were growing up, or did they mention it at all?
Answer: They did. My mom used to say all the time, "You're a black girl. You're a light-skinned black girl with freckles." They did a good job of saying who I was and what I was. They never tried to spin it or whatever. I've spoken to a lot of audiences of biracial people, and I've met a lot of young people who were really confused about their identity. I tell them, "You owe it to yourself to figure out who you are and know who you are, but you don't owe it to anyone else to explain it or defend it."
Q: Did you speak Spanish at home?
A: No. I wish, but no. I think my mom felt it wouldn't be good for my dad, because he didn't speak any Spanish at all. But it would have been nice to be bilingual. It would have made my life much easier later.
Q: How did you feel about having the option of checking more than one racial classification box on the 2000 Census, and which ones did you check?
A: I checked all the ones that applied, and I loved it. I thought I was totally messing up the system. An archaic and bizarre system. If the system doesn't keep up with who a lot of us are, that's their problem.
Q: What do you think of news media coverage of multiracial individuals and multiracial families? Is it fair and accurate?
A: I don't think there's that much of it. There's not enough to make it not fair or inaccurate. It just doesn't exist.
Q: You've been profiled in Hispanic magazine and you've been on the Essence magazine list of 40 under 40. Those are understandable, because you'd expect the black and Latino communities to embrace you. But you also were named one of the top 100 Irish Americans by Irish American Magazine. How did that feel?
A: My uncle called me after that and he was like, "Oh, you just look so Irish to me." One of the things I have found very nice is that I can represent to a lot of different people a lot of different things. There's something very cool about that, honestly.
Q: You have five siblings, and all of you went to Harvard. What was it about your upbringing that produced such obscene overachievers?
A: I think my parents really put a premium on education, but there was more of a sense that they wanted us to be happy. People always say to me, "Your parents must be so proud you're on TV." But they couldn't care less. They were much more concerned about us becoming good citizens and good human beings, and fulfilling our potential.
Q: You have a challenging career and four children under the age of 5. How do you balance work and family life?
A: I don't think balance is a good word, because you never really find a balance. You just try to make it through the chaos. Work is interesting and challenging, and sometimes it's really hard. You just sort of make it work because you want to do it. . . .
My job is done at 10:30 in the morning if I want it to be. I pick everyone up from preschool at noon. I get to eat with them and put them in a tub and tuck them in. That's a real luxury. And my husband is very involved and helps a lot. So I don't feel I really have a right to complain. It can be overwhelming, and twins are very hard, but at a certain point you have to have some perspective. Enjoy the good parts and try to make it through the bad parts and know that this stage will end.
Q: You dropped out of Harvard to take a job at WBZ-TV in Boston, but returned to finish your degree while pregnant with your first child. Why?
A: Yes. That was fun, being pregnant and being surrounded by all these Harvard freshmen. No one really cared if I went or not, but it was important to me to finish. I was working weekends, and I'd go up during the week. If you want it badly enough, you'll do it.
Q: You've covered tons of stories that must pull at your heart strings. The tsunami in Thailand, and Hurricane Katrina. How do you maintain professional objectivity reporting on things like that?
A: In a way, while you're reporting it's not so bad. I spoke at a conference the other day and played the tsunami tape and I was bawling. It was embarrassing. It's much harder to look at it afterward as a viewer. But most of the time, when you're in it, you're trying to bring out the best interview possible and you're focused on that. But again, perspective: How can I possibly complain? I'm not a hurricane refugee. I have my home, and my children are healthy, and my family is not spread over four shelters in three states. It makes you grateful.
Call Star reporter Courtenay Edelhart at (317) 444-6481.
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