Denver’s multiracial population is growing so much it now outpaces NYC, D.C. and San Francisco

Denver’s multiracial population is growing so much it now outpaces NYC, D.C. and San Francisco

Lydia Flynn, 61, put a lot of planning into raising her mixed-race children — intent on protecting them from the prejudices she faced in her youth as a Black girl in Colorado.

Flynn and her siblings were raised in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver, but their mother drove them to Heritage High School in Littleton. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to go to the janitor and have him clean off my locker because somebody put the n-word on it for the 800th time,” she said in an interview.

When Flynn and her ex-husband — a white man of Irish and Scottish descent — first started dating in the 1990s, she recalls whispers about her at his work Christmas party. Her worst memory: A man spat at them.

So, she made a vow to herself to protect her own children as best as she could.

“That’s just important to me — that my kids never feel what I felt,” she said.

Today, the Mile High City looks more like Flynn’s children, with almost 13% of the population identifying as two or more races, according to last year’s Census Bureau data. That’s more than quadruple the national figure of 3%, with a higher percentage of multiracial people than Washington, D.C., at about 7%; New York City at almost 9%; Seattle at around 9%; San Francisco at 9.5%; and Chicago at close to 10%.

Comparatively, the percentage in Los Angeles is the same as Denver: 12.7%. Cities with an even higher percentage include San Diego at 13%, Houston at 15% and Miami at 32%.

Denver isn’t nationally known for its uber-diverse population, with 54% of its residents identifying as white alone and around 29% as Hispanic or Latino. However, multiracial Americans say they’re choosing to live in the city — sometimes, moving from across the country to do so — largely because of its overarching attitude to live and let live.

“Denver represents a beautiful melting pot of everybody,” Flynn said.

Because her family members fell in love with people of other ethnicities, “I didn’t really think dating someone outside my race was such a big deal,” she said.

When she and her then-husband were debating where to live, Flynn researched Denver’s most diverse neighborhoods.

“My neighbors need to look like my family,” she said. “I need to see color; I need to see diversity.”

When they settled on Green Valley Ranch, she thought, “I’m home.”

Her 25-year-old son, Zachary, attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver’s Southmoor Park neighborhood, while her 31-year-old daughter, Lauren, went to George Washington High School near Glendale.

As far as Flynn knows, her children didn’t face racism at school, and are “very proud” of who they are. “It means I did it right,” she added.

Now, her daughter and her wife, who is white, want multiracial children of their own.

“I don’t know when the world kind of pivoted, and it became the cool thing to be the mixed-race kid,” Flynn said. “It’s an awesome thing.”

Lydia Flynn, left, talks with her daughter Lauren at their home in Denver on Dec. 13, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post) 

“A more mixed-race country”

Jennifer Ho, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, called it “relatively new” for Americans to be presented with the choice to identify as more than one race on the U.S. Census, with the agency first allowing self-identification of multiple races in 2000.

It predicts that the country will “become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043,” with no racial group in the majority, but the non-Hispanic white population still counting as the biggest.

If the complicated issue of multiraciality is drilled down to percentages of racial composition of DNA, then “most white Americans and most Black Americans — they’re actually mixed race,” Ho said. In cities like New York City and Los Angeles, “there might actually be numbers of mixed-race people who are simply not identifying as mixed-race.”

The multiracial experience varies not only based on an individual’s skin color, but also their area of residence.

For example, Ho has lived in Boulder County since 2019, which she describes as a “liberal bubble” that identifies racially as about 77% white alone. Despite the area’s progressive politics, some people of color “will tell you that they feel out of place in Boulder,” Ho said.

Meanwhile, she points to Denver as “a much more hospitable place for non-white people.” Driving down Federal Boulevard, passersby will see Vietnamese, Chinese and Spanish languages.

“We are becoming a more mixed-race country,” Ho said. “It’s a hopeful sign that people are making choices about loving people who they want to love, regardless of whatever social, cultural pressures are around.”

Learning identity as an adult

Shabana Waheed, a 41-year-old Commerce City resident, is trying to connect with her paternal Pakistani culture now as an adult. But she’s faced a tough time learning about that part of her identity because her dad — an immigrant from Pakistan — was murdered over three decades ago.

“I feel like there’s a loss there,” she said. “Aside from the fact that my father was killed, I feel like there was an entire piece of my existence that I didn’t have an opportunity to get in touch with.”

Born in Los Angeles, Waheed lived in California until her dad’s death, then moved to Northglenn at 7 years old with her family. Because her mother is a white South Dakota native, “I was raised very white,” she said. “It’s not that my mom withheld my culture from me or anything — it’s just that she didn’t really know it.”

After losing touch with her paternal relatives, Waheed turned to social media and the internet to teach her more about her heritage. She hasn’t yet made connections with Pakistanis in nearby cities like Denver and Aurora, but maintains friendships with other mixed-race residents in her own community.

Upon hearing that multiracial people make up almost 13% of Denver’s population, she said, “I expected that number to be more.”

Now, Waheed is raising two mixed-race children with her husband Matt, who claims Mexican, Spanish and English roots. While she believes it’s important to instill knowledge in her children about their ethnic backgrounds, “I struggle with it,” she said, particularly as she tries to better understand her own identity.

Waheed notes that her children’s life experiences also differ from her own because they’re white-passing: an experience shared by some mixed-race people who “hold a non-dominant racial identity and yet are perceived as white by others,” according to Smith College.

“People need to consider that mixed people also have a very different experience than just being white,” Waheed said. On the other hand, “I know that someone who is Black is going to have a way harder time than myself or my kids.”

“I recognize my own privilege as a mixed person,” she added.

Marilia Oliveira Harris at her home in Denver on Dec. 8, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post) 

“I don’t think I’m leaving anytime soon”

Marilia Oliveira Harris, 39, resided in two other states before making the move to Denver for “a fresh start” in 2020. A Brazilian from the São Paulo area, she’s a descendant of Indigenous peoples, Spaniards, Italians and more.

In Brazil, “I’m considered white,” Harris said in an interview. “Coming here and being a non-white person, it boggled my mind at first.”

She calls herself white-passing. “I look white until I open my mouth and, then, people hear my accent,” Harris said. “I’m pretty aware that I don’t go through the hardships that a lot of people of color go through because of my skin, but I am not free from prejudice either.”

A former colony of Portugal, her home country’s official language is Portuguese, so Brazilians don’t identify as Hispanics, or people “with ancestry from a country whose primary language is Spanish,” Duke University reports. But “here, we are considered Latinos” because Brazil is part of Latin America, Harris said. “I am Latina here, and I can be proud of it.”

Harris first moved to Philadelphia at 21 years old to work as an au pair. She considers the Northeast “more separated.”

“There are areas where only white people live, and, if you’re different and you’re in the area, they’re going to assume you’re a cleaner or a nanny,” Harris said.

She also faced questions about her legal status. “I don’t care because I’m here legally, but I know that could be very triggering for someone who doesn’t have the privilege.”

Harris ran into complications with her visa, and returned to Brazil for college.

In 2008, she married an American citizen and relocated to Texas. In the South, she said she encountered racism and social division over religion, a prominent regional theme.

“I’m a woman. I’m an immigrant. I’m a Latina. I’m a Democrat,” Harris said. “People look at you differently.”

She adopted her now ex-husband’s last name because it garners “less prejudice” than her maiden name, Oliveira. “Having two names that need to be spelled and nobody can pronounce was going to make my life very hard,” Harris said.

During her divorce, she settled in Colorado. With the exception of Aurora, “everywhere I go, it’s white,” Harris said. But the difference is “it’s more rare” for her to experience unwelcome attitudes in Colorado.

“In general, I have felt welcome, safe,” she said. “I don’t think I’m leaving anytime soon.”

Ultimately, Harris wants to remind others that, unless they’re Native Americans, “their families also came from somewhere else.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton identifies as multiracial.