Mixed results: The challenges of being multiracial go well beyond a checkmark
By Amolak Singh
“German, British, Black, Irish, Native … I think that’s it.”
This is how Elizabeth Wiley, 15, of St. Paul describes herself. However, on most forms, she can only mark herself as “mixed”—which doesn’t begin to capture the extent of her ethnic diversity.
While some steps have been taken to offer greater classification and clarity for a new multiracial generation—for instance, 2000 marked the first time that people could identify as more than one race on the United States Census—it isn’t true of every form or application.
And let’s face it: “Multiracial is a big word,” said Carolyn Liebler, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
With mixed race individuals often further restricted because of how complicated and diverse their backgrounds are, perhaps trickier for them is the desire to claim authenticity with—and “belonging” to—a single racial community, Liebler said.
“There are many complications and factors that play into racial identity, and it is often subjective to the race. For example, Native Americans, even if they have three white grandparents, are almost certainly going to call themselves Native because race is a political issue for them,” said Liebler, who wrote her dissertation on trends within Native American identity.
Change in identity is common, although entirely unpredictable and random, Liebler said. For example, recent data shows that the number of Native Americans who changed their race from single to mixed is almost the same as the number of Native Americans who changed their race the opposite way. Liebler has yet to find a logical way to explain this.
“At first, we thought it might just be a bunch of teenagers messing around on a form. But then we saw that even old people were doing it,” Liebler said. Further complicating matters is that any noticeable trends in mixed race identity also fail to correlate with gender or class.
It makes sense that personal issues can also influence racial identities, Liebler said. While some multiracial individuals may choose a race that is convenient for them—based on how easy or difficult it is to get a job or a scholarship, for example—others pick their race based on the inherent human desire to fit in. For instance, multiracials who decide to label themselves as a single race often may do so to increase their chances of finding a partner, Liebler said.
“(Mixed race) people are more likely to choose the race of the group of people they live around or are surrounded by,” she said. “While our society is opening up, it still kind of expects us to be of a single race.”
Those who struggle to belong to a single group also experience setbacks in everyday life, said Liebler, who cited a recent study about how mixed race high schoolers struggling with identity often had worse grades and a worse social life than their peers.
The conversation even extends to President Obama. Born of a black, Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama is mixed race, yet doesn’t identify himself that way—even though he has the ability to on federal forms. Despite being raised primarily by his mother, Obama marks himself as black and is considered the “black president, not the mixed race president,” Liebler said.
“Obama made the politically correct choice,” political scientist Robert C. Smith told the Los Angeles Times after Obama’s census choice became public.
“If he had come to Chicago calling himself multiracial, he would have had no political career. And I think if he called himself multiracial now, black people would see it as a betrayal.”
According to the Times, in 2011, the Census Bureau cited that “the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of more than one race in 2010 grew about 32 percent over the last decade. The number of people who identified as both white and black jumped 134 percent, while nearly 50 percent more children were identified as multiracial, making that category the fastest-growing youth demographic in the country.”
Savannah Broadnax, 15, a student at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, said that her racial identity has evolved based on her surroundings. Broadnax’s father is African-American, while her mother is white. Although she considers herself to be black, her identity has shifted with age.
“When I was little, I kept my hair straight, and did other things to try to fit in,” said Broadnax, who went to a mostly white suburban school. ”Now, I’ve really grown to love myself more and be myself, no matter what the situation.”
Though her mom considers Broadnax to be mixed race, she places a greater emphasis on her African-American side.
“At first I really didn’t think about it. But at some point, I realized that everybody considered me black, and so I started to identify myself as African-American,” Broadnax said.
Examining appropriate racial and ethnic classifications has been the focus of Project RACE, a national advocacy organization headquartered in California, since it began in 1991. The organization’s goal to spread awareness has led to legislation for multiracial classifications in multiple states.
“Proper racial identification is important for many reasons. First of all, words matter. What you call people matters. We have seen the name for African-Americans, for instance, change through the years for that very reason,” said Edyn McLeod, 15, vice president of Project RACE’s teen division.
“But it is more than that. Proper racial identification can actually be a life or death issue. Multiracial people are almost invisible in medical data.”
McLeod, of East Brunswick, N.J., was born from a Jamaican-Hungarian father and a Belarusian mother. As the VP of Project RACE, McLeod promotes her organization’s work through social media.
“The way I look at it, I would never want to choose one parent’s race over the other,” she said.
For young multiracials, identity is a lifelong conversation. Since the data can be “messy,” Liebler said, it is more important for mixed race people to think about themselves individually rather than categorically.
Compelling someone to pick a race is not beneficial, she said.
“They should be teaching us, rather than us teaching them. They should tell us what they’re experiencing, because we clearly don’t get it,” Liebler said. “Embracing and exploring is much better than choosing.”
MORE FROM THE RACE ISSUE
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 21 students participated in a ThreeSixty multimedia project centered on microaggressions—or as defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “the daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative racial slights toward people of color.” Check our our photo display here.