Racial identity in this country has been a historically controversial and confusing topic. From the beginning of colonialism in North America to the present, multiracial people have made up significant numbers within the population of the country. Today, in the year 2017, the number of Americans identifying as one or more races totals over 9 million. So why has the option of legally identifying as more than one race only been available since 2000? Why is Barack Obama referred to as the first Black president and not the 44th white president, when his mother happens to be white? Why are multiracial people often erased in society and left confused about their racial identity?
As the offspring of a Japanese father and white mother, I’ve often encountered confusion when it comes to expressing my racial identity to others, while attempting to embrace every part of my heritage. One of the questions I am asked the most is, “What are you?”, to which the person has already drawn his or her own conclusions. At first glance, people try to categorize me by how I look — Mexican, Filipina, Indian, Hawaiian, Samoan, or Native American, being some of the most prevalent. And even once I answer, no one is quite satisfied with “Japanese and Italian.” To white people, I am seen as Asian, to Asian people I am seen as white, and rarely am I ever identified by others as both. I have been consistently confused about who I am, and where my identity fits in different communities.
One major contributor to this identity confusion that I’ve observed is the polarization of race. Race is often seen as a dichotomy, as either “white” or “colored.” Patricia J. Williams, legal scholar and advocate for critical race theory, explains the views of race and lack of race in her essay “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “This is a dilemma—being colored, so to speak, in a world of normative whiteness, whiteness being defined as the absence of color…the notion of whiteness as “race” is almost never implicated.” In her essay, she explains the separation of whiteness and color, how despite any multiculturalism in her heritage she is only seen for her “color”, more specifically, for her “blackness.” A familiar example that prevailed throughout the life of Jim Crow laws was the “one-drop rule” that mandated that people’s race was based solely on whether they had any Black ancestry, or at least “one drop” of Black blood.
This “one-drop rule” has prevailed historically in America. From my personal perspective and experience, I find that for many in this country I am not “white enough” in order to consider myself such. Despite the majority of my mother’s family being Italian, and being raised to identify as such, it can be difficult to exist in the Italian-American community, given my perceived “otherness” when I’m outwardly read as “not white” despite my having that heritage. When my white peers tell me that they don’t see race, they do so in order to make me feel included; yet the fact that they have to confess that reveals to me that they do in fact see color and choose to pretend that it doesn’t exist or matter. As a result, multiracial individuals are often stuck in this binary of race, in between “having a color” or not.
The US Census also participates in this reductive conception of race, which, until the year 2000, required one to choose a single race. Predicaments of having to pick one category has forced multiracial Americans to legally identify themselves as only one of “their races”, or resort to choosing “other” when filling out their forms. These boxes are symbolic of a larger social issue that plagues multiracial people, suggesting to them that when you embody more than one race, you are something else altogether.
This binary often ends up categorizing people so generally that the only remaining racial identifiers become, respectively, those who are white and those who are of color. And although these definitions can help to foster community and further progress for different ethnic groups, these definitions also lose the nuance that provides clarity for finding one’s own identity. Where do you fall when you are of color, yet also have white heritage? Am I to forget the Italian side of my family and only be Japanese, if the color of my Asian side renders my whiteness invisible? Could I ever possibly exist as both, when each seem to conflict? How can we see the racial diversity our population represents when everything is one or the other?
And why, exactly, is this factor of inclusion is so vital? What is it that makes us not want to choose one, and instead seek multiple groups of ethnic and racial identities? In her exploration of multiracial identities, Sarah E. Gaither states, “…pressure of having to “choose” one of their racial groups is a primary source of psychological conflict [for multiracial individuals].” When having to choose one identity, children may feel they are disrupting family structure, and if they feel they share racial identity with only one of their parents, may think that they are demonstrating favoritism. Gaither goes on to state that “By the age of four they [multiracial children] understand skin color, and they tend to worry about rejecting one of their parents.” Psychologically, this guilt ripples, leading multiracial individuals who identify as such to experience “decreased self esteem when asked to choose only one racial identity.” These factors all lead to identity crises, leading us to wonder—how can we see the racial diversity our population represents when everything is one or the other? How do we define ourselves?
One prominent example of this identity crisis is President Barack Obama; his mother is white and his father is Kenyan. After the 2010 census, Obama revealed that he had singularly identified himself as African American. Many were critical of this decision, and called into question the validity of his black identity because of his upbringing by a white family. Similarly, multiracial author Elizabeth Chang criticizes him for not selecting both black and white, citing the need for biracial figures in the media. “Here is an important consequence when our president does not acknowledge half of his heritage, or, more basically, the mother and grandparents who raised him, or even his commonality with his sister, who is also biracial, though with a different mix. If the most powerful person in this country says that because society thinks he looks black, he is black, it sends a message that biracial children have to identify with the side they most resemble.” Obama later stated “I self-identify as an African American. That’s how I am treated and that’s how I am viewed and I’m proud of it.”
Barack Obama claiming only one identity aligns closely with the results of a study conducted at Stanford University in 2012. This study found the trend that Latinx/white and Black/white participants were more than twice as likely to identify solely with the racial minority side of themselves, and this likelihood drastically increased if their socioeconomic status growing up was working class, as opposed to middle class. Perhaps due to the factors of President Obama coming from a working class family and being African American affected this. Perhaps it would be different for another biracial counterpart.
Although I found it difficult to identify as white growing up, now I feel as though it is an aspect of my racial identity I cannot ignore. Even when I am too often a victim of the discrimination and oppression that people of color like myself face, I still benefit from systemic white privilege. The social benefits my mother receives are often privileges I am afforded in her presence. One crucial example of these social privileges occurred last March, at a mall in Seattle, Washington. I entered a women’s clothing store that I often shop at. As I browsed, three white salespeople followed me, watching closely as though I was about to steal, and I noticed that the other white teenage girls who entered the store were greeted warmly by other sales clerks. I felt uncomfortable and left, wondering what exactly made me look so suspicious. Later that same day, my mother joined me at the mall and we returned to the same store. We walked in together, and the same salespeople who had followed me earlier rushed to greet us and offered to help us find clothes to try on, a stark contrast to how I was treated previously while alone. After leaving, I was struck with the realization that when I am with her and identified as her daughter, as a person who is also white, I am not targeted by racially motivated discrimination as much as I would be individually. In a way, despite my appearance, her being white deracialized me and protected me under her umbrella of white privilege.
But it is also crucial to note that many multiracial people do not have white backgrounds, and are not recipients of such privileges. Still within society’s definition of having color or not we lose differentiation of what these colors (representative of ethnicities) may be. If one’s heritage represents a multitude of non-white races, it makes them more inclined to identify as both or all of their races.
I was able to gain more insight from fellow multiracial youth on the topic of identity when I had the privilege of attending the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, which took place over the course of three days in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference, attended by thousands of independent high school students from around the world, focused on cross cultural communication, social justice, and personal expression. For a large part of the conference we broke into affinity groups that represented different races, sexual orientations, and genders. I chose to go to the Biracial/Multiracial affinity group, affectionately called MultiCulti, which was comprised of just over 100 other teenagers and was facilitated by four multiracial adults.
In this affinity group, we began an activity with one person holding out their hands and saying “I am Black on my left hand, and white on my right hand.” If someone was one of the same races, they would interlock their fingers with that person’s, introduce themself and their racial identity, and then someone with one similar race would hold their hand and do the same. In a short period of time, the entire room had become one chain. We sat on the floor for one more moment, and I was stuck in awe as we glanced around at one another. Our hands remained linked, connecting every single person. We came from around the world, yet had one thing in common: multiculturalism.
In the latter part of the session we split into smaller subgroups to discuss topics related to multiracial experience. I moved to one examining interracial relationships and fetishization. Someone brought up the recent news articles praising interracial marriage and multiracial children as the future, and about how they were happy that they were seeing the words “biracial,” “multiracial,” and “mixed race,” being used more in the media.
One of the prominent articles highlighting the growing multiracial population is the famous National Geographic piece, “The Changing Face of America,” which centered Jordan Spencer, an 18 year old biracial girl, as the face of the future. The article explored the upward trend of interracial marriages and so-called “post-racial” society. Yet the other photos for the National Geographic slideshow depicted a somewhat uniform appearance of this future multiracial population. In a collage of 25 individuals, the vast majority of them had light, tanned skin, blue or green eyes, and lighter curly hair. As I stood in the SDLC affinity group conference room, I noticed a rather small number of mixed race teens today who fit that narrow definition of what multiracial people should look like, and perhaps will look like in the future. It seems odd to me that a leading publication would ascribe a phenotypically “white” face to a multiracial population, when it includes more ethnic groups than any other single ethno-racial group.
Similar articles express the personal and societal benefits of diverse heritage. A New York Times article, “What Biracial People Know,” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff underscores the positive traits exhibited in biracial people as early as three months old. One significant study on these benefits cited in the article was conducted by psychologist Kristin Pauker, at University of Hawaii. She discovered that biracial infants were more capable of identifying a range of faces compared to their monoracial peers. Another study cited in the article was by professor Sarah Gaither at Duke University. She noted that biracial people, in conjunction with identity flexibility (or being able to switch between their racial identities), displayed higher levels of cognitive flexibility in problem solving situations requiring creativity and mental adaption. Velasquez-Manoff’s article draws the conclusion that racial stereotyping will become more difficult in the future as the multiracial population and its representation increases, suggesting that perhaps “we are moving in that direction [towards post-racial society].”
But do these racism-ending, world-saving communal spaces truly exist? The trends of discrimination towards multiracial people say no. A 2015 survey by Pew Research unsurprisingly reported that more than 60% of biracial adults were subjected to different forms of racism, spanning from jokes and slurs to unfair police stops. Those visibly identified as people of color experienced similar levels of racism to those of monoracial people of color. These similar experiences of racial oppression between multiracial and monoracial people often draw people together, which can be beneficial when it comes to communal empathy. But at the same time, many multiracial people end up identifying themselves as the only race that others associate them with, subsequently challenging the idea of so called post-racial society.
And in a survey I conducted of 165 diverse individuals, the majority believed that multiracial people had very different racially based experiences from their monoracial peers; yet the aforementioned studies challenge this social belief. Could this incorrect perception be separating the groups even further? Another study of multiracial individuals found that less than half felt they had commonalities with other multiracial people, even those who happen to be of their racial grouping. Why is it that multiracial people have difficulty connecting to those who fall within their own ethno-racial group?
One possible cause of the lack of community formation—seemingly essential to purging society of racism—is the terminology used for identification of multiracial individuals. Small differences in rhetoric, such as saying ‘I am half Asian and half white” instead of “I am Asian and white” have underlying connotations that identity can be reduced to fractions and percents of “color”. This logic can lead to the view from monoracial people that someone identifying as halves and quarters of races may not be “enough” to claim the race, and consequently not enough to participate in its culture. Afro-Latino singer Miguel chronicles his struggle in his song “what’s normal anyway” as he feels “too proper for the Black kids, too Black for the Mexicans…I never feel like I belong, I wanna feel like I belong.”
Where can we feel like we belong? Will we ever belong? As the multicultural population of the United States grows, we are slowly beginning to delve into the intricacies of identity for those who represent multiple racial and ethnic groups. But from 2000 to 2010, those identifying as biracial grew over 30%, and still, the lack of solidity in identification has separated groups, leaving many feeling lost or alone when they are ostracized from their own cultures.
Conceivably, this is due to lack of representation and visibility in mainstream American media. Movies and television often provide people with pivotal introductions to cultural norms, enforcing dominant racial ideology. Yet in popular media, interracial relationships are rarely depicted, and when they are, the portrayal is rarely aligned with reality. Interracial couples are portrayed in two main ways in the media. The first includes storylines where racial and cultural differences are never an issue, when casting directors are able to fill roles without attention to race because race is never mentioned. The second way interracial couples are shown in media is when irregularities of their relationship are at the forefront of the narrative. Two recent examples of the latter are Loving, an historical fiction film based on a 1960’s interracial relationship that changed antimiscegenation laws, and Get Out, a horror film about a Black man and difficulties his white girlfriend’s family.
Subsequently, multiracial people are rarely portrayed accurately or even recognized as being multiracial. In the film Aloha, the role of a Native Hawaiian, Chinese and white girl was filled by Emma Stone, a monoracial white actress. Multiracial people quickly expressed their disapproval, citing the need for more multiracial actors in popular media. And even when multiracial actors are cast, often their full identity is erased, stuck in roles where they portray whatever race they resemble the most. And while it can be beneficial for the careers of multiracial actors when they are able to portray a variety of characters, it often sidelines important topics of racial representation.
In 2016, DC comics announced a new Chinese Superman; many praised the creator for finally giving the famous superhero a racially different persona, stating that an Asian Superman could do wonders for representation. And while I agree that representing people of color is great and certainly needed, the authors of these articles leave out an important detail—we’ve already had an Asian Superman. From 1993 to 1997, Dean Cain, a Japanese and white man, played Superman in the wildly popular Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. But because Clark Kent was seen as a white character, and Dean Cain passed as monoracially white, he is rarely recognized as an Asian Superman, and overall had little impact on Asian representation on television.
Reflecting on my own childhood, I cannot remember seeing any interracial relationships or multiracial characters in any television shows or movies. And even as I grew older and began to slowly see these roles increase, it was almost always insignificant background storylines and characters inserted into shows for the tokenization value of diversity, rather than for dynamic storytelling. I did not see faces like mine, I did not see families like mine, and I did not see identities like mine. When I finally began to see people like my parents on screen beside one another, rarely were they in a relationship with one another.
A 1998 study done by Motivational Educational Entertainment showed that the majority of American children agree that racial representation is important; 84% agreed seeing characters racially similar to them made them feel more important and included. The year 2013 marked the pilot of trailblazing television show Sanjay & Craig, the first American children’s show with a biracial protagonist. Finally, multiracial children were presented with a positive role model. But as groundbreaking as this is, it is only one show, and its multiracial character only represents one racial makeup of a multitude that multiracial people represent.
So how can we expect that multiracial children will know how to identify when they never see others with similar identities? How will multiracial children find confidence in their racial backgrounds when they’re so often being pushed into single identifications? How do we make space for multiple identities in a system where race seems so dichotomous?
After researching this phenomenon, interviewing multiracial people, conducting surveys, and reflecting on my own life experiences, I do not think that there is one solution. To solve issues of discrimination, erasure, and identity crises of multiracial people would require dismantling the substantial and complex systemic racism that affects so many aspects of the American social fabric. I think that perhaps the only way to address multiracial identities and confront the issues surrounding them is to first begin acknowledging their existence and validity. By listening to personal experiences of multiracial individuals and ignoring the racial boxes we instinctively aim to capture the identities of people in, we can start to tackle one dimension of racism within our country.
Months ago, I stood in the Student Diversity Leadership Conference multiracial affinity group, enjoying the moments before we would shuffle out of the conference room and into lunch. I took time to observe the many faces surrounding me. This was the first, and possibly the last, time I’d been in such a large space surrounded only by other multiracial people. Someone pulled out a Polaroid camera, and snapped a photograph. It emerged blank, then slowly developed into a vivid image of our smiling faces. Earlier that day, we’d discussed the articles praising mixed race people as the future, a post racial America said to be 50 years from now. But maybe they are wrong, I thought. I looked at the colorful faces in the photo and realized that we are not just the future. We have been here. We are here. We will be the future, but we are also the past, and perhaps most importantly, we are the present.
Today, I’ve stopped saying that I’m half white and half Asian, and started saying that I am both. And in addition to these two, I am proud to embrace a third part of myself, a word that encompasses my other two racial identities but bears so many of its own unique dimensions—multiracial.