Multiracial Identities

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Multiracial Identities









Racial boundaries in the United States have historically been constructed in such a manner that racial groups and identities have been viewed as rigid and mutually exclusive categories of experience. These boundaries have been constructed and reinforced through rule of hypodescent— a social code that forces the offspring of interracial unions to identify with only one of their backgrounds—coupled with pervasive state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Together, these mechanisms have helped to obfuscate, if not completely obscure, the complex history of racial blending in the United States. However, since the removal of the last antimiscegenation laws in 1967 (through the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia), growing numbers of individuals, especially the offspring of interracial marriages, have asserted multiracial identities that reflect their various backgrounds. The growth of a multiracial consciousness is reflected in a movement initiated in the late 1970s to change standards in racial-data collection at the federal, state, and municipal levels to allow for the expression of these multiracial identities.


The rule of hypodescent has historically suppressed the expression of a multiracial identity by relegating the racial group membership of the offspring of unions between European Americans and Americans of color exclusively to their background of color (e.g., Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander American, Latino American, African American). This rule has been such an accepted part of U.S. racial “common sense” that its oppressive origins have often been obscured. European Americans began enforcing the rule of hypodescent in the late 1600s in order to draw social distinctions between themselves and subordinated groups of color. The rule was implemented primarily to regulate interracial sexual relations and, more specifically, interracial marriages in an attempt to preserve so-called white racial purity. However, hypodescent has also helped maintain white racial privilege by supporting other legal and informal barriers to racial equality in most aspects of social life, reaching extreme proportions at the turn of the twentieth century with the institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation. These barriers have existed in various forms in public facilities and other areas of the public sphere, such as the educational, occupational and political structure, as well as in the private sphere (e.g., neighborhoods, associational preferences, and interpersonal relationships).

The rule of hypodescent has been applied most stringently (depending upon the background of color) to the first-generation offspring of European Americans and Americans of color. Meanwhile, successive generations of individuals with European ancestry and a background of color have typically not been designated exclusively, or even partially, as members of that group of color if the background is less than one-fourth of their lineage. For these multigenerational individuals, self-identification with the background of color has been more a matter of choice. However, this flexibility has not been extended to individuals of African American and European American descent. Both the first-generation offspring of interracial relationships between African Americans and European Americans and later-generation descendants have experienced the most restrictive variant of the rule of hypodescent: the one-drop rule.

The one-drop rule designates everyone with any amount of African American ancestry (“one-drop of blood”) as black. It precludes any choice in self-identification and ensures that all future offspring of African-American ancestry are socially designated as black. Though variations of the rule of hypodescent have been applied elsewhere to individuals with varying degrees of African ancestry (such as in South Africa), the one-drop rule is unique to the United States. It emerged between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and had the benefit of exempting white landowners (particularly slaveholders) from the legal obligation of passing on inheritance and other benefits of paternity to their multiracial offspring. By the 1920s, the one-drop rule had become the common-sense definition of blackness, and it had been internalized among the vast majority of African-descent Americans.

U.S. attitudes toward the offspring of unions between African Americans and other groups of color (e.g., Native Americans) have varied. More often than not, these individuals have been subject to the one-drop rule. However, there has been greater ambivalence regarding the classification of offspring whose ancestry reflects the combination of groups of color other than African Americans. This is partially due to the fact that these other groups of color have occupied a more ambiguous position in the U.S. racial hierarchy. For example, individuals of Mexican or Asian-Indian ancestry have been alternately classified as either white or nonwhite, according to federal court decisions, state legislation, and policies of government bureaucracies (such as the Census Bureau). Membership in these groups—except perhaps in the case of Native Americans—has also been less clearly defined in U.S. law. Consequently, the racial subordination of Americans of color by European Americans, while oppressive, has not been the same as that of African Americans. Some members of these groups have sought a more intermediate position in the racial hierarchy by avoiding contact with what they perceived as more subordinate groups of color. Still others have forged multiethnic communities of color. For example, Karen Leonard has traced the formation of Punjabi Mexican American communities in California’s agricultural valleys, while Rudy Guevarra has researched the Mexipino (Mexican and Filipino) community in San Diego.

In the 1960s and 1970s, notions of racial purity that had supported the ideology of white supremacy were increasingly repudiated in the United States. Many European Americans, nevertheless, continued to maintain identities and privileges based on white racial exclusivity that originated in the rule of hypodescent. Moreover, this rule has had some unintended consequences for groups of color, especially African Americans. By drawing boundaries that would exclude Americans of color from having contact as equals with European Americans, it has legitimated and forged group identities among the former that have become the basis for mass mobilization and collective action in the struggle against racial inequality. These dynamics have thus helped reinforce, even if unintentionally, the notion that European Americans (and whiteness) and Americans of color inhabit categories of experience that are mutually exclusive, if not hierarchical, and that they each have an objective and independent existence of their own.


Though many individuals of African-American and European-American descent have internalized the one-drop rule, identifying themselves solely as black, some have engaged in various tactics of resistance to this rule. One historical form of resistance is “passing,” in which individuals of a more European-American phenotype and cultural orientation have made a covert break with the African-American community, either temporarily or permanently, in order to enjoy the privileges of the white community. Though commonly viewed as a form of opportunism, G. Reginald Daniel has argued that “passing may be seen as an underground tactic, a conspiracy of silence that seeks to beat oppression at its own game” (2002, p. 49). Those individuals who were unwilling or unable to pass distanced themselves from the black masses by forming elite groups known as “blue-vein societies.” These societies flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in cities such as Charleston, Philadelphia, Nashville, Louisville, New Orleans, Boston, New York, Atlanta, and particularly Washington, D.C. to mention only a few. Entrance into these exclusive societies depended upon one’s physical and cultural approximation to European Americans. Though such elites vigorously opposed any forms of segregation that would restrict them to African-American social spaces, they understood themselves to be a privileged class of a stigmatized minority. Thus, many were sympathetic to the plight of less fortunate African Americans.

While blue-vein societies constituted an urban elite situated within the African-American community, other multiracial individuals formed communities apart from both blacks and whites, either on the fringes of villages and towns or in isolated rural enclaves. These communities are known as “triracial isolates” because the members of such communities often have varying degrees of European-American, Native American, and African-American ancestry. These groups have historically affirmed only two components of their ancestry, Native American and European American, and some have fought for federal recognition as “nontreaty Native Americans.” Meanwhile, “Creoles of color” in Louisiana and the Gulf ports of Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, sought to maintain the racial privilege and intermediate status they enjoyed during the period of French and Spanish rule in the region. Some resisted the decline in their status after the U.S. annexation of Louisiana (1803) and the Floridas (1810, 1819) by denying any similarity or community with English-speaking African Americans, while others openly challenged the onslaught of segregationist policies in the post-Reconstruction period. Still others attempted to pass for white, while some left for Mexico or the Caribbean.

Generated by racist pressure that has rewarded whiteness and punished blackness, all of the above tactics of resistance devised by multiracial individuals have been less of a reaction to the forced denial of their European-American ancestry than to the denial of the privileges that have accrued to such ancestry. Though challenging and subverting the one-drop rule, these tactics were rarely aimed at challenging the hierarchy between whiteness and blackness. In particular, tactics such as passing and the formation of blue-vein societies shaped and perpetuated a pernicious colorism among African-descent Americans, resulting in the preferential treatment of individuals who have more closely approximated whites in terms of consciousness, behavior, and phenotype.

Though the centrality of regulating racial blackness in U.S. jurisprudence and the entire legal apparatus supporting racial segregation gave African-descent Americans a more immediate impetus for racial passing, ultimately, some degree of social stigma has been attached to all groups of color in the United States. This stigma would provide an incentive for multiracial individuals with other ancestries of color and European background to pass as white. However, the key distinction between the experience of African-descent Americans and other groups of color lies in the more flexible application of the rule of hypodescent to the latter ancestries of color. Typically, individuals with less than one-fourth of a non-African ancestry of color in their lineage may not have even been designated as partially of color, obviating the need for racial passing. Indeed, a number of multiracial individuals have successfully negotiated white identities, despite having known Mexican or other Latino ancestry or Native American ancestry. These have included some of the offspring of intermarriages between elite Mexican landowners and white settlers in California, as well as a few film actors and entertainers of partial Mexican or other Latino descent or Native American descent.


Due to the multidimensional nature of their identity, multiracial individuals operate on the margins of several racial groups. Prior to the 1970s, this marginality, or sense of being “betwixt and between,” was seen as the source of lifelong personal conflict, necessarily resulting in psychological maladjustment and pathology. Admittedly, such theories emerged at a time when the United States was significantly more hostile to the affirmation of a multiracial identity. However, these theorists did not focus on the sociological forces that made psychological functioning difficult for multiracial individuals. Rather, multiracial individuals were characterized as psychologically dysfunctional because this image reinforced what Cynthia Nakashima calls an existing “multiracial mythology” that discouraged racial blending, thereby protecting so-called white racial purity and racial dominance (1992, p. 164). These traditional frameworks were largely based on misinterpretations of the sociologist Robert E. Park’s “marginal man” thesis. Though Park envisioned the marginal man as a person who stood on the margin of two racial/cultural worlds, and thus not fully a member of either world, he nevertheless argued that such a position could provide an individual with a broader vision and wider range of sympathies due to the ability to identify with more than one racial or cultural group.


Increasingly, growing numbers of individuals have begun to embrace a multiracial identity. These individuals consider themselves to be members of more than one racial group, and they have thus challenged traditional U.S. racial categories and boundaries. The expression of this new multiracial identity originated in changes that have taken place since the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation— particularly the removal of the last laws against intermarriage in the 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia— and the implementation of civil rights legislation during the 1950s and 1960s. The comparatively more fluid intergroup relations led to more extensive interracial marriage and a substantial increase in the number of multiracial births. However, up until the 2000 census, statistical surveys did not make it possible to tabulate reliable figures on the population of offspring from these unions. Nevertheless, census data indicate that the number of children born of interracial parentage grew from less than a half million in 1970 to about two million in 1990.


As the number of interracial marriages and of births of multiracial offspring have increased, parents of multiracial children and multiracial-identified individuals have formed support groups and organizations. Such groups have sought to promote healthy images of multiracial children, and they have pursued, among other agendas, the official recognition of a multiracial identity from local, state, and federal agencies. The oldest of such organizations currently in existence, I-Pride (Interracial/Intercultural Pride), founded in 1979 in Berkeley, California, successfully petitioned the local school district to implement an “interracial” category on school forms. Though it was the first such category in U.S. history, it was later restricted to internal district uses only, based on federal regulations that did not allow such a category.

By the 1990s, I-Pride had become part of a coalition of more than fifty other grassroots organizations that had come into existence since the late 1970s, and this coalition began pressuring the federal government to revise its racial-data collection standards, particularly with regard to the decennial censuses. This coalition included the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), a national umbrella organization that represented fourteen support groups based in various metropolitan areas in the United States, and Hapa Issues Forum (HIF), a national organization consisting of individuals of partial Asian/Asian American or Pacific Islander descent. Other organizations included A Place for Us National, a nondenominational religious support network for interracial families, and Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), an activist, informational and educational organization that had successfully advocated for the implementation of a multiracial category on various municipal and state government forms. In terms of the census, these and other organizations, along with individual activists, sought the implementation of a “combined format” that would include a separate multiracial category but would also allow individuals to check all applicable boxes corresponding to their racial backgrounds. (Though an “other” category had been provided on each census since 1910, write-in responses to this category had been reassigned to one of the traditional racial categories until the 1990 Census).

The movement to revise federal data-collection policy was not without controversy. Several traditional civil rights organizations initially objected to the proposed inclusion of a multiracial category to the race question on the census, expressing concern over how such a category might impact the tabulation of data for underrepresented groups of color for the purposes of enforcing civil rights legislation. Specifically, they argued that a stand-alone multiracial identifier would lead to a loss of numbers. Consequently, their opposition was informed in part by the perception that multiracial movement activists were merely seeking to add a stand-alone multiracial category to the race question. Various factors contributed to this erroneous interpretation, including media coverage and the somewhat ambiguous statements of movement leaders themselves.

Furthermore, activists in the movement ultimately split over the racial data collection format they sought to implement. Faced with likely opposition from both traditional civil rights organizations and various government agencies that require data on race and ethnicity, multiracial movement leadership met on June 7, 1997 in Oakland, California, and ultimately withdrew its support for the combined format. Instead, they settled on a revised model presented by Project RACE that recommended a “check more than one box” option without a separate multiracial category. However, the leadership of Project RACE— perhaps under pressure from its constituents—eventually retracted support for its own revised model and returned to its original goal of implementing a “combined format.”

On July 9, 1997, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the branch of government responsible for implementing changes in federal statistical surveys, announced its recommendations for “check more than one box” format without a multiracial category or any mention of the word multiracial in the race question. (Officials in Washington, D.C., were unaware that multiracial movement leaders had arrived earlier at a similar proposal.) Following the OMB recommendations, organizations such as Hapa Issues Forum and the AMEA elicited support from traditional civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Japanese Americans Citizens League, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, for the check more than one format. Meanwhile, Project RACE, joined by APUN and other individual activists, continued to advocate for a multiracial category in the combined format.

Their objections were based in part on the fact that individuals who checked more than one box would be retrofitted into the single-racial categories comprising their ancestry for the purposes of civil rights enforcement rather than being counted as a distinct “multiple race” population. Consequently, these activists did not consider the OMB’s recommendations to be a significant advance over methods of data collection and tabulation in previous censuses. Nevertheless, the OMB’s final decision on October 31, 1997 supported the “check one or more” format. Following the OMB’s final decision, the AMEA itself was incorporated in an oversight committee related to the census.

Since the OMB announcement in 1997, some multiracial organizations (such as the AMEA and Project RACE) have focused on securing compliance with recent changes in federal racial classification standards from school districts and state universities. Meanwhile, a number of organizations (such as Swirl, Inc., and the MAVIN Foundation) have been initiated by multiracial adults with the purpose of building and strengthening a panmultiracial community among the growing population of individuals who claim more than one racial background. Swirl Inc. is a New York–based organization with chapters in several major metropolitan areas in the United States and Japan. The MAVIN Foundation is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that has developed a host of projects, including a magazine, a resource book on multi-racial children, and a bone marrow drive, aimed at raising awareness about the needs of multiracial offspring and at fostering a sense of community.

In the early twenty-first century, both the MAVIN Foundation and the AMEA are working together on a national resource center for research on multiracial families and offspring. Similarly, multiracial student organizations have proliferated on college and high school campuses through the United States. Furthermore, the growth of the Internet has facilitated the formation of an online multiracial-identified community, reflected in a variety of Web sites and Web logs (or blogs) that encompass a range of perspectives with regard to the politics of race. These include online journals that have been established since the mid- to late-1990s, such as Interracial Voice and the Multiracial Activist, as well as more recently formed sites, such as Mixed Media Watch.


A multiracial identity is not indicative of someone who simply acknowledges the presence of various ancestries in their background. Consequently, this identity differs from members of traditional U.S. racial groups, such as African Americans or Latino/Hispanic Americans, who may have (and acknowledge) multiple racial backgrounds but affirm monoracial (i.e., single-racial) identities. Multiracial individuals seek to replace these one-dimensional identities with more multidimensional configurations. In addition, a multi-racial identity bears similarity to, yet is not synonymous with, a multiethnic identity. The latter is displayed by individuals who consider themselves to be members of several groups that are thought to be racially similar but culturally different (e.g., English American–Swedish American or Chinese American–Japanese American). Though both sets of identities may incorporate and reflect the sense of bridging culturally distinct communities, a multiracial identity incorporates the axis of racial difference that has been the more significant basis for social inequality in the United States.

Likewise, a multiracial identity is not the same as a multicultural identity. A multicultural identity is applicable to any individual who, irrespective of ancestry, displays a general openness and sensitivity to racial and cultural differences. Thus, they have an affinity with the values, beliefs, and customs of more than one racial or cultural context due to an exposure to multiple racial and cultural groups. By comparison, multiethnic individuals feel a sense of kinship with several groups directly in response to the multiple cultural backgrounds in their genealogy. Similarly, multiracial individuals feel a sense of kinship with several groups directly in response to the multiple racial backgrounds in their genealogy. Exposure to these backgrounds enhances this feeling of kinship, though simple awareness of them can bring about this sentiment.

The new multiracial identity, unlike previous forms of resistance to the rule of hypodescent, is not premised on the desire to gain privileges that would be precluded by identifying oneself as a person of color. Consequently, this identity is not synonymous with the divisive colorism perpetuated by tactics such as passing and the formation of blue-vein societies. Nor it is the equivalent of efforts to claim and maintain a less subordinate position in the racial hierarchy, as with the strategies of the triracial isolates and some Creoles of color. Rather, the new multiracial identity contests the mutually exclusive nature of U.S. racial boundaries, and it challenges the hierarchical valuation of racial (and cultural) differences. This identity recognizes the commonalities among various communities in the manner of integration while simultaneously appreciating their differences in the manner of pluralism. Moreover, this identity is premised upon the equal valuation of racial and cultural differences and similarities between various communities. Consequently, those communities are seen as relative, rather than absolute, extremes on a continuum of grays.


Beginning in the 1980s, a new wave of research emerged that challenged and refuted earlier theories of marginality that stressed psychological dysfunction. The researchers doing this work have agreed that multiracial-identified individuals may experience various ambiguities, strains, and conflicts in a society that views racial identities as mutually exclusive categories of experience. Yet such potentially negative feelings associated with marginality can be counterbalanced by an increased sensitivity to commonalities and an appreciation of racial and cultural differences in interpersonal and intergroup situations. More recent studies have shown little difference between multiracial offspring and their monoracial counterparts on various measures of psychological adjustment and self-esteem. Furthermore, researchers have focused on how the articulation of a multiracial identity has become more commonplace among the offspring of interracial marriage (even among black-white offspring), although some individuals may select more traditional monoracial identities.

Figures from Census 2000 indicate that, nationwide, 2.4 percent of the population, or 7.3 million people, identified with more than one race in 2000. The largest combination was White and “Some Other Race,” constituting 32 percent of the “Two or More Races” population, followed by White and American Indian/Alaskan Native (17%), White and Asian (12%), and White and Black (11%). These four combinations constituted more than 70 percent of the Two or More Races population. Given that the Census Bureau treats Latinas/os separately as an ethnic group with the option of selecting one or more racial categories, it is difficult to discern which multiple-race responses are representative of the products of Latino intermarriage. However, nearly one in three (31%) of those who identified with two or more races also identified as of Hispanic or Latino origin, perhaps

Table 1.
The Twelve Largest Two or More Race Combinations on the 2000 Census
CombinationNumber% of U.S Pop% Two or More Races Pop.
a Note: The percentages do not sum to 100.0 due to rounding.
b“All other combinations” includes the remaining 45 combinations of individuals reporting more than one race. None of the remaining combinations totaled more than 100,000 people.
SOURCE: Adapted from U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2005. “We the People of More Than One Race in the United States.” Census 2000 Special Reports, table 1 and figure 1.
White; Some
other race
White; American
Indian and Alaska
White; Asian862,0320.3111.9
White; Black
or African
Black or African
American; Some
other race
Asian; Some
other race
Black or African
American; American
Indian and Alaska
Asian; Native
Hawaiian and Other
Pacific Islander
White; Black;
American Indian
and Alaska Native
White; Native
Hawaiian and
Other Pacific Islander
American Indian
and Alaska Native;
Some other race
Black or African
American; Asian
All other

reflecting the more extensive historical patterns of racial blending and the more widespread acknowledgment of this phenomenon in some Latino countries of origin. The largest percentage of the Two or More Races population (40%) was concentrated in the western United States, with Hawaii, Alaska, and California reporting the highest percentages of multiracial-identified individuals out of the fifty states. Considering the ever-increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States, as well as the increased opportunities for intergroup contact due to the greater integration of persons of color into the public and private sphere, the numbers of multiracial-identified individuals will certainly continue to grow in the United States.


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G. Reginald Daniel

Josef Castañeda-Liles