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Excerpt from Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families

    Interviews by Peggy Gilliespie

    Published in 1994

Achild of one white parent and one black parent is called a mulatto. A mulatto may have a very light complexion and appear white, or have darker skin and appear black. Through U.S. history, the mulatto has never fit neatly into America's racial categories. America's third president and a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–09), tried to make a scientific-like formula for mulattos. According to Jefferson's formula, one-fourth African American blood and any white blood made a mulatto.

A more strict formula, the "one drop" rule, became commonplace in the South, where slavery was vital to working the land in support of the plantation (large Southern farms with more than one hundred slaves) economies of the South. Crops, such as cotton, grown by plantations were the basis of the Southern economy and exported to the North and abroad. If a person had as much as one drop of black blood then he was considered black. By the one drop rule, mulattos were black. This enabled slave owners to hold in slavery even persons who were much more white than black. It was common, but not discussed, that a considerable number of slaves' children were offspring of white owners and bosses and black slave women. These offspring were considered slaves.

"Racism has to do with ideas people have in their head. It didn't matter if my skin was lighter than their skin, I could still be discriminated against. Racism is very confusing!"

Long after slavery ended and well into the twentieth century, the one drop rule continued to affect American society. In 1896, Homer Plessy (1862–1925) was, according to U.S. census (a regular official count of people in a country by the government) categories of the time, an octoroon. An octoroon had one-eighth black blood or one great-grandparent who was black. Because Plessy was one-eighth black, he was denied a seat in the section of a train reserved for whites. Plessy sued and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the one drop rule was correct and issued its infamous decision supporting racial segregation, a ruling that stood for decades. Those persons who had any black ancestry were considered black. The one drop rule did not go both ways. If a person had one drop of white blood, that never made him white. In ruling against Plessy, the Court upheld the Jim Crow laws that were becoming popular in the South at the time, enforcing segregation in railway car accommodations and other public places on the condition that the facilities were of equal quality. This decision became known as the "separate but equal" principle—the cornerstone of Jim Crow laws.

Changing U.S. Census Categories

In the first U.S. Census count conducted in 1790, people had to choose between the categories of free white male, free white female, or other. The other category included free blacks, slaves, and Native Americans. By 1890, the census had White, Black, Mulatto (one-half black), Quadroon (one-fourth black), Octoroon (one-eighth black), Chinese, Japanese, and Native American. In the 1910 census, anyone with one drop of black blood, that is with any known black ancestry at all, was considered black. Hence, the 1910 census form no longer listed the categories of Mulatto, Quadroon, or Octoroon.

By 1970, the increasing diversity of the U.S. population was reflected by the census categories: White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut, or Other. These same categories were used in 1980 and 1990. However, in 1990 the inadequacy of these categories was readily apparent as ten million people checked Other. Taking advantage of a self-identification option, Americans wrote in almost three hundred races, six hundred Native American tribes, seventy Hispanic groups, and many different combinations of mixed ancestry. The 2000 Census was adjusted and reflected fifteen categories, including three categories of other: Other Asian; other Pacific Islander; and, some other race. The person was asked to fill in the race in a blank. An individual could mark as many categories as applied.

In the 1920s, at least thirty-eight states had miscegenation (sexual relations between members of different races) laws. These laws prohibited anyone with a single drop of Negro blood from marrying a white. By the 1950s, miscegenation laws still existed in at least sixteen states. Wisdom at the time projected that children of black and white marriages—mulattos—would live their lives confused and maladjusted.

In 1958, a white man, Richard Loving, married Mildred Jeter, a black woman. They made their home in Virginia, where Richard had grown up. Richard was arrested for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law and sentenced to five years in prison. His sentence was suspended on the condition that he and Mildred leave the state and stay away for twenty-five years. The Lovings, who moved to nearby Washington, D.C., sued the state of Virginia. Their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was decided in the Lovings' favor in 1967. The Court decision ended all state anti-miscegenation laws.

America's long history of not accepting mixed-race families took another turn in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of civil rights legislation and black power movements. Because of a great need for adoptive homes for black and mixed-race children, white families began adopting these babies and children. Black organizations, focusing on the development of a positive black identity, contended white families were not able to raise adopted black children to be secure in their racial identity. The National Association of Black Social Workers passed a resolution in 1972 that only black families be allowed to adopt black and biracial children. By the late 1980s, thirty-five states had laws banning white families from adopting black children. These laws were finally abandoned in 1996, when President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) signed legislation eliminating any law that prohibited adoption on the basis of race. At that time, black leaders rejoiced over the end of all legislation in the United States that banned interracial marriage or adoption.

The following excerpt, taken from Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families, are written by young mulattos who share insightful stories of growing up in a black and white family.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families:

  • Despite the many difficulties faced, research has shown biracial people often have a great capacity to adapt and adjust within their communities.
  • Increasingly outspoken, offspring of biracial marriages are playing a special role in society and their communities—bridging gaps among mixed-race people with communication and cooperation.
  • One of the most frequently asked questions of adults entering into mixed race marriages is, what about the children? Concerns included whether the children would look at themselves as black or white and if they grow up feeling like victims of an intolerant American society, not knowing where they fit in, or grow up secure in their uniqueness. The following excerpts from three young adults, each with one black and one white parent, give insight into the question's answer.

Excerpt from Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families


From nursery school to about fourth grade, race and appearance wasn't an issue. Kids cared only about who was the most fun to play with. When the other kids started noticing and pointing out that my father was black and that I wasn't just what I appeared to be, it was a hard change for me.

One of the most significant events in my childhood was traveling down South. I had this huge fear that the Ku Klux Klan (a racist terrorist organization) was going to drag us all off. The Confederate flags all over the place really scared me.

I didn't get any racist comments in junior and senior high. Every once in a while, someone would make a joke about race, without hatred or spite behind it. Like a black kid might say, "Hey, you should be able to dance better because you're black." Or a white kid would joke, "How come you're not better at basketball?"

As a group, multiracial people are very poorly defined. For any minority to be able to move forward, they need to be in the public eye. I now see multiracial women and men n modeling, music, acting, and sports—Hallie Berry, Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul, for example. These people are out there bringing positive attention to multiracial people and to the richness of our dual heritage.

I've often thought that looking white is almost a disguise where I can hear what people think about the other side. There shouldn't be another side, but, unfortunately, I have to live in a world where there are two sides. I do think that I have an obligation to protect who I am and who my family is. When I hear antiblack and antiwhite comments, I try to ease these tensions by telling people about both sides. I confront both the white kids and the black kids.


I was seven when our family went down South. It was my first awareness that our family wasn't "normal." We were walking into a store, and my mom said, "Stay close to me because people might look at us weird." I didn't understand why she was saying that. Then she told me it was because they didn't see that many multiracial families in the South. I didn't understand, and it was frightening. I had never had any warning before.

We did a study about South Africa and apartheid in my elementary school—a predominantly white private school where I was the only one in my class with African ancestry. I asked the other kids, "If I went to South Africa, how would they treat me?" Everyone in the class agreed that the white South Africans would treat me fine because I look white, but if they found out that I was half black, they would hate me. That helped me to understand that racism has to do with ideas people have in their head. It didn't matter if my skin was lighter than their skin, I could still be discriminated against. Racism is very confusing!….


White people normally don't see people like me and my sisters as multiracial. We're not thought of as "half," we're definitely seen as black—and that can be positive or negative. If they find out we're biracial, they're surprised, but it quickly leaves their mind. It's really hard to represent both sides because most people don't see the white side.

I left Nigeria when I was ten, and most of my childhood memories are there. I still speak the language, and I went back to visit my father last summer. I'd like to go to Nigeria for a whole year because I want to be able to function as an adult in the Ibo culture. I want to hold my own and not feel like a visitor. I think I can do that.

Nigerians have a different attitude toward interracial families than do African Americans. Nigerians have not been oppressed as directly by white people as black people in America have been. So while I was growing up in Nigeria, being biracial was never an issue for me. People took notice of our lighter skin color, but there was no value attached to it.

Coming to America was hard for me. I was immediately perceived as black, and I had to learn what it means to be black in America. It was a new thing and a very painful, psychologically twisted thing. I just had to come to terms with it … [T]he popularity thing was so important and because I was one out of a few black kids, I could never have been popular. And before that, I was considered so cute in Nigeria!

I've been remembering how I consciously used to want to be white. I'd look in the mirror and think, "Why can't I look more white?" I would try to figure out what about my features could possibly be mistaken for white. I never had that desire in my life until I moved to America.

I never announce to people that I'm mixed unless it's something I'm talking about for a reason. I'm not trying to push it out of my consciousness. That's what I am, and I accept it. It's not a problem for me now, but I've gone through a lot because of it.

I can't deny that being light-skinned and being very familiar with white culture has helped me in school and at job interviews. And a lot of black guys have fallen into the whole ideal of light-skinned black women [her perception that young black males had a social preference for white or light-skinned women], so it has probably helped me get more dates too. All of this causes resentment in darker-skinned black people. I don't blame them.

One of the biggest underlying reasons why my sisters and I are very concerned with what black people think of us is because the entire society views us as black. We don't really have the option of going into the white world.

I'll marry whomever I fall in love with, but I think it's really hard dealing with being biracial. It sounds so awful, but if I married a white man, my kids would be so light that they'd probably have a very hard time. If I did marry a white man, I don't know where I'd raise our kids, but I cringe to think of raising them in America.

Being biracial is one of those things that makes people say, "It seems like a horrible burden at first, but it could turn out to be a gift." I do appreciate that my mother is white. Because of her, I don't feel completely alienated from a whole segment of the human race. I know my mother and my mother's family, and I totally respect them and love them, so I know that not all white people are bad. I feel much more open-minded.

Being biracial in America, your life could go so many different ways. It could have been all messed up. To me, it's the grace of God that we all came out so well.

What happened next …

By the early twenty-first century, the number of marriages between black and white persons had steadily increased since the 1960s. Likewise, the number of reported births to one black and one white parent increased. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) (, an agency that keeps records of births by race of parents, reported 8,758 births to black and white parents in 1968, 26,968 in 1981, and 52,232 in 1991. During the period from 1968 to 1991, the NCHS reported a total of 616,850 such births. NCHS also estimated that hundreds of thousands more black-white births occurred but were not known because mothers frequently refused to list the race of the father or biracial babies were simply identified as black.

By 2000, America's population was an increasingly diverse racial population. There were over 325,000 black-white marriages. In addition to black-white marriages, the number of other mixed marriages was increasing. Whites and Asians were the most common. One-third of Asian Americans married outside their group. One-fourth of Hispanics married non-Hispanics. U.S. polls indicated that between the 1960s and 2000 acceptance of mixed marriages had steadily increased.

Did you know …

  • Through U.S. history, persons of black and white ancestry whose appearance was predominantly white sometimes chose to live as white and moved far away from home. They were said to be avoiding the whole issue of race as best as possible. Persons passed as whites to escape the real hardships of being black in America. Families often cooperated with the passing relative, but mourned as if the person had died. As black pride took hold in the United States by the 1980s, passing was considered a cowardly action by others.
  • Many mulattos proudly chose to identify with the black race. Pressure from their black community to identify as black sometimes influenced their decision.
  • Increasingly in the twenty-first century, young people who were biracial were proud of their biracial ancestry. Mulatto teens believed they had the right to flow back and forth between races.

Consider the following …

  • How much does an individual's appearance—skin color, hair, eyes—affect the identity search all young people make: a search for who they are, what is their unique identity?
  • Consider a mulatto teenager's predicament. He/she loves both black and white sides of the family. Mulatto teens say pressure can come from both black and white friends to choose one group over the other. Black friends ask if they are too "good" to identify with blacks. White friends pull them to identify with their groups. Discuss within class or a small group the many different issues a mulatto teen must deal with.
  • Should the United States stop collecting information on race in its census and simply identify all U.S. citizens as Americans? Assess the pros and cons.

For More Information


Cruz, Barbara C. Multiethnic Teens and Cultural Identity. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2001.

Funderburg, Lise. Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994.

Gilliespie, Peggy. Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

O'Hearn, Claudine Chiawei. Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.


"Birth Data." National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Project Race. (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Confederate: Relating to the Confederate States of America, a union of states that withdrew from the United States sparking the American Civil War in 1861.

Apartheid: A policy of racial separation and discrimination.

Discriminated: Treated differently on a basis other than individual merit.

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