Check All That Apply

Published in the Spring 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

SSA faculty members are at the forefront of research on multiracial identity in an era of many options.

Since at least the times of Eston Hemings (the likely son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings), multiracial Americans have been making headlines. Even so, it is hard not to be taken aback by the intensity of our interest in the bloodlines of Sen. Barack Obama since he announced his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Google "multiracial" combined with "Barack Obama" and you'll get 31,600 results, and another 59,300 for "biracial" and "Barack Obama." And the primaries are still nearly a year away.

Obama refers to himself as an African American, but it seems that the American public and the American media aren't so sure. Is he on his way to becoming the first black president? The first multiracial president? The first black president because he is multiracial? We've been through this before with Tiger Woods; only in that case, Woods refused to be put into a standard category, referring to himself as "Cablinasian" for his mix of caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian heritages.

"The discussion that is being had about Obama—'What is he?'—is the same discussion that everyone who is racially ambiguous has every day or hears every day," says Gina M. Samuels, an assistant professor at SSA.

Even to have a conversation about the topic is difficult because, while multiracial Americans have some common experiences, much of their triumphs and trials are unique to their own racial combination. A black-white woman has a dramatically different set of experiences and issues than an Asian- Hispanic man. And someone's age, or where she grew up, or her parent's attitudes all can play a role in how she feels about being multiracial as well.

While Samuels' research examines how society's definitions of race affect how multiracial individuals identify themselves, her colleague, Assistant Professor Yoonsun Choi, looks at the implications of these definitions. "It is not 'multiracial' that is a problem, it is how [society] responds to it," Choi says.

With more and more of the American population comprised of multiracial individuals—and new research opportunities available because of how agencies such as the U.S. Census gather information on racial background— the work of Choi and Samuels is part of a wave of scholarship on the issue of multiracial identity, from both the societal and personal point of view. The answers say a lot about how far we have, and haven't come, in dealing with race in this country, and what it means for our future.


As much as 20 percent of the U.S. population will identify itself as multiracial by 2050, according to a National Academy of Science study. The trends are built on a number of factors. For one thing, Americans are more diverse than ever. Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population in 2002 was immigrants and their children, the Census shows. And it's more acceptable for people of different races to have children together. This year is the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared states could not prohibit interracial marriage (although many kept the unenforceable laws on the books: Alabama's was not removed until 2000).

The Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families, co-chaired by SSA Associate Professor Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., found that black-white marriages grew from 55,000 in 1960 to 440,000 in 2005. Today about 13 percent of American marriages are unions of people of different races, estimates Jennifer Lee, an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of California, Irvine and a 2006-2007 visiting associate professor at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.

The ability to measure and analyze the multiracial population in the U.S. got a huge boost in 1997, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided that, beginning with the 2000 Census, respondents would be permitted to check more than one box in response to the question asking one to classify his or her race. Someone with a black father and a Hispanic mother could check both boxes, rather than deciding which of the two races better defined who he or she was. In that 2000 Census, 2.4 percent of the population identified with more than one race. That equals 6.8 million respondents, 2.8 million of whom were under age 18.

Other agencies are following the Census' lead. Last year the U.S. Department of Education urged colleges and universities to start offering multiracial options when they collect data on students. In 2005 the Food and Drug Administration recommended adding multiracial options for clinical trial participants. Many states are starting the practice as well, meaning there will be even more data into which researchers may delve.

Ann Morning, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at New York University, points out that in the 19th century the Census included "mulatto" (referring to those who had both black and white heritage) and "mixedblood" (applying to those with American Indian and white backgrounds). However, in modern times, U.S. residents were required to fit themselves into just one box until now.

"Our history has had mixed race people for a long time," Morning says. "But now that the OMB lets people mix-and-match in a way they didn't in the past, sociologists and demographers are picking up the baton and thinking about the context of mixed race. Part of the reason we are acknowledging it now is that in some ways racial classification doesn't matter. Before, race dictated who you could marry, where you could live, and it was a way to enforce class."

Of course, nobody is claiming that race has become irrelevant to people's lives. The complicated relationship we have with race may be more accurately reflected by multiracial identities, but it isn't changed. "People may think identifying someone as multiracial obscures the differences. But if you put a lot of emphasis on people being one-half this, one-quarter this, I think that in some ways that reinforces the old ways of thinking," Morning says.

We live in a moment when there is no clear way to identify people whose parents are of different races. In a study at the University of Missouri- Columbia, kindergarteners who had both a white and a nonwhite parent were overwhelmingly more likely to be identified by their parents as the race of the non-white parent.

There were, however, some odd twists in the data. Girls who had both Hispanic and white parents were more likely to be identified as Hispanic, while boys were more likely to be identified as white. Students living in the Western U.S. and with a higher family socioeconomic status were more likely to be identified as multiracial. Morning notes that other studies have shown those who live on the coasts are more likely to identify as multiracial than those in the heartland.

Lee points out that regardless of how a person may wish to be perceived, society won't necessarily agree. "Given the history of the one-drop rule of hypodescent— by which all multiracial Americans with any black ancestry were identified as black— black multiracials continue to be limited in their racial/ethnic options," she believes.

"While the rule may no longer be legally enforced, it remains culturally reproduced in everyday interactions and in institutional contexts, so that regardless of how black multiracials choose to identify, they are often identified by others as black."

The blade cuts both ways. Barack Obama's self-identity as an African American has been questioned because of his multiethnic background, while Tiger Wood was criticized by some within the African-American community for refusing to identify as black.


Gina Samuels has learned that individual's notion of multiracial identity can be as hard to pin down as society's. Her research focuses on the black-white biracial experience, with interviews of transracial adoptees between 20- and 32-years old. Subjects were asked about the stories they were told about why they were put up for adoption and adopted, how they were socialized to think about race/mixed race and their own identities, and their racialized experiences at school, home, and in their lives as adults.

"The one-drop rule says if you have any black heritage you should identify as black. But developing an identity is more complicated than that. The idea that one racial heritage always trumps the other, or that identities are fixed and don't change, does not reflect how many multiracials develop a racial-ethnic sense of self," says Samuels, who herself is multiracial and adopted. "It is much more complex than just identifying how society views an individual, or the individual simply choosing any identity she or he wishes. It's the individual and society operating simultaneously, at different force, and one's daily context that shape identity across one's lifetime."

For example, when children of white mothers and black fathers were put up for adoption in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was often because having a biracial child caused problems for the white mothers. For some white families looking to adopt, though, faced with a small pool of healthy white babies to choose, those same children (now labeled as black), were considered more desirable because their skin tone was lighter.

Samuels also found that people don't necessarily identify themselves the same way all the time. High school students among African-American friends or family may call themselves black, while with their white friends or relatives, they may say they are mixed race. "And what someone calls themselves when they are 10 may be different than when they're 30 or change again at 40," she adds.

Other research shows how pervasive this phenomenon can be. A study by Princeton University of 2,000 students aged 14 to 17 who had at least one immigrant parent showed that half of the students changed the way they classified their race, and by age 24, most had developed a hyphenate way to describe their racial identity.

"The ways we need to think about race and identity must be fluid. At different moments in our lives, different parts of us come forward," Samuels says. "The study of identity must reflect its lived complexity. It has traditionally been theorized as coming from the inside. But my work challenges this and suggests that identity work is dynamic and grounded within our sociopolitical structures of race, our family experiences, and our individual ways of making sense of this."

All this shifting of identity can come with a price, making it hard for a multiracial person to identify with a group. Samuels says that when families of one race adopt a child of another, it can be difficult because the parents do not have the same racial experience as the child and may not be able to provide first-hand guidance. "What was most powerful was the ways in which this group had to navigate so much of this on their own," she says. "There is not a transracial adoptee side of town. There is not a country you can visit, and so sometimes people felt they did not have a community. But having this sense that there are others like you is helpful."


Yoonsun Choi's research seeks to understand the familial and environmental processes that influence and impact ethnic minority children and their development. As a recipient of the Research Scientist Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health, she is conducting a series of interrelated projects to identify the multiple developmental trajectories of Asian youth and the factors that predominate in the determination of these outcomes. Part of that work has been looking at multiracial children.

Working with a sample of 2,000 middle school students in Seattle, Choi and colleagues at the University of Washington studied specific problem behaviors among multiracial youngsters such as substance use and interpersonal violence. Examples include smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, carrying a gun, and participating in fights. For many behaviors, multiracial children were more at risk. When it came to smoking, for example, Choi found that the odds were 38 percent less that white students would smoke than for their multiracial peers, 32 percent less for black students, and 51 percent less for Asian students. White kids were 63 percent less likely than multiracial kids to have been in a fight.

"I do not want to say these kids are problematic. The majority of kids do not show any problems. But we have not done a good job of integrating them and that can cause the problem," says Choi. In fact, incidence of the problematic behaviors was higher in schools and neighborhoods with perceived racial discrimination, and Choi notes that other research has shown that "in Hawaii, multiracial kids did not show problems, because Hawaii is somewhere where multiracial is the norm."

As if to illustrate the problems of acceptance for multiracial children, when Choi's research was first published, hard right extremists used the results as ammunition for their arguments for limiting immigration and interracial relationships. "I was surprised by that reaction. That is exactly what puts these kids in trouble," she says. "If people hate me because of my article, that's okay, I'm misunderstood. But if this is what these kids have to deal with every day, then we have to do better."