Confronting Complex Multiracial Realities

The daily life of multiracial Americans.

Posted Jun 01, 2017

Dr. Saera Khan—a Professor of social psychology at the University of San Francisco where she conducts research on stereotyping and prejudice, moral identity development, and stigma experienced by American Muslims post 9/11—discusses the complexities of multiracial identity, prejudice, and discrimination in our especially tense sociopolitical climate.

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In a new era of Black Lives Matter, a proposed Muslim ban, and increased accounts of xenophobia, individuals of multiracial backgrounds have largely been invisible in the public discourse about race and identity; their ambiguous and mysterious identities may be perceived as too complex to categorize or politicize. Mixed race individuals represent a substantial and growing population in the United States. After much pressure from communities and policymakers, multiple racial categories were included in the 2000 census measures, resulting in almost seven million people opting for this designation (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). According to a 2010 Pew Center poll, the multiracial population represents approximately seven percent of the total population in the United States and is one of the fastest growing groups in America.

As a social psychologist who studies stereotypes and prejudice, I am keenly aware of the potential stigmas my mixed race children face by others and how these reactions can influence their identity formation. Mixed race children are not only vulnerable to stigmas faced as a result of belonging to their multiple ethnic/racial groups but to also their unique racially mixed status. Multiracial children face a unique set of prejudices that their parents may not have experienced.

Challenges to multiracial identities are not only perpetrated through outsiders’ perceptions and reactions, but also from people within their own ethnic groups. Mixed race individuals often report feeling alienated from their own cultural groups because they are deemed not “authentic enough” or appear too racially ambiguous to be accepted. They report that their yearning for acceptance and community from these groups pressures them to choose “sides” and conform to one of their mono-racial categories. Fears of rejection and marginalization from their home ethnic groups has also culminated into greater health and risk taking behaviors compared to their mono-racial peers.

Another source of stigma may come from extended family members; parents of mixed race children may have married under disapproval from their families.  Dissatisfaction or ambivalence over the marriage sometimes extends towards the offspring of these unions. As a result, children may develop a sense of double consciousness or an internal conflict as they see themselves through the eyes of prejudiced close others. These conflicted feelings can produce shame over their identity and further disconnection from their racial and ethnic heritages.

Mixed-race individuals can also be targeted by a unique kind of prejudice that is rarely discussed these days: anti-miscegenation. The abhorrence towards race mixing is often attributed to traditional essentialist notions of race. A current manifestation of this belief can be seen by those who advocate for the preservation of authenticity or racial purity because traditions will be lost through cultural dilution or racial mixing. Mixed-race children do not fit neatly into traditional frameworks of multiculturalist ideals whereby identities co-exist uniquely and amicably alongside each other. Therefore, many anxieties and prejudices from various entities are projected on to these individuals. In fact, parents’ apprehensions over cultural dilution may lead to their insistence on raising their children in a mono-racial framework.

Despite the increased stigmas and exclusions multiracial children experience, they do appear to have some social advantages over their mono-racial peers. Research has shown that mixed race children exhibit greater identity flexibility in a variety of social settings. That is, mixed race children can easily switch between racial identities depending on the situation. This flexibility makes them more adaptable to diverse environments and experience more positive social interactions across different groups of people compared to their mono-racial peers. Therefore, multiracial children experience unique benefits and consequences as a result of their having to navigate complex social interactions from a young age.

Parents play a large role in how children perceive these stigmas and develop these benefits. Research thus far indicates that mixed race children thrive in diverse environments where families are not afraid to talk about their multiple heritages and they are allowed to embrace their multiple group identities. Although some children choose to adopt one ethnic affiliation, forcing children to categorize themselves with one category and therefore denying their multiplicity is associated with greater anxiety and lower self-esteem. In fact, at the implicit level, biracial children show an equal balance in identifying with both sides of their racial background and become defensive if they are given feedback that they prefer one side over the other.

Adopting a color-blind approach also closes off opportunities for conversation. Although parents may have a “post-racial” worldview, their children are treated by others through multiple racial lenses. Providing opportunities for children to articulate their unique experiences is critical for their healthy connection to their multiple identities. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 60 percent of multiracial adults were proud of their multiracial identity and that majority of them felt that their racial heritage made them more open to diverse others. Given the current rise of white supremacy groups and hate crimes, the multiracial population can help teach us to move beyond fear and racism of different others.

Saera Khan is a Professor of social psychology at the University of San Francisco where she also serves as the Co-Director of the Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence. She has published research on stereotyping and prejudice, moral identity development, and stigma experienced by American Muslims post 9-11. She also publishes in teaching journals and actively mentors junior and adjunct faculty in their teaching. She received her Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.