More Biracial Americans Experiment with Fluid Identity

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A research paper published by the Social Psychology Quarterly drew some interesting conclusions about the way that members of our increasingly diverse society are experiencing and experimenting with structures of identity. Titled “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans,” the paper argues that with less stigma attached to any one race, people of mixed heritage are, more frequently than before, declaring themselves biracial one day, or all one race the next. But what does this fluidity mean to the idea of race in our country at all? And How does one rationally and honestly navigate the conundrums of identity?

For that we speak to Michelle Hughes, founder of the Biracial and Friends Social Group in Chicago, who currently serves on the board of the Chicago Biracial Family Network, and David Matthews, author of the memoir Ace of Spades



Michelle Hughes and David Matthews

Produced by:

Hsi-Chang Lin

Comments [22]


I don't think the race of the mother is at all a factor in what a child considers themselves. Its all about the environment and the mother's attitude. If the mother is white and hangs mostly with blacks then that child will more than likely if not totally melt into the black culture. If the mother is black but has disdain for her own culture/race, then she will instill those same hatreds into her children and they will identify with being white or mixed. many biracials are some of the most racist people you can meet but most are very good human beings. I disagree completely on the simplistic notion that a child will simply identify with the race of its mother. Need evidence? you tube user Caramelprincessxxx40

Dec. 23 2010 11:28 AM
Sheila from WV

I agree with the person who posted about being bi-cultural. My race is African-American, and my ex-husband is Caucasian, of Sicilian/Spanish descent. My biracial 12 year old son looks like a Latino (my family is Creole, from New Orleans), yet has clearly identified himself as African American. I would like to postulate that many children affiliate with the culture (which often in the US means race if you aren't white-identified) of the mother, or the one who nurtures. My son is African American, and identifies with my Creole culture (food, ways of viewing the world, speech, customs, religion, etc. ). His peers often ask him, in their limited parlance, how he identified, and he says that he is Black or African American, although physically, he can say otherwise.

I believe that this is a complex issue. I have often struggled with it. In the time when I was young (I am in my late 40s), anyone who had "one drop" of African American blood was Black, unless that person rejected the culture completely and "passed". I am happy that my son accepts the only culture that will accept him fully in return (mine). They do that because he has accepted them. I think that it would be very difficult for him if he were to reject being Black, as many biracial children with white mothers do. Whites would never accept him as white, because he doesn't look the part. He has access to my culture, but not truly to his father's...even if he wanted it.

Dec. 16 2010 07:55 PM

Since I can't find the line that divides one half of me from the other I consider myself a whole human being who happens to be Black.

Dec. 16 2010 12:18 PM
Tiffany Rae from Voorhees

I am so happy to see people writing and discussing issues involving biracial individuals in today's America. As a life coach committed to building biracial relationships and mentoring multiracial families, mixed race children and biracial couples I think that it is important for the biracial and mono-racial communities to understand that a racial identity is NOT static. In fact, factors influence how we self-identify on a daily basis. Mixed-race individuals are both white and black, but not entirely white or black. We run the risk of being targeted by both whites and blacks and having our racial identity either challenged or confirmed. While I feel it is important to educate my biracial clients on the power that they have to choose to self-identify as they see fit, it is especially important for me as a life coach to find ways to engage the public, discuss new ideologies and challenge people to re-evaluate their level of racial awareness and understanding.
Similar issues and discussion can be found on my website:

Dec. 15 2010 01:15 PM
helena from NYC

Deidre, thank you for your statement. Anyone is an "mixed" marriage really needs to understand, embrace and, at least respect, if not love, the other race or culture. I grew up in the '50's and struggled alone with "identity" -- an only child who knew no one else like me -- my mother, from Vienna and Jewish, raised me basically alone -- I hardly knew my father or his family. I still try and concentrate on the positive -- what I learned from my mom, from friends, and look for the best in everyone, for their individuality. I hope being "bi-racial" has helped me look beyond outward appearances.

Dec. 15 2010 12:30 PM
Josette Bailey from NYC

My family for many generations has been both multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural. My child is the product of a multi-ethnic mother who self-identifies as Black, and an American man of European origin. My son lives with his "Black"
mother in Harlem. How does it serve a mixed person to be over-identified with the White world? American society was neither historically constructed, nor does it yet today act kindly to mixed people. Witness the struggles of our President. He is always called the first Black president, yet Jefferson, Harding, perhaps Eisenhower, and Clinton all have a shadow of "mixture" about them. No one wants to be the tragic mulatto. By claiming ones Blackness, our children, and ourselves can participate in a world where we were always welcomed, when no other place or group would take us home.

Dec. 15 2010 11:27 AM
Blondy from Denver

I’m a Montana born Caucasian who came of age just as the EEOC was formed. This hampered my ability to enter into many career opportunities. (I was actually told, on more than one occasion that, “We’re not hiring whites right now.”) When I married and bore two bi-racial sons, I made it a point to keep them as Black as possible – to the disdain of their Nigerian immigrant father – so that they would be moved to the front-of-the-line when opportunities came their way. They attended a predominately Black high school in Denver, where they excelled and earned nearly full scholarships to CU-Boulder, benefits that may never have come their way had they not played the “Black” card. As grown men they are polar opposites with regard to identity as well as professions. One is a “Black” cop (with an attitude) whose musical taste lean toward slap-that-bitch-ho rap, and the other is a “White” engineer who digs Dave Matthews. Fortunately, they both love each other and stay close.

Dec. 15 2010 11:15 AM
Joda from Texas

I came from a very racist family.
My mother wouldn't let me play with anybody otw. When I did I was punished and the otw's were cursed at.
I later married an hipanic woman, which was a scandal in my town and family.
We have believed in people not being colors and have tried to teach this to our kids and our students.
Yet, when my oldest child during junior high disowned me as a father simply becUse I was a causcain.
Really hurt, people shouldn't have to check the box.
We need to look beyond such trivial matters

Dec. 15 2010 10:37 AM
Laurel from Brooklyn, NY

Both of my parents were born in Brooklyn, blocks from one another. I was born and raised there too. My mother is Swedish and my father is Black but he is very, very fair skinned. I am very pale with soft curly hair. Advantages: Life is fun and interesting sometimes for me. I pass for many things depending where the plane lands and whether or not I open my mouth and one finds I do not speak the language. I am just back from a trip to Egypt and at the airport people spoke to me in Arabic; it was great! I am a nurse and so little old ladies who can't place me have openly expressed their disdain for certain "lazy people". I just listen but at some point I may or may not let them know about my background. I do however identify as Black. I do not like or use the term African American because I don't understand it. When I see a white person over there and I want to refer to him or her I say that white person over there and so when I see a black person I say black, it's easier and since I'm black I fell I can use it becuase that is the term that was used when my generation started calling blacks black. I mean after all they used to be called alot of other things. Now it's African American, but I digress. I identify as black and when people ask me what I am I say every time, "Both my parents were born in Brooklyn, my mother is Swedish and my father is Black". On government documents I put black. I mean really, why put other or mixed or whatever. The document dosn't care about your race or ethnicity, this is the United States! It's all about the money man. We should all put black so we can get the money man and then if one wants to racilly identify well then just hang a banner outside your window to let the world know who you think you are!

Dec. 15 2010 10:06 AM

Listeners and readers may be interested in , "A Celebration of Multiracial Identity", where people describe their own multiracial identity and experiences

Dec. 15 2010 09:55 AM
Deirdre Lutz from NJ

As someone who grew up in New York City with a white mother and black father i was always perceived as hispanic because of my features. I think a lot of mixed race people identify with the race of the parent they are closest to. My mother did not know how to relate to her mixed children and as a result myself and siblings had a lot of problems. I think anyone who goes into a mixed marriage needs to embrace the other persons culture if they are going to have children. Your children may not look like you or your family. You may love an individual, but you have to love his/or her race as well to have mentally healthy children.

Dec. 15 2010 09:40 AM
Barbara from Lunenburg, MA

I have to agree with Carla from NC. My husband and I are a mixed couple, and even though I am white, I usually check, "other". Our children are our children and we encourage them to identify themselves as "members of the human race." We have also chosen to live in the North for that very minimize the labels. There are divisions here, but mostly they are played out economically (also, unfortunate). People who are outgoing, helpful, happy people choosing to live in mixed company and refusing to label themselves, will be better accepted than those who have a need to label themselves and live within their own perceived group. Although no other group coming to America was so easily labeled, there were plenty of other slaves and indentured servants who came here unwillingly. Each group met with severe hatred until a couple of generations down the road. Then, there is what happened to the peoples native to the continent. We cannot undo what was done...but, we can move forward. Apply the golden rule.

Dec. 15 2010 09:38 AM
Unknown from Florida

As far as I'm concern I am black but it depends on where I am and who I am with
If I don't idenitfy myself as black other identify me as white, spanish, or some time mixed

Dec. 15 2010 09:36 AM
Val Moskalik

My 15-month old daughter is bi-racial and fair enough to claim to be just about any racial or ethnic group she likes when she gets older. Her father and I both believe race is an artifical construct and plan to raise her that way, but at the same time we understand the government's need for people to self-identify in order to bring perspective to some statistical data like poverty and education.

On the last census, my husband identified as white and other, I identified as black and other, and we identified our daughter as black, white and other. For all of us, on the line next to other we wrote in human.

Dec. 15 2010 09:32 AM
Heather Abdelnur from Georgia

Good morning, and thank you for this interesting topic! My husband is Arab Sudani, and I am an American of European heritage. We have two children that have self-classified themselves as "caramel" and "cinnamon". This idea of bi-racial is something particularly close to home for our family. My husband did not realize that he was "black" until moving here to the United States. And, culturally, many Arab Sudani have married into the U.S. African-American population if they have married outside the Sudani community. There are very few who have married "white" Americans. Our children, though, we have realized are growing up as "white" because of my being the primary caregiver in the home--their speech patterns, food consumption, cultural identity, etc. This sometimes surprises our Sudani friends. However, when it comes to school projects, my kindergarten daughter just picked out dark brown coloring paper for her portrait and my son picked an ebony Wii character for himself when he "games."

Dec. 15 2010 09:25 AM
Carla from Columbia, SC

I have to say that as a mother of a "Biracial" child living in South Carolina, we do not check off boxes with race attached. It can be detrimental to our daughter's progress in the south. Growing up in Michigan, my family did not describe nor speak of people by using color or race. With our daughter, we do the same. People are people regardless of race or color and should be treated as such. Our daughter refers to herself and to others who ask her 'what are you'? as a human. Until we self identify ourselves as human, this will not change. The south is the WORST place to try and bring up this topic,(our daughter gets called Mulatto by her teachers here, seriously), so thank you for the program topic.

Dec. 15 2010 09:24 AM
Karen from Massachusetts

"bi-cultural" is perhaps a better term, but if you use it, people look at you funny. I'm Caucasian, predominately German. My husband is of 100% Japanese ancestry by way of Hawaii. Living in Massachusetts, far from the Hawaiian/Japanese culture familiar to my husbands family in a very white ex-burb (rural/suburban) we are very conscious that our son isn't quite white but isn't quite Japanese either. He's in some middle land that for some reason people HAVE to label to be comfortable. Once I explain my husband is Japanese I see this Wave of relief pass across another persons face. It's very creepy. Not to mention inappropriate. And I wonder how long it will be before my son notices these interactions.

Dec. 15 2010 09:23 AM
Jean from Tiverton

With all of this discussion about race and ethnicity, I can't help but ask myself this question: "Do people really want "racism" to go away?"
It almost seems like we are in a constant struggle to either A. identify with a race and cling to it or B. not be identified based on the color of our skin.
I just don't see how the racial tension in this country will ease with everyone so constantly focused on identifying with a particular race (or several) instead of learning how to focus on being part of the human race.

Dec. 15 2010 09:18 AM
Camille from Brooklyn

Also the idea that being "mono-racial" means you easily "fit in", is a deluded myth often perpetuated by "bi-racial" people who want to make themselves the victim. We are ALL the victims of the horrific system of racism and white supremacy (yes, even white people). Luckily, we can also ALL work against racism.

Dec. 15 2010 09:16 AM
Camille from Brooklyn

My mother is from Ghana and my dad ia African-American from New Jersey and though I am technically "mono-racial", it has not been a "mono" experience.

Dec. 15 2010 09:13 AM
Crystal from Atlanta, GA

Growing up I knew I looked different from the rest of my Black friends, but it wasn't until my mother was 30 years old did she find out her true identity, that her father was actually a German Jewish man, who had long passed away. My mom had been raised thinking she was just "light skinned" African American, even though her features and hair indicated that something else had to of been mixed in there. I as well inherited these features even though my father was also African American (somewhat lightskinned). Being teased, called White Girl, and constantly being asked "WHAT YOU MIXED WITH?" I sometimes lied- "...oh we are part Native American". I was always stared at being the Black Student Union President, or going to a Historically Black University, because the Blacks thought a Puerto Rican/ or a Mexican was the BSU President, lol. Finally as an adult I embrace my Jewish ancestry, and now identify myself as mixed race. The main reason why I do this is because when I tell people I am African American it always causes more problems having to explain my fair features, and get through the twisted looks people give, to say mixed race is just easier on the minds of the people who I interact with. I am also Muslim, and since deciding to wear a scarf I hear just about everything, most immigrant Muslims think I am one of them... without a scarf, Latinos think I am one of them... my daughter also inherits this "look" and I am curious on how she will identify herself in this new generation of mixed raced people!

Dec. 15 2010 08:45 AM

Wow, my 4 children whos dad was Haitian. [ Such a duffrent culture then US African American.] Since we live in Massachusetts their racial makeup is not a big question. How ever when we had lived in Michigan in the mid 90's it was a big thing for my school age children. I don't see Why in the USA is this such a big question. I do my best to educate my children that we live in a wonderful open place but away from here in Massachusetts it will not be so nice for them.

Dec. 15 2010 07:23 AM

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