Americans like answers in black and white, a cultural trait we confirmed last year when the biracial man running for President was routinely called "black".
The flattening of Barack Obama's complex racial background shouldn't have been surprising. Many multiracial historical figures in the U.S. have been reduced (or have reduced themselves) to a single aspect of their racial identities: Booker T. Washington, Tina Turner, and Greg Louganis are three examples. This phenomenon isn't entirely pernicious; it is at least partly rooted in our concern that growing up with a fractured identity is hard on kids. The psychologist J.D. Teicher summarized this view in a 1968 paper: "Although the burden of the Negro child is recognized as a heavy one, that of the Negro-White child is seen to be even heavier."
But new research says this old, problematized view of multiracial identity is outdated. In fact, a new paper in the Journal of Social Issues shows that multiracial adolescents who identify proudly as multiracial fare as well as and, in many cases, better than kids who identify with a single group, even if that group is considered high-status (like, say, Asians or whites). This finding was surprising because psychologists have argued for years that mixed-race kids will be better adjusted if they pick a single race as their own.
The population of multiracial kids in the U.S. has soared from approximately 500,000 in 1970 to more than 6.8 million in 2000, according to Census data quoted in this pdf. In the early years, research on these kids highlighted their difficulties: the disapproval they faced from neighbors and members of their extended families; the sense that they weren't "full" members in any racial community; the insecurity and self-loathing that often resulted from feeling marginalized on all sides. That simple but harsh playground question "What are you?" torments many multiracial kids. Psychologists call this a "forced-choice dilemma" that compels children to claim some kind of identity even if only a half-identity in return for social acceptance.
But the new Journal of Social Issues paper suggests this dilemma has become less burdensome in the age of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. The paper's authors, a team led by Kevin Binning of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Miguel Unzueta of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, studied 182 multiracial high schoolers in Long Beach, Calif. Binning, Unzueta and their colleagues write that those kids who identified with multiple racial groups reported significantly less psychological stress than those who identified with a single group, whether a "low-status" group like African-Americans or a "high-status" group like whites. The multiracial identifiers were less alienated from peers than monoracial identifiers, and they were no more likely to report having engaged in problem behaviors, such as substance use or persistent school absence.
The writers theorize that multiracial kids who choose to associate with a single race are troubled by their attempts to "pass," whereas those who choose to give voice to their own uniqueness find pride in that act. "Rather than being 'caught' between two worlds," the authors write, "it might be that individuals who identify with multiple groups are better able to navigate both racially homogeneous and heterogeneous environments than individuals who primarily identify with one racial group." The multiracial kids are able to "place one foot in the majority and one in the minority group, and in this way might be buffered against the negative consequences of feeling tokenized."
In short, multiracial kids seem to create their own definitions for fitting in, and they show more psychological flexibility than those mixed-race kids who feel bound to one choice or another.
Fortunately, all these questions of racial identity are becoming less important, as we inch ever closer to the day when the U.S. has no racial majority. One of these days, after all, we will all be celebrating our multiracial pride.