I’ve explained before that it would be technically accurate to refer to me as being “mixed” – I am the product of an interracial marriage. While I self-identify most often simply as black, there are times when I make mention of my status as a ‘multi’. Against the social backdrop I find myself in most often, ‘black’ conveys sufficient information for my purposes, and I let it go there. However, there are many people who, for their own personal reasons, prefer to refer to themselves as ‘mixed’.
What makes this phenomenon more interesting is the fact that “mixed” has quite a variety of meanings:
Today we see both increased immigration and rising rates of intermarriage. In 1960, less than 1% of U.S. marriages were interracial, but by 2008, this figure rose to 7.6%, meaning that 1 out of every 13 U.S. marriages was interracial. If we look at only new marriages that took place in 2008, the figure rises to 14.6%, translating to 1 out of every 7 American marriages. The rising trend in intermarriage has resulted in a growing multiracial population. In 2010, 2.9% of Americans identified as multiracial. Demographers project that the multiracial population will continue to grow so that by 2050, 1 in 5 Americans could claim a multiracial background, and by 2100, the ratio could soar to 1 in three.
Very long ago, I made specific reference to this phenomenon, noting that this may be a product more of familiarity and the re-drawing of in- and out-group definitions than it is the result of people becoming more enlightened about topics racial. Whatever the explanation, it seems as though the lines drawn around race groups is not quite as tight as it might have been once upon a time. We may be seeing the beginning of a collapse of the definitions of race – themselves largely the products of blind tradition and xenophobia rather than anything to do with human biology.
Then again, perhaps a closer inspection is warranted:
For instance, Asians and Latinos intermarry at much higher rates than blacks. About 30% of Asian and Latino marriages are interracial, but the corresponding figure for blacks is only 17%. However, if we include only U.S.-born Asians and Latinos, we find that intermarriage rates are much higher. Nearly, three-quarters (72%) of married, U.S.-born Asians, and over half (52%) of U.S.-born Latinos are interracially married, and most often, the intermarriage is with a white partner. While the intermarriage rate for blacks has risen steadily in the past five decades, it is still far below that of Asians and Latinos, especially those born in the United States.
It is fascinating to me to see how prejudice is not shared equally among all people of colour (PoCs). I may be fairly and accurately accused of focussing on issues of white and black people predominantly. As I’ve said before, this is mostly because this particular divide is one that I am familiar with on a variety of levels. That being said, it also seems as though the deck remains stacked against black people, even among other minority groups. There seems to be a hierarchy of which groups are ‘acceptable’ and which ones aren’t, although I might be reading too much into that one finding. It would also be interesting to see these statistics for Arab and Persian Americans, especially in light of the pervasive anti-Muslim attitude currently in vogue in America.
The article notes that only 7% of black people in the study identify as multiracial, which stands in stark contrast to the 75-90% estimated prevalence of mixed heritage among the black community in the USA. The authors express some mock bafflement at why this would be the case. I can give at least my own perspective on why I don’t really connect with the white side of my identity. Part of the problem is that ‘white’ doesn’t really have much presence as an identifying feature. One of the drawbacks of being the majority group is that identification as such doesn’t give people much information about you. It is far easier for me to identify those aspects of my background that are different from those around me than to focus on those things that are true for everyone.
Next, there aren’t too many people out there who see me as ‘half-white’. To the casual observer on the street, I am a brown-skinned guy with a bit of an afro. Sometimes people think I’m Indian when my hair is cut short or I am wearing a hat. Nobody says “he’s got white background for sure… but what’s the other part?” This isn’t a knock on them, or even all that unusual. It just serves to illustrate that calling myself ‘mixed’, while accurate, is not a term that resonates particularly well with my personal experience of my race. This appears to be a common experience:
By contrast, none of the black-white couples identified their children as just white or American, nor did they claim that their children identify as such. While these couples recognize and celebrate the racial mixture of their children’s backgrounds, they unequivocally identify their children as black. When we asked why, they pointed out that nobody would take them seriously if they tried to identify their children as white, reflecting the constraints that black interracial couples feel when identifying their children. Moreover, black interracial couples do not identify their children as simply “American” because as native-born Americans, they feel that American is an implicit part of their identity.
White skin, light skin and black skin also have a long and storied history with attached stigma and associations in the black community. These cultural memes manage to transcend generational lines and persist within the community for decades. While change has been happening over time, it may take many more generations before we see marriage offering widespread cultural remedy to our race problems. Until then, we can continue our work pushing the boundaries, making sure that the intellectual ground is laid for the next generations of multi-racial kids to help us grapple with the consequences of our historical segregation.
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I think it’s interesting that there has not (yet) emerged a distinct community or self-identity label for people of mixed-race, black and white, parentage (at least in North America – I suspect South Africa has some interesting perspectives here). There is such a distinct community for another mixed-race group: Metis. At least in parts of Canada (my fuzzy geographical idea is northern Quebec west as far as the Rocky Mountains and north to the Arctic but not including Inuit), hundreds of years of white – native contact has resulted in a significant number of people who identify themselves as being somewhere between the two original cultures, and separate themselves culturally and spatially from both parent populations.
But, at least in the United States (where the vast majority of data and discussion about such topics comes from to my central-Canadian perspective), there appears to be no similar, separate hybrid group. Do you think this is primarily a geographical effect – nascent Metis groups could move to areas of western Canada without (yet) large European immigrant populations and without large native populations; there were “empty” places on the map, while the offspring of whites and (probably slaves) blacks, at least initially, did not have nearby “empty” areas to retreat to. Or is it more of a cultural effect, where for whatever reason mixed-race offspring chose to identify with the minority fraction of their ancestry rather than the majority?
As far as I know, the Métis in Canada are more than simply a mixed-race group (although apparently that’s how it started). A person who is, for example, 1/8th Mohawk or Squamish or Saalish isn’t considered ‘Métis’. Your speculations on the origin of this group essentially match my own, but with the added point that Métis people influenced Canadian history a great deal as a distinct cultural group, which helped cement that identity.
It’s also important not to overlook the history we have here in North America with classifying mixed black/white people. Have you heard of the term ‘octaroon’? It was actually law (at least in the southern US) that having any amount of Negro blood qualified you as ‘black’. That’s what the author of the article is referring to when she talks about the ‘one drop’ rules. We may be seeing the initial emergence of a distinct ‘mixed’ group, but I think it’s more likely that we’ll see the erosion of the concept of race before we see a new distinct group really form.
Great question, though. Lots to think about.
Indeed, in the area from whence I hail, the ‘one drop’ principle is still very much in force. All the liberal gesticulations about how Obama was ‘half black’, for example, elicited only cynical chuckles from my Southerly relatives–indeed, I remember more than one phone call where he was referred to as ‘the nigger’.
I think that it has a lot to do with the cultural implications of black/white pairings historically. Often these were the result of rape (almost exclusively Massa-on-slave rape), and the children of those unions were classified as slaves. Even where it went the other way, with black men and white women, the woman’s general recourse was to cry ‘rape’ in order to keep from being disowned (or sometimes having her very life threatened for cavorting with the darkies).
Even after slavery was forcibly ended, there was still a combative animosity (to say the least) between black and white cultures. As Strom Thurmond (I believe) said, many genteel young white men got their first taste of pussy on ‘the coloured side of town’; I’m willing to bet many of those unions produced offspring, and more than a few were less than consensual. This all adds up to quite a bit of tension, where light-skinned children are by and large stained with the pain of being a product of rape inside their own communities, yet still more-or-less forced to cohere to that community’s ethnic grouping through social (and often legal) pressure.
The comparison to the Metis in Canada is interesting, but falls short. Until very recently, black/white couplings other than those outlined above were little more than a trickle (often met with violence or at least shunning from both communities). In living memory in many parts of the South, explicit biracial unions were harassed explicitly, and the partners occasionally lynched. The Metis, on the other hand, came to exist relatively rapidly (largely due to the paucity of European women on the frontier). There very well may have been a component of violence in the genesis of the Metis, but the systemic classification and brutalization of them wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it was to the offspring of slaves and children of slaves with white folk.
Overall, I enjoyed this post but had a slight problem here:
“It is fascinating to me to see how prejudice is not shared equally among all people of colour (PoCs).”
Are these marital patterns prejudice or personal preference (or possibly both)? Certainly it takes two to wed, with possible biases from Asians, Hispanics and Whites towards Blacks and some cultural attitudes that prefer that Blacks marry within the race.
Upon further thought, I remembered a close talk with a good friend and her experiences of being the token Black person in a majority White community. What she thought her parents felt was that there was a preference to marry someone in her ethnic group but that as Americans, their children were going to live in a radically different culture than their own and that dating preferences needed to adjust to that fact. I wonder how much this sentiment is shared by immigrants and their children.