How Multi-Ethnic People Identify Themselves

How Multi-Ethnic People Identify Themselves

Talk of The Nation
National Public Radio

Neal Conan, Host


Nikki Khanna, Assistant Professor of Sociology (and lead author, “Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans”)
University of Vermont

Casey Gane-McCalla, Lead Blogger

Kip Fulbeck, Professor of Art (and author of Mixed: Portraits Of Multiracial Kids)
University of California, Santa Barbara

A new study shows that most people who are biracial self-identify as “biracial.” But in many instances, multi-ethnic Americans change the way they self-identify depending on who they’re talking with. The study was published in the December 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan, in Washington.

What are you? People of mixed race hear that question throughout their lives. The question comes in parts: half-black, half-white, part Asian, a quarter Native American. Sometimes the answer may vary depending on the situation. Sometimes it may change for good.

During the era of Jim Crow segregation, a percentage of those with lighter skin chose to pass as white. Now, it looks as if that’s reversed. In a study published earlier this month, in Social Psychology Quarterly, sociologists found that among black-white biracial adults, more and more self-identify as black…

…Ms. NIKKI KHANNA (Lead Author, “Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans”): Hi, Neal, thank you so much.

CONAN: And I think one of the things we should make clear is your study finds most people who are biracial identify as biracial.

Ms. KHANNA: Absolutely, absolutely. So this study looks at black-white biracial Americans and how they racially identify themselves, and that was the first thing we found, that most identify themselves to others as biracial or multiracial or mixed-race. These terms are certainly becoming much more common today. But in some situations, they identify themselves mono-racially, as black of white.

CONAN: In some situations. For example?

Ms. KHANNA: So for example, so we found individuals would present themselves as black or white. As white, you know, not uncommon were people presenting themselves as white in the workplace, for example, to, you know, they perceived it was advantageous for them to do so to move up in the workplace and move ahead, climb that ladder.

So we see some of that still happening today, although less so than individuals who are presenting themselves as black. And there were a number of situations where that seemed to come in handy. So, for example, during adolescence to fit in with black peers, you know, in adolescence, we all want to fit in.

So it’s not surprising. So in these situations, they oftentimes conceal their white ancestry, the fact that they had a white parent, to present themselves as black.

In other situations, they presented themselves as black when they found whiteness to be somehow stigmatized and negatively stereotyped, and they didn’t want to be associated with it. So they might have perceived whiteness as somehow bad.

Or one individual talked about perceiving whites as oppressive or the oppressor and not wanting to have basically anything to do with that. So in those situations, they would present themselves exclusively as black.

And in the last situation, respondents presented themselves as black oftentimes in filling out race questions commonly found on applications. So they would check the black box basically when they found it beneficial to do so. And this most often occurred on financial aid forms or college university application forms, scholarship application forms.

CONAN: Was there any inclination as to – or any finding that the more biracial people they knew, the more they might just stay with biracial?

Ms. KHANNA: Yeah, I mean, it’s very interesting. For many people that I interviewed in this study that they didn’t know other people who were biracial. So while, you know, it’s becoming increasingly common that there are more and more biracial Americans, oftentimes they didn’t even know other biracial people other than their siblings or another family member…

…CONAN: Joining us now is Casey Gane-McCalla. He’s the lead blogger for, and he joins us from NPR’s bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. CASEY GANE-McCALLA (Assistant Editor, NewsOne): Yeah, thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: And you are half-black and half-white. How do you identify yourself?

Mr. GANE-McCALLA: I identify myself as both black and biracial. Obviously, I’m biracial, which is two races, but biracial is a very large term. You can be biracial and Mexican and Chinese. You could be biracial, and you could be Indian an Aborigine.

So biracial is a kind of broad term, and I believe that throughout history, black has kind of encompassed biracial. Like, biracial has had a little spot in the Venn Diagram of blackness. If you look from slavery to Jim Crow, if you were mixed, you were a slave. You might have been able to work in the house, but you were still a slave.

Or if it was during Jim Crow, and you tried to – there was no mixed water fountain. There was the two because – due to mostly because of social constructs, I identify as black, and I feel I’m part of the black struggle. I work for a black news website.

But I’m also – I’m definitely not ashamed of my mother’s family, and my mother fought against apartheid in South Africa. And again like the previous caller said, like, I knew a lot of my family, my father’s family from Jamaica, but all my mother’s family is in South Africa. So I didn’t know them that much.

CONAN: Just to clarify again on Nikki Khanna’s study, I think it was you were just studying black-white biracial.

Ms. KHANNA: Absolutely, yes, black-white biracial Americans…

…And let’s see if we can get another caller on the line. Let’s go to Shirley, Shirley with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SHIRLEY (Caller): Yeah, I’m 71 years old and born of a white mother and black father. And this is something really, really puzzling to me because in my neighborhood, which was black, there were five white, mixed families, I’ll say that, and nobody even thought about it.

We didn’t realize, in my neighborhood, St. Louis, Missouri, that there was this type of thing. We knew plenty of people that were passing because they wanted good jobs. They wanted to go to the movies. But my mother just always went where she wanted to go. My sisters did, too, because they looked white.

But to me, this is just a new thing. This is not something that’s new. This is something that’s new that’s being studied.

CONAN: Well, new that people self-identify as biracial. I think when you were growing up…


CONAN: …as Casey Gane-McCalla pointed out, there was no choice. If you…

SHIRLEY: Well, you would just – I just lived in a black neighborhood. But you had a choice if you wanted to be called biracial because in most states except three, I think, if you have any white blood in you, you can claim white and only three states where you have to say you’re black.

But I’m just – you know, I’m just astonished by all this, that people are so amazed at this because I’m 71 years old, and this is old to me. I mean, this has been around so long…

…CONAN: You mentioned earlier, obviously this affects more than black and white. Joining us now is Kip Fulbeck, professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks. And nice to have you with us today.

Professor KIP FULBECK (Art, University of California, Santa Barbara; Author, “Mixed: Portraits Of Multiracial Kids”): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You’re also of mixed ethnicity, one parent Asian, the other white, and you call yourself hapa?

Mr. FULBECK: I do. Hapa is a Hawaiian word for half, and it refers to people who, like myself, are part Asian Pacific Islander and something else.

CONAN: So that is, in its own way, saying biracial?

Mr. FULBECK: Exactly.

CONAN: You’ve embraced this third racial category exclusive to people of white – Asian and white parents. Why? Why not just say biracial?

Mr. FULBECK: Well, Neal, the whole thing about being biracial, it’s such a huge, giant nebula because race, if we really want to talk openly, everyone listening to the show right now is African. It doesn’t even exist, biologically, in terms of DNA. We’re all African…

…CONAN: Here’s – we’re talking about biracial identity and self-identity. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I should just reintroduce our guests. Casey Gane-McCalla, you just heard, a lead blogger at And also with us, Kip Fulbeck, a professor of art at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

This email from Darrel(ph) in Portland. I’m a 30-year-old black male with a white mother. I have never felt comfortable with the term biracial. Race is a social construct, one which often exposes ideological bias. I often have my blackness called into question, being treated by white people as being more acceptable than typical black people. It disgusts me when people assume my speaking pattern or intelligence are the result of my having a white parent rather than coming from an educated family or growing up on a university campus, especially considering the first thing people would use to describe me if I, say, stole their car would be my race.

I’m proud of my Scottish, Irish and German heritage just as I am of my West African heritage. However, my social experience in this country is that of a black man…

Read the entire transcript here.  Download the audio here.

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