The Psychological Advantages of Strongly Identifying As Biracial

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Photo: Dana Hursey/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

As I reported in the most recent issue of New York, a new program at an elite private school in New York aims to combat racism by dividing young children, some as young as 8 years old, into “affinity groups” according to their race. The program has been controversial among parents, many of whom believe it is their job, and not the school’s, to impart racial identity to their kids. This feeling is particularly strong among parents who have multi-racial kids. Their identities, many of them say, don’t fit into any established racial category but instead live on the frontier of race. 

These sorts of questions about racial identity are only going to become more prominent given ongoing demographic changes in the United States. Multi-racial births are soaring — to 7 percent of all births in the U.S., according to the last Census — a result of more inter-racial coupling and also a broader cultural acceptance of the tag “multi-racial.” (Only as recently as 2000 did the Census even offer a “multi-racial” category — for hundreds of years, stigma has compelled multi-racial people to choose one or the other of their parents’ racial identities, both on government forms and in society.)

But even as multi-racial people take prominent and visible places in all the nation’s hierarchies — golf, pop music, cinema, finance, and, of course, in the executive branch of the United States government — very little psychological research has been done on what it means to have a multi-racial identity, and how that identity is different from having a “mono-racial” one. Now a new literature review, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Sarah Gaither, a post-doc at the University of Chicago (who is herself biracial), assesses the psychological landscape of multi-racial identity and points to new directions for research. 

Here are some of the key findings:

More than “mono-racials,” multi-racial people have to answer the question, “Who are you?” This can lead to feelings of identity crisis and social isolation, especially if in answering the question people feel they have to choose between their parents. “By the age of four they understand skin color, and they tend to worry about rejecting one of their parents,” Gaither told me in a phone call.

But if they are raised to identify with both parents and to understand their complex racial heritage, multi-racial people can have higher self-esteem than mono-racial people. They are adaptable, able to function well in both majority and minority environments. “They are more likely to reject the conception that race biologically predicts one’s abilities,” which may, in turn, insulate them from the negative impact of racism or bias.

In studies, for example, “priming” a black person to remember he or she is black, or priming a girl to remember that she’s a girl, results in lower performance on tests, an internalization of negative stereotypes known as “stereotype threat.” But multi-racial people “may not believe believe the stereotypes applied to monoracials apply to them,” Gaither explained. The key point here is that multi-racial children should be raised with a full understanding of both their parents’ stories and be allowed, over time, to identify with both. “As long as the choice is left up to the individual, that’s where you see the more positive outcomes,” Gaither said.

Multi-racial people have flexible identities. As adults, they say they change their racial identity or affiliation more than they stay constant. As infants, they spend less time than mono-racial babies scanning familiar faces, a signal that they are confident as members of a number of different groups. Priming biracial children to affiliate with one of their racial identities makes them more responsive to teachers of that race, prompting questions — as yet unanswered — about whether multi-racial kids learn more easily from teachers and authority figures at different points along a racial spectrum.

Multi-racial people are proud to be multi-racial. This is especially true if they’re affluent. “Multi-racials who identify as multi-racial experience decreased self-esteem when asked to choose only one racial identity,” says the paper.

Multi-racial people tend to identify more with the minority part of their identity. “In general, the more minority you look, the more minority you self-identify,” Gaither told me.

As is clear from the review, researchers have begun to unpack the psychological complexities of having mixed racial heritage. But there are so many remaining questions. Most of the studies conducted so far have been done on mixed-race people of Asian and white or black and white descent — and the world of this research is exceedingly small. Gaither told me how happy parents of multi-racial children were to let her ask their kids questions, because there are so few resources out there for them, so little guidance for how to teach healthy identity. And almost no research has been done on people with two or more minority identities (black-Latino or Latino-Asian, say). How does a person navigate between two minority cultures?

There’s also a dearth of research on how gender cuts across questions of racial identity. Is a black-white person more inclined to identify as black if he’s male? And is an Asian-white person more inclined to identify as Asian if she’s female? These are questions at the frontiers of racial-identity research, and as the population of mixed-race kids explodes they’ll demand answers.