ERIC Identifier: ED425248
Publication Date: 1998-11-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
The Identity Development of Multiracial Youth. ERIC/CUE Digest,
In the last several decades individuals have been responding more actively to
political and personal pressures to identify with a specific group that shares
their background. For the growing number of individuals of mixed racial, ethnic,
and cultural heritage living in the U.S., deciding to make such an
identification is complicated and sometimes problematic, although families ease
this process for their children. Now, with more than 100,000 multiracial babies,
representing a wide variety of ethnic mixes, being born annually (U.S. Bureau of
the Census, cited in Root, 1996), it is also important for society in general to
foster the positive development of these individuals by respecting and
appreciating their distinctness.
It is even more essential for educators and counselors to know how best to
serve the special developmental and educational needs of their multiracial
students, and to devise the most appropriate means to support their families'
efforts to nurture them.
THE MULTIRACIAL POPULATION
Individuals of mixed heritage
usually identify themselves as "multiracial." Some, whose parents are each a
different race, are actually biracial; others comprise all three races because
their ancestors have intermarried multiply over generations, an increasingly
common occurrence (Hall, 1996). Further, because the designation has expanded
over the years, individuals of a variety of types of mixed heritage that include
not only race, but ethnicity and culture, now also consider themselves
multiracial. Thus, the following individuals of mixed backgrounds may identify
themselves as multiracial: a Puerto Rican/Salvadorian, whose parents speak the
same language, and may be of the same race, but who have different cultures
because of their different countries of origin; and a Chinese/Japanese or an
African/Caribbean, whose parents are of the same race but speak different
languages and come from different countries.
Many monoracial children who were adopted by parents of a different race
often consider themselves multiracial as they embrace the cultures of both their
biological and adoptive parents. Indeed, the phenomenon of a "multiracial
family" is growing in prominence as interracial, interethnic, and transnational
This digest uses the term "multiracial" to indicate individuals of mixed
racial, ethnic, or cultural ancestry. The discussion below demonstrates,
however, that despite a common classification, great variations exist among
members of the multicultural population, both in the way they perceive
themselves and in the way they are treated by society.
IDENTITY FORMATION IN MULTIRACIAL CHILDREN
ethnic group differences have a significant impact on children's social
development, although the impact varies with age and specific ethnicity. The
role of heritage in a child's development is affected by history, as well as by
social context and immediate environment. Since having a multiple ethnic
heritage has a different, perhaps more problematic, effect on a child's
development (Herring, 1992), it is important to actively help multiracial
children acquire a positive self-concept. They need exposure to models of all
the ethnicities they embrace and to multiracial people generally. They need to
understand what it means to be multiracial, and to acquire culturally-linked
coping skills that include ways to deal with racism and discrimination (Wardle,
1987). Because there are few integrated, stable, and tension-free racially mixed
communities in the U.S. that can facilitate positive identity formation in
interracial children (Miller & Rotheram-Borus, 1994), families and schools
must work hard to provide a supportive community that affirms multiracialism.
A key factor in the lives of multiracial
children is how they are labeled--by themselves, their families, and society in
general. In particular, for oppressed people, as many multiracial individuals
consider themselves, labels are important vehicles for self-empowerment (Root,
1996). During the last 20 years, there has been an increase in the
self-determination of interracial families; many have become active politically
to ensure that they are accepted as a group with special concerns separate from
other racial and ethnic populations (Wardle, 1987).
It is not surprising, then, for several alternative views regarding
classification to exist within the multiracial community, for parents to choose
different ways of identifying their children, and for youth themselves to spend
a significant amount of time considering how they want to be identified. When
children reach adolescence, many reconsider their identity. To avoid choosing
between parents and peers, they may keep home separate from school. They may
feel pressured by peers and teachers, the forms they must fill out, or even
family, to choose a race. Frequently, they choose a single minority racial
identification publicly, believing it is politically correct to do so, while
privately still cherishing their multiracial heritage (Okun, 1996).
These societal pressures affect the natural internal process of developing an
identity that all children undergo. Recently acknowledged by experts as unique
for multiracial youth, the process has been described by one researcher (Poston,
1990) as a meshing of "personal identity" (including non-racial constructs such
as self-esteem and interpersonal competence) with "reference group orientation"
(constructs such as racial esteem and racial ideology). Complicating this
integration for multiracial youth is the need to work though internal conflicts
and guilt about having to develop an identity that may not incorporate all
aspects of their heritage and to resist internalizing society's negative
attitudes about multiracialism and minority status. Ultimately, according to the
model, in the last stage, successful identity formation, or a satisfying feeling
of wholeness, requires that multiracial youth appreciate and integrate all
components of their heritage into their lives (Poston, 1990).
This model, while appearing to take account of all the stages of multiracial
identity development, may not apply to all interracial individuals, however,
since some interracial families foster identity choices for their children that
do not conform to the model's final stage. In general, identity options for
families comprise the following:
"HUMAN." Some multiracial families oppose the concept of racial labeling
altogether, classifying their members solely as human. In addition to seeking to
simplify a possibly complicated process of listing all the components of their
heritage, they argue that acceptance of any label--singular or multiple--other
than "white" relegates them to a lower status, given existing racism
(Pinderhughes, 1995). "Try calling [your children] by their names," says one
parent (Mills, 1994, p. 10). While growing up in a race-based society may
prevent these consciously non-labeled children from appreciating their family's
attitudes until they are adults, they often eventually become better
acculturated overall, identifying "with communities beyond the traditional
racial group or even nation-state" (Weisman, 1996, p. 161).
"MULTIRACIAL." Other families, perhaps the majority currently, help their
children develop a biracial or multiracial identity based on the components of
their particular background. They believe that it is important for the children
to take equal pride in all their heritages and to maintain equal connections
with all members of their family. Some of these families also recognize that
their children's appearance reflects their dual heritage, and they want the
family's culture to embody that (Pinderhughes, 1995).
There are also individuals who consider themselves multiracial but do not
identify themselves by every component of their heritage. They may not feel
close to all or any part of their heritage, and they have not been exposed to
one or all the components of it. Also, because their appearance in no way
distinguishes them as a member of any of the individual groups they comprise,
they may believe that they cannot claim identification with those groups
(Stephan, cited Thornton, 1996). These people assert that the designation
"multiracial" gives them membership in an entirely different community that is
actually a new "race" or "ethnic group," and it is this group that evokes their
feelings of solidarity (Weisman, 1996). The group's unique characteristic is
that it is an amalgam of all the characteristics of other racial and ethnic
groups, and its members are linked by the fact that each has multiple, albeit
different, heritages. Concern has been raised that this approach to
multiracialism cannot provide individuals with a sustained sense of community
because the group's only commonality is the "ambiguous status" of its members,
and such a tenuous connection is not enough to provide the emotional support
that multiracial people need (Thornton, cited in Weisman, 1996, p. 157).
Nevertheless, the existence of such a group (perhaps eventually to be
legitimized as a category on some census forms, as discussed below) may be the
most practical way of helping individuals develop an identity in the future. If
the rate of cross-ethnic and cross-race marriages continues to grow, as is
projected, over generations the number of components of an individual's heritage
will increase significantly, making racial distinctions less and less possible.
"MONORACIAL." Still other families foster their children's identification
with only one race. Single parents, especially, may opt to emphasize the culture
of the own race because that is what they know best and because their children
resemble them (Mills, 1994). Some parents of children with African ancestry may
assume that society will consider the children black, and so they raise them as
black in order to better prepare them for their treatment as such later in life
(Morrison & Rodgers, 1996). In addition, society may urge that children
identify with only the minority group in an effort to maintain the "racial
purity" of whites. Conversely, some multiracial children may be urged to assume
a white identity solely, on the assumption that if they can "pass" as white they
can avoid experiencing racism (Miller & Rotheram-Borus, 1994).
Currently, many of the most important
official tallies of individuals allow for only one racial or ethnic designation.
These include the U.S. Census, which is used as a basis for race-based
representation in government, program funding, and a variety of social services;
and school forms, which are also used to determine program funding levels and
which send a message about the value of a particular identity to the students
filling them out. Many multiracial individuals assert that this policy is
evidence of their exclusion from American society, a forced rejection of a part
of their heritage, and a powerful negative influence on their self-concept. They
believe that the lack of a "multiracial" category is an indication of society's
rejection of them (Chiong, 1998).
There are also some people of color, however, who believe that identifying
themselves as a single, specific minority shows unity and power (Chiong, 1998).
In fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the
National Council of La Raza, along with some Native American advocacy groups,
have opposed a multiracial category, concerned that it could negatively affect
voting rights enforcement and allocations for social and school programs based
on minority participation (Sullivan, 1998).
Arguments on all sides notwithstanding, the 2000 census of the Federal Office
of Management and Budget (OMB) will allow respondents to check as many racial
designations as appropriate, although the agency rejected the recommendation to
add a "multiracial" category. OMB is also mandating that by 2003 schools
similarly amend their own forms, a change that will affect how more than two
million students report their race (Chiong, 1998). Such changes may indicate
that there are substantially more multiracial people in the U.S. than previously
thought, information that activists hope will encourage an increase in their
acceptance and influence.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF A MULTIRACIAL BACKGROUND
Children of mixed racial, ethnic, and cultural
heritage have both particular advantages and challenges. The factors that
determine their ability to develop a cohesive and personally fulfilling identity
include, obviously, personal qualities such as resilience and self-esteem.
Equally important additional factors are family stability, attitudes, and
behavior (extended as well as nuclear); community and school environment,
including manifestations of either support or discrimination and ostracism; and
the extent of the commonness of multiracial families in their neighborhood. Some
of these factors affect the identity development of all children; and some
affect the development of monoracial minority children as well as multiracial
Historically, it was believed that multiracial children must have more
problems than other children because they "must choose" a race (Wilson, 1987, p.
7). It was also argued that since monoracialism is normal, multiracialism must
be "deviant" and multiracial individuals are not "a perfect fit anywhere"
(Thornton, 1996, p. 108). Ideas such as these usually resulted from research on
individuals seeking help for problems, whether race-related or not, so
well-adjusted members of the multiracial population did not become subjects for
study and their ability to deal successfully with multiracialism went unrecorded
Individuals who are socialized as multiracial
usually benefit from their heritage. Their families provide them with a cultural
education that is broader than that of monoracial children, giving them both a
larger knowledge base and a more well-rounded sense of the world. They have an
enhanced sense of self and identity, and greater intergroup tolerance, language
facility, appreciation of minority group cultures, and ties to single-heritage
groups than do monoracial people (Thornton, 1996). In addition, they often are
able to identify multiple aspects of a situation where other people see only
one, and to see both sides of a conflict (Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, & Harris, 1993).
As indicated, the identity development
process for multiracial youth is more complicated than for monoracial youth,
both because there are so many possible choices and because families, peers, and
society in general can exert strong--and frequently contradictory--influences on
youth who are already struggling with internal conflicts.
Another, and perhaps even more formidable pressure on multiracial youth,
which can continue throughout their lives, is societal racism in general and
discomfort with interracial marriages in particular. The racism visited upon
people of color generally in the U.S. may be exacerbated by the strong prejudice
of some people against mixing races through marriage and procreation (Miller
& Rotheram-Borus, 1994; Pinderhughes, 1995), and "blurring the physical
categories upon which white status and power depend" (Wilson, 1987, p. 7). While
blacks and whites intermarry at a lower rate than other groups, the families
they create elicit the strongest negative reactions (Okun, 1996). Some people of
color may also express reservations about intermarriage, believing that those
who cross ethnic lines to marry are rejecting pride in their group, or that the
political power of their own group will be decreased through blending (Wardle,
Given the existence of these prejudices in society generally, it is likely
that educators and counselors harbor some of them as well, even unconsciously.
Inevitably, multiracial students will perceive such attitudes, and internalize a
negative image that compromises their sense of self and ability to succeed.
Therefore, it is important for those working with multiracial children to
carefully consider their personal views, particularly in light of the
significant worth that students place on their approval.
Sadly, the families of multiracial children sometimes reject them, and their
mothers may even have ambivalent feelings toward them. Indeed, some very young
multiracial children are given up by their parents who, feeling crushed by
personal difficulties, become absolutely overwhelmed by the challenges of
raising children who may have more than the usual complement of needs.
The process of developing an identity is
particularly complex for multiracial youth. Factors unique to their multiples
heritages that influence the process include the need of multiracial individuals
to select a personal and family identity that represents their own attitudes
about interracialism, their family's way of acknowledging the components of
their culture, society's historical desire to keep people of different races
separate, and racism that is both common and hierarchical. In addition, as the
number of multiracial individuals increases, particularly over generations, so
do the choices for classification; individuals may opt to embrace all the
different ethnicities they embody, perhaps ultimately half a dozen or so; or
they may seek to align themselves solely with a new group whose commonality is
the multiple heritages of its members.
For educators, counselors, and other children's services professionals
especially, learning about and respecting the beliefs, attitudes, and concerns
of interracial families is crucial. Such knowledge will enable them to help
multiracial students to develop a positive self-concept and succeed in school,
and to help all students understand how irrelevant racial differences really
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