Mixed-Race in U.S. Struggle to Form Political, Personal Identities

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By:  Kimberly Davis   Christopher M. Matthews  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: July 10, 2009

Fanshen Cox / Courtesy of Cox
Fanshen Cox
Heidi Durrow / Courtesy of Durrow
Heidi Durrow

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Fanshen Cox and Heidi W. Durrow team up each week to produce “Mixed Chicks Chat,” an award-winning podcast about multiracial identity in America.

Cox, 39, and Durrow, 40, both of Los Angeles, also organize a Mixed Roots Literary and Film Festival during the annual celebration of Loving Day, the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned laws against interracial marriage.

Both women are actresses who identify as multiracial, making them part of the fastest growing demographic in the country. They were up for the same part 10 years ago and viewed each other as competition, but their shared racial identity eventually drew them together and led them to collaborate on a nascent cultural phenomenon -- dialogue about multiracial identity in America.

According to U.S. Census estimates from July 2008 released in May, individuals who identify as more than one race total 5.2 million people, an increase of 3.4 percent from the July 2007 estimate. With the election of Barack Obama as the first U.S. president of mixed-race heritage, those numbers may swell in the 2010 Census, as more Americans feel comfortable with identifying as mixed race.

However, experts say it is unclear what the political implications of this population growth will be. In particular, there are questions as to the impact on single-race minority groups, as people move from identifying as one race to more than one.

The effect these changes will have on federal efforts to tabulate data on minority populations is uncertain--and remains so today, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population.

There's also tremendous uncertainty over whether mixed-race voters will develop into a cohesive voting bloc.

“(Mixed race) is hard to make a movement around," said Durrow. "We are all mixed with different things."

Each week, Cox and Durrow tackle issues surrounding being mixed race in their live podcast. “Mixed race is not something new, people just weren’t able to talk about it,” said Cox. “We just want to talk about it.”

2010 will be the second time that respondents are allowed to check more than one race on the U.S. Census. The change came about in 2000, after years of lobbying efforts by multiracial advocacy groups and expressions of uncertainty about what the classification would mean for traditional, single-race minority groups.

The change has led to some tension among those who identify as multiracial and single-race minority groups. Kathrin Ivanovic, director of the Philadelphia chapter of Swirl Inc., a national, multiracial organization, and herself mixed race, says this tension is evident in the discussion over Obama’s racial identity.

“We've seen over and over again that the black community and the media [have] helped co-opt [Obama] as a black individual when he is clearly mixed race,” Ivanovic said. “And so, it shows us, one, that I don’t think we have transcended race, we have taken a step forward, but yet for those of us who are mixed race, once again, we're not part of the discussion. We're still relegated into the invisible spaces."

Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice sees the issue differently. She typically calls Obama a "man of color" and noted that the president has referred to himself as African American.

"Obama has never denied his lineage or his parentage," Turner Trice said. "He just says, and this is true oftentimes in America, if you look like a black man, we’re kind of identified based on how we look. So, he has said, I may have a white mom, but when I try to hail a cab in Washington, D.C.--clearly this is not the case anymore--the cabdrivers will see a black man, and that’s how they will identify me."

Generational Differences

Top 10 States for Mixed-Race Population


Percentage of Total Population
New Mexico

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2005-2007 American Community Survey

Data compiled by Kimberly Davis

Some see the tension playing out largely along generational lines, as nearly 95 percent of those who identify as more than one race are under 65, according to census records.

Turner Trice said the election of Obama has led to increased conversations about racial identity and what it means to be “more than one.” For years, if you had one drop of minority blood, you were considered to be that minority. The one-drop rule doesn’t seem to apply—as much—to younger people.

“I think that with younger people, their experience has been such that they have come up in communities that were a little more racially mixed,” said Turner Trice, who moderates “Exploring Race,” a blog whose goal it is to have a conversation about race. “It’s not perfect and this isn’t across the board. … But I do think that because the exposure has been very different, because of television and IPods and YouTube, especially--because of technology--the experience and exposures are broadened.”

Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson agrees, noting that those under 30 who check mixed race in demographic surveys do so based on the era in which they were raised. “They are more fluid and flexible on race, and not as tradition-bound with rigid black and white categorizations,” Ofari Hutchinson said in an e-mail. “They are also the post-civil rights generation—a generation that did not experience the rigors of legal segregation; so a broader view of race would be expected.”

This broader view is meeting hundreds of years of tradition in communities and families across the country, as people of mixed heritage are confronting what it means to identify as such. For many of them, racial identity formation has meant straddling two worlds.

For Maria Velazquez, who co-leads the Washington, D.C. chapter of Swirl Inc., that means thinking of race differently in New Orleans, where she was born, than in Massachusetts, where she was raised and attended college.

"Understandings of race in New Orleans are really different from race in Massachusetts," says Velazquez, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. “You could always say you were Latino in New Orleans, but socially what everyone understood is that meant you were black with good hair.”

For some, the process of understanding a complex racial heritage has come to explicitly define who they are. And it is a process, according to Dr. Kecia Thomas, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Georgia.

Minorities and underrepresented groups experience the formation of racial identity in stages, from accepting what society (family, friends, media) tells them about their identity, to deciding for themselves. At some point, said Thomas, who is also senior advisor to the dean at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia, typically in late adolescence or early adulthood, those in minority groups may have encounters that lead them to question what they’ve come to believe about themselves. Then comes the desire to have a more educated definition of themselves that isn’t biased by the larger culture.

"Maybe I’ve been sold a bunch of stereotypes that have actually limited my educational opportunities, my work opportunities … and now I’m feeling motivated to do something about it," said Thomas, whose research focuses on the psychology of workplace diversity. "Often times those encounters are pretty negative, they’re pretty salient and in your face, and they really force you to confront racial identity."

Identity Politics

For those who are coming of age in today's more inclusive society, the formation of racial identity could look very different than it did for those of previous generations. That difference, coupled with the tension between single-race and those who identify as mixed race, could play out in the development of political attitudes and behavior among multiracial voters.

At this point little is known about this group’s attitudes and behaviors, largely because there are so many different racial combinations. The U.S. Census recognizes several distinct multiracial categories, with the Native American/Alaska Native and white population comprising the highest proportion at 17.3 percent; followed by white and Asian, 11.9 percent; then white and black, 10.9 percent.

It is also difficult to assess mixed-race voters’ political attitudes because there are a limited number of studies or surveys that include “multiracial” or “mixed” as a category.

However, analysis of the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey has provided some insight. CCES surveyed 32,800 respondents on their political beliefs, participation and views of Congress. Of those, 513 –or 1.6 percent of the total sample --identified themselves as “mixed race.” While the sample of mixed-race respondents was small, some survey responses were large enough to be viewed as statistically significant.

In general, mixed-race adults appear more likely to identify as independent voters than adults of other races. But those who identified as mixed race in this survey also claimed to have supported Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. However, their support of the Democratic nominee was eclipsed by that of African Americans—92 percent to 74 percent.

Despite these responses in the CCES survey, it remains unclear whether mixed-race voters will grow into a unified constituency. In many cases, those who are of mixed-race heritage will choose one aspect of their identity with which to identify, usually the underrepresented one, sociologists say.

“Mixed-race voters are not a unified political group in any way,” Carolyn Liebler, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said in an e-mail. “They don’t think of themselves as such (in most cases) and are usually just part of the local families and communities of their component races."

Melissa Herman, a sociologist at Dartmouth College, said that it will be difficult for voters who identify as mixed race to unite because they don’t have specific political issues to unify them. “They most likely share some issues with one or more of their race groups, politically,” Herman said. “Part-black people, in particular, are usually considered black and most often identify as black, so I would guess that they identify with black politics, as well.”

Ivanovic, director of Swirl's Philadelphia chapter, concedes that her mixed-racial identity is not overwhelmingly influential when it comes to politics. However, she said she does hold something in common with other multiracial people.

“I identify in the sense that we’ve experienced some of the same struggles, the questions of ‘what are you?' not really fitting into the either-or box,” Ivanovic said. “I’m too dark to be white, too white to be dark; where do I fit? I think we share that common struggle and also, the common beauty of being diverse.”

Durrow, whose debut novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” features a protagonist who confronts her biracial identity, said that if there were a politics to unite around, it would be the politics of identity.

“We are political,” Durrow said, “if there’s anything political about being able to say who you are.”

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