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  • Politics beyond Black and White
  • Biracial Identity and Attitudes in America
  • Online publication date: March 2018
  • pp 140-160

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7 Multiple-Minority Biracials and the Construction of Identity

Politically, I'm a person of color. In being a black Filipino, I don't have any white privilege. Both of my people have been oppressed throughout the world and throughout history. So that led me to be more political and made me more aware of these issues and thinking more about how I want to fight for social justice.

– Black-Asian male

Most people who identify with multiple racial groups mark themselves as white and one other race. But 1-in-4 people who identified with multiple races in 2015 reported two or more minority groups. This chapter considers members of this “multiple-minority” population – who they are, how they perceive themselves and how they think others perceive them, and how their experiences belonging to communities of color shape their political identities.

Of the 2.3 million people who identified with more than one minority group in 2015, 62 percent chose exactly two races; just 8.7 percent of all multiple-race identifiers selected three or more racial groups, as Table 7.1 shows. With the exception of black-American Indian/Alaska Natives, no other multiple-minority category comprised more than roughly 3 percent of the overall U.S. multiple-race population.1 Black is the category most frequently selected by multiple-minority identifiers, with 56 percent marking it as one of their races; Asian is the second most commonly chosen category, at 48 percent. Among those identifying with exactly two minority races, the fastest-growing label is black-Asian, which rose 85 percent since 2000.

Table 7.1 The Multiple-Minority Race Population, 2015

NumberPercent of 2+ Races
All 2+ Races9,981,530100.0
Non-White/White Identifiers7,726,05977.4
All Multiple-Minority Identifiers2,255,47122.6
Two Minority Races
Black; American Indian/Alaska Native1,391,60913.9
Black; Some Other Race305,9753.1
Asian; Some Other Race233,2662.3
Asian; Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander221,4482.2
Black; Asian202,2382.0
American Indian/Alaska Native; Some Other Race197,4512.0
American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian94,8211.0
Black; Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander45,0100.5
Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander; Some Other Race44,6910.5
American Indian/Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander37,6000.4
Three Races788,2587.9
Four Races67,5580.7
Five Races7,3210.1
Six Races7250.01

Note: Percentages do not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Source: Author's calculations based on the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 American Community Survey.

Interviews demonstrate that, despite their smaller population size, the processes of identity formation for biracials born to two minority parents are in some ways analogous to those of their part-white biracial peers: racial outlooks are constructed by family dynamics, surroundings, cultural symbols, and relationships, and identities fluctuate over time and context. But there are also meaningful dissimilarities between the two groups, particularly when it comes to the effect of appearance on identity and interpersonal interactions. Being of dual minority parentage means that multiple-minority biracials are, on average, darker in skin tone than biracials who have a white parent – and thus more subject to racism. Experiences with racism, in turn, mobilize a political mindset that prioritizes social and racial progress.

This is evidenced in the comment from the black-Asian man at the opening of this chapter. He is unfamiliar with the political advantages of belonging to the majority racial group in America – white. The history of his ancestors is one of persecution and hardship, and his personal identity is tied to this oppression. As he explicitly states, knowledge of this history has galvanized his political activity and “led” him to consider the ways in which he can help achieve social justice. Conversations with other people from multiple-minority backgrounds indicate that this young man is not unique in his experiences. Encounters with discrimination push biracials from multiple-minority backgrounds to be relatively more politically progressive. However, as I will show, discrimination manifests differently among men than among women, underscoring the degree to which race in the U.S. is gendered.

Patterns of Identification

Family, Culture, Friendships, and Environment

For all biracials, family is pivotal in the dissemination of ethnic culture, whether through the language that is spoken, the type of food that is eaten, or the religion that is observed. Many of the patterns that were uncovered for part-white biracials were also apparent among my sample of multiple-minority biracials.

For example, parents played a central role in the formation of racial awareness and identity:

My [black] mom definitely really wanted me to identify as black growing up and to be able to relate to that aspect of me. Whereas my dad, I don't think he cares as much whether I identify as Chinese, per se. So while my mom was really interested in teaching me about black history and making sure that I get fundamental African American experiences, my dad didn't really go out of his way to do that. […] I think that my mom was worried that being multiracial, I wouldn't identify as being African American, which I think definitely can occur especially because there are a lot of negative stereotypes about African Americans.

(Black-Asian female)

This woman characterized her Chinese father as relatively ambivalent about her racial identification. She expressed a stronger black identity because her mother had instilled in her a deep sense of African American pride and wanted her to be secure in her blackness. That black is a more stigmatized category strengthened her mother's resolve in inculcating an African American self-consciousness.

Another woman, of Latino-Asian parentage, said she identified more strongly with her maternal background because she was not as close to her father:

My [Filipino] mom had a really large influence on me because she was a stay-at-home mom until I turned twelve. My dad didn't have much of an influence on me in terms of heritage. He was actually really against it because he felt like his Puerto Rican heritage prevented him from a lot of opportunities in the work force. He said that growing up he was discriminated against a lot. He said it was a really bad time for people like him. He feels a lot of people don't respect Latinos. He used to have an accent, too.

She described how cultural practices, especially the food she consumed, authenticated different parts of her ethnic background:

Food is a huge thing. Filipino food is something that I grew up with, it just reminds me of home. I remember last year, the dining hall had a Filipino food night and I remember almost crying I was so happy! It's very specific and it's very different than other foods, but it's not as popular as other cultural foods. No one really knows what Filipino food is, so that kind of makes it more special. It was totally a part of my life growing up. It is like a rite of passage – learning how to cook Filipino food – for Filipino women everywhere.

(Latino-Asian female)

This woman's closer connection with her mother and her mother's culture pushed her to internalize her Filipino heritage. When she discusses how ethnic cuisine shaped her identity, she enthusiastically cites food from only one of her ethnicities – Filipino – calling it something that she “grew up with” and like “home,” and emphasizing its significance in constructing her Filipina identity. She makes no mention of Puerto Rican cuisine, culture, or identity. Instead, she says her father downplayed his Puerto Rican heritage; his experiences with racism motivated him to assimilate toward whiteness. Her father's unease toward his Latino background, coupled with a stronger connection to her mother, led this woman to see herself as primarily Filipino. Her experience also conveys how not speaking a language other than English can, ironically, punctuate minority group status. She spoke neither her mother's native Tagalog nor her father's native Spanish. Her father, who had faced discrimination because of his accent, forbade her from speaking Tagalog because he feared that she, too, would grow up with an accent and be susceptible to the kinds of abuses he had experienced. Knowledge of the discrimination he faced bolstered this woman's racial minority consciousness.

Having no relationship at all with a particular parent is also consequential. This is apparent in one respondent, who stated, “Culturally, I think I'm Korean. I grew up in a very Korean household. My father wasn't around when I grew up, so everything was Korean.” Because his black father was absent, the only ethnic cultural influence he had came from his Korean immigrant mother.2

Not everyone in my sample expressed closer ethnic ties to one side of their family. Some felt that their mixed-race background was invoked on a daily basis, which allowed them to inhabit multiple racial spaces concurrently:

When it comes to culture, I don't see it as a choice. It's something that I'm just always living. I can't take myself away from what I experience when I'm with my families. When I'm with my mom's family, everyone is speaking Spanish. When I'm with my dad's family, everyone is speaking Tagalog. There's this constant cultural exchange. This is just something that I've come to accept and I belong to all these spaces at once.

(Latino-Asian male)

Another woman described some of the ethnic customs that affected her everyday life:

In terms of culture, it's really the food that I cook. A lot of the food that I cook is mostly Filipino or other Asian food like Chinese, Korean. That's the food that my mother taught me, and it's my way to connect with her and that culture. It's funny, it's also the food for my African American side. But I didn't know that it was from the African American experience. I learned how to make the food from my mother, but it turns out that she learned how to make the food from my paternal grandmother who's from Louisiana and had a lot of soul food recipes.

(Black-Asian female)

This woman identified as multiracial because she felt strongly connected to each of her racial backgrounds. Her Asian mother made a point of learning how to cook soul food, which signals that she thought it important to carry on the ethnic traditions of her daughter's African American heritage in addition to her own Filipino one. That this mother cared to raise her biracial daughter in a household honoring her two component ethnicities may in turn have been why her daughter viewed herself as both black and Filipino.

Racial context also shapes the identities of majority-minority biracials. Here again, there were notable similarities between them and part-white biracials. Individuals in my sample who had two minority parents said they were comfortable around people from all races and ethnicities, not just those of their particular background. One woman said that while she felt at home with blacks and Filipinos (her two racial backgrounds), she was really the happiest and at ease around Latinos, because she had attended a bilingual Spanish school where most of her classmates were Latino. One Latino-Asian biracial respondent explained, “Most of my friends are white, so I usually feel more comfortable with them. I guess being mixed-race, I've never felt especially comfortable with a specific group, so I tend to just be fine with everybody.” Her comment encapsulates the sentiments of participants in prior chapters: due to their intermediate racial status, biracials are not completely embraced by any one group. Instead of hindering their socialization, however, their in-between position actually affords them a wider network.

Identity is also affected by the racial ideologies of the region in which one lives. One black-Latino woman who was born in Los Angeles said that moving to the American South as a child had been a racial culture shock; California had been very diverse, but the school she attended in Tennessee was almost entirely white. Her dark skin tone and “unconventional” appearance made her stand out. Nonetheless, she took pride in both her African American and Mexican heritage and was actively engaged in student organizations supporting each of her backgrounds (participating in the Black Student Union as well as a mentoring program for Latino youth). She told me that, “I'm able to see multiple perspectives easier because I'm like a blend of two different cultures.” Her multicultural background afforded her the capacity to relate to a broad swath of groups and an openness to understanding different viewpoints.

Living and working in a racially homogeneous setting means greater involvement in certain racial experiences, which strengthens ties to that particular race. This was apparent in the experiences of one participant who identified more strongly as Asian than as black because she was more immersed in Asian customs and practices:

I don't see my [Asian] grandmother often, but she used to take us to Chinatown and Japantown, and Chinese New Year's parades. My dad also exposes us to Asian culture. With regards to African American culture, I don't know if I've been as fully exposed to that because the area that I grew up in does not have as many African Americans.

(Black-Asian female)

Similarly, a black-Asian male who considered himself “culturally Filipino” said that despite being “perceived more as black than Filipino,” he identified primarily with his Filipino side “because I'm surrounded by so many Filipinos.” When asked why he did not identify as African American or mixed-race, he elaborated,

Two reasons. [First,] I wasn't raised in an African American household. The only person I could relate to who was African American was my father; the neighborhoods I grew up in weren't African American. The second reason is that I was just always assumed to be African American, and I tried hard to combat that. I acted out by being more Filipino and learning more about Filipino culture. When I'm with Filipino people, I would code-switch in English and Tagalog, and I would want to prove to them that I know the culture that I'm referencing as a way of showing that I belong, I can be cool with y'all. It was a way to prove to them that I could be Filipino.

(Black-Asian male)

Due to this man's appearance, others inferred that he was black. But he did not view himself this way because he was physically distant from black communities and spaces. He subsequently fought against presumptions of his blackness and sought to accentuate his Asian heritage via cultural symbols. His ability to assert his Filipinoness while downplaying his blackness through the use of language illustrates the performative nature of race – that it is malleable and can be used to legitimize group membership.

The Mutability of Racial Identity

Like their part-white biracial peers, the identities of multiple-minority biracials developed during childhood and adolescence. Several people in my sample described a shift toward a more racially plural consciousness:

Before, when I was in high school, I would just identify as Mexican when it was convenient for me to fit in with the Latino kids that I went to high school with, because I went to high school with a primarily Mexican/Latino environment. [But in college] when I did Asian American studies, I learned a lot about identity and things like that. I took a course called “Mexipino Experiences,” and it was pretty much the only course of its kind. That was so specific to Mexican and Filipino cultures and how their histories cross over and go in parallel. With that course, I started identifying myself as Mexipino a lot.

(Latino-Asian male)

I was pretty much raised Filipino, so I feel more Filipino than I feel Puerto Rican, but it's kind of confusing because I don't look Filipino because my hair is different. Since coming to college I've been identifying as mixed. I took a class last winter about being mixed-race, and it has helped me see that my racial identification doesn't define who I am, it's just a part of who I am. When I was in high school and growing up, it was my defining characteristic, which I always thought was kind of weird because there's more to you than just your skin color. It was just my thing I guess – looking different. But coming here, everyone is so diverse, everyone looks different, so that couldn't be my “thing” anymore.

(Latino-Asian female)

When I was younger, I remember having the conversation with my parents and asking them, what was I? And I remember looking at my mom and saying that I was Filipino. And up until high school, that's what I told people. I strongly identified as Filipino. But once I started being around Filipinos, I started becoming challenged. At that point, I then started saying that I was just black because proving myself to be Filipino was too difficult. But then I got into college and I became more aware of ethnic studies. Now I'm just at the point of being mixed-race black and Filipino, because being both black and Filipino are important to me now.

(Black-Asian male)

Each of these part-Filipino respondents described holding a singular racial identity during their younger years, either because they “wanted to fit in” with their friends and classmates or because they “felt” more culturally attached to one of their ethnic heritages. They chose to align with a single group because their dual-minority background was unusual and they sought social acceptance. But spending time in college enabled them to understand that it was possible to hold multiple ethnic identities contemporaneously. Socializing with people from diverse backgrounds and taking racial and ethnic studies courses, they no longer felt out of place.

Although their identities crystallized as they grew older, became more educated, and gained life experience, biracials also came to see race as a tool. Like part-white biracials, those of non-white parentage sometimes presented themselves as belonging solely to their more-marginalized minority background. Given the age of my interview sample, such calculated identification was most prominent in their memories of applying to college:

Q: How did you identify on your college applications? During the college admissions process, did you feel that you had ethnic options?

A:

I definitely put that I'm black. That's an instance where I hope that affirmative action, or just having to fill a quota, would work in my favor. (Black-Asian male)

A:

I thought that checking off black would benefit me more. But I also feel like I am black, so I could check off black. Any mixed person can check any of their mixes if they want, regardless, but being black, I probably do benefit from that, too. Blacks are underrepresented, so for me checking black, I am adding to that representation of black students. That's a positive thing for me to do, to say that we are here. (Black-Asian female)

A:

I definitely felt like some ways to identify myself would help more than others [and] give me a better chance of getting into college. That's why I put Latino instead of just mixed-race or Asian on my college applications. I guess in situations like that, where people or organizations are looking for people from underrepresented groups, I play up that I am Puerto Rican. But when I'm just with my friends or family, I tend to associate more with the Filipino side because that's what I know more of, that's what I feel more comfortable with. Even though I identify more with my Filipino culture, my advisor told me that [identifying as Asian] would hurt me. Latino was the more beneficial option. It was more of a strategic thing I guess. (Latino-Asian female)

For each of these respondents, racial identification was not only a reflection of their own self-conception. It was also a marker about which others insinuated and made assumptions. Although they could assert membership in two different minority groups, they understood that race in America is structured hierarchically and that their respective minority backgrounds were not viewed as equally disadvantaged. Their multiple-minority parentage meant that they were unable to tap into the socioeconomic privileges afforded to whites as a group. But they felt that their Asian heritage connoted a different sort of privilege and consequently chose to omit it in order to appear exclusively black or Latino. As they put it, checking Asian would “hurt” them, but black and Latino would “benefit” them and “work in [their] favor.” They recognized that some races were more marginalized than others. In this sense, biracials of multiple-minority backgrounds behaved similarly to their part-white peers; members from both sets of groups failed to disclose one of their races when they believed it might be personally or politically worthwhile.

Another person of black-Asian parentage stated that while she had marked both of her racial backgrounds in her college applications, she, too, had contemplated the ramifications of this identification:

I never really know whether the policies of the university, how much being a minority matters or impacts the decision that they'll make. I also always wonder, does the fact that I mark African American and Chinese American mean that they'll be more likely to accept someone who's just African American over me if our résumés look the same? It's definitely something that's crossed my mind.

(Black-Asian female)

When it comes to checking off boxes on forms, multiple-minority biracials are aware that they have racial choices and that these choices have consequences. They grapple earnestly with these decisions, and the labels they select sometimes betray their self-interest more than their true internal identities.

Gender, Anti-Black Stereotypes, and Racial Awareness

A key difference between biracials of multiple-minority parentage and their part-white biracial peers is the role of gender in shaping racial identity. The multiple-minority biracials in my sample commented openly on how their gendered social interactions pushed them to identify with their more marginalized race. This was particularly the case for part-black biracials, who called out the effect of anti-black male stereotypes and judged racial boundaries as more tightly regulated for men than for women.

The gendering of race is primarily due to phenotype being interpreted differently for males and females. Biracial women found that others had a difficult time gauging their race or ethnicity, which meant that they were often viewed as a racially enigmatic “other.” One black-Latino woman with curly hair and tan skin said that people have variously presumed that she is Hawaiian, Samoan, and “half-black, half-white.” In mulling over the relationship between her gender and her race, she said,

I don't know if [my gender] has a big impact on my racial identity. Maybe it has an impact on how other people see me. For my brother, he's an African American male. And I mean, there is the whole Trayvon Martin thing. […] I feel like people sometimes have a more negative perception towards males. Maybe being [a biracial] female is not as much of a concern as it would be if I was a male.

(Black-Latino female)

Another woman approached the intersection of race and gender with a feminist lens, pointing to what she deemed an objectification of women in African American culture:

Well, for one, there's an element of being black but also being a woman. Like, I definitely identify as a feminist, and as someone who believes in equal rights for men and women. But I think there's a lot of misogyny and not the same support for equality for men and women in the black community. Whether it's like rap culture, hip hop culture, or just like general things that are deemed important in the black community. So I don't know, that's kind of a conflict I guess, but not one that's serious. […] Sometimes I've thought about being a multiracial guy, does that differ from being a multiracial woman? I'm not really sure.

(Black-Asian female)

Neither of these women could point to a particular example of their gender shaping their race, and they both admitted they were uncertain as to whether being a woman actually affected how they saw themselves racially. But what they communicate as they ponder the role of gender is telling: When they consider the connection between race and gender, they do not discuss how they are viewed as women of mixed-race or as women of color. Instead, they analyze the link between blackness and masculinity. The first woman calls attention to stereotypes of black male criminality and the negative way African American men are seen culturally, speculating that perhaps it is easier being a biracial woman than being a biracial man. The second woman cites sexism within the black community and wonders whether biracial men and women have distinct lived experiences.

These women simply raise such inquiries; neither expresses a strong opinion one way or the other. Yet what they do not verbalize is as important as what they do. Curiously, neither alluded to her non-black background when discussing the overlap of gender and race; both referenced their blackness and their multiracialness, but made no mention of how being a woman was tied to their Latinoness or Asianness. Their responses suggest that blackness is distinctly more gendered than other racial minority heritages.3

The women in my sample felt that because they were often perceived as racially ambiguous in appearance, they were not typically targets for racism. One woman said that people often did not consider her to be black at all, and that she self-identifies as multiracial, though her brother identifies as a person of color:

I'm not necessarily subject to immediate stereotypes because people don't really know what I am. […] I feel like if I were a male, I would racially identify the same way. But, my brother identifies more as African American and Asian than I do.

(Black-Asian female)

Despite having the same family, racial, and socioeconomic background, growing up in the same household, and living in the same neighborhood, her brother saw himself as more of a racial minority. It is possible that her brother had a darker skin tone or appeared more racially prototypical than she did, but it is still curious that the two identified differently despite being “matched” on most demographic characteristics. Gender proved the pivotal distinction.

Further, “looking black” does not preclude biracial women from identifying with their non-black background. One woman felt more accepted by African Americans due to her darker skin, and that acceptance reinforced her own strong black consciousness. But her identity is steered by her appearance, not established by it. She explained:

People assume I'm black because of my skin color, and I sort of over time have taken that on, if that makes any sense. I think that if I did look more Asian, perhaps I would be more accepted by people in the Asian community. Not that I've ever felt like, not accepted, but I feel like if I showed up at an event it wouldn't be like, “Oh you're one of us” type thing. Whereas if I show up at a black event, people would know. [But] just because I don't necessarily look Asian or don't participate in Asian communities here on campus, doesn't mean that I don't identify as that.

(Black-Asian female)

Her comment echoes an argument made by many part-white biracials: while phenotype is an important component of racial identity, it is secondary to other traits, like cultural ties. But interviews suggest that this is truer for women more than for men. This is well evidenced in a conversation with one dark-skinned woman who identified as “equally” black and Filipina. She remarked that while her skin tone caused people to view her as black, their presumptions had little bearing on how she viewed herself. She said, “Even though I'm racialized as black and people might think I'm only black, I feel like I'm Filipino really strongly,” pointing to ethnic rites that connected her to her Filipino background, including speaking Tagalog with her mother, growing up Catholic, and listening to Filipino music. Such customs were more significant in the construction of her racial identity than her African American appearance.

In sum, the multiple-minority biracial women in my sample, including those of black backgrounds, were afforded a degree of flexibility in how they identified. For some, their racially indeterminate appearance made it difficult for others to categorize them and possibly shielded them from discrimination. But even women who are racially prototypical in appearance felt empowered to identify with the other side of their ethnic ancestry.

Phenotype is a much tighter constraint for multiple-minority biracial men. Due to their darker skin tone and features, multiple-minority men of black parentage were ascribed as singularly black – not as black-Asian or black-Latino. Moreover, when multiple-minority biracial women weighed in on the relationship between their race and gender, they pondered what life might be like if they were a different gender; biracial men did not do this. They spoke instead of the interplay of their maleness and blackness, which meant being tied to a multitude of objectionable stereotypes. One young man detailed the stress he bore as a black male in America:

Because I'm a black male, that comes with a set of expectations – of course, one usually grounded in a set of racist, sexist thoughts. I'm supposed to be hyper-masculine: I'm violent, I'm criminal, I don't smile, no emotions, just anger. Which is interesting, because that influences how people saw me. [So] I tried so hard to not be that. Not change who I was as a black person, but change who I was and act more Asian or Filipino. […] Being a black male is seen in society as all these negative things. In my heart, I knew I wasn't those things, but in my head, I was giving into those racist notions that I wasn't a black man. So instead, I would act in ways that pushed myself to be Asian, because I saw that as a means of escape from those things. That was denying the black side of me.

(Black-Asian male)

His race and gender were inextricably intertwined and formed the core of others’ perceptions of him. He saw that black masculinity was associated with degrading and offensive traits, and he worried that other people would draw assumptions about his personality from his appearance. He did not ruminate on what his experiences might be like were he instead a black and Filipino woman; he was all too familiar with the challenges he faced as a black man, and subsequently sought to break away from this identity by presenting himself as Filipino.4 He actively redirected the focus to his non-black heritage.

This man's attempt to reconstruct his racial image highlights the agency biracials can command in influencing how they are viewed by others, as well as the guilt that can follow an intentional display of only one part of their background. Although he suggests that he was able to “act more Asian or Filipino” without sacrificing his internal black consciousness, the sense that he was “denying” part of himself indicates that he believed he was being deceptive by minimizing his blackness.

Because women and men of multiple-minority backgrounds are ascribed differently, they have discrete experiences with racism and prejudice. Women sometimes encounter racially discriminatory quips, but are not usually the targets of unambiguously racist remarks or threats. Says one participant:

I'm not immediately categorized and people don't usually make assumptions. People do ask a lot because I appear somewhat convoluted racially. When people find out that I'm part African American, they make KFC, basketball, and watermelon jokes. But they don't really bother me. They're displays of immaturity, and are annoying.

(Black-Asian female)

Other biracial women in my interview sample shared her experience. Since it is more difficult to racially “place” women, it is easier for them to avoid being profiled. If their “true” racial background is made known, women can be opened up to racist jokes. But they are not typically met with hostility or called racial epithets.

In contrast, because biracial minority-black men were viewed as black, they were vulnerable to more flagrant forms of discrimination and racism. This was illustrated by one young man who had Afrocentric features and was born to a Korean mother and a black father. He recounted an incident that had occurred the week before our interview, when he was at a restaurant with friends:

Some [white] lady eating across the room felt like it was her duty to tell me how she felt about me. And she was saying it in an aggressive manner. She was telling me to pull up my pants, and “I don't need that.” I don't know, it was very aggressive. She started making threats to me, insulting, like, my mother. She's never even met my mom – she's a complete stranger. But she was just going off on me. And I'm just assuming that it's because of the way I look. I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't being loud. I was just minding my own business and eating dinner.

(Black-Asian male)

The woman's harassment and humiliation of this young man caused such a disturbance that eventually the police were called. The responding officers essentially explained that the commotion had been, if indirectly, of his own making:

The cops told me that this happened to me because I look a certain type of way, and if I didn't want this to happen in the future, I should consider changing the way I look. I didn't appreciate that at all. I think they mean that I should start looking less black? I don't know.

Q: How does being biracial affect your encounters with racism?

A:

I think that when discrimination happens, it's definitely not because I'm half-Asian. It's definitely because I look black. To the untrained eye, I look like a regular black person. Generally, people assume that I'm black. More often than not, people find it hard to believe that I'm half-Korean. […] Culturally, I think I'm Korean. Growing up, I felt more Korean. But as I get more exposed to the world, I feel more black than anything. I'm definitely black. I've been called the N-word plenty of times in life, but no one's actually called me an Asian slur. (Black-Asian male)

A commonly-held perception among both biracials and the American public is that people of mixed-race have a tougher time in society than people of a single race. But this man implies that his life would be easier if he appeared more biracial and less black; if people could tell he was part-Korean, perhaps their automatic judgments would be more favorable. Despite identifying more with Korean culture, this man increasingly “feels” black because he looks black (not Korean) and encounters the racism that blacks (not Koreans) face in America. He goes through daily life being treated as a black male and internalizes this identity.

No other participant mentioned experiencing such grievous racism. But other young men carried a heightened consciousness of the microaggressions and latent bigotry toward their more marginalized black background. One man said,

It's not so much a direct attack on me. No one has come up to me and called me the N-word. I haven't been stopped by the police. But these things can happen. At any moment people can call me things. Or I can't go into certain neighborhoods or areas because I'll be seen as a criminal. It's damaging to my self-esteem. It's something I'm very aware of, and I'm trying to stamp it out, but it's just something that's always in my head.

(Black-Asian male)

Although he had not encountered any glaring anti-black discrimination, the prospect that he could be subjected to it at any time filled him with an omnipresent dread that influenced his behavior and harmed his self-regard.

Relative to their part-white biracial male counterparts, those born to two minority parents reflected more freely on the interdependent relationship between race and gender. Whereas the gendering of race for part-white biracials operated less plainly, it was palpable for darker-skinned minority biracials, who were unable to break away from their minority status. When multiple-minority biracial men were asked to consider how their maleness constructed their racial identity and vice versa, they did not find this to be an odd or arduous question. Several routinely had encounters that socially branded them as men who were also black, and so they had clearly given the issue a great deal of thought. They conveyed serious anxieties about being unjustly targeted for their race – from voicing their fears of racial misunderstandings, to staying away from particular neighborhoods in order to bypass suspicion, to having the police advise them to dress and speak differently so as to avoid altercations. For these men, race and gender were interconnected and complementary; together, they summoned repugnant stereotypes about violence and criminality, making these men hyperalert to racial bias.

Social Rejection and Political Attitudes

Like part-white biracials, those belonging to multiple-minority groups grapple with a sense of social isolation. They feel they have a hard time fitting in because they believe that no group fully embraces them. Seeking inclusion and acceptance, participants felt racially marginalized by their peers:

I'm somewhat ambiguous and people don't really – can't – label me as easily. But I do think that there's different types of discrimination that people of mixed-race encounter. I get a lot of, “But you're not full black.” So it seems like if I'm not fully black, I'm not black at all. Just a lot of things, like discrimination in terms of oversimplifying your identification. That happens a lot. And just trying to fit you into a box of almost like, no racial identification just because you aren't completely immersed in one culture.

(Black-Asian female)

There is some element of “do I belong?” But I'm not sure if that's me feeling that, or other people feeling that and me sensing that. Probably a combination of both, to be honest.

(Black-Asian female)

One man found his two ethnicities to be in conflict and felt pressure to project loyalty to both of his races. He said being mixed-race was largely detrimental to his identity:

Being mixed-race, you're just always constantly being torn by your ethnic makeups. You're expected to have allegiances to certain people and certain groups. You want to be part of both and you want everyone to accept you. But it's not the reality of what it's like to be mixed. You're always struggling with who wants to categorize you and who wants you to vote the way they want to vote and who wants you to think the way they want you to think. That's why I would say [being mixed-race is] really a disadvantage. I don't see it as an advantage at all.

(Latino-Asian male)

Since multiple-minority biracials already constitute a small fraction of the U.S. population, their particular racial composition – e.g., black-Asian, Latino-Asian – is quite uncommon. They are also unique in that they belong to not one, but two ethnic minority communities. And because their phenotype and mixed heritage accentuate their “otherness,” social acceptance is a bigger struggle for them than for biracials who have a white parent. Participants acknowledged the challenges they faced in reconciling their minority backgrounds as they attempted to take part in conventional ethnic student organizations while in college:

The Filipino American Student Association was too much for me. It's a very large organization, but they're all very tight-knit and extremely Filipino and I always just felt like I couldn't fit in, because I was raised differently and because I look different. I'm shorter, I have this curly hair and darker skin, so that's more the Latino side of me, but then I have a flat nose and chinky eyes. So it's really hard to fit in one group over another.

(Latino-Asian female)

This woman's skin tone and hair texture did not comport with expectations about what an Asian person looks like – nor did her nose and eye shape fit the mold for being classified as Latino. She consequently looked “too Latina” to be Asian enough, and “too Asian” to be sufficiently Latina. She also felt out of place due to her upbringing, which in her view was inadequately culturally Filipino, presumably because it was tempered by the presence and influence of her Puerto Rican father.

A black-Asian respondent majoring in Asian American Studies evoked similar feelings of disaffection from his black peers:

I remember being with my friends, my [Asian American Studies] cohort – they're all mostly Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc. And we see another group of students come from Ethnic Studies, a wide range of ethnicities. As soon as they see them, they're like, “It's the Asian American Studies cohort, hi,” etc. And then one guy looks at me and he's puzzled and is like, “Why are you with them?” And he asks, “Are you in the Asian American Studies program?” And that was sending a message that I didn't belong, and I didn't look the way that he thought I should in order to engage in Asian American activities.

(Black-Asian male)

And another young man lamented not having had a racial role model from whom he could learn and emulate. His experience epitomized the quandary of being biracial with multiple minority heritages:

I feel like there's a sense of power and privilege in being monoracial. You have people to relate to. You have an identity set up for you. […] Growing up, my parents told me that I was black and Filipino but I had no idea what that meant. It was just this thing my mom told me. It was difficult to figure out who I was. There was no one to show me how to be both black and Filipino. There was just, like, here's a black person, and here's a Filipino person. Well, which one did I fit? It was neither. Over time, I had to figure out for myself what it meant to be a black and Filipino person.

(Black-Asian male)

These participants communicated their impression that there are social and psychological advantages that stem from having a more traditional racial background. Although blacks, Asians, and Latinos are racial minority populations in the U.S., they each encompass tens of millions of people, and are thus adequate in size to enable broad feelings of group affinity and pride. And while non-white/white biracial populations are far smaller in number, they too are larger than most multiple-minority biracial groups.5 Biracial people often say they lack their own community; sitting on either side of two different racial groups of color, as multiple-minority biracials do, can be especially lonely and confounding.

In addition to confronting exclusion from their peers and from American society more generally, these minority biracials can feel like outcasts in their own families. One woman described feeling insecure at family reunions, where she was the only person who was both Asian and black. Overt racism can even lead to familial estrangement, as the case of one black-Asian young man demonstrates. He recalled a racially-charged conversation his Filipino mother had once had with her sister, who had a biracial child of her own:

[One time, my mom] was talking to my aunt, and she also has a mixed-race son who was white and Filipino. And she said that if her son and I went swimming together, then a shark would eat me first because I was black. And that set my mother off. I don't really talk to the aunt much now.

(Black-Asian male)

This incident speaks to the stigma not of being biracial in America, but of being a minority-black biracial in particular. While he and his cousin were both mixed-race, his blackness stained him as inferior in his aunt's eyes; whiteness was a privilege and blackness was a detriment.

The experiences of multiple-minority biracials are tied to their policy positions, which tend to be socially and racially inclusive. As with part-white biracials, the topic of same-sex marriage prompted comparisons with interracial marriage; one black-Asian woman put it matter-of-factly, “People should do what they want to do. You know, at one point people of different races weren't allowed to get married.”

Multiple-minority biracials also appear to be more firmly liberal and Democrat when it comes to issues of race. This should come as no surprise: their parentage designates them people of color and they contend with the presuppositions that accompany being minorities in America. One woman says,

People can't tell what I am, so I think that does influence how people treat me. But I definitely do identify with the black community, so I think what hurts them hurts me. What's a positive thing for them is a positive thing for me. For Latinos, it's the same answer.

(Black-Latino female)

As she described it, her ethnically ambiguous phenotype meant people did not automatically view her as black or Latino. But this was irrelevant for her subjective racial group attachments. She saw herself as both black and Latino and regarded each group's trials and triumphs as her own.

Others referenced their families when discussing their liberal social views. When asked about immigration policy, one woman brought up the nature of her relatives’ arrival in the U.S. as an explanation for her opposition to tougher border security:

Okay, this is definitely personally charged. I am totally against the [Mexico—U.S. border] wall, and I'm really not a fan of deportation. Probably because at least half of my family came here illegally. So I know that's a whole issue. I don't think it should be that difficult to come to the United States.

(Latino-Asian female)

Immigration reform hit close to home because hers was a family of immigrants – many of them unauthorized. She was sensitive to political efforts aimed at overhauling immigration, favoring more open borders and greater leniency when it came to dealing with people who had entered the country unlawfully.

With respect to political party identification, another respondent was unequivocal: as a working-class minority male in America, he felt that the Democratic Party was his only option. Regarding the reasons behind his support, he cited the Democrats’ emphasis on economic issues, including favoring an increase in the minimum wage and a social safety net, as well as their focus on policies to aid minorities. He said,

I'm pro-minority groups. If there's an issue that comes up for minority groups, I'm usually all for it and in support of it. Generally for Latinos, blacks, Asians, non-white groups in general, the smaller groups that don't have a voice. I'm definitely Democrat. The Democratic Party is more about helping the little guys. I'm one of the little guys, so I'm all for that. I think of [the Democrats] as the people who are the have-nots.

(Black-Asian male)

Other participants similarly endorsed policies aimed at assisting minority groups. Some supported progressive policies partly for personal reasons, because they themselves or their loved ones were likely to benefit from reforms such as a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. For other respondents, support for equal economic opportunity and civil rights was tied more to a subjective sense of attachment to their minority racial group(s) and their perceptions of a common bond with group members who are or might be affected by such issues. This minority group identification extended beyond race to disempowered groups more widely, and it was cited by respondents in their support for equal rights for gay couples and reproductive rights for women.

Because these findings are derived from in-depth interviews, they are suggestive rather than conclusive. Even so, results from a nationally-representative survey show that people of multiple-minority backgrounds are more likely than non-white/white biracials to say their race is essential to their personal identity.6 Since their racial consciousness is pivotal in their overall sense of self, these biracials’ status as minorities may figure more prominently in guiding their political behavior and attitudes.

Discussion

Because of differences in phenotype, family background, and culture, biracials often say that they do not have the sweeping sense of ethnic community enjoyed by their monoracial peers. But biracials who belong to multiple-minority groups also lack access to the social and economic privileges granted to their part-white biracial peers, whose more Eurocentric appearance and, on average, greater wealth can enable them to enter into and exist inside white spaces. In addition, multiple-minority biracials comprise a small fraction of the overall U.S. population, and their minority stature is even more visible when individuals are separated into their respective racial subgroups. They are doubly marginalized – a minority within a minority group – and their uncommon ancestry means there are fewer people to whom they can relate.

These biracials are perceived conclusively as people of color, and they are attentive to their minority standing. Due to their darker phenotypes, multiple-minority biracials are more attuned to the reciprocal relationship between their gender and race, for example. Such mindfulness of their minority identities, in turn, activates a political consciousness tied to feelings of racial injustice.