Multiracial in America: Who gets to be "white"?
Jeremy Gordon on growing up multiracial, assimilation and "whiteness" in post-Obama America.
Cover Photo: The author with his parents, Mary and Dennis Gordon.
Jeremy Gordon on growing up multiracial, assimilation and "whiteness" in post-Obama America.
Every Christmas, when the dishes have been cleaned, when the presents are exchanged and the photos snapped, my cousins and I book it out of my aunt’s house in the suburbs for the comfort of the city, where we spend the rest of the night in each other’s company—playing video games, getting drunker, eating a second meal to close the holiday. Last year, we drove to a dim sum restaurant in Chicago’s Argyle neighborhood, which my Chinese family has patronized for my entire life.
Times had changed, though. We assumed we’d be seated right away, but the restaurant was full. As far as I could remember, it was the first time we’d ever had to wait for a table—and this time, we noticed that most of the diners were white. As we waited for our names to be called, my cousin couldn’t help but gripe. “I can’t believe we’re stuck behind all these white people!” she said. “Can’t they go somewhere else?”
My cousin is not a facetious woman, so the comment didn’t register as a joke. Nevertheless, her brother and I managed a laugh. It was true—the restaurant was filled with white people, whose grannies had never used Mandarin to order from the sullen teenagers pushing the dim sum carts around. But the complaint was a little awkward because of an incontrovertible fact: My cousins and I are half-white, each of us the offspring of a Chinese woman and a Jewish man.
“The goal, of course, is to be like you - the Daywalker! You got the best of both worlds, don't you?”
We look about half-and-half—not quite white, not quite yellow, definitely a little something. White people might see us as Chinese—or, failing their ability to pinpoint our race, an ever-ambiguous “person of color”—but there are plenty of Chinese who might insist we were white. Joking about “white people” when that might be us—it’s an easy laugh, but ultimately disingenuous. Wondering what to identify as—white, Chinese, or something else—is something I, my cousins, and many multiracial people have struggled with for our whole lives, to no definite conclusion.
The first time I realized I was multiracial—literally, that I could call myself multiracial—was when my high school English teacher suggested I write about the experience for a college application essay. Before that, I’d never considered my identity as one way or the other; part of my family was Chinese, part of my family was white, and I walked between both worlds like Blade. I’d say I was half-Chinese, or half-white, without envisioning an identity that could account for both sides without erasing any part of myself.
The rise of a multiracial identity dovetails with an utopian ideal of a pan-ethnic, post-racial America—one where everyone is a little something. But that post-racial space doesn’t yet exist, with one of the effects being that multiracial people are often pulled between identities. Whether someone identifies more with one race or the other is strongly attributable to their upbringing, their family history, their surroundings, and their physical appearance, making no two multiracial experiences
totally alike. It has to do with their public perception, too: Take this one stat from the Pew Research Center, which says 60% of biracial white and black adults say they’re seen as black while only 23% of biracial white and Asian adults say they’re seen as Asian.
If I identify more as Chinese, it’s because I can remember every time I’ve been called a chink, or specifically alerted to my Asian-ness. There was the time I was getting drinks with a white woman who blurted out, apropos of nothing, that she was practically an honorary Chinese person because she had so many Chinese friends in high school. (I stared at her and said, “Uhhh, no.”) There was the other time all my white friends kept asking me if I was watching Fresh Off the Boat, as though some Spidey sense alerted me to whenever an Asian person was on TV. These incidents didn’t mean anything by themselves, nor were they necessarily offensive—sometimes I was watching Fresh Off the Boat!—but together they provided some idea of how I was seen by the world.
At the same time, my whiteness is unavoidable. My patently Jewish surname has led to a couple incidents where someone—usually a white person—has called me white, expecting that to be the last word in an argument, only to apologize with their hat in hand when I correct them. There’s my pale skin, which is noticeably lighter than the range of yellows found in full-blooded Chinese people, and would immediately identify me as part-white if I stepped a foot in China. Plus, I love the Jewish side of my family. To reject that part of my background would be to reject them, which is something I could never do.
Multiraciality is a young identity, one that didn’t formally come into existence until the 1980s. G. Reginald Daniel is a sociology professor who’s taught a class on multiracial identity at the University of California, Santa Barbara for nearly three decades, and even he can’t identify its first usage. He points to television shows like Oprah and Sally Jessy Raphael, where panels on multiracial experiences featuring multiracial people were hastily conceived. “The first time I heard the word multiracial used was on The Phil Donahue Show in 1988,” he tells me. “I was pretty shocked because I'd never heard that word before. Prior to that, nobody was talking about this, surely not in public.”
of multiracial adults say they’re proud of their mixed-race background
believe their heritage has made them more open to other cultures
It’s difficult to track how the multiracial population has formally grown, as the option to pick more than one race on the census has only been available since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are about 9 million multiracial Americans. It’s a young population, too: The median age of multiracial Americans is 19, according to the Pew Research Center, compared with 38 for monoracial Americans. The vast majority of multiracial Americans claim some sort of white ancestry, which is in part a numbers game: Historically, there have simply been more white people in America than any other population. White and Native American, white and black, white and Asian make up some of the most common mixes, but you can find just about any combination if you talk to enough people.
One of the reasons why the multiracial population is young is that interracial marriage has only been legal in the United States since 1967. In that year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman who’d sued the state of Virginia over the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a statute that was specifically designed to prevent interracial marriages. The Court’s decision meant that states were no longer able to enforce any of their similarly designed anti-miscegenation laws—and, most crucially, that couples of different races were able to legally formalize their relationship. You might consider this the Big Bang of multiracial culture in America. In 1970, 1% of children younger than 1 claimed a multiracial background. In 2013, that was up to 10%. In 1980, only 1.6% of marriages were between spouses of different races. In 2013, that had quadrupled to 6.3%.
More importantly, the lack of legal distinction for multi-racial people meant they were often socialized as one race or the other. Consider a hypothetical adult who claimed half-white and half-black ancestry. In 1967, he was legally classified as black, owing to the enduring legacy of the one-drop rule, which designated that anyone with partial African ancestry was legally black regardless of how they looked .
For a similarly half-white and half-black person born after 1967, it’s more likely they would’ve been socialized somewhere closer to the middle. Maybe not right after the Loving decision, when a biracial identity was still nascent. Maybe not by 1980, when the Berkeley Public School system introduced “interracial” as a category on school forms, becoming the first entity to do so in U.S. history—a category that was restricted shortly thereafter when California state officials decided the designation didn’t meet federal standards , and could only be used internally. But over the next several decades, multiraciality was slowly acknowledged, culminating with the breakthrough on the 2000 census.
A timeline of "whiteness"
Ben Franklin laments the influx of German-Americans.
Oppressed Irish populations are loudly and clearly anti-abolition and anti-black.
Germans align themselves with whiteness.
In debates with Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas refers to the Irish as a "branch of the Caucasian race."
“Indian” appears on the census to describe Native Americans.
"Chinese" appears on the census for the first time.
"Black" appears on the census for the first time.
"Japanese" appears on the census for the first time.
"Black" is clarified to "Black (Negro or of Negro descent)".
Finnish people were considered "Asian" or "Mongolian" until a ruling in Minnesota makes them legally white.
Census clarifies further that a "mulatto" is anyone with "a trace of negro blood"
"Filipino", "Korean", and "Hindu" appear on the census.
The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind ruling stated South Asians are not white.
The Lum v. Rice Supreme Court ruling states that Asians are not white.
“Mexican” appears on the census due to population growth.
Mexicans succeed in being legally treated as white. Census: "Mexicans are to be regarded as white unless definitely of Indian or other nonwhite race."
Census: "Indians" are those living on a reservation or whose "proportion of Indian blood is one-fourth or more”.
The census adds a host of Hispanic categories.
"Vietnamese", "Indian", "Guamanian", and "Samoan" appear on the census.
"Other API" appears on the census.
"Other Asian" appears on the census.
Who is allowed to be white?
I consider my Jewish ancestry as synonymous with my white ancestry, but a hundred years ago, my Jewish ancestors may not have been seen as “white.” The definition of who’s allowed to identify as white has been in flux since the 17th century when the New World was being colonized. As huge quantities of bond-laborers were imported to the colonies, a series of legal distinctions were made between white—then referred to as “Christian”—and black workers, which essentially came down to the then-prevalent world view that European citizens were superior. Virginia passed laws like the Anti-Assembly Act (which ruled freedmen couldn’t meet in public) and a 1691 marriage law banning marriage between whites and blacks. This further created a separation between white and black residents, incubating a racist ideology that would only grow with the nascent America.
Whiteness wasn’t solely defined by phenotype. White people were Anglo-Saxon and English-descended; they could trace their lineage back to England. No less an authority than Ben Franklin fretted over the Germans, of all people, as a potentially horrendous influence on white America, writing that German immigrants would “never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?” Over time, immigration laws like the Alien Sedition Acts and political parties like the Know-Nothings rose to keep poor, white-passing populations like the Irish, Jewish, and Italian out of the country.
At the same time, these groups were attempting to ingratiate themselves into the social order, slavery ended. Suddenly, you had an emancipated black population struggling for the most basic of rights in the post-Reconstruction America. Thus, a unique dynamic emerged, with both black and white-passing populations being seen as the racial other. Take this illustration, which compared the skulls of an Irish and black man to show their comparable inferiority to the Anglo-Saxon.
These populations adopted a cynical truth: It was better to be arguably white than any kind of black. Over time, these white-passing groups managed to assimilate. They formed enclaves in major cities, won political representation, and passed their meager gains down from over generations to ensure their kids could grow up richer and more educated. The Italians, the Jews, the Irish: Eventually, they won the right of whiteness. Finnish, Arab, and Indian citizens waged legal battles in order to be classified as “white,” with varying success.
Even so, the right of whiteness might only be won by people who can physically pass as white . You’d rarely look at a full-blooded Chinese man and confuse him for a white guy. Consider how Asians became the dreaded model minority—that rare ethnic population able to bootstrap itself to superficial success within the white world while still remaining in second place. The average Chinese and Japanese-American household income is over $70,000, and about half their population will earn a bachelor’s degree.
of multiracial adults have been subjected to racial slurs or insults
have been annoyed by assumptions made about their racial background
say being multiracial has been a disadvantage
But with recent exceptions like Fresh Off The Boat and Master of None, you don’t see Asians in lead roles on television and in film. There have been seven Asian senators in history, only one of whom was a woman: Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, elected in 2013. They rarely ascend to the executive level at Fortune 500 companies, either. They’re bound to the stereotypes of the accomplished Asian: passive, dorky, docile. Then, there are underserved Asian populations like the Laotians or Hmong, who fall behind in the traditional metrics for success, but still get roped in with the Asian ideal.
That hard work and a high salary helped turn Asians into a model minority clues us into how whiteness works. Being “white” doesn’t just refer to skin tone. It means you’re industrious and rich, that you believe in meritocracy and respect the status quo. Be respectable and diligent like a white person, and you’ll succeed. Whiteness, at its most pernicious, is an unquestioned belief in the American dream without acknowledging that America has historically denied the rewards of meritocracy to hard workers who didn’t look the right way. And if playing by the rules means you’re still on the outside, what minority would see assimilation as a worthwhile goal in 2015?
MEDIAN household INCOME BY RACE
“Everything gets collapsed into the black/white paradigm.”
America is not a country where a frank conversation about race has ever been had with nuance or thoughtfulness. Germany, for example, is almost masochistically determined to accept all responsibility for the Holocaust. Walk around Berlin, and you’ll bump into dozens of museums detailing the Nazi evil. In America, meanwhile, a not-inconsiderable portion of the electorate would insist the Civil War was about states’ rights, or that racism against white people is actually the biggest problem.
There’s a history of discrimination toward just about every racial and ethnic group to put down roots in America, obviously, but the awfulness of the black experience has the biggest hold on the American conscience. No population as large as the black population is as statistically marginalized, either, as the original sin of slavery has led to discriminatory practices and mindsets that have set back generations of black families.
Our refusal to truly account for that history ensures that every racial experience fits along the white-black spectrum, regardless of whether you’re Chilean, Taiwanese, or whatever. It’s about being normal or being the other. Think about the Korean grocery owners in Do the Right Thing, shouting “I’m black!” at the advancing looters so their store won’t be seen as an example of the white menace.
“While it seems like blackness gets an unfair share of time, it's what keeps this whole structure intact,” says Daniel. “Everything gets collapsed into the black/white paradigm, no matter what else is going on. Everybody that comes into this country from anywhere else inevitably has to deal with blackness to locate themselves in our social order. That's a given.”
Identifying as white, then, is the easiest path—it’s the way it’s always been done. To choose to be more black, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, or any race that can’t pass as white is to participate in a struggle that’s been happening for centuries. But to watch the protests in Ferguson, read about Kalief Browder, watch Donald Trump bluster about keeping the Mexicans and the Muslims out of the country, and still think "Congratulations, you’re white!" is a sufficient prize? It’s morally indefensible, hence the urge to claim an identity that people might not think you deserve.
The election of Barack Obama, a man with a Kenyan father and a white mother, might have encouraged a greater understanding of multiraciality. Instead, it’s hard not to see it as a failed moment. Obama is almost exclusively referred to as a black president, even though he didn’t shy away from discussing his diverse background during his campaign. His more trollish detractors, like Bill O’Reilly, will unironically suggest Obama is just as white as he is black—a genetic truth that’s nevertheless intentionally obtuse . His age—he was born in 1961, years before the Lovings won their legal battle—suggests he grew up in a time when there was no easy path toward claiming a multiracial identity.
“This is creating an incredible amount of confusion for a lot of people,” says Daniel. “He's not embracing a multi-racial identity, yet his multiraciality has been critical to his political development.” The tonnage of racist invective directed toward Obama would also suggest that his opponents see him exclusively as a black man, white granny be damned.
During my research, I came across a thesis written by Julie Fischer-Kinney, an administrator at the University of Toledo, on how multiracial students view academic support services at predominantly white institutions. Most of the research on multiraciality she quoted was only as old as the late ‘80s, reaffirming Reginald Daniel’s hypotheses about the rise of the multiracial identity. There wasn’t even that much research to begin with. “There was just a void,” she tells me, “and I think a part of it has to do with the population in America as a whole, and the fact that there are fewer individuals who tend to self-identify as biracial and multiracial. When we think about who tends to write about areas of research, most individuals tend to write about things that they know about.”
Clockwise from top left: The author's mother, cousin, grandmother and great aunt. The author is sitting in the lower right corner.
Multiracial identity, racial authenticity and American inequity
A hundred studies couldn’t encapsulate the nuances of racial identity. But college students can major in African-American studies, Asian-American studies, Native-American studies, Latin-American studies, and so forth. There isn’t a single college in America that offers a degree in multiracial studies; there’s no multiracial coalition in Congress. Google “multiracial organizations” and you’ll be directed to page after page of dead links for well-meaning sites like EbonyIvoryMe and MixedAsians that seemingly never found their niche. One of these surviving organizations, Project RACE, is specifically aimed at educating children about their multiracial identities. It’s easy for multiracial people to grow up without considering their multiraciality—Pew estimates that only 40% of multi-racial people consider themselves such.
It’s unclear, too, whether explicit appeals to monoracial pride are always inclusive of multi-racial citizens. You don’t have to look very hard amongst black, Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnic populations to find people who don’t see multiracial people as really being black, Asian, or Hispanic. This is part of the weird, messy conversation on what constitutes racial authenticity, and how every race is always fighting against the stereotype of itself. Many people of color can recall some tense moment where they were exhibiting some non-stereotypical behavior—a black person putting on a Sufjan Stevens record, a Japanese person asking for a fork to eat their rice—and were then accused of being white. Many multiracial people can recall a moment where one side of their heritage was used to discredit their claim to the other side.
Inversely, multiraciality might also be used to elide a real consideration of racism and privilege. After all, just because someone is in a relationship with someone of a different race doesn’t mean they don’t harbor subtly bigoted attitudes that might be passed down across generations. (Imagine how a multiracial person with white ancestry might be considered “better” by a bigoted person because the color of their skin is lighter.) The basic existence of more multiracial kids won’t act as some cure-all for racism. It’ll only be a part of the slow process of breaking down these power dynamics long coded into how America works.
“Race is really built on distinctions between advantage and disadvantage,” says Jenifer Bratter, a sociology professor at Rice University. “It was created initially to distinguish the people who were valued and the people who weren't valued. How huge is the wealth gap between white families and black families? That means that black families live a different existence than white families. So what does a multiracial experience mean there? That might be a curiosity, but it may be interpreted as a threat in the sense of, ‘There's an inequity here that seems unfair, and here you come with these two backgrounds, and I'm not quite sure what sense to make of it.’”
of adults who consider themselves multiracial previously thought of themselves as one race
always thought of themselves as two or more races
If the election of Obama sparked a very present debate about the significance of a black president, the current presidential election shows the gulf in attitudes about that significance. Obama’s election did not solve racism, obviously—if anything, it highlighted how racist the country still is. While the Black Lives Matter movement was able to push Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders toward explicitly addressing race in their campaigns, the Republicans haven’t been as willing. This summer, Donald Trump rose to the top of the Republican presidential race by pandering to white populism, offering tone-deaf comments about “the blacks,” promising to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and drawing broad support from white supremacist groups. Multiple Republican candidates have blamed Black Lives Matter for an uptick in crime (or disregarded it outright), despite no reasonable connection.
If Republicans can get away with only a cursory examination of modern racial relations—to say nothing of the frequency with which they appeal to outmoded stereotypes—then what does it say about our progress toward that supposedly glorious post-racial future? This is the dark side of the post-racial, which was supposed to be within sight after Obama’s election. To presume that race is over without resolving any of its conflicts is obviously no solution at all—a limited view of the post-racial that David Theo Goldberg, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, defined to me as “whiteness in fear of its loss of its own power and its own status, and its own standing. It reaches for the post-racial as a way of entrenching the given racial distributions as they stand.”
When I asked Goldberg if he could imagine a modern minority becoming socialized as “white,” he suggested—with tongue planted in cheek—that the Syrian refugees would be eager to prove their gratefulness to America, and that they would soon buy into the cultural values of whiteness. That conversation took place more two months ago. Then, the Paris attacks happened, and in their wake, Syrian refugees were blamed—despite no evidence suggesting that the terrorists were Syrian refugees. But the overwhelmingly racist response to the attacks suggests that all it takes is one ugly incident for the rhetoric of bigotry to flourish.
It’s easy to see a national conversation becoming even more politicized when you take a look at the left’s more censorious tendencies (like shouting “cultural appropriation!” every time a kimono is seen in public) and the right’s unwillingness to recognize systemic oppression. If you want to imagine a hellish future, picture the left continuing to fight amongst itself over the slightest of transgressions as a field of Trumps rises unchecked, hooting and hollering without any blowback, our idea of the “conversation” becoming increasingly dissonant without resolution.
What percentage of multiracial adults lean Democrat?
A few months ago, I had a pitch turned down by a white editor, who suggested in his response that my idea was too characteristic of an average white Brooklyn author. I had to point out I wasn’t white—not strictly, at least—and rather than let his understandably casual assumption prompt an entire interrogation about his views on race, I chose to accept the apology and move on. But the question stuck in my head, days later: What was I trying to prove, and why?
Humans love to make predictions regarding anything, and race is no exception. If only the black-white binary could be demolished in favor of a glorious gray through which we all swim, a world where “What are you?” is asked without any suspicious undertones. But while the optimistic view says that future generations should be less racist, all it takes is one look at a blackface costume spotted at a college fraternity party to see how it’s still possible to grow up in America without any understanding of history. The numbers also suggest that white millennials have, on average, similar views on race as their elders—views that ultimately keep that binary in place.
Whether those disparate, fractured views will be annealed into something stronger is past the point of speculation. I imagine the true post-racial future rising out of education, empathy, and tolerance for how little our neighbor might know—an understanding that while utopia isn’t possible we might, at least, pull each other up one by one. But all too often, I’m struck by the fear that people don’t really want to live in a world where everyone is on the same level. They want to claw out a parcel of power for themselves, and people who agree with them. Human nature will trump ideology; distrust will reign; we’ll struggle to complete a puzzle because no one will envision the bigger picture.
If I’m frustrated, it’s because I’ve lived a firsthand experience of what part of the future might look like. As corny as it is, there’s no force as galvanizing as love. Perhaps it’s as easy as coupling up—that as we mix together, our understanding will grow, with all of the attendant messiness of working it out. But that messiness has to be better than remaining apart, right? Who but the most pessimistic could agree? As the multiracial population increases, there’s proof that part of the country is moving forward, at least in this one way. It’s a slow process, though. We’ve been at it for decades and have only this to show for it.
1. From the 1930 U.S. census: “A person of white and mixed Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood.”
2. This was basically an admittance that they were going to make someone else deal with it.
3. This is a group that also includes multiracial Americans who look closer to white than the other side of their background. Notable multiracial people who passed for white during their lifetime include the critic Anatole Broyard and actress Carol Channing, both of whom had black ancestry. Passing could be literally be a matter of survival some decades ago, as black people could be denied from purchasing homes, walking down the street without fear of violent reprisal, or—of course—marrying someone of a different race.
4. An example of how circuitous one’s ancestry can be: The evidence suggests that the president’s mother, Ann Dunham, is descended from John Punch, the first African to be legally classified as a slave. (Punch fathered children with a white woman, who continued pairing up with white people and eventually passed their genes to Dunham.)
Additional reporting: Zoe Leverant