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1.4: Multiracial Americans

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    While sociologists do not favor a biological definition of race, a discussion of people with "more than one race" reflects a reference to the "biological" aspect of race. In reality, we have a complex history of identifying and categorizing individuals who are multiracial, more than one race - which reflects the role of the social construction of race.

    We have already mentioned the example of President Obama, who as the product of an African father and white mother, identifies as a Black man. As another example, the famous (and now notorious) golfer Tiger Woods was typically called an African American by the news media when he burst onto the golfing scene in the late 1990s, but in fact his ancestry is one-half Asian (divided evenly between Chinese and Thai), one-quarter white, one-eighth Native American, and only one-eighth African American (Leland & Beals, 1997). Woods has jokingly used the term, Cablinasian, as his race-ethnic grouping - a creative way to reference his diverse background.

    Prior to the twentieth century, interracial marriage (referred to as miscegenation) was extremely rare, and in many places, illegal.

    Anti-Miscegenation Laws

    These anti-miscegenation laws were first passed in the 1600s to prevent freed Black slaves from marrying whites. Later versions added persons of Asian origin or ancestry to the list of groups forbidden to marry Whites. While early examples of such anti-miscegenation laws singled out those of "Mongoloid" origin specifically, they were later amended to include Filipinos (who claimed that they were of "Malay" origin) and Asian Indians (who characterized themselves as "Aryan" in origin).

    This section is licensed CC BY-NC-ND. Attribution: Asian Nation (Le) (CC BY-NC-ND)

    Discussed further in Chapter 2.3, amalgamation, often used as a synonym for miscegenation, is the process by which a marginalized group and a dominant group combine to form a new group. In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws flourished in the South during the Jim Crow era. Part of the root of white supremacy has revolved around the fear of miscegenation, highlighted in the film Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan as a savior of white women from "Black" men who were portrayed in Blackface. Decades later reflecting changing times, Sydney Poitier and Katharine Houghton, portrayed an interracial couple in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, are sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married. The film "Loving" chronicled their experiences with discrimination. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; Fandango Movieclips Trailers via YouTube)

    As the above trailer conveys, in that same year, Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision struck the last anti-miscegenation law from the books, declaring such laws unconstitutional. Prior to this, the 1945 War Brides Act allowed American GIs to marry and then bring their wives over from Japan, China, the Philippines, and Korea. The 1965 Immigration Act (discussed further in Chapter 3.4 and Chapter 9.4) inadvertently enhanced intermarriages across races. Increasingly during the modern era, the removal of miscegenation laws and a trend toward equal rights and legal protection against racism have steadily reduced the social stigma attached to racial exogamy (exogamy refers to marriage outside a person’s core social unit). In the later part of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century, attitudes and behaviors have changed. Recently, some drew parallels between Loving v. Virginia and the Obergefell vs. Hodges (2015) decision which legalized gay marriage in the entire U.S.

    The chart shows that the overall intermarriage rates and the newlywed intermarriage rates are on the increase.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Interracial Marriage as a Percentage of Newlyweds vs. All Married People. In 1967, interracial marriages represented 3% of all newlyweds. Interracial marriages have experienced a steady increase since that time. In 2015, interracial marriages represented 17% of all newlyweds and 10% of all married people. (Chart created by Jonas Oware from data courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

    As shown in Figure 1.4.2, both the overall intermarriage rates and the newlywed intermarriage rates are on the increase. The share of married couples with spouses of different races increased nearly fourfold from 1980 (1.6%) to 2013 (6.3%) (U.S. Census). Honolulu, Hawaii is the city with the highest percentage of interracial marriages in the U.S. As shown in Table 1.4.3 below the most common intermarriage is between Latinx and white, with a slightly higher percentage of these marriages with Latino husband-white wife. This is followed by Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and white, the latter of which overwhelming consist of a white husband and AAPI wife.

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Trends of Intermarriage Couples. (Chart created by Jonas Oware from data courtesy of the Pew Research Center)
    Husband-Wife Wife-Husband Total
    White-Latinx 22% 20% 42%
    White-Multiracial 11% 4% 15%
    White-Black 7% 5% 12%
    Latinx-Black 1% 4% 5%
    White-AI/AN 2% 1% 3%
    Latinx-AAPI 2% 1% 3%
    Latinx-Multiracial 1% 2% 3%
    Thinking Sociologically

    A range of groundbreaking films have portrayed interracial relationships. Often, these movies used the trials and tribulations of racially and ethnically mixed lovers as a platform to challenge racial constructs, racism, ethnocentrism and heterosexism (Little, 2020). These films include: Island in the Sun, Westside Story, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, La Bamba, Jungle Fever, Mississippi Masala, The Joy Luck Club, The Watermelon Woman, Fools Rush In, Loving, Liberty Heights, and Something New. Watch one or more of these films and use a sociological perspective and your sociological imagination to consider prevailing social forces impacting and impacted by these films.

    More than One Race

    During the peculiar institution of slavery when the white sexual subordination of enslaved African women did result in children of mixed race, these children were usually considered Black, and therefore, property. This reflected the one drop rule discussed earlier in Chapter 1.2. There was no concept of multiple racial identities with the possible exception of the Creole. Creole society developed in the port city of New Orleans, where a mixed-race culture grew from French and African inhabitants. Unlike in other parts of the country, “Creoles of color” had greater social, economic, and educational opportunities than most African Americans.

    The categories for race on the Census have changed over time. Mulatto was a racial category on the Census from 1850-1920 (except 1900), characterizing someone of any perceptible trace of African blood. In 2000, the U.S. Census added the option for individuals to identify themselves as "more than one race." Prior to this Census, people could only choose one race.

    U.S. Census Questionnaire.
    U.S. Census Questionnaire.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): 2020 U.S. Census Bureau Questionnaire. (CC PDM 1.0; United States Census)

    The above Figure 1.4.4 conveys that the U.S. Census currently measures race-ethnicity in two separate questions. The first question determines if the person is Latinx while the second question is determining "race," as defined by the Census - though these categories would undoubtedly appear different if sociologists created these Census categories. The racial categories on the Census do not reflect a category for Latinx, though many do write in Mexican American or Central American, yet the majority of Latinx responded as white, per the 2010 census results. For a brief time in 1930, Mexican was a racial category on the Census. In 1921, the country of Mexico abandoned its category for race on the Census, recognizing the amalgamated ancestry of Mexicans, mestizo/mestiza. The category of mestizo/mestiza refers to individuals with a mixture of Indigenous and Spanish descent, hence the origin of Mexican people. In fact, Latinx may identify as white, Black, Native American, Asian, or other racial group.

    Sign for a Hispanic Latin x Heritage Month Celebration in 2019
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month Celebration 2019. Hand-written words on sign answering question: What does being Latinx mean to you? (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; CSUF Photos via Flickr)

    As explained further in Chapter 9.1, Hapa is a Hawaiian word for individuals who have mixed ethnicity. Hapa can be used to describe individuals who are mixed with Asian descent. Hapa haole is a word that characterizes individuals who are mixed with white/European.

    A painting of a woman titled Hapa Haole. Hapa is a Hawaiian word for individuals who have mixed ethnicity.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): "Hapa Haole," portrait of a mixed Hawawaiian woman. (CC PDM 1.0; Grace Hudson via Wikimedia)

    A growing number of people chose multiple races to describe themselves on the 2010 Census. Of those, 89% identify as having two racial backgrounds, classified as bi-racial. In 2010, 2.9% of people who completed the U.S. Census identified as more than one race. As shown in Figure 1.4.7, the largest groups in descending order were white-Black, white-Asian, white-American Indian, white-Black and white-some other race. Including the option of checking more than one race has most impacted the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) population. This group increased by more than 160% between 1990 and 2010, with the biggest growth attributed to individuals who marked AI/AN and one other race. Though increasing in recent decades, the first notable cohort of multiracial Asian Americans offspring resulted from marriages after the 1945 War Brides Act. Decades later, approximately 25,000 Amerasians, offspring of U.S. GIs and Vietnamese women, were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. following the Vietnamese Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988; the Amerasian population had faced challenging discrimination and hostility in Vietnam following the U.S. war in Vietnam that ended in the fall of Saigon and "reunification" of Vietnam in 1975.

    This chart shows that the largest groups of bi racial children in descending order were white-Black, white-Asian, white-American Indian, white-Black and white-some other race.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Multiracial Adults and Children in the United States. (Chart created by Jonas Oware from data courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

    Multiracial: Category or Identity

    Taking into account how adults describe their own race as well as the racial backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the Census does not do, the Pew Research estimates that 6.9% of the U.S. population could be considered multiracial, defined as more than one race. People categorized into this group will no doubt continue to grow as multiracial babies are on the increase and comprised 10% of all U.S. babies in 2013 (Parker, Menasce Horowitz, Morin & Lopez, 2015).

    Multiracial brothers at the beach.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Multiracial brothers at the beach. Brothers of Ghanaian and German American background enjoy a day at the beach with brothers of Argentinean and white background. (Janét Hund)

    Yet, the majority (61%) of multiracial individuals do not actually identify with the category of multiracial (Parker et al., 2015). Many identify with only one of their parent's racial background, while others identify with the family and community in which they were raised. Still others may change how they identify over the course of their lives. Similarly, multiracial individuals believe others perceive them as only one race, the one that is most "obvious."

    Further, only about a third (34%) of all multiracial Americans think they have a lot in common with other adults who are the same racial mix that they are, while only half as many (17%) think they share a lot with multiracial Americans whose racial background is different from their own (Parker et al., 2015).

    For many whose racial descent is comprised of more than one race, DuBois' concept of double consciousness or "two-ness" may ring true. Additionally, the concept of marginality, the status of being between two groups or cultures, can describe the experiences of multiracial people who may be pushed to pick one race or another or may not fit in comfortably with either racial group. As society is full of racial socialization, labels and messaging about racial groups, multiracial individuals must navigate through this racial landscape and develop their racial identity which may or may not connect to their multiracial descent. Most multiracial people indicate they are more open (than non-multiracial individuals) to other cultures, so perhaps their backgrounds lends them to cultural competency, as discussed at the end of the the last section, 1.3.

    Key Takeaways

    • A complex history characterizes the experiences of amalgamation, (anti-)miscegenation, and multiracial individuals.
    • Interracial marriages are increasing, with the largest group being Latinx-white marriages.
    • An increasing percentage of individuals in the U.S. are multiracial, yet multiracial people do not identify that way.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY-NC-SA other than Anti-Miscegenation Laws which is CC BY-NC-ND.

    Works Cited

    • Griffith, D. W., Dixon, T., & Triangle Film Corporation. (1915). Birth of a Nation [Film]. Los Angeles, CA: Triangle Film Corp..
    • Kramer, S., Tracy, S., Poitier, S., Hepburn, K., Houghton, K., Rose, W., Leavitt, S. Columbia TriStar Home Video (Firm). (1998). Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video.
    • Leland, J., & Beals, G. (1997, May 5). In living colors: Tiger Woods is the exception that rules. Newsweek, 58–60.
    • Little, N.K. (2020, January 14). A List of Groundbreaking Interracial Romance Films. Live About Dot Com. Retrieved from
    • Livingston, G. & Brown, A. (May 18, 2017.) Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 years after Loving V. Virginia. Pew Research Center.
    • Parker, K., Menasce Horowitz, J., Morin, R. & Lopez, M. (June 11, 2015). Multiracial in America. Pew Research Center.
    • U.S. Census. (2012, September). The two or more races population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs.