Five Myths About Multiracial People in the U.S.

Mixed-race model Alyssa Brooks. Michael Oh/Flickr.com

When Barack Obama set his sights on the presidency, newspapers suddenly began devoting a lot more ink to the multiracial identity. Media outlets from Time Magazine and the New York Times to the British-based Guardian and BBC News pondered the significance of Obama’s mixed heritage. His mother was a white Kansan and his father, a black Kenyan. Three years later it remains to be seen just what impact Obama’s biracial makeup has had on race relations, but mixed-race people continue to make news headlines, thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau’s finding that the country’s multiracial population is exploding.

But just because mixed-race people are in the spotlight doesn’t mean that the myths about them have vanished. What are the most common misconceptions about multiracial identity? This list both names and dispels them.

Multiracial People Are Novelties

What’s the fastest-growing group of young people? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the answer is multiracial youths. Today, the United States includes more than 4.2 million children identified as multiracial. That’s a jump of nearly 50 percent since the 2000 census. And among the total U.S. population, the amount of people identifying as multiracial spiked by 32 percent, or 9 million. In the face of such groundbreaking statistics, it’s easy to conclude that multiracial people are a new phenomenon now rapidly growing in rank. The truth is, however, that multiracial people have been a part of the country’s fabric for centuries. Consider anthropologist Audrey Smedley’s finding that the first child of mixed Afro-European ancestry was born in the U.S. eons ago—way back in 1620.

There’s also the fact that historical figures from Crispus Attucks to Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable to Frederick Douglass were all mixed-race.

A major reason why it appears that the multiracial population has soared is because for years and years, Americans weren’t allowed to identify as more than one race on federal documents such as the census.

Specifically, any American with a fraction of African ancestry was deemed black due to the “one-drop rule.” This rule proved particularly beneficial to slave owners, who routinely fathered children with slave women. Their mixed-race offspring would be considered black, not white, which served to increase the highly profitable slave population.

The year 2000 marked the first time in ages that multiracial individuals could identify as such on the census. By that point in time, though, much of the multiracial population had grown accustomed to identifying as just one race. So, it’s uncertain if the number of multiracials is actually soaring or if ten years after they were first permitted to identify as mixed-race, Americans are finally acknowledging their diverse ancestry.

Only Brainwashed Multiracials Identify as Black

A year after President Obama identified himself as solely black on the 2010 census, he’s still garnering criticism. Most recently, Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote that when Obama marked only black on the census form, “he missed an opportunity to articulate a more nuanced racial vision for the increasingly diverse country he heads.” Rodriguez added that historically Americans haven’t publicly acknowledged their multiracial heritage due to social pressures, taboos against miscegenation and the one-drop rule.

But there’s no evidence that Obama identified as he did on the census for any of those reasons. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama remarks that the mixed people he’s encountered who insist on the multiracial label concern him because they often seem to make a concerted effort to distance themselves from other blacks. Other mixed-race people such as the author Danzy Senna or the artist Adrian Piper say that they choose to identify as black because of their political ideologies, which include standing in solidarity with the largely oppressed African-American community. Piper writes in her essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black”:

“What joins me to other blacks…is not a set of shared physical characteristics, for there is none that all blacks share. Rather, it is the shared experience of being visually or cognitively identified as black by a white racist society, and the punitive and damaging effects of that identification.”

People Who Identify as “Mixed” Are Sellouts

Before Tiger Woods became a tabloid fixture, thanks to a string of infidelities with a slew of blondes, the most controversy he sparked involved his racial identity. In 1997, during an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Woods declared that he did not view himself as black but as “Cablinasian.” The term Woods coined to describe himself stands for each of the ethnic groups that make up his racial heritage—Caucasian, black, Indian (as in Native American) and Asian.

After Woods made this declaration, members of the black community were livid. Colin Powell, for one, weighed in on the controversy by remarking, “In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.”

After his “Cablinasian” remark, Woods was largely seen as a race-traitor, or at the very least, someone aiming to distance himself from blackness. The fact that none of Woods’ long line of mistresses was a woman of color only added to this perception. But many who identify as mixed-race don’t do so to reject their heritage. On the contrary, Laura Wood, a biracial student at the University of Maryland told the New York Times:

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that. If someone tries to call me black, I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”

Mixed People Are Raceless

In the popular discourse, multiracial people are oft characterized as if they’re raceless. For example, the headlines of news articles about President Obama’s mixed-race heritage often ask, “Is Obama Biracial or Black?” It’s as if some people believe that the different racial groups in one’s heritage cancel each other out like positive and negative figures in a math equation.

The question shouldn't be whether Obama's black or biracial. He’s both—black and white. Explained the black-Jewish writer Rebecca Walker:

“Of course Obama is black. And he’s not black, too,” Walker said. “He’s white, and he’s not white, too. ... He’s a lot of things, and neither of them necessarily exclude the other.”

Race-Mixing Will End Racism

Some people are positively thrilled that the number of mixed-race Americans appears to be soaring. These individuals even have the idealistic notion that race-mixing will lead to bigotry’s end. But these people ignore the obvious: ethnic groups in the U.S. have been mixing for centuries, yet racism hasn’t vanished. Racism even remains a factor in a country such as Brazil, where a wide swath of the population identifies as mixed-race. There, discrimination based on skin color, hair texture and facial features is endemic—with the most European-looking Brazilians emerging as the country’s most privileged. This goes to show that miscegenation isn’t the cure for racism. Instead, racism will only be remedied when an ideological shift occurs in which people aren’t valued based on what they look like but on what they have to offer as human beings.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Five Myths About Multiracial People in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Jan. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/myths-about-multiracial-people-2834944. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, January 22). Five Myths About Multiracial People in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/myths-about-multiracial-people-2834944 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Five Myths About Multiracial People in the U.S." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/myths-about-multiracial-people-2834944 (accessed December 17, 2017).