Defining multiracial citizens

Evolving ideas about identity mean mixed-race people don't have to settle for 'other'

Cela Dorr said she is often mistaken for Latino, Greek, Italian, or Israeli, or spoken to in languages she is unfamiliar with. Cela Dorr said she is often mistaken for Latino, Greek, Italian, or Israeli, or spoken to in languages she is unfamiliar with. (Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)
By Brittany Danielson
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

In a suburban Massachusetts classroom in 1985, a 7-year-old Chris Olds raised his hand to grab his teacher’s attention; he wasn’t sure which bubble to fill in for race on a standardized test.

“I don’t know what I am,’’ he told the teacher, while other students in the class laughed in the background.

Olds — who has white, black, and Native American roots — wanted to fill in more than one bubble, but was told to pick one. “The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what I am,’’ said Olds, who is now a 33-year-old Cambridge resident. “The problem was that I knew exactly what I am, but that I wasn’t presented with an option for it.’’

Today, millions of multiracial US citizens like Olds have an option when defining their race through the census, which has helped to paint a clearer picture of one of the country’s fastest growing demographic groups. Since 2000, when people were first allowed to check more than one box when describing their races on census forms, the multiracial population has increased by about 35 percent to 9 million in 2010, representing 2.9 percent of the overall population.

How the nation defines and counts the multiracial population has evolved. Between 1850 and 1920, the census included a range of categories for individuals of black and white parentage — which included terms like “mulatto,’’ “quadroon,’’ and “octoroon’’ to describe percentages of black ancestry. That ended by 1930, when those classifications gave way to the “one drop rule,’’ which stated that any traceable minority heritage — even one drop of blood — made that person, by default, a minority.

Over the years, some categories were added or taken away, but race options on the census remained monoracial, forcing those of mixed heritage to choose either one identity or to check the ambiguous “other.’’ In 2000, under pressure from groups to recognize multiracial identity, the government changed the census to the present system.

The greater ability to identify the demographic shifts in race, coupled with the prevalence of high-profile multiracial citizens including President Obama and celebrities such as actress Halle Barry and golfer Tiger Woods, has led some who study race relations to caution people against thinking that the United States is a place where race is no longer an issue, or an impediment to progress.

John Tawa, a doctoral student at University of Massachusetts Boston who teaches a course about the multiracial experience and is himself of Japanese and European heritage, said multiracial people do have some positive experiences. For example, he said they have an ability to relate in a variety of racial contexts. But multiracial US citizens also can feel marginalized by the racial groups in which they are members, can be constantly questioned about their racial identity, and can sometimes be misidentified by others, he said.

“Multiracial people get used as a marker of being in a postracial society. People say soon everyone will be the same, so we don’t need to pay attention to racism anymore,’’ Tawa said. “That kind of ideology can obscure the reality of racism today, and the challenges that multiracial people face.’’

A recent Harvard University study led by PhD psychology student Arnold K. Ho about how people perceive multiracial individuals found that the “one drop rule’’ is still pervasive in society today.

Using several different methods — which in one study included the use of face-morphing technology to display images that changed incrementally from a minority (black or Asian) to white, or from white to minority — Ho and his colleagues found that biracial individuals are consistently associated more with their minority group when their racial background is equally white and minority. The study found that this association was slightly stronger with black-white biracial people than with Asian-white biracial people, but the “one drop rule’’ still reliably applied across race.

Despite the fluid identity that many multiracial people assert, the study seems to suggest that the entrenched social hierarchy — with whites at the top, Asians in the middle, and Latinos and blacks at the bottom — hasn’t changed much over time, Ho said.

“There have been a lot of social scientists that have been using the increasing rates of mixed race identity and interracial marriage as a sign that there’s going to be a shift to the racial hierarchy, and what our studies show is that things may not be shifting as rapidly as people assume they will,’’ he said. “It seems that this hierarchy is pretty robust, and it guides the way we perceive biracials.’’

Cela Dorr, whose Thai mother met her Caucasian father in Bangkok when he was stationed there during the Vietnam War, said her race can certainly be a source of confusion for others. The 33-year-old Belmont resident said that she is often mistaken for Latino, Greek, Italian, or Israeli, or spoken to in languages that she is unfamiliar with.

“I have to remind myself that people don’t automatically know that I’m half Thai,’’ she said.

Dorr said she grew up in the 1980s in a predominantly white, middle class town where few people had ever met a Thai person. She said she first became aware that her mother, who didn’t speak English very well, was different from her friends’ white moms when she was entering middle school. The cultural differences in her home at times made her feel different from others.

“I’ll admit that there were times when I felt embarrassed by my mother. I would think: ‘Why can’t we have hot dogs on a bun instead of hot dogs with rice? Why can’t we just be like everyone else?’’’ she said.

But as she grew older, she moved closer to Boston and into a more diverse community, and met other mixed-race Asians who shared similar cultural experiences. “Now, it’s something I celebrate. I am really very proud of my Thai heritage,’’ said Dorr, who plans to wear a traditional Thai wedding dress and incorporate Thai customs into the ceremony when she gets married next year.

Olds said he is still acutely aware of race and the racial stereotypes that others might have, but he likes that he is free to identify and celebrate his complete racial background.

“Whenever I see those instructions telling me to ‘check all that apply,’ it just warms my heart,’’ he said.