Perspectives and Research on the Positive and Negative Implications of Having Multiple Racial Identities

Perspectives and Research on the Positive and Negative Implications of Having Multiple Racial Identities

Psychological Bulletin
Volume 131, Number 4 (June 2005)
pages 569–591
DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.4.569

Margaret Shih, Professor in Management and Organizations
Anderson School of Management
University of California, Los Angeles

Diana T. Sanchez, Associate Professor of Social Psychology
Rutgers University

Much attention has been directed toward understanding the impact having a multiracial background has on psychological well-being and adjustment. Past psychological research has focused on the challenges multiracial individuals confront in defining a racial identity. The implication is that these challenges lead to outcomes that are psychologically detrimental. However, evidence to support this assertion is mixed.  The authors review qualitative and quantitative empirical research examining multiracial individuals’ identity development, depression, problem behaviors, peer relationships, school performance, and selfesteem, finding support for detrimental outcomes only in studies sampling clinical populations. Studies on nonclinical samples find that multiracial individuals tend to be just as well-adjusted as their monoracial peers on most psychological outcomes. Earlier assertions of maladjustment may have been due to reliance on qualitative research that sampled clinical populations. Other implications and futureresearch are discussed.

Tiger Woods has received much attention, not only for being the youngest person to win the prestigious Masters Golf Tournament, but also for being an individual of mixed-race ancestry. His father is Black, Native American, and Chinese, and his mother is Thai, Chinese, and White. Woods represents a growing trend in American society. Since the repeal in 1967 of miscegenation laws prohibiting racial mixing, the number of interracial marriages in the United States has increased dramatically (Kennedy, 2003; Root, 2001). Consequently, the number of individuals who can claim membership in multiple racial categories has also increased dramatically (Root, 1996). The population of multiracial children has multiplied from 500,000 in 1970 to more than 6.8 million in 2000 (Jones & Symens Smith, 2001).

This explosion in the number of individuals with multiracial backgrounds has raised the issue of understanding where these individuals fit into preexisting social categories. Nowhere is this difficulty more clearly illustrated than in the controversy over whether the 2000 Census should have included a multiracial category.  Until then, individuals of mixed ancestry had to choose between their component identities on the census form. However, multiracial groups have argued that picking just one identity forces multiracial individuals to deny other parts of themselves (Gaskins, 1999) and does not accurately reflect the nation’s true racial make-up (Holmes, 1997). On the other hand, prominent civil rights activists, such as Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, argued against the creation of a separate multiracial category in order to preserve minority numbers and maintain political influence (Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2002).

A federal task force was set up to investigate the political and social implications of creating a new racial classification (Holmes, 1997).  The task force asked questions such as, “If a multiracial category were included, would all people with different combinations of racial backgrounds, such as Black/Asian and Native American/White, be considered members of the same group?  Would there still be individuals with multiracial identities who would choose to identify by a single race?” This issue was finally resolved in 1997, when it was recommended that the category “multiracial” should not be included in census forms but that instead multiracial individuals could check off more than one racial category.

This controversy illustrates that having a multiracial identity challenges American society’s traditional notions and assumptions about race and racial categories (Johnson, 1992; Ramirez, 1996; Root, 1992; Spickard, 1992). Given the seeming difficulty American society has with trying to understand the notion of multiracial identity, psychologists have begun studying many of those questions considered by the U.S. Census Bureau Task Force, such as, how do multiracial individuals understand their racial identities? In addition, because multiracial families and multiracial individuals may pose a challenge to existing racial categories and the social systems upon which these categories rest, psychologists have become interested in understanding the consequence of coming from a multiracial background and in identifying the tremendous difficulties multiracial families and multiracial individuals encounter in navigating their social world (Gibbs, 1987, 1989; Root, 1992). For example, multiracial families contend with hardships such as a lack of social recognition (Nakashima, 1996), disapproval from extended family, exclusion from neighborhood and community (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995; Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, & Harris, 1993), discrimination, and social isolation (Brown, 1995; Gaskins, 1999)…

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