Our Changing Identities
The New Black Magazine (London)
October 25, 2006
As a teenager, Cameron Clark, whose mother is white and father is black, always checked “African-American” on forms that asked about his race.
“I needed to identify as being black so people would know I’m equally proud of both sides of my heritage,” said Clark whose blonde hair and blue eyes suggest that Caucasian might be a more apt description.
These days, though, Clark, a 22-year-old television reporter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, describes himself as multiracial. “I decided that identifying with one race shows you don’t embrace your other side as much,” he explained. “People need to be equally proud of both sides of their heritage, and using the label ‘multiracial’ is the most effective way to do that,” he said.
Clark is one of a large contingent of biracial young adults who have struggled with fluctuating ethnic identities. A recent study by researchers at The University of Iowa, Miami University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that biracial adolescents tend to change how they self-identify over time. The researchers looked at how respondents described their race on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health over a period of five years. In the course of that time, the young adults’ answers changed.
“Ideas about race are not fixed,” said Steven Hitlin, assistant professor of sociology at Iowa University and one of the authors of the study. Racial identity, he said, seems to be “fluid.”
Nicole McGrath, a University of Florida freshman, is an example of that fluidity. McGrath, who has a white father and Hispanic mother, referred to herself as white when she was in high school. As she got older, that began to change. “I noticed there was a part of my life I was missing out on,” McGrath explained. “I wasn’t doing justice to my Spanish side.”
Today, McGrath considers herself “half and half” but when it comes to filling out official forms, she usually checks the Hispanic box. “Making myself a minority always works out in my favor,” said McGrath, who received a college scholarship based on her Hispanic heritage.
Candis Calkins, whose mother is white and father is black, has used various self-descriptions over the years. But whenever the options exists, she picks “multiracial” or “other” because, she said, “I’m half and half.”
The multiracial categorization, which seems to satisfy many young adults, is relatively new. In 2000, the U.S. Census tried for the first time to measure the number of multiracial Americans by allowing people to check more than one race box. Almost 2.5 percent of the population did so, revealing a group of more than 6.8 million Americans who are of mixed races.
Since then, a box for “multiracial” has begun appearing on a variety of official forms and applications. Many young people seem to prefer that option. “I have always been really proud of my multi-ethnic background,” said Kristina Gleaton, a freshman at Northeastern University, in Boston, Mass. “My mother is Italian-American, and my father is African-American, and I have been taught to embrace my heritage on both sides.”
In fact, many young adults wear their multi-ethnic identity with great pride. On Facebook.com, the popular networking site for college students and others, there are about a dozen groups for mixed raced students, including ones like “Mixed Kid Club World Wide,’ which has 178 members and “Mixed and Lovin’ It,” which has 371 members.
Gleaton admits that when the multiracial option isn’t available, she usually describes herself as black “because it is a minority, and that is what I am.” Still, she doesn’t like having to choose only one of her races. It’s “frustrating to me because I would feel like I was denying the other half of who I am,” Gleaton said.
Though these switches in racial self-identification may seem innocuous to young adults, they can wreak havoc for demographers. “It’s a problem if you spend your time doing statistical studies that involve race,” said Dr. Hitlin said.
The term multicultural has created its own issues. Since the label can mean a number of things-a mix of black and white or American Indian and Hawaiian, for example-demographers say it’s hard to understand exactly whom the category represents.
“We’re in a state of a lot of uncertainty about what multiracial will amount to,” said Kenneth Prewitt, director of the Census Bureau and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York City.
“All these different kinds of pairings don’t add up to much in terms of public policy,” Prewitt said. But, he adds, “It creates an identity.” And according to young adults, that’s all they’re looking for.