Novelist Mat Johnson grew up in Philadelphia, the son of an African-American mother and an Irish-American father — which would make him, technically, biracial. And yet he never saw himself that way. “I never heard the word biracial until I was in my 20s,” said Johnson, whose book, Loving Day — about a man who is multiracial but appears to be white — was published last spring. “When I grew up, if you were black and you were mixed, you were just black.” To call yourself biracial was to signal that “you didn’t want anything to do with blackness,” he said. When he was younger, it didn’t seem like there was much of a choice: There was no multiracial community to embrace or identity to parse. You were one thing or the other, but usually not both.
This attitude, as it turns out, is fairly typical among young, multiracial men, who are less likely than their female counterparts to actually identify as multiracial, according to a comprehensive new Stanford University study. (A quick note: There is a debate over whether to use the terms biracial, multiracial, or mixed race. I decided to use them all.) Using survey data from more than 37,000 college students, Stanford political-science professor Lauren Davenport focused on three multiracial groups: black-white, Latino-white, and Asian-white. Here’s what she found:
- Among black-white students, 76 percent of women and 64 percent of men identified as biracial.
- Among Latino-white students, 40 percent of women saw themselves as biracial, while 32 percent of men did.
- And among Asian-white students, 56 percent of women and 50 percent of men called themselves biracial.
Davenport herself claims black-white parentage, and though her data set didn’t examine why these gender differences may exist, she theorizes it could have something to do with that tiresome “exotic” stereotype that is often placed on biracial women. The explanation resonates with Jaya Saxena, an Indian and white writer who gained attention last fall after starting the #biraciallookslike hashtag on Twitter. “When I was in college, a very common pickup line at bars was that I looked exotic,” she told Science of Us. “Women are told to care about their looks more,” and after many years of people commenting on a woman’s multiracial appearance, it makes sense that she might eventually come to identify as such.
In contrast, if biracial men are more likely to identify as one race or the other, it may be because that’s also how they’re perceived by others. In his teen years, UCLA undergrad Matthew Sanchez found people trying to peg him as either Mexican or black even though he was both. “It was as if people only saw me as black,” he told Science of Us. “It became a struggle then to make others believe, let alone myself believe, that I was also Mexican — leading me to almost exclusively identify as black.”
It’s tricky to get a clear national view of the current multiracial population, and how (and why) it’s changed over the years. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, over 2 percent of the population is multiracial. However, compare that to a report released this summer by the Pew Research Center, which estimated that 6.9 percent of the American population is multiracial. The difference between those figures may be explained by the fact that Pew asked each respondent the races of his or her parents, while the U.S. Census did not. If people don’t self-identify as multiracial, they wouldn’t have been counted in the latest census as such. Still, the data do suggest that the population is growing. According to Davenport’s data, there was a 41 percent increase in the number of college students who claimed some kind of multiracial heritage between 2000 and 2014.
So there’s some evidence that the multiracial identity is becoming more common, and yet there are still plenty of us who must regularly field the question, “What are you?” I’m multiracial, too — Filipino mother, white father — and this is something I’ve been asked plenty of times. Judging strictly from my appearance, most people assume I’m Latino — and this includes people in the Asian country where my mother was born. Once, at a bar in Buenos Aires, a fellow patron was confused when he tried to address me in Spanish and I answered in my bad, broken version of the language. (He next tried Portuguese. No luck there either.)
But the question — what are you? — is something I’ve spent time thinking about myself. What if I had a Filipino name instead of Keith Patrick Wagstaff, the whitest name anyone has ever had? What if I were a little paler? Darker? Even the category in Davenport’s study — Asian-white — seems absurdly limiting. The Filipino experience is vastly different from the Korean or Chinese experiences, and there are of course further differences between distinct regions within those countries.
In other words, we have barely scratched the surface of multiracial identity. But this study, and others like it, is a start. Sarah Townsend, an assistant professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, has studied the topic at length, and believes that it’s worth caring about even if you aren’t multiracial yourself. “The experience of multiracial people reveals the complexity of all identity,” Townsend told Science of Us. “How your status, income, background, and appearance come together to constrain you and afford you certain choices — that is important for everyone.”