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date: 03 December 2022

Multiethnic and Multiracialismfree

Multiethnic and Multiracialismfree

  • Gina Miranda SamuelsGina Miranda SamuelsMSSW, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Service Administration, University of Chicago


Although the year 2000 marked the first time U.S. citizens were allowed to report more than one race in the Census, multiraciality and multiethnicity are certainly not new in the United States or globally. The history of multiracial America is inextricably linked to its history of immigration, slavery, racism, and the very construction of single-race identities as master statuses during colonialism. Who is multiracial, as well as the idea that such an identity or population can or should exist, is highly complex and has shifted along with societal attitudes and laws governing race identity options and the sanctioning of multiracial families through marriage and adoption. The understanding in the early 21st century of this growing multiracial population is mired in this history, but also idealized as proof of a new and possibly “postrace” America. To examine multiraciality, this entry begins by defining root concepts including race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture to then examine and define multiraciality. This entry will include a brief historical discussion of multiraciality in the United States and will also explore demographic and health trends using such statistics as are available and examine identified risks, disparities, strengths, and resiliencies among this diverse population. Effective and ethical social-work practices with multiracial persons require expansion beyond the black–white dichotomy and monocentric paradigm of race to consider both strengths and vulnerabilities navigated by the increasing number of persons and families who identify as multiracial and multiethnic. Approaches to social work that promote multiracially attuned practices and engagement of the diverse resources for various communities of multiracial persons and families conclude this entry.


  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture


Mapping the history of multiracial America is complicated and constrained by several factors. First, no consistently formatted statistical record allowing all persons to check more than one race is available before the year 2000. Second, in both Census 2000 and Census 2010, statistics represent only self-reports about identity. Consequently, Census statistics indicate the number of persons who voluntarily identify as multiracial, but cannot be thought to represent the total number of persons who actually do have more than one racial–ethnic heritage. Despite long histories of race and ethnic mixing in the United States, most persons still only report a single-race identity on the U.S. Census form (U.S. Census, 2010). Finally, race identities are only more complicated by genetic research that traces present-day human beings back to a common biological, and thus genetic, history (Olsen, 2003) originating in Southwestern Africa (Wells, 2003). Genetic arguments of “we are all the same” have been critiqued (see, for example, Jorde, 2002) as based on improbable assumptions (for example, continuous random mating, constancy in population size, and open and malleable geographies). Still, understanding what is meant in claiming or reporting any racial or ethnic “identity” is often an inconsistent amalgamation of known or assumed heritages and personal choice in the context of contemporary social conventions, norms, and laws.

Discussing multiraciality requires a definition of race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality, terms that are often misused as synonyms. This section will briefly define these terms. Later sections will draw attention to how multiraciality highlights the problematic but pervasive assumption in society, research, and practice that these identity constructs are dependent on one another. It will also illuminate the ongoing tensions between genetic and biological understandings of racial and ethnic heritage and more self-chosen or socially imposed race and ethnic identities irrespective of heritage.


Race is a socially and legally constructed concept that derives from the classification system used for plants and animals. It is important to note that the origins of human beings have been traced to a single region of Africa, suggesting that we are all decedents of a single racial–ethnic group of people (Wells, 2003). Despite that probability, our contemporary systems of meaning, manufactured and institutionalized across several centuries, have solidified a contemporary understanding of racial classifications as natural labels for identifying human (and genetic) differences. Across several iterations of race labels, colors were often used as early referents of race groups: black, brown, yellow, white, red. The common understanding of race in the United States is biological and is used as a method for identifying and explaining human differences (that is, abilities, traits, characteristics) through attaching a race category to a cluster of phenotypes (for example, skin tone, hair texture, body shape, facial features). This classification system is not a neutral system of meaning, however; it derived from America’s history of colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery in an attempt to restrict legal, social, and economic privileges and rights of personhood solely to white Americans (Roediger, 2008). However, because race is a socially, not genetically, constructed concept, it is not a scientifically reliable way of distinguishing the genetic differences and traits that do exist between human beings (Brown & Armelagos, 2001; Zack, 1993). This is particularly true in societies like the United States that have evolved from myriad ethnic immigrants and indigenous populations living in close proximity. Yet in the United States, despite its history of racial mixing, because of the stigmas and privileges attached to membership in a specific race group, race remains a powerful influence on social hierarchies, personal identity development, and life outcomes. Legal and social privileges (such as housing, marriage, employment, education, freedom, and legal protection) have been restricted based on racial group membership. Consequently, disparities tied to racial group membership persist in the United States, including for multiracial Americans, in physical, social–emotional, and economic well-being across the life course (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Because of this history and the myriad flawed as well as racist assumptions attached to the social meaning and significance of race, race will not be considered in this paper as a proper noun to deliberately call the readers' attention to these issues. Race labels will not be capitalized in this entry.


Ethnicity is a social identity that is often assumed to correspond to a racial group, but to expand beyond more than the group’s assumed external characteristics of physical appearance. It is a learned identity that is transmitted through one’s family and social networks and is typically thought of as including cultural markers of language, food, values, religion, dress, and customs. Because of the constraints of race as a social construct, some social scientists use ethnicity as a more inclusive and less problematic label. Although all persons have ethnic heritages, not all persons identify with their ethnic heritage. The term “ethnic” is sometimes used only to identify racial minorities, erroneously constructing European heritage as a nonraced and nonethnic identity (Frankenberg, 1995) or as an “optional” identity for persons of European descent (Waters, 1990). Ethnic labels are capitalized in this entry.


Culture refers to socially and relationally transmitted patterns of behavior and belief including language, food, values, religion, dress, customs, humor, aesthetic preference (art, what indicates beauty), and music. Culture also informs our understandings of class, gender, sexuality, and other social identities. Cultural identities are learned through one’s family, peers, and community memberships. Given increasing multiculturalism in the United States, it is possible for persons to identify with cultural traditions that do not represent their own heritage, but that of the communities in which they live.


Nationality refers to the nation or country in which a person holds citizenship (for example, American, Brazilian, and South African). It can also be used to represent a person’s country of origin, but a place where she or he no longer lives. Nationality does not automatically indicate a specific race or ethnic heritage, particularly in multiracial and multiethnic countries like the United States. Therefore, a group of people can share a national identity as American, but not share an ethnic or racial identity or heritage.


The term multiracial has grown in popularity over other terms such as “biracial” as a more inclusive way of labeling persons who identify with more than one race category. Yet, given the concerns stated previously, some argue this term only reinforces and legitimizes the highly problematic elements of race rather than dismantling an inherently flawed system of meaning from our social consciousness (Spencer, 1997). After substantial debate and controversy, the U.S. Census 2000 chose a check all that apply approach, rather than use a pan-racial term multiracial, as an opportunity to obtain maximally accurate data on the demographic diversity among persons claiming more than one race. Census race reporting now allows for 57 racial combinations among the categories: Hispanic/Latino, black/African American, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian, white, and other. This also permits statistical analyses of distinct groups of multiracial individuals and understanding of social shifts in self-identification as well as growth in birth rates. Again, such statistics must be understood as underestimates of the actual number of persons in the United States whose heritages include ancestors from more than one racial category. For example, it has been estimated that 75% to 90% of the African American/black population in the early 21st century also has white heritage (Davis, 1991; Winters & DeBose, 2003). Despite this history and contemporary growth in the number of persons who do claim multiracial identities, most persons in the United States do not claim more than one race identity on Census surveys. Some of the reasons for this will be discussed in later sections. According to the 2010 Census, the population reporting multiracial identities grew to 9 million people from 6.8 million reports in the 2000 Census (Jones & Bullock, 2013). Persons who identify multiracially may not have matching multicultural or multiethnic identifications. For example, someone of Japanese Mexican heritage who grew up in a predominantly white-populated town may identify as multiracial, but may not identify culturally or ethnically with being Japanese or Mexican.


The term multiethnic refers to persons who identify with more than one ethnicity. Persons who are multiethnic may not identify as multiracial. For example, a person who identifies monoracially as white may identify multiethnically because her ethnic heritage includes Italian, Irish, and Norwegian. Similarly, someone whose father identifies as Puerto Rican and his mother as Mexican may not identify as multiracial, but rather as a Latino with multiethnic heritage. Because of the high rates of interethnic marriage within socially constructed pan-racial groups in the United States, most Americans could claim multiethnic identities (Waters, 1990; Zack, 1993).

Social and Legal History of Multiraciality and Multiethnicity in the United States

Our nation’s methods for categorizing race and ethnicity have reflected enduring obsessions and ambiguities around human “difference” and represent the use of law to institutionalize a social hierarchy into which persons are sorted according to race. This history has been characterized as a formal practice to “legalize racism” by erecting a system embedded in biological notions of genetic superiority of one race group (whites) over the genetic inferiority of all others (Haney López, 1996; Menchaca, 2008; Zack, 1993).

The U.S. Census has made many previous attempts to count the multiracial, multiethnic, and multinational heritages of its citizens. For example, identifying fractions of blackness through categories including mulatto and quadroon existed until the 1930s Census. After this time, choices then changed to white, Negro, Indian, and five Asian ethnic options (Hochschild & Powell, 2008). Ethnic groups that were allowed to select the racial category “white” have also changed drastically over time (Haney López, 1996). These facts illustrate that our national understanding of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States is in part linked to choices allowed by the U.S. government and the Census in which options they provide to citizens. But Census options also reflect the legal and social constructions of race embedded in a history of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy. The nations’ understanding of multiraciality is inextricably tied to this history. Below, several such historical markers significant to multiracial Americans are noted.

The Laws of Hypodescent and the“One-Drop Rule”

The first black–white multiracial individuals in the United States predated slavery and were the offspring of indentured European and African servants and farmers. Both socially occupied a class and social status of poor but free Americans, and their mixed-race children shared this status (Davis, 1991). However, as the African slave trade took hold in the south, the numbers of black–white children were rapidly increasing. Yet this population increase was now primarily a result of the practice of rape by white slave-owners and their female slaves. In an effort to contain the slave population in the face of an ever-growing black–white multiracial population, laws were enacted to include black–white multiracial persons of any black heritage to the category black and, thus, to the social status “slave” (Zack, 1993). Simply stated, this one-drop rule indicated that a person with black heritage to any degree (that is, one drop of black blood) must identify solely as black. The one-drop rule not only provided legal clarity on designating multiracial individuals with white heritage as slaves, but also defined and thus protected whiteness and its privileges as restricted to those with racially “pure” white heritages. Thus whiteness was linked to purity and superiority, and membership within any other race group was linked to impurity and inferiority (Samuels, 2006). The one-drop rule is considered the strictest system of laws and methods for categorizing people in the world and was stricter than methods used by the Third Reich for identifying Jews (Zack).

Although laws of hypodescent do not formally exist in the early 21st century, the one-drop rule continues to inform social constructions of acceptable identity options for all persons of mixed race, but particularly for those of black heritage (Lee & Bean, 2010). Because the one-drop rule has been deeply internalized in U.S. culture, even persons who are of mixed race may still follow these norms and self-identify monoracially with their non-white heritage. The one-drop rule and its role in contributing to distinct stereotypes, forms of prejudice, and discrimination toward multiracial persons and families will be discussed further in the section on contemporary contexts for this population’s identity and development.

Antimiscegenation Laws

Sexual segregation laws prohibiting interracial coupling, cohabitation, and marriage were common not only to the United States, but also in countries including Germany and South Africa. Although interracial coupling was not illegal in early colonial America, it was severely stigmatized and considered taboo. The persons involved received public whippings, and by the early 1700s interracial relationships were labeled as bestiality (Davis, 1991; Williamson, 1980). Analyses of 19th- and 20th-century legal rulings against interracial marriage indicate protecting the racial purity of whites as the leading justification to uphold antimiscegenation laws (Haney López, 1996). Conventional thought and even scientific theories of the time posited interracial coupling was unnatural and that disease, genetic frailty, infertility, and severe psychological maladies befell the offspring of such unions (Park, 1931). The original label used during slavery for black–white multiracial persons, mulatto—the root word referencing the mule, a sterile mixed-breed animal)—reflects these folk theories of race and multiraciality (Samuels, 2006).

In the 1660s, the states of Maryland and Virginia were the first to outlaw relationships between whites, blacks, and “Malays” (that is, persons of Asian descent) (Martyn, 1979). Between 1861 and 1890, Nevada, followed by five other Western states, passed laws specifically prohibiting intermarriage between Asians and whites (Sohoni, 2007). This was in direct response to the growing population in the West of male Chinese laborers, but these laws often also included (or were amended to include) growing numbers of Japanese, Asian Indian, Hindu, Filipino, and Korean immigrants (Martyn). Also governed were marriages for multiracial and multiethnic persons. States varied significantly in how multiraciality was interpreted within a single pan-racial/ethnic group. For example, in some southwest states, light-skinned multiracial Mexicans who throughout various times in history have been allowed to racially classify as white (Haney López, 1996) were prohibited from marrying darker-skinned multiracial and multiethnic Mexicans racially classified as black, Indigenous/Indian, or Mestizo (Menchaca, 2008). Attitudes toward interracial marriage began to change, however, after World War II.

In 1948, Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman, and Sylvester Davis, an African American man, sued the Los Angeles County Clerk (W. G. Sharp) after being denied a marriage certificate years earlier. After winning their case in the California Supreme Court, California became the first state to overturn its antimiscegenation laws by finding that such laws violate the constitution’s 14th Amendment (Perez vs. Sharp, October 1, 1948). It took nearly 20 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to follow suit.

Loving v. Virginia and the Legalization of Interracial Marriage

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ultimately found antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967 is named after an interracial couple whose last name is Loving. Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, married in the District of Columbia in 1958 and then returned to their home state of Virginia. However, 8 years earlier, in 1959, the Lovings pled “guilty” to a grand jury indictment for interracial marriage in a Carolina County Court in Virginia. After suspending the sentence for 25 years on condition that they left the state of Virginia, the trial judge shared his biblical interpretation and personal opinion against interracial marriage: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix” (Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 1967, 395). Clearly this judge’s understanding of the origins of human beings is in contrast with 21st-century genetic science regarding “the races” as not God-driven, but human fabrications that mask our shared origins and placement on a single contentment, not separate ones (Olsen, 2003; Wells, 2003).

Although antimiscegenation laws existed throughout the United States, with the exception of only seven northern states, this Supreme Court decision made marriage discrimination based on race a violation of citizens’ 14th Amendment rights (Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 1967). Although this decision made antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional, this did not end the taboo and social stigma attached to interracial sex, partnering, or marriage. As recently as 2009, Keith Bardwell, a white justice of the peace in southeastern Louisiana, refused to marry Beth Humphrey, racially identified as white, and Terence McKay, racially identified as black. When interviewed by the Associated Press shortly after the news went public, Judge Bardwell explained, “I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way” (Associated Press, 2009). Using the familiar concern about problems with mixed-race children, he justified his refusal by stating he did not want to take part in creating a situation that would cause their children pain and rejection from whites and blacks. Although this example may appear extreme, continued stereotypes that normalize social and emotional problems for multiracial families and their children, coupled with continued social patterns of racial and ethnic segregation, contribute to the reality that the vast majority of marriages, intimate partnering, and creations of family continue to be racially homogenous.

According to U.S. Census 2010, only 10% of heterosexual marriages are between persons who identify as different races (Lofquist, Lugaila, O’Connell, & Feliz, 2012). This number is only slightly higher among nonmarried couples, with 18% of unmarried opposite-sex couples and 21% of same-sex couples reporting as interracial (Lofquist et al.).

Census 2000 and the Multiracial Movement

What is now widely referred to as the “multiracial movement” initially represented a dispersed and loosely organized collection of white parents and, to a lesser extent, multiracial persons, primarily from the West Coast and Midwest in the early 1970s (Dalmage, 2000). Increasingly, these groups engaged in civil rights discourse to advocate inclusion for persons whose racial experience was ignored or pathologized by the dominant use of single-race categories. Kicking off the decade with the first edited volume on multiraciality by Maria P. P. Root (1992), later followed by a second (Root, 1996), and an explosion of multiracial births, the 1990s was quickly becoming known as the “biracial baby boom.” As attention grew to what was becoming framed as a “new” U.S. population of multiracial persons, so too did the opposition to ideas of multiraciality as a legitimate population or identity (Dalmage, 2004; Spencer, 1997).

What is novel about Census 2000 is not that it records the presence of multiracial Americans. In fact, up until 1930s racially mixed blacks were sometimes given the option to self-report in fractions of blackness (e.g., mulatto, quadroon). Other multiracial populations with black, Native American, and white heritage were recorded under their family names (for example, the Jackson Whites), which marked their distinct and known multiracial lineages (Samuels, 2006). Census 2000 is novel because it recognizes that persons can associate with more than one race label or category, including white, as opposed to having their own pan-racial/ethnic category (for example, multiracial, quadroon). It is also significant in that it makes data available to extend the conversation about mixed-race identity beyond the black–white paradigm, including populations of multiracial and multiethnic persons who do not have white heritage and desire public and official acknowledgment of their multiracial and multiethnic heritage.

Such proposed changes to the official enumeration of race and ethnicity to allow for more than one choice incited substantial controversy, some of which was expressed during the 1993 hearings by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Census Statistics. These hearings were preceded by several efforts among multiracial activist groups across the United States, but namely the Association for Multiethnic Americans. The association was founded in 1988 in California by a collection of smaller multiracial activists and groups across the West Coast (such as iPride) as well as a large network in Chicago, the Biracial Family Network. The first president of the association, Carlos Fernandez, was a representative of iPride, and the vice present, Ramona Douglass, was from Biracial Family Network. Those arguing for a multiracial option on Census 2000 cited the need for recognition outside of the option “other,” asserted the Bill of Rights from Root’s first volume on multiraciality (1996), and called for identity options that do not “keep the races separate within me” (Root, 1996, p. 7).

Arguments against multiracial options or selecting more than one race were viewed as statistical passing, expressing fears that persons who earlier would never be considered white now had an option to select that race identity. Pan-racial organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and LaRaza voiced these concerns but also mistrust for how such data would be used to deplete the numbers of racial–ethnic minorities and, thus, undercut hard-won civil rights programs erected to alleviate racial disparities caused by institutionalized race discrimination (Fernández, 1996). The fact that conservative anti–affirmative action politicians including Newt Gingrich came out in support of a multiracial option only served as strong confirming evidence for these fears. There were also strong reactions against the idea of multiracial individuals as a legitimate population and identity. Books were written during this time that labeled mixed-race and multiracial persons who expressed multiracial identities as “race traitors” who were solely motivated by their desires to access white racial privileges and abandon stigmatized race identities and racial minority status and, by default, abandon the persons and communities attached to these identities. This position is clearly stated by the multiracial critic Jon Spencer, who asserted that although “some multiracialists begin down the road of racial bigotry by cock-a-doodling about their alleged specialness . . . they subtly assault the identity and self-esteem of Black Americans” (1997, p. 128). Over 15 years later, these contentious debates about the identities of multiracial people continue, particularly targeting the identities of black multiracial persons (Lee & Bean, 2010; Samuels, 2006). In fact, scholars have now labeled these dynamics as “monoracism,” referring to the distinct racism and microaggressions faced by persons of mixed race (Johnston & Nadal, 2010). Dimensions of monoracism and multiracial microaggressions will be examined further in the sections that explore enduring elements of the normative developmental context navigated among contemporary multiracial populations.

Multiraciality and Adoption

Most children are adopted by parents who share their racial identity. Only 17% of adopted children under the age of 18 are reported as living with parents of a different race (Census, 2010). However, there is some indication that multiracial children may experience higher rates of placement with white parents both in the United States and globally (Miranda, 2004). The first wave of transracial placements of black children with white parents almost exclusively involved black–white multiracial children (Davis, 1991). Early research on transracial adoption reflects this reality, with this subpopulation of children dominating the “transracial adoptee” sample populations: 82% of Grow and Shapiro’s (1974) sample, 73% of McRoy and Zurcher’s (1983) transracial adoptee sample, 68% of Simon’s (1996) sample, and 78% of the adoptee respondents in Vroegh’s (1997) study. Even more recent transracial adoption scholarship indicates their sample populations are over 70% black–white biracial adoptees (see Patton, 2000; Simon & Roorda, 2000). Multiracial children have also been a dominant population in early waves of international adoptions. For example, mixed-race Korean children represented the largest wave of international adoptees from Korea who were offspring of Korean mothers and U.S. military men (Fruendlich & Leiberthal, 2000). Few scholars have directly addressed the issue of multiraciality in the study of adoption and identity outcomes (see, for exceptions, Samuels, 2009, 2010; Sweeney, 2013).

We face many challenges in accessing and collecting reliable data on multiraciality in the context of child welfare, foster care, and adoption. First, similar to U.S. Census data, reports on multiracial heritage are dependent upon self-reports. Such reports are limed to voluntary disclosures of biological parents’ race (information that may be unobtainable when paternity is unknown) or to the disclosures of agency professionals who might or might not ask about a child’s racial heritage or might assume a racial heritage and identity based on the child’s physical appearance. It is also complicated by the fact that many adoptions occur outside of agencies and institutions and, thus, are not part of any federal administrative reporting systems. Our understanding of contemporary adoption and multiraciality is limited by these realities. However, Census 2010 data now collect far more complex household information on adopted children and race, and it also includes “more than one race” reporting options. This provides a first-time look at the under-18 adoptee population in ways that are not limited to agency reports of administrative data, but remain underreports. In analyzing these data, further evidence emerges that multiracial children, particularly those with white heritage, may have distinct adoption outcomes. In an analysis conducted by Kreider and Raleigh (2011), the number of multiracial children under 18 living with white adoptive parents (19%) outnumbered black children (16%) with white adoptive parents. Although it is more difficult to discern unreported multiraciality, there were also notable findings for the racial reporting of identities for Latino transracial adoptees. Latino children (who, like anyone of Latino heritage, can record both ethnicity and race) comprise the second largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States (29%); Asian adoptees comprise the largest group, at 34%. Over half of Latino transracial adoptees were reported by their white adoptive parents as ethnically Latino, but racially as white, and fewer than 1% indicated the child’s ethnicity as Latino but race as black. Research on multiraciality in adoption suggests that because adopters have a choice in the children they adopt, children with multiracial white heritage (or those who appear to have this heritage) may have higher rates of placement with white adopters (McRoy & Grape, 1999; Miranda, 2004). U.S. Census statistics are beginning to provide support for this, as well as insight for understanding how white heritage or light skin may contribute to the race disparities in placement outcomes that have existed within the child welfare system for decades (Davis, 1991; Smith, McRoy, Freundlich, & Kroll, 2008). Issues related to adoptive families and multiracial adoptees’ development and outcomes will be discussed further in the sections on identity development and implications for social-work practice.

The Multiracial Population in the Early 21st Century

Between Census 2000 and Census 2010 the number of citizens claiming multiracial identities increased by 2.2 million (Jones & Bullock, 2013). These statistics indicate a larger percentage of growth among individuals claiming multiracial identities (32%) than among those claiming single-race identities (9%). Even with this growth, 97% of people in the United States continue to report only single-race identities, again highlighting the independence between one’s biological heritage and one’s self-chosen (or socially imposed) identity.

Figure 1. Two or More Races Population by Largest Combinations, 2010.

Source: Jones & Bullock, 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Two or More Race Population,

Within the population claiming two or more races, several shifts are emerging, most notably among multiracial persons with white heritage. The number of people claiming black–white identities grew by 134% since the 2000 Census, making this racial combination the largest group of persons to identify multiracially (see Figure 1). This was followed by white–Asian multiracial persons (87% growth in reporting) and white–American Indian/Alaska Natives (an increase of 32%) (Jones & Bullock, 2013).

Those individuals claiming multiracial identities are not evenly dispersed across the United States. Not surprisingly, types of multiraciality reflect general patterns of racial and ethnic diversity across the United States (See Figure 2), with most persons who claim multiracial identities living in the West (37%).

Figure 2. Regional Distribution of Multiracial Populations with Population Sizes of 1 Million or More.

Source: Jones & Bullock, 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Two or More Race Population,

Normative Context of Development for Multiracial and Multiethnic Persons and Families

As the literature on multiraciality and multiethnicity has developed, scholars have articulated distinct and shared experiences of racism, discrimination, and prejudice among this population and other racial–ethnic minority groups (Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2002). Like other groups of color in the United States, multiracial people can and do experience racism and discrimination, despite assumptions that indicate particularly those with white heritage may experience less racism (Nadal et al., 2010; Samuels, 2009). Earlier sections outlined historical discrimination specific to the formation of interracial marriages, multiracial families, and the creation of multiracial children. Multiracial persons in the early 21st century also report experiencing a distinct discrimination attached to their mixed-race heritage. This prejudice can come from family members who are not of mixed race or from nonmultiracial persons within their communities and close personal networks (Nadal et al., 2013; Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005; Root, 1998; Samuels, 2009).

In an attempt to distinguish racial biases against multiraciality, Johnston and Nadal (2010) developed a taxonomy to articulate dimensions of what they term monoracism and multiracial microaggressions (for a definition and more in-depth discussion of microaggressions, see Sue, 2010). Microaggressions are small but emotionally and psychologically toxic and taxing interactions that are often subtle and outside of others’ awareness and thus hard to prove. Sometimes even the perpetrators may be unaware that they are microaggressing (for example, thinking one is complimenting her black–white biracial friend by telling her, “I don’t even think of you as black!”). Drawing the offender’s attention to his or her microaggressive behavior may pose more negative consequences for the victim, rather than offer a path to an apology or interpersonal resolution. Microaggressions are normative to the developmental and daily contexts of any person or family who exists outside of dominant mainstream norms (for example, persons who are racial/ethnic/cultural minorities, persons with disabilities, or persons who are sexual minorities). For multiracial persons, the primary driver of their microaggressions exists in society’s idealization of monoraciality (that is, being or claiming one race identity) as normative and thus healthy for all, what Nadal et al. (2013) term “monoracism.” Monoracist microaggressions can include (a) exclusion and isolation based on mixed-race status; (b) exoticization and objectification; (c) assumed racial identity; (d) denial or invalidation of multiracial identity and experience, and (e) pathologizing of multiracial identity and experience as psychologically unhealthy. Added to Nadal et al.’s (2013) analysis are scores of literature and research that examine both intrafamilial and extrafamilial monoracist microaggressions including racial identity patrolling by peers and others (Dalmage, 2000) to pressure or shame multiracial persons into claiming single race identities and allegiances, racial litmus testing (for example, evaluative judgments interrogating a person’s identity in monoracial terms as not being “Asian enough” or as being “too white”), and general suspicions of racial passing (that is, that multiracial people claiming multiracial identities are “passing” as white or inherently wish to do so) (Bolatagici, 2004; Favor, 1999; McCubbin et al., 2010; Rancarati, Ravenna, Perez, & Navarro-Pertusa, 2009; Zack, 1993). Perhaps the single defining microaggression that nearly all multiracial or racially ambiguous persons report experiencing in daily life from acquaintances and even strangers in public is the question “What are you?” (Gaskins, 1999). Research is beginning to illuminate the ways in which experiences of monoracism contribute to negative psychological and socioemotional outcomes (Jackson, Wolven, & Aguilera, 2013). This will be discussed further in a later section.

There are also myriad “positive” stereotypes that shape the developmental context of multiracial persons. This includes the belief that multiracial people have “the best of both worlds,” that they experience less racism, are natural bridge-builders across racial divisions, and are more attractive or exotic (Bolatagici, 2004; Gaskins, 1999; Streeter, 2003). Although these stereotypes can offer multiracial individuals more positive images of self, some arguably come at the cost of objectifying a physical attribute—race—that does not have any real causal or predictive function in driving personality, universal attractiveness, temperament, or other traits or interpersonal abilities. There are also social and developmental risks attached to some of these so-called positive stereotypes (for example, that they are more attractive and exotic or that they experience less racism and discrimination) that will be discussed in a later section.

Understanding Development in Multiracial Children and Youth

In terms of basic human development, there is no reason to consider multiracial children unique; all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, share basic developmental needs for healthy attachment, parental nurturing, and a family and community ecology that promotes their resilience and well-being (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). Parental and familial support is consistently found to be a critical component of positive youth development across the life course, even into adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Among racial and ethnic minority children, the development of biculturalism (having cultural capital and competence in more than one culture) is understood as a protective factor, giving resilience in navigating racism and prejudice (LaFramboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993), and this has been found to be true for multiracial persons as well (Jackson, Wolven, & Aguilera, 2013). Factors such as moderate parental control, high engagement in family routines and rituals, parental emotional attunement and responsiveness, and parental support have all been positively linked to well-being among all youth (Bamaca, Umana-Taylor, Shin, & Alfaro, 2005; Lorenzo-Blanco, Bares, & Delva, 2013). The degree to which youth, particularly in adolescence, report positive relationships with a parent is also a strong protective factor against engaging in risky behaviors that compromise their positive life outcomes (Bronte-Tinkew, 2006).

Incipient research on outcomes among multiracial youth is mixed, but is beginning to outline areas of both concern and strength. When compared to monoracial and monoethnic youth, multiracial youth are sometimes found to be at higher risk for socioemotional and physical problems (Udry, Li, & Hendrickson-Smith, 2003). Similarly, multiracial youth often report lower levels of community cohesion and lower access to adult or peer co-ethnics (that is, other multiracial persons) in their daily social networks—protective factors that promote biculturalism and positive adjustment for youth of color. As mentioned previously, multiracial youth adopted by white parents may be at increased risk for experiencing childhood contexts that are not racially or ethnically diverse or affirming; Asian transracial adoptees are at the highest risk for such developmental/familial contexts in their multiracial families (Kreider & Raleigh, 2011). Multiracial children (both adopted and nonadopted) may not have access to essential social or familial supports in navigating their racialized environments and multiracial identities (Lorenzo-Blanco et al., 2013; Samuels, 2009). Unlike other groups of racial–ethnic minority children, this lack of access to co-ethnics includes lacking a shared experience of race with parents or extended family who are not multiracial themselves (Lorenzo-Blanco et al.). Some added risks for adopted multiracial children with white heritage may include erroneous beliefs about racial salience for multiracial children with white heritage, including that they will experience less racism, that they will fit in more easily within white families and communities, and that their adoptions will not be viewed as taking a child away from a racial–ethnic minority community (Samuels, 2009; Sweeney, 2013). Yet assumptions about the salience of race and racism for multiracial individuals with white heritage are also present among the biological parents of these multiracial children (see, for example, Lee & Bean, 2010; Rollings & Hunter, 2013). This raises questions about the types of critical support known to promote biculturalism and affirm healthy development among racial–ethnic minorities that may be fundamentally absent in the natural environments of many multiracial youth during childhood and even into adulthood (Samuels, 2009, 2010). It also suggests a need for attention in practice and parenting to take seriously the racial–ethnic and cultural identity development of this population as an essential, rather than optional, component of their healthy functioning and well-being.

In promoting resilience, family socialization has received consistent focus in promoting the healthy development of multiracial children. In a review of literature related to multiracial identity outcomes, several key influencing factors are emerging as critical to promoting positive outcomes and resilience in multiracial children and youth, including (a) parental awareness and sophistication of knowledge around issues of race; (b) family structure, and (c) openness in discussing race within the family (Allen, Garriott, Reyes, & Hsieh, 2013; Crawford & Allagia, 2008). It is also clear that how parents racially socialize their children (including the use of more indirect methods that allow for a stronger role for extrafamilial contribution) is directly tied to their own racial identity development and parents’ own experiences with race, ethnicity, and culture in their families and communities of origin (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005; Samuels, 2009, 2010).

Racial Labels and Identity Development

In the first theories on race identity development (see, for example, Cross, 1971; Helms, 1995) predictive stage-based models were popular for use in research and clinical practice. Persons of color were thought to be healthy if they were able to move away from early stages of internalizing negative stereotypes and seeking assimilation into whiteness as the privileged status or distancing themselves from their own minority group (Cross, 1971). Healthy developmental stages increasingly required the person to feel positive and secure in his or her minority group identity and label and have meaningful relationships with whites, but not to identify as white. Therefore, the healthy identity for a racial minority person inherently required nonidentification with whiteness racially or culturally. Similarly, theories of white racial identity development described a process of moving toward race consciousness and antiracist identities, developing an awareness of their unearned racial privileges without overidentification or exploitation of relationships with persons of color (Helms). Again, the healthy identity was to reject internalized stereotypes that privileged whites as the norm or ideal/superior racial group. In both cases, healthy identities were single-race identities with a matching cultural identity (that is, being Native American meant one was Native American racially, ethnically, and culturally).

Such models have been limited, particularly for understanding processes of multiracial identity development, as well as for adopted persons who may grow up in racial and cultural contexts that do not match their own heritages. Additionally, some multiracial persons may not only seek to have meaningful relationships with white people (that is, their parents, relatives, or peers), but also seek to identify in a range of ways with their own white heritage.

In the 1980s, biracial identity models copied these stage-based theories and proposed theories for healthy biracial identity that simply replaced a single identification outcome with a dual one. These models (see, for example, Poston, 1990) proposed increasing levels of acceptance of all of one’s heritages, including white, and the use of a biracial label to indicate their multiraciality and healthy identity development. However, these models assumed a single option for healthy identity—ignoring potential diversity in how multiracial individuals might integrate their multiracial or multiethnic heritages in healthy ways over the life course. These models assumed dual but not multiple (more than two) racial–ethnic heritages and were fully silent about healthy identity processes for multiracial persons without white heritage.

During the explosion of multiracial literature and research from the 1990s into the 21st century, increasingly stage-based models were being rejected or expanded. Instead, identities are now thought to be healthy when they promote a child’s resilience and well-being, regardless of the use of a specific label (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005). In this way, healthy identity development becomes less about what one calls him- or herself (for example, using a multiracial or monoracial label), but rather how a person negotiates his or her multiraciality in daily life in ways that promote social and emotional well-being. Today, multiracial children experience enduring monocentricity but increasing identity options and are beginning to assert their own identities and identity labels. Labels coined by younger cohorts of multiracial individuals to indicate their specific racial–ethnic heritages are emerging: blaxican (black Mexican), hapa (Asian white), latinegra (Latina black).

There is also a move away from understanding healthy identity as something that is fixed or limited to (or resolved by) adolescence. Instead, identity development is conceived as a lifelong process. Race identities can change and grow over the life course, and this can be especially true for persons of multiracial and multiethnic heritage who may not have had childhood access to certain racial or ethnic communities (Jackson, 2009; McCubbin et al., 2010; Samuels, 2009; Wijeyesinghe, 1992). Theories of intersectionality also enrich the understanding of racial identities by emphasizing the salience of myriad other social identities, such as sexuality, class, gender, and spirituality, that critically shape how one navigates, experiences, and expresses race identities (Samuels & Ross-Sheriff, 2007; Wijeyesinghe, 1992). Changes in identities no longer necessarily indicate unhealthy outcomes or “identity confusion/conflict,” just as stability in one’s identity does not necessarily indicate health or a positive feeling about that identity.

Identities are generally considered healthy when they are not grounded in denial, shame, or rejection of a particular heritage (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005). However, this does not mean that multiracial persons always must use labels that publicly identify all of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or national backgrounds all of the time. There are several trends across research on multiple subpopulations of multiracial persons indicating active ingredients of healthy identity development that begin to point toward important elements of healthy identity processes: (a) parental/family openness and dialogues about race, racism, and discrimination; (b) color-conscious rather than colorblind race philosophy; (c) balancing an emphasis on sameness with difference in people; (d) effective strategies for actively combatting racial stigmas and stereotypes as an individual and family; (e) everyday environments that provide positive and natural access to relationships with co-ethnics including multiracial persons/families; (f) engaging multiculturalism in family culture; and (g) nurturing, validating, and affirming a child’s self and identity (Allen et al., 2013; Childs, 2002; McCubbin et al., 2010; Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005; Rollins & Hunter, 2013; Samuels, 2009).

Need for More Research and Theory on Racial and Cultural Identity Processes Promoting Resilience

The empirical study of multiraciality has primarily been restricted to exploring identity outcomes and processes, as opposed to other elements of well-being and adjustment (for example, physical behavioral, psychological, or social/relational health). Overwhelmingly, this research has focused on the identities of black–white multiracial individuals in early adulthood (for exceptions see Allen et al., 2013; Jackson et al., 2013; Lee & Bean, 2010; McCubbin et al., 2010). To a lesser extent, racial and cultural socialization of multiracial children (both adopted and nonadopted) have also been explored. However, there is an overwhelming focus on how parents of multiracial youth racially classify their children (see, for example, Bratter & Heard, 2009; Brunsma, 2005; Holloway, Wright, Ellis, & East, 2009; Lee & Bean). We know very little, however, about processes of racial socialization as it occurs in families beyond racial label choice and even less about cultural socialization processes that support healthy development across the life course. There is a great need for research in this area to extend beyond understanding how multiracial persons label themselves and how parents and others racially socialize to a preferred label to instead understand processes and factors central to their healthy development and resilience across the life course. This includes not only the use and development of culturally relevant quantitative measures, but also the use of more ethnographic and naturalist observational methods of actual socialization processes in context (Ortiz & Samuels, n.d.). However, several factors are emerging within the extant research as important elements of socialization processes that promote positive adjustment and resilience among multiracial persons.

Studies involving multiracial youth and overall adjustment indicate “identity integration” as a protective factor in psychological adjustment and health (Jackson, Yoo, Guevarra, & Harrington, 2012). Youth exhibit identity integration when they report feeling supported and affirmed in their identification choices and experience low levels of conflict or distancing between their race identifications in their daily lives. Research has also identified elements of multiracial resilience, including developing an ability for racial–ethnic flexibility (Jackson et al., 2013; Vasquez, 2010) and the social capital to identify as an insider (that is, be bicultural) with more than one racial–ethnic community when they desire to do so (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Research increasingly challenges the assumption that most multiracial persons experience dissatisfaction, sadness, or discomfort with their mixed-race identities or display weakened racial–ethnic identities. In fact, multiracially identified persons in some samples were found to have stronger ethnic identities (Bracey, Bamaca & Umana-Taylor, 2004) and were more socially well adjusted and felt more positive about themselves (Binning, Unzueta, Huo, & Molina, 2009) than their nonmultiracial peers.

Much more research is needed to understand meaningful differences in the developmental contexts of multiracial individuals and the role nonmultiracial parents can play in socializing their multiracial children by providing family and community contexts that affirm their positive development. There is also a need to understand cultural socialization rather than racial socialization and to engage samples of multiracial persons who do not have white heritage.

Health and Wellness

We know very little about the physical health of multiracial individuals. Often health statistics for persons of multiracial descent are combined within single pan-racial groups, thus masking any distinct health disparities for this population. However, as norms for reporting race in Census influence racial reporting among other federal and state institutions, such statistics are becoming available. For example, although mentioned previously as both a microaggression and a positive stereotype, it is concerning that multiracial persons may be exoticized and sexually objectified in ways that pose health and safety risks. Findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey indicated alarming outcomes for multiracial individuals nationally (Black et al., 2011). According to their 2010 report, multiracial persons experience the highest rates of intimate partner and sexual violence than any other racial–ethnic group in the United States. This was true for both males and females. One in every 3 multiracial women (33.5%) and nearly 1 in 3 multiracial men (31.6%) reported being raped at some point in their lives (Black et al.). In combining all forms of violence (rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner), 1 in 2 multiracial women and 4 in 10 multiracial men (39.3%) report being victims (Black et al.). Given the microaggressions and stereotypes of multiraciality discussed previously, specifically images and perceptions that portray both male and female multiracial persons as more attractive or exotic may negatively contribute to their disproportionate risk for sexual victimization.

Resilience and Community Building—The Multiracial Diaspora

Multiracial youth in the 21st century have access to a range of resources and communities not available to earlier generations of multiracial persons and families. The Internet provides unparalleled potential for connecting to other persons who share their identities. This is particularly important for persons and families who live in areas that are not racially diverse or areas where the diversity of the population does not reflect their own heritage or identities. There are also increasing numbers of national organizations, books, and other published resources led or authored by multiracial persons.

In an effort to reshape social understandings of “the multiracial experience” as diverse and examine the developmental contexts both shared and distinct among multiracial populations, MAVIN Foundation (, a national organization, was founded by Matt Kelley. In 2007, MAVIN Foundation launched its Mixed Heritage Center (, claiming status as the first comprehensive online resource of information and tools to support the multiracial community (including transracial adoptive multiracial families). MAVIN also published the edited text by Maria Root and MAVIN founder, Matt Kelley, Multiracial Child Resource Book: Living Complex Identities (Root & Kelley, 2003). In addition to the publication of this book, scholars, bloggers, and educators have continued to pursue opportunities to convey the diversity of experiences among the group “multiracial,” to dispel social myths attached to multiraciality, and to complicate our social narratives about race mixing and multiracial families and persons in general (Root, 2003). There are unlimited resources both published and online that seek to provide an affirming community and set of resources to the multiracial diaspora. Examples of only a few of the many transracial adoption online resources and organizations include Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAD), PACT, North American Council on Adoptable Children, and blogs by transracial adoptees and adoptive parents:,, and Examples of multiracial web-based resources and organizations include, Association for Multiethnic Americans, (an organization that seeks bone marrow donors for multiracial persons in need), Swirl Inc., and iPride.

Multiracially Attuned Social-Work Practices

There is a dearth of literature on empirically informed or theory-driven practices with multiracial persons and families across all academic fields, but particularly in social work. Much of the education, policy, and practice discourse around “cultural competence” and culturally responsive or attuned practice models in our field, including the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics, remain monocentric. In a review of social-work literature on multiracial persons and families, Jackson and Samuels (2011) ultimately propose to the profession a set of knowledge, skills, and increased awareness to promote more multiracially attuned and responsive practices for the social-work profession. Drawing from the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics and an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, social-work professionals and scholars are challenged to build critical awareness of their own biases and internal assumptions that are informed by societal stereotypes and monocentricity. This includes not assuming that all problems faced by multiracial persons are caused by their mixed-race heritage or that it is normal for multiracial families and persons to have problems because of their multiracial status. Professionals are encouraged to integrate multiracial literature and research into their practice wisdom and to use relevant assessment tools and practice approaches for this highly diverse population (Jackson & Samuels). As discussed previously, there are unique and overlapping histories of multiraciality in the United States; these legacies shape contemporary microaggressions. Jackson and Samuels encourage researchers in the field to increase our awareness of how a child or family’s immediate environment promotes or inhibits their well-being. This requires social workers to be attuned to the unique race dynamics within their own locals and to knowledge about both the available and the missing resources for multiracial families and persons in their communities and online.

Finally, theories and models of identity development now indicate a range of “healthy” identities for multiracial persons and show that identities can and do change across context, age, or development and even differ between siblings within families that share a biological heritage (Jackson & Samuels, 2011; Wijeyesinghe & Jackson, 2012). As practitioners evaluate so-called “normative” or healthy development in children, youth, and families, it is important that they use theories, interventions, and assessment tools to evaluate and promote healthy functioning that are culturally relevant and responsive to the lived experiences of their multiracial and multiethnic clientele.


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  • Sohoni, D. (2007). Unsuitable suitors: Anti-miscegenation laws, naturalization laws, and the construction of Asian identities. Law & Society Review, 41(3), 587–618.
  • Spencer, R. (1997). The new colored people: The mixed-race movement in America. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Streeter, C. A. (2003). The hazards of visibility: “Biracial” women, media images, and narratives of identity. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 194–221). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Sue, D. W. (2010). Microagressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  • Sweeney, K. A. (2013). “Race-conscious adoption choices, multiraciality, and colorblind racial ideology.” Family Relations, 62(1), 42–57.
  • Udry, J. R., Li, R. M., & Hendrickson-Smith, J. (2003). Health and behavior risks of adolescents with mixed race identity. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 1865–1870.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2010: With special feature on death and dying. Hyattsville, MD: Author.
  • Vasquez, J. M. (2010). Blurred borders for some but not others: Racialization, "flexible ethnicity," gender, and third-generation Mexican American identity. Sociological Perspectives, 53, 45–72.
  • Vroegh, K. S. (1997). Transracial adoptees: Developmental status after 17 years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67(4), 568–575.
  • Waters, M. C. (1990). Ethnic options: Choosing identities in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Wells, S. (2003). The journey of man: A genetic odyssey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Wijeyesinghe, C. (1992). Towards an understanding of the racial identity of bi-racial people: The experience of racial self-identification of African-American/Euro-American adults and the factors affecting their choices of racial identity. Electronic Doctoral Dissertations for UMass Amherst. Paper AAI9305915.
  • Wijeyesinghe, C., & Jackson, B. W. (2012). New perspectives on racial identity development. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Williamson, J. (1980). New people: Miscegenation and mulattoes in the United States. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
  • Winters, L. I., & DeBose, H. L. (Eds.). (2003). New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Zack, N. (1993). Race and mixed race. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Further Reading

  • American Anthropological Association. (1998, 17 May). Statement on “race.”
  • Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands, la frontera—The new mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
  • Appiah, K. (1990). Race. In F. Lentricchia & T. McLaughlin (Eds.), Critical terms for literary study (pp. 274–287). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Awkward, M. (1995). Negotiating difference, race, gender, and politics of positionality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Daniel, R. G. (2002). More than Black? Multiracial identity and the new racial order. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Daniel, R. G. (2003). Multiracial identity in global perspective: The United States, Brazil, and South Africa. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 247–286). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Graves, J. L., Jr. (2004). The race myth: Why we pretend race exists in America. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
  • Spencer, R. (1999). Spurious issues: Race and multiracial identity politics in the United States. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.