Biracial Identity: Beyond Black and White

Sociologist's expertise built on experience, not just scholarly inquiry

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The man in the next seat had been eyeing her furtively for a while, so Asst. Prof. Kerry Ann Rockquemore (Sociology) figured it was only a matter of time before the question came.

Asst. Prof. Kerry Ann Rockquemore (Sociology): "...There is still a social reality for race that we have yet to come to grips with. If you have a racial identity that does not neatly fit into this reality, how do you experience the world? How do others see you? How do you see yourself?" (Photos by Gary Gilbert).
"What are you?"

There was neither malice nor menace in her fellow airplane passenger's voice, but Rockquemore - recalling the event in a recent interview - knew what he was asking: He wanted to know her racial and ethnic background.

The daughter of a black father and white mother, Rockquemore was no stranger to questions and misperceptions about her appearance. That very day, one person had spoken Spanish to her, apparently thinking she was Latina, and a casual remark by the attendant at her flight check-in indicated that he took her for Italian.

"What are you?"

Trying to be polite, Rockquemore replied, "Why don't you guess?"

The man thought for a minute, mused aloud about her green eyes, black hair and freckles, then announced, "You must be Irish!"
Rockquemore laughs at the memory of that exchange, yet the question that prompted it is the essence of her work as a scholar, and a possessor, of biracial identity.

Through her research, including her co-authored 2002 book Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America, Rockquemore seeks to shed light on the social and personal experiences of America's growing biracial population. The rise of interracial marriages in the United States during the past three decades, Rockquemore says, and the visibility of celebrities such as golfer Tiger Woods and movie stars Vin Diesel and Halle Barry have helped to create more acceptance of biracial people.

But race is still a troubling subject for America, as evidenced by recent controversies over affirmative action policies and Trent Lott's remarks on segregation. The perspective of multiracial people, she says, is an important component for dialogue on race - and on the whole nature of identity itself.

"As a society, we're at an awkward place," she said. "Our old ideas about race and racial categorization are unraveling, and being replaced by new ideas that have a more scientific basis. We are no longer so bound by the 'one-drop rule,' which classified mixed-race children according to the racial group of the lower-status parent - in other words, you could never be considered 'pure' white, no matter your appearance. Racial identity is something far more fluid than it used to be.

"But there is still a social reality for race that we have yet to come to grips with. If you have a racial identity that does not neatly fit into this reality, how do you experience the world? How do others see you? How do you see yourself? 'What are you?'"

Pondering questions about biracial identity is not merely an academic or rhetorical exercise, according to Rockquemore: The matter of whether a person identifies him or herself as having a biracial identity can have sociopolitical ramifications.

A proposal to add a multiracial category to the 2000 federal census, she points out, set off a contentious debate before it was rejected. Supporters of the new category said its addition would help to accurately represent shifting demographic trends while also providing a true reflection of biracial people's understanding of their identity. Opponents argued that a multiracial category would ultimately make it more difficult to monitor racial discrimination and enforce civil rights legislation.

The census controversy might be seen as an indication of the growing self-advocacy among biracial people, especially those in their 20s or younger. Susan Lambe, co-leader of the Boston chapter of SWIRL, a social and educational support group for families, couples and individuals of mixed race, says that unlike in the past, "passing for white" is less of a concern for biracial persons.

"You have more of a choice now as to how you identify yourself," said Lambe, whose parents are white and Asian. "Because of that, those of us who are mixed or biracial want to create our own community, instead of being forced into a category."

The choice to which Lambe refers, and the factors that influence it, are explored by Rockquemore and University of Alabama-Huntsville Assistant Professor of Sociology David Brunsma in Beyond Black. Their project focused on offspring of black-white unions, she explains, "because blacks and whites continue to be the two groups with the greatest social distance, the most spatial separation and the strongest taboos against interracial marriage."

Rockquemore and Brunsma's research used survey data and in-depth interviews with biracial undergraduates attending Detroit-area colleges. Those conversations give voice to the complexities of biracial identity, and how it can be influenced by physical appearance, friends and acquaintances, surroundings, situation and other factors.

Chris, for example, described herself as "biracial, but I experience the world as a black woman," largely because of her appearance. Kathy, more light-skinned and with features most likely to identify her as white, talked of being stigmatized by many black students who interpret her biracial self-identification as trying to establish herself as "better than" or "beyond" black.

"It is one thing for someone to consider himself or herself as biracial, or black, or white," said Rockquemore. "How that identity is validated - if it is - by family, friends, acquaintances or in certain situations, is another matter."

Some respondents, however, said being biracial meant they would alter their behaviors or mannerisms to suit the situation. One student Rockquemore interviewed in a cafeteria spoke to her using black vernacular and body language, but when joined by white friends, she recalled, "he stiffened his back and used more standard English."

Yet there was nothing affected or false about the young man's actions, Rockquemore adds. "It felt completely natural to him. For biracial people like him, their self-understanding is based on this fluidity of identity. They see it as a gift, a way to move more comfortably through the world."

Based on the surveys and interviews, Rockquemore and Brunsma found four major variations on biracial identity. The "border" identity, which fit Kathy, encompasses both socially accepted racial categorizations of black and white yet includes an additional element from its combination. The "protean," as demonstrated by the young man in the cafeteria, involves multiple identities and personas that can be called up in appropriate contexts.

A small number of respondents asserted a "singular" identity as either black or white, rather than biracial. But some chose what the researchers termed a "transcendent" identity, consciously denying having any racial identity at all.

"This option proved to be more complex than we thought," said Rockquemore. "We assumed beforehand that these students were white in appearance, with no real experience of racial stratification, and perhaps filled with youthful idealism. But those whom we interviewed were not exclusively white in appearance, and some had known discrimination. They intellectualized those situations as part of broad societal problem, one in which they were deeply imbedded."

One such respondent, Rob, was adamant that race was a false categorization of humanity, and said he wished to be understood by others as a unique individual with particular gifts and talents: a musician, a thinker, a kind-hearted individual, Catholic and a hard-working student with dreams and ambitions.

Rockquemore readily acknowledges the limits, and risks, of terminology in discussions pertaining to race. "It is not something we as a society talk about with a great deal of comfort," she said. "One might argue with the terms and phrases we use in this study. Our hope is to take as much of the emotion and volatility out of the mix, to establish at least a starting point for conversations about racial identity."

Rockquemore has by no means been isolated from the difficulties of having a biracial identity, although for her these issues did not surface until young adulthood.

"In my family we rarely talked about race, and if you're a kid and you don't get direction you will find your own way. So, growing up, I always considered myself black, and this was how I was perceived by those around me. But when I went to college, suddenly, there were people who did not see me as 'a black girl,' and that could be awkward at times."

As a child, Rockquemore had a white friend who regularly invited her to sleep over. But her friend's parents would not allow their daughter to stay at Rockquemore's house.

"It was just an arrangement that was accepted, and no one really talked about it," she said. "When we were in college my friend finally affirmed what I had come to figure out for myself: Her parents didn't let her sleep over because my father was black."

In her next book, Raising the Biracial Child: From Theory to Practice, Rockquemore said she hopes to provide a means for parents of biracial children to confront the personal and social challenges she has experienced and chronicled. She also envisions the book as being helpful for educators, who will be dealing with greater numbers of biracial children.

"There was a previous thinking in some quarters that a kid who was biracial needed to develop 'a black identity,' and because this was considered the only healthy endpoint a child who didn't would be pathologized. Now we're beginning to understand, however, there doesn't need to be just one endpoint; there are many possibilities.

"As academics, we can write all this stuff, but if we don't put it in the hands of people who need to use it, how much good are we doing? If the effect of my work is that it opens up parents to new ideas about their biracial kids - or that teachers and school counselors understand they don't have to squeeze a kid into a category - then perhaps it's worth doing."


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