Biracialism is used to indicate a racial ancestry comprised of two ‘‘races.’’ The term generally refers to first generation persons of ‘‘mixed race’’ heritage, i.e., individuals who have parents of socially defined, distinct racial groups. Biracialism is sometimes used interchangeably with multiraciality or ‘‘mixed race.’’ Social scientists are concerned with the myriad meanings of biracialism in private and public spheres. Micro level analyses delve into the process of racial identity development and how biracial persons construct their racial identities in social interaction. Macro level analyses examine how race is measured and its role in demographic statistics, government policies, and state politics.
‘‘Mixed race’’ ancestry, steeped in the legacy of colonialism and slavery, is not a new social phenomenon, but biracialism is a relatively young concept. The emergence of ‘‘biracialism’’ reflects a growing acceptance – or at least, recognition – of ‘‘mixed race’’ populations, and illustrates the successful lobbying of biracial persons and interracial families to dismiss single race classification schemes as inadequate for identifying or categorizing people of ‘‘mixed race’’ heritage. An increasingly diverse global society is characterized by growing rates of immigration and interracial unions. Coupled with shifting racial boundaries, a new cultural space has opened up for biracial individuals to define themselves and claim racial identities previously unavailable to them – insofar as these identity options exist within the social structure.
Ifekwunigwe’s (2004) organization of ‘‘mixed race’’ scholarship into three distinct stages provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the development of biracialism: pathology, celebration, and critique. Pseudoscience was the reigning influence of the ‘‘age of pathology,’’ resulting in the stratification of socially defined racial categories. This racial hierarchy positioned the ‘‘white’’ race at the top; the dominating myth of white racial purity defined miscegenation as a threat to white supremacy and a pollutant of the white race. Offspring of interracial unions were considered genetically inferior to those of the white race. Sound science prevailed eventually, demanding a departure from treating race as biologically determined.
With academic roots in counseling and developmental psychology, early studies on biracialism relied primarily on psychoanalytic perspectives of identity formation as a theoretical framework. These studies advanced our knowledge by proposing different models of biracial identity development, but also drew heavily from clinical samples – contributing in part to the continued stigmatization of biracialism. The groundbreaking anthology of both popular and scholarly writing, Racially Mixed People in America (Root 1992), was important because many of the authors were themselves biracial, and they treated biracial people as an independent population rather than as a subset or subculture of a racial minority parent group. The ‘‘age of celebration’’ was ushered in with personal memoirs of biracialism and theoretical exploration of ‘‘mixed race’’ identity, and was distinguished by a ‘‘mixed race’’ centric perspective. Studies remained small in scope, however, and relied more on theory than on empirical data.
With this foundation in place, the field of biracialism and ‘‘mixed race’’ theory flourished throughout the 1990s, became increasingly interdisciplinary, and invited more critical approaches. The current ‘‘age of critique’’ is marked by unresolved matters including the development of a comprehensive model for understanding biracial identity in all its forms; reconciliation of personal identity with racial categorization; and the limitations of a ‘‘multi racial movement’’ within the larger struggle for racial justice. Sociological analyses of biracial ism have pushed the field forward with empirical research focusing on the personal and political aspects of multiraciality.
Sociologists have contributed by employing symbolic interaction as a theoretical frame work. Rockquemore and Brunsma’s (2002) pioneering study showed that biracial individuals develop their racial identities from a constellation of interacting factors including phenotypic appearance, socialization via family and school, age and life course stage, neighborhood community, social networks, and geographical location. Building on earlier conceptions of biracial identity, their research yielded four typologies to characterize biracialism: border identity (based on neither single race but an integration of the two); singular identity (based exclusively on one race); protean identity (based on situational context); and transcendent identity (based on the absence of race as a factor). Although their national, representative sample was limited to black and white biracial Americans, the results illustrated that there is no single, universal conception of biracial identity – a biracial individual’s racial identity can be dynamic, changing according to time, place, and circumstance.
The meaning of race is also fluid, and racial designations are inevitably associated with economic, political, and social struggles. Racial identity is a paramount construction, with racial classification closely linked to government prescribed policies and programs. The politics of biracialism are part of a broader discourse on racial justice. Important issues include the likely consequences of a multiracial designation in racial democracies; conservatives’ cooptation of the ‘‘multiracial movement’’ to advocate for a color blind society (in which racial inequalities are ignored); and how biracial ism is situated in the global society – currently within a white/non white dichotomy and potentially within a black/non black paradigm in the future – and what that means for biracial people and other racial minorities.
Conducting research on biracialism merits special attention to methodological challenges. Perhaps the most obvious and shared concern is finding an honest way to write about race without reifying it. Studying biracialism involves an inevitable confrontation with the limitations of word usage and its underlying connotation – that race does have a biological or genetic reality. Identifying and recruiting biracial people can be taxing for a number of reasons: the population is small, complicated to define, and difficult to locate. Self identification remains the most clear cut approach for identifying a particular biracial population, but the presumption of a static identity is limiting. Researchers are still in the midst of determining the best methodological practices for defining a biracial population and ensuring representative sampling.
As researchers continue to be more critical in their approach, future directions must incorporate a diasporic approach to theoretical frameworks; just as states and nations have different racial structures, so too do they have different conceptualizations of biracialism and ‘‘mixed race.’’ Scholars must extend their expertise beyond the polarizing black/white paradigm that dominates North American and European literature. Theoretical approaches and empirical studies should be developed to examine the diversity within ‘‘mixed race’’ populations, inclusive of all permutations of ‘‘mixed race’’ – especially those which do not include ‘‘white’’ as part of the equation. The question of how class intersects biracial identity remains largely unanswered, as does the role of gender in the experiences of biracial individuals. The study of biracialism, multiraciality, and ‘‘mixed race’’ theory will be ever evolving so long as ‘‘race’’ continues to be a powerful force in shaping people’s life chances and experiences.
- Dalmage, M. (2000) Tripping on the Color Line: Black White Multiracial Families in a Racially Diverse World. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Ifekwunigwe, O. (Ed.) (2004) ‘‘Mixed Race’’ Studies: A Reader. Routledge, London.
- Parker, D. & Song, M. (Eds.) (2001) Rethinking ‘‘Mixed ’’ Pluto Press, London and Sterling, VA.
- Rockquemore, A. & Brunsma, D. L. (2002) Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Root, M. P. P. (1992) Racially Mixed People in Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
- Root, P. P. (1996) The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders of the New Frontier. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Storrs, (1999) Whiteness as Stigma: Essentialist Identity Work by Mixed-Race Women. Symbolic Interaction 22(3): 187 212.
- Zack, (Ed.) (1995) American Mixed Race. Rowman & Littlefield, London.
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