So what are you anyway?

Individuals in the U.S. with one Black and one White parent use the concept of "race switching" as one mechanism for coping with pressures of racial identity.

Author: Mahogany L. Swanson

Although biracial individuals include any persons with parents of differing race, this paper uses the term biracial to identify any individual whose parents are of African and European descent. Biracial individuals, or individuals with one black and one white parent, growing up in the United States develop a necessary coping mechanism whereby they are able to race switch. Race switching (see Wilton, Sanchez, & Garcia, 2013) allows individuals to identify and de-identify with different parts of their identity. This process of identification and de-identification is often dictated by the constraints or opportunities in the social milieu. Although viewed by some as opportunistic, an often-hostile environment may compel the need for racial fluidity in many self-identified biracial and multiracial individuals; however, the consequences of race switching can be deleterious for these individuals.

Multiracial and biracial individuals experience unique challenges with regards to their racial self-identification. Although in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that the criminalization of miscegenation by the state was unconstitutional it was not until 2000 that the children of such marriages were permitted to self-identify as biracial on the national census (Roth, 2005). Additionally, in a study conducted by Herman (2004), biracial individuals with at least one black ancestor reported significantly more perceived discrimination than any other minority monoracial group, including Blacks (Herman, 2004). This finding is disconcerting given that Jackson, Yoo, Guevarra, & Harrington (2012) found individuals expressing greater amounts or perceived racial discrimination concomitantly reported lower levels of psychological adjustment.

This racial discrimination can result in the individual de-identifying with his or her biracial or multiracial identity, and choosing to self-identify with the more accepted minority and monoracial race. Historically, the singularly black identity was given to all biracial and multiracial individuals, regardless of whether they espoused this identity. Coined the "one-drop rule", and often a means of hegemony, an individual with one black ancestor was considered singularly black.  Overtime, this method of racial reporting was accepted and used by Blacks and Biracials alike (Roth, 2005).

In addition to the one-drop rule, racial classification is frequently done through a process known as physiognomy, or the practice of making decisions about a person’s race based off his or her physical appearance. In a national longitudinal study conducted by Doyle and Kao (2007), 97 percent of self-identified biracial individuals who believed they appeared more black were identified by others as looking more black, where as only 17 percent of self-identified biracial individuals who believed they appeared more white were also described as being white by an outside observer. According to Doyle & Kao (2007), black/white biracial individuals are often compelled by society to self-identify as black due to physiognomy; whereas those minorities with lighter skin color, such as Native and Asian Americans are often given more latitude in terms of self-identification. The last three types of racial self-identification used by biracial individuals include: singularly white, border identity, protean and transcendent identity (see Roth 2005; Hitlin, Brown, and Elder, 2007).

Choosing a racial identity

In addition to the community and society at large, the family of origin also influences how a person chooses to racially self-identify. According to Roth (2005), mother’s with a higher than high-school education are more likely to identify their children as biracial, as are white male head-of-households and black female head-of-households. Families that grew up abroad and who have not been indoctrinated with the United States’ racial norms are also more likely to identify their children as biracial (Roth, 2005). According to Townsend, Fryberg, Wilins & Markus (2012), the middle class is more likely than the working class to espouse a biracial identity, as are students attending majority white schools. Interestingly, how a person is asked about his or her race can also influence how one will choose to self-identify.

Regardless of the identity reported by the individual, once selected, these racial identities are by no means ossified. Hitlin, Brown, & Elder Jr. (2006) found in their national longitudinal study that individuals who self-identified as biracial were four times more likely to change their race in the future than individuals that self-identified as monoracial, with white/black individuals being more likely to converge and self-identify as black. Furthermore, individuals who selected three or more races at one wave of data collection ultimately viewed themselves as singularly black 6 years later. In a study conducted by Doyle and Kao (2007), 96 percent of individuals who self-identified as black and white respectively did so again six years later; whereas only 57 percent of biracial individuals maintained this self-identification six years later. This study further demonstrates the fluidity in which many biracial individuals identify themselves.

In their study, Hitlin, Brown & Elder (2006) identified some characteristics that made people less likely or more likely to race switch. Characteristics of those who were less likely to switch included individuals from higher socioeconomic status, those whose mothers had higher education, and individuals with higher self-esteem. Furthermore, they found that an individual’s skin color and the racial make-up of one’s neighborhood influenced the stagnancy and fluidity of one’s racial self-identification.

Conversely, Hitlin, Brown and Elder (2006) found that individuals who demonstrated a greater fund of vocabulary knowledge were more likely to race switch. According to the authors, this increase in racial fluidity may be due in part to the individual’s increased mental capacity to respond to an often racially charged environment. However, whatever the reasons, race switching can come with a price.

In a study conducted by Sanchez, Shih & Garcia (2009), participants, who demonstrated malleable racial identification, or flexibility in how they self-identify in terms of race, also showed poorer psychological health. The results of their study also demonstrated that low amounts of dialecticalism and greater amounts of malleability were predictive of increased depressive symptomology, decreased psychological wellbeing, and higher amounts of unstable multiracial regard. Conversely, a high amount of dialecticalism was not predictive of depression or unstable multiracial regard.

More importantly, emphasis on racial identity does not necessarily stem from the individual, but from outsiders wishing to classify the individual. These attempts at classification frequently result in stress and frustration for the person being classified (Butler-Sweet, 2011). About a year ago, in an attempt to deal with my own frustration around the frequently broached question, “so what are you anyway,” I decided to write a short reflection regarding how I view myself.

You see, I grew up in a middle class military family with a dad who self-identifies as singularly black (raised in Texas)  and a mom who self-identifies as singularly white (raised in New York). From a young age, my dad told me that I could self-identify any way that I wanted to; however, he always said that the world would only ever see me one way. My mom, on the other hand, encouraged me to self-identify as bi-racial. To this day, my brothers and I seldom agree on our race; however, we all agree that people never seem satisfied until they can quench their curiosity and place us in a racial box. Much like many multi-racial individuals, I have spent my life attempting to reconcile how I perceive myself with how others report they seem me. One day, out of frustration, I wrote the following: 

This is the question that plagues most, if not all, biracial and multiracial individuals. So I decided to make a page dedicated to it. So whenever you are wondering, you can just go to this page and read to your heart’s content.

Let’s start off with what I am. It’s even in alphabetical order.

I am African. I am Cuban. I am Dutch. I am English. I am German. I am Native American. I am Spanish. I am Venezuelan. I am West Indian. Now, let’s end with what I am not.

No. I am not Black. Have you seen my mom lately? And no, you cannot touch my hair. Just imagine all of the races/nationalities above, and you will understand what my hair feels like.

No. I am not White. Have you seen my dad lately? So yes, my skin is naturally this way. I didn’t just stay in the sun a really long time, and yes someone asked me this.

No. I am not Indian. Yes, I am Native American, but no one in my family is from India. I get this a lot. Although, it would be cool to be part Indian, I have to admit that this is one of the few countries that escaped my family’s attention when they were making children.

No. I am not Brazilian, Dominican, Panamanian or Mexican. Although I wouldn’t mind being Brazilian, wouldn’t you love to have a perfect butt?

No. I am not Malaysian or Asian; although, both would be cool.

No. I am not Ethiopian. No lady, I wasn’t lying to you. I am not ashamed of my Ethiopian heritage; I know what Shalom means because half my family is also Jewish. They also used it in Aladdin.

No. I am not Bi-racial. Bi-racial would assume a mixture of two races. As you can see, I have more than two. No. I am not any of the other things that people assume that I am, but for which I have run out of room to explain.

With love, Mahogany, a Child of the Most High God... the Amazing Artist.

Growing up with a biracial or multiracial identity in a racially charged society can be very challenging. How one chooses to self-identify is often influenced by external factors. However, in the end, it is up to the individual to decide and reconcile him or herself to the fact that people are not ready to give up the age old question of, so what are you anyway?


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Author bio

Mahogany L. Swanson, MA, EDSMahogany L. Swanson, MA, EDS, is a certified school psychologist currently earning a PhD in counseling psychology at Georgia State University, with a cognate in military relevant therapies. Her current research interests include investigating the etiology and protective factors in the development of PTSD and comorbid disorders, as well as racial identity development of self-identified biracial and multiracial individuals of dependents and service personnel in the United States Armed Forces. She is currently completing externships at Emory University School of Medicine with the Grady Trauma Project, with the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Trauma Recovery Team, and with the Gwinnett County Detention Center. Her end goal is to earn a commission in the United States Armed Forces.