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Conversations About Multiracial Identity

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As human beings, we have the ability to choose. We can choose where we go on vacation, what we eat, what clothes we wear and how we act towards certain people. We choose our partners, have control over what school we go to and what career we obtain. But in the 21st century, multiracial Americans still don’t have power over their own identities.

A study conducted in June 11, 2015, by Pew Research Center shows that one in four multiracial Americans have had assumptions made about their racial background. 69 percent of adults who are multiracial with a black background say they are more likely to be perceived as black. 71 percent of people who had both African American and American Indian backgrounds have been subjected to racial slurs, 67 percent have experienced poor service in restaurants and other businesses, and 39 percent have been unfairly stopped by the police. The reason that these Americans faced such discrimination and racism is because they were perceived to be African American. Without their input, a decision about their identities was made, and they were treated accordingly. They weren’t able to choose their own identities or the way they were perceived by others.

 

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The History of Multiracial Discrimination

There has been a long history of racial discrimination in America, especially against African American people. According to Michael Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a Sociologist at Stanford University, “Part of the racist ideology was that black people were fundamentally different than white people. There was even this idea…that black people and white people were of different races and could not reproduce together. Of course, this wasn’t true, but they pretended. They made rules stating that any people that had any black ancestry were black, and everyone was white, and that the black people and the white people were completely separated.”

 

Interracial Marriage

Laws against interracial marriage were made as early as in the 18th century. Rosenfeld states that, “Marriage is a contract about state recognition, but it’s also a contract about division of property rights.” Because property rights come with marriage, these laws were, in part, made to prevent African Americans from inheriting property.

There was, however, still mixing occurring between Caucasians and African Americans. An example of this is Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, who carried on a relationship with one of his slaves, Sammy Hemmings, for years. His children were perceived as black in accordance to the one drop rule, which stated everyone who had even ‘one drop’ of African American blood was considered black. Because of this law, people with African American and Caucasian roots faced the same discrimination that pure African Americans did during that time.

 

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Interracial Couple, 1953. Courtesy of Paul Townsend, Creative Commons.

 

Shifts in Young Adulthood

The law against interracial marriage was struck down in 1967 as a result of the historic Loving Vs. Virginia decision. Since then, the number of interracial marriages has been climbing, and the number of mixed children born has risen substantially. Pew Research Center estimates that 12 percent of marriages are now interracial, and 6.9 percent of Americans are multiracial.

The reason for this growth, according to Rosenfeld, is a shift in the demography of young adulthood. “It used to be if you were single that meant that you were young, and young single people always lived with their parents. People used to…live with their parents until they were married, and one of the reasons they were married young was so that they could move out from their parents.”

Because people lived with their parents, their parents had a higher degree of control over what school they went to, what neighborhoods they lived in, and what people they interacted with. Most neighborhoods are segregated, so an individual could live his entire life surrounded by members of the same race. This forced the individual to marry someone of the same race as himself.

Now, people are marrying at an older age. Before marriage, many go to college, where they meet a wide variety of different people. As Rosenfeld puts it, “There is no parental supervision for most of the 20s, so there is a lot less control over who you meet, so people end up meeting people different from themselves.” When exposed to a variety of people of different races, there is a larger likelihood of someone marrying a member of a different race, hence the climb in interracial marriages and, eventually, mixed race children.

While Rosenfeld does say that people are more accepting and open to the idea that someone may look a certain way but actually be different than they originally thought, he still agrees that many people are still not able to make their own identities for themselves. “it’s not always the case that people get the freedom to make their identity in a way that makes most sense to them. It’s not always possible to push back on the way other people define you. People are somewhat constrained by the way people see them, and these constraints operate differently on all different sorts of people. It depends on who your friends are, it depends on what your socioeconomic status is, it depends on a lot of things.”

Age of Marriage
Identification and Choice

 

Courtesy of Stephanie Troutman

Courtesy of Stephanie Troutman

Stephanie Troutman, an assistant professor focusing on Educational and Women’s Studies at Appalachian State University has a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction and Women’s Studies. She has struggled with her identity in the past as a woman of both African American and Caucasian descent. A self proclaimed feminist and advocate for black rights, Troutman is passionate about equality and black rights. Troutman is a mother to two children, Rex and Melora, one with an African American father and one with a Caucasian father.

Troutman was born only ten years after the Loving Vs. Virginia decision. “When I think about myself as being born only a decade later, to an interracial married couple, that puts a lot of things into perspective for me,” Troutman says. Troutman’s parents were divorced, and even though she was raised by her white mother, she identifies as black.

From a very young age, Troutman realized that others saw her as black because of her physical features. However, she very much wanted to identify as a mix for the sake of accuracy. “However,” she says, “part of that desire for accuracy had to do with being closer to whiteness- wanting to disavow all the negative associations our society (and my community at the time) attributed to Black and Brown people. I didn’t consciously know that though at the time…that I harbored internalized racism that made me gravitate toward whiteness.”

As Troutman grew older, a number of things began to change in her life. First, she moved from Garfield, New Jersey to Deland, Florida, at the age of 15. Deland was a very segregated town, and the KKK was still openly protesting and participating in public events. Secondly, she began to identify more as African American, initially because of the way that she looked.

In Deland, she didn’t have access to the African American community because her school was so segregated. Her black peers also, “inadvertently excluded” her because, “they didn’t know what to make of me.” She also states that the only thing she knew about black culture came from books and movies, since she had no contact with her father or her African American side of her family until later in life. Her mother did not discourage her from connecting to black peers; She bought Troutman black baby dolls and let her watch the Cosby Show. But she also, “made racist comments and jokes, watched the Archie Bunker show, made stereotypical comments in my [Troutman’s] presence, and raised me to see myself as the exception to the rule that most blacks are criminal and unintelligent.”

Troutman was eventually able to find black friends as well as white friends, but acted very differently with the different groups. “I went through a phase where I kind of went back and forth. Not even switching in the way that I would talk, or the way that I would dress, but very literally switching to being a particular way when I was with black friends in a black community to when I was in a white community with white friends. My friend groups did not have a lot of crossover for a while.” When she was with her African American friends, she would talk about hip hop and African American literature. She would dress differently, eat differently, and watch different movies than she would with her white friends (she went to punk shows and modern art exhibits with them). Troutman was interested in all of these things, yet only expressed half of who she really was with each group.

Eventually, Troutman began identifying more and more with African American culture, politics, and history, and dynamics, and made her own, conscious decision to identify as black. Troutman ultimately felt that she identified more as the race that others also perceived her as.

Kristin Pauker, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii, says that perception can play a role in how people identify themselves. Pauker has conducted research on the subject of how multiracial people are perceived and says that, “We can do manipulations where we can get them [multiracial people] to write about times where they particularly identified themselves with their mother, which is one aspect of themselves, and we take pictures of them. What we do is we manipulate their features and change the way they look so they look more like one race than the other. So if we prime them to think of themselves as more black, for example, and we ask them, out of an array of pictures, to identify ‘who is the real you?’, they will pick the more black person.” “From this research,” she says, “You can extrapolate that and say that if people were being treated as more black, then they may begin to think of themselves of more black than white.” Maybe Troutman came to the decision of identifying as black on her own, but this decision was spurred by people’s’ perceptions of her.

Conversations About Race

Often, multiracial people have trouble fitting in as one race. Sometimes, they may look more like one race but feel like the other, as is the case of Troutman’s twelve year old daughter, Melora.

“My daughter would identify more as black if people weren’t constantly looking at her and judging her as white,” Troutman says, also adding that even in preschool, her daughter, when telling her friends she was black, was often told, “you don’t look black!” Even at such a young age, kids are already judging others based on the color of their skin. Research shows that kids begin preferring to interact with those of their own skin color at the age of 3.

Troutman tries to expose her children to a variety of different people and cultures. “We have gay people in our lives, queer people, trans people…people of all different racial backgrounds because I’m an academic and the types of people we interact with are very, very diverse.” She teaches her children the importance of accepting people and not being hateful towards others, especially because of the color of their skins.

Troutman believes that racism is still very much prevalent in society. When talking about choosing to identify as black, she says, ”When I’m honest with myself, when I look back, the narrative I told myself all along is that my identity was based on things other than race, but the reality is probably that that was the narrative I needed to tell myself to make sense of my experiences.”

Troutman remains, however, hopeful for her kids and how they will be judged by the world. “There’s a potential divergence for my kids at some point, maybe when they get to be 40 years old, they’ll look back and say that race meant XYZ in the age of Ferguson and police brutality and post-racial America when they grew up, but maybe in their 20s and 30s things will shift globally.”

Today, Troutman proudly identifies herself as African American. But only yesterday, she faced the uncertainty of being perceived as a race she didn’t identify with, a race that other people chose for her, because, in the middle of a country that is considered progressive, others labeled her because of the color of her skin. And she didn’t have a choice.

To see Stephanie Troutman’s full interview, click here

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Conversations About Multiracial Identity