When I was a boy, the church I attended with my family in Atlanta was located across the street from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which houses a reflecting pool and a bed of coals with a fire burning in memorial in its courtyard. My parents were friends with a couple, Berta and Roger, who also attended our church. Berta and Roger were the first interracial couple to be legally married in Mississippi.
They were married in 1970, three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that the laws on the books in 16 southern states that banned intermarriage were unconstitutional. I grew up with the proof of America’s legal and civil progress standing there before me. These friends of my parents were living out the dream of that great and fallen civil rights leader whose eternal flame burned across the street from our shared church.
Today, over 50 years and many generations of biracial families later, we need to talk about the impact of the growing demographic of biracial people in America. Why? Well, for one, just look at the public panic about the future of white people after that 2020 census data dropped. According to the numbers, between 2010 and 2020, there was a 276 percent increase in the number of people who have parents of different and/or multiple races. In 2022, nearly one-in-ten adult Americans, myself included, have parents of different races. In other words, the fastest growing population in the U.S. is multiracial.
But also, if you’re biracial and grew up in America, you most certainly know what it’s like to live with the unique pressure that some day people born of two races would somehow solve America’s long and ugly history of racism. And we’d do it just by existing. Obviously, no number of interracial marriages or multiracial babies is going to save us from America’s history of white supremacy, especially when race remains just as divisive an issue for multi- and biracial people. Yet, this sense of being somehow special can leave biracial people with a confusing impression that our identities aren’t our own — that they belong to others. We’re fetishized, tokenized, weaponized and reminded that our presence can serve the wishes and dreams of some, just as our existence can stoke the fears and resentments of others.
To try to understand what it’s like to be part of the growing population of biracial Americans — and specifically what it’s like to see the world as a child of one Black parent and one white parent — I asked four biracial people to discuss their experiences and share their candid thoughts about their racial identity.
What term do you use or feel like best describes yourself and your ethnic mix — for example, biracial, mixed, mulatto?
Michael, designer, mid-30s, San Francisco: I honestly don’t use any of those terms as a first descriptor of myself. Mulatto is funny because it makes people nervous, but I’m Black, and if you really wanna get into it, I’m a high yellow, or redbone nigga, depending on how much sun I’ve gotten. But that’s mostly none of folks’ business.
Ian, writer, mid-40s, Southeast Michigan: I’ll usually refer to myself as either “Black and white,” or “Bahamian-American and white,” depending on who I’m speaking with and the nature of the discussion we’re having.
Meghan, stay-at-home mom, early 40s, Massachusetts: I stick with Black, unless it’s a person of color. They tend to ask me for “identification,” like, “Are you Dominican? Do you speak Spanish?”
Steph, self-employed, mid-30s, Los Angeles: I think of Black and Greek as my ethnicities, and mixed as my race. I’ve used biracial in the past, but I don’t anymore because it implies that I have two distinct racial identities (Black and white) when I really only have one. It’s a third thing: I’m mixed. I grew up with both parents and in both cultures; I don’t believe in choosing one or in being half-something. I’m one person, a mixed person, and I’m proud of who and where I come from.
Do you ever call yourself Black? And if so, when and why?
Meghan: I call myself Black because I identify as Black and to cut down on any extraneous questions.
Steph: I say that I’m Black and Greek, because that’s what I am. It usually comes up if someone asks me about my last name, my family or my background — I look pretty white but I guess there’s still some ambiguity, because people are often curious about “what I am.”
Michael: Yeah, I call myself Black, because I’m Black. My mother is Black, and when I go out into the world, I’m Black. That’s really the long and short of it in this country.
Ian: I’ll never refer to myself exclusively as Black, nor would I ever refer to myself exclusively as white, unless I was going out of my way to troll someone. I’m of the opinion that referring to myself exclusively as Black would be lending far too much credence to hypodescent theories that the presence of Blackness is somehow contaminating and obliterates the presence of everything else it encounters. If others choose to call me Black, that’s their prerogative. I can’t control the opinions of others in that respect, but I don’t need to accede to the outside impositions of those who wish to lump me into a prescribed box.
When you were young, how did your parents explain being biracial to you? And how did your peers at school, your teachers and other kids’ parents talk about you being biracial?
Michael: Maybe this is my age showing, or a function of how few Black people there were in the town I mostly grew up in, but I never had “being biracial” explained to me. At most, it was some basic, “You’re Black; your father isn’t. People may be confused, but you don’t have to be.” I honestly feel like a lot of the biracial discourse that exists in the culture now is a very recent development.
Steph: They didn’t. I don’t even know when I first realized I had an identity — it was obvious to me that not everyone approved of my parents’ relationship, but that always made me worry about them, not myself. Growing up, I always felt like a fly on the wall. Nothing was really about me. I’m still unlearning that, 30-plus years later.
I will say that, in hindsight, I don’t think there was a way for my parents to explain my identity to me, because they weren’t biracial. Being in an interracial relationship, they had some idea of how people might respond to me, but it’s not the same thing. Their relationship was something they chose as adults and could theoretically unchoose if they wanted (they didn’t unchoose and were together for 34 years, until my dad passed away).
When I did talk to my parents about my experiences as an adult, they were both in learning mode and very supportive. They both did a great job helping us become who we are, not telling us how we were going to be or how the world was going to treat us. I’m grateful to figure that out for myself, even if it was confusing and painful at times.
Meghan: My mom was super “you’re biracial — your dad is Black and I am white.” She was, and still is, pretty oblivious to her role in severely whitewashing the world to her children. It was very clear I was different. I was made to feel different in subtle and overt ways. I missed a lot of sleepovers and parties growing up. One of my best friends’ dad used to make the most offensive jokes about Black people, to me, and usually with a crowd surrounding us.
My teachers would single me out in one of three ways: First, in the super 1980s California-liberal, “If you feel uncomfortable, please take a break outside.” Well, I was always “uncomfortable.” Or, there was, “Meghan, how do you feel as a Black person?” Like I was supposed to answer for all Black people. And lastly, I’d be excluded for some inexplicable reason, but a reason that no one looked into after it occurred.
Ian: I don’t recall my parents saying anything about it to me one way or another until a second-grade classmate advised me that my father couldn’t possibly be my father because he was white, and then asked me if I was adopted — or an alien. Even afterwards, my parents informed me that I was both white and Black, and that was the end of it.
At the same time, I became acutely aware that being half of two different categories didn’t exactly insulate me from race-related barbs. One of my fourth-grade classmates called me a “nigger” during gym class. I didn’t know what it meant, but everyone around me reacted like it was the worst imaginable insult. Being the sensitive kid that I was, I instantly started crying — not because I knew what it meant, but simply because someone was being mean (I had a lot of toughening up to do).
In the process of individuating, we have to make sense of the world on our own. Based on what you heard at home, and what you heard outside of the home, how did you decide what to call yourself/think about yourself and your identity?
Michael: At home it was pretty straightforward — I was Black. That much was obvious (just on some skin tone shit) when I’d spend time with my white father’s family, and culturally, it was definitely an effort that both my parents made in concert. When it comes to what I experienced outside the home, that didn’t leave much wiggle room either; the first person to call me a “nigger” to my face was a kid in my second-grade class. And every racist cop, authority figure or creditor I’ve encountered since couldn’t give a single flying fuck about if I can pass a paper bag test or not.
Steph: I wouldn’t say I had a strong identity growing up; it was something I was constantly experimenting with and exploring. It was confusing, and I never quite felt understood by anyone — even myself. As an adult, I discovered the term “monoracial,” meaning people of one race, and realized that a lot of the alienation I felt was the result of trying to view the world through a monoracial lens. It was inauthentic and painful for me to model myself and my identity after people who didn’t have my experiences.
Since then, I’ve found I have a lot more in common with other mixed people, regardless of what their mix is, than I do with people who believe you’re either one thing or the other (or that you should want to be). It just doesn’t work like that in my experience. Identity is a lot more than what we call ourselves: It’s about where we feel we belong.
Meghan: When I was younger, I felt completely different from the other non-mixed kids and among most of the other mixed kids in town. The Black kids felt I wasn’t Black enough. And the white kids didn’t really acknowledge my race overtly; it was blatant and unspoken. I was also told, “You’re not like them, Meghan,” and “You’re different.”
Ian: The whole process of deciding how to identify took decades, but I ultimately reached the realization that a lot of identification pressures are externally applied and owed to an oversimplified mindset rooted in scarcity, and a belief that group solutions can fix individual problems.
For example, I’ve heard the alt-right notion that there would be more white women available to date if white girls stopped dating and marrying non-white men, and Black men specifically. On the flip side, I’ve also heard plenty of Black women saying essentially the same thing about Black men pursuing and marrying white women — if Black men would stop marrying out, they would be more likely to land one. I’ve even heard the solution proposed that Black women, as a group, should start dating Asian men, as a group, to offset the marital imbalances of both groups, as if that’s going to surmount any of the obstacles of individual attractiveness.
In my opinion, everyone’s efforts would be better spent on self-improvement because a group-oriented solution doesn’t correct an individual’s inability to get one person to commit to them.
If people do or don’t want to associate with me on a racial basis, that’s fine, but I just try to enjoy what I want to enjoy, regardless of other people’s expectations of what someone who looks like me should do, and they can assign me to whatever group they want to in their minds. In the end, I’d like to think I’m far too idiosyncratic to be encapsulated very neatly.
The two people pictured below are siblings — sisters with the exact same parents — one Black, one white. The fact that these two people are sisters can be very confusing for people, or often a source of jokes/teasing. Do you have any siblings who are lighter or darker than you are? If so, what has that been like for you, and for them?
Michael: Nah, I’m an only child, so this doesn’t apply to me.
Ian: My brother and I are pretty much the same shade.
Meghan: My brother is a bit darker than I am, and he has locks that are usually dyed bright colors. He’s the looker and the enigmatic one of the two of us. The darker complexion hasn’t seemed to really hurt him, but I may be wrong about that.
Steph: Yes. I’m the lightest of my mixed-race siblings. Growing up, it was hard for me to not look like my mom while my other siblings did — I was jealous of them when we were young — but the resemblance between all of us is more clear now, and it’s really not a big deal. We’re aware that we have different experiences and talk about it when it’s relevant, but it’s not a regular topic of conversation.
These days there are shows about being biracial, like ABC’s Mixed-ish. There weren’t as many shows, roles, character arcs and biracial representation in general in prior decades. When was the first time you felt seen in the media? Do you remember a character, a show, a book or any other media where you felt like it captured some of your experiences?
Steph: The closest I’ve come is Zendaya’s character on Euphoria. Or Lena Adams Foster’s family on The Fosters. That’s mostly visual representation; I’ve seen very few storylines that really explore the dynamics I’ve experienced — and I watch a lot of television. It would be great to really see those issues explored, but there are a lot of people waiting for more than superficial representation, so I’m not holding my breath.
Meghan: I really don’t remember any shows I related to, let alone as a biracial kid. I guess The Cosby Show and A Different World were the original ideal, in many ways.
Michael: Uh, light-skinned niggas been the only folks we have seen on television and in media for decades, so this is slightly ahistorical. Now, if you mean the, “Oh, woe is me, tragic mulatto” storylines of Euphoria and whatnot, maybe there’s a case to be made for that. But hell, even Devil in a Blue Dress has one of those character arcs. Maybe this is just me, but I never felt “left out” of media that featured “regular” Black folks because I never saw myself as not a “regular” Black person. Some of us are darker, some of us are lighter and we get to joke about that — I have cousins that lovingly call me a quadroon.
A lot of this biracial discourse feels very Tumblr-adjacent to me, and very much about how questions of individual identity have taken the place of class, caste and cultural questions that are much more interesting and more important.
Ian: I remember seeing Denzel Washington’s 1981 film Carbon Copy around 1999 and thinking it was intriguing, hilarious and over-the-top. It was fun watching it with my dad, if only for the white-father-and-son-who-looks-Black dynamic. Aside from that, I don’t know that I felt like I needed to see my experience reflected through the fictitious life of someone on the big screen or small screen. More than likely, it would have seemed like a vast oversimplification to me.
In my case, you’d have to factor in that I was raised in the U.S. surrounded by the white members of my extended family, and I saw my Bahamian relatives far less frequently, and had tremendous difficulty understanding what they were saying whenever I did see them until I hit my teens. All the while, I was raised in a predominantly African-American cultural environment, so it’s not like there was any sort of isolated cultural immersion going on that left me choosing between groups.
If anything, the split wasn’t between two racial worlds, but between the household environment and the outside world. In my experience, home was the safe haven, and everything outside of it was somewhat irregular.
Was there or is there a celebrity who you looked at as a model of how to be biracial, or whose experience resonated with you?
Meghan: Not that I can recall.
Steph: Maybe Mariah Carey. I related a lot to Michael Jackson because I was young and didn’t really understand what was going on with him in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I think I saw him as both Black and white, even though I knew he wasn’t biracial. Either way, there was a certain idealism around race and unity in his songs that I related to and wished for deeply.
Michael: I’m supposed to say Tiger Woods here, right? Maybe he’s the beginning of this — him and Earl’s PR campaign about him in golf. But how can you look at Harry Belafonte and say we didn’t have a model for being light-skinned? Smokey Robinson? Who needs Dwayne Johnson — I’m taller than him, I refuse to call that man The Rock — when you have Smokey Robinson?
Ian: Honestly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson developed into a wrestling mega star when I was in college, and that became the model to be followed. He embraced all elements of his parents’ cultures, and then he went off and did his own thing and became a bigger deal as an individual than he ever would have if he’d taken a self-limiting approach.
What do you think about the online discourse in which Black people talk about biracial people needing others to know that we’re biracial, as if that’s an attempt to move away from Blackness? Has public acknowledgment of your white parent been something you’ve had to wrestle with?
Michael: What is it the kids call it, “Pick-me behavior”? People want to be special, to be unique — or at least to be perceived as being special. I, however, would prefer not to be perceived at all. And again, acknowledging my white parent has never made me feel “less Black,” but I’ve never really felt like it was a big deal.
Meghan: I grew up with my white parent. I don’t even hear the bullshit comments that others may make anymore.
Steph: I don’t have firsthand experience with this discourse, but it sounds pretty close-minded and divisive. My take: Biracial people have historically been denied an identity that encapsulates everything we are, and liberation for us means having the option to choose a label that’s inclusive of both our parents, cultures and communities.
We’re also not a monolith: Some biracial people also identify as Black, some aren’t Black to begin with and some wouldn’t be considered Black by anyone were it not for the one-drop rule. Given that the one-drop rule was created to uphold white supremacy, I don’t think it’s wrong to identify in a way that reflects who you actually are — not how some Jim Crow law says you have to. Ultimately, we should give people the trust and freedom to decide what’s authentic to them.
As for my white parent, he was already disowned once — a common experience for people in interracial relationships — and I’m not about to disown him again to prove something to a bunch of internet strangers. I fail to see how erasing parts of who we are is helpful to anyone.
Ian: I operate from the premise that efforts to limit the identification practices of others are signs of insecurity and weakness on the part of the people trying to control that process. In theory, how someone else opts to identify shouldn’t matter to you unless you’re either trying to build the strength of a collective group and you’re afraid of some of your potential group members being siphoned off, or you consider suffering to be an essential condition of what it means to be a part of your group identity — and you resent the attempts of others to latch onto anything that might inhibit their ability to commiserate with you.
Also, it seems as if there’s a thought that if you identify as both white and Black, you’re attempting to dodge whatever racial animus or hostility might be inbound from (primarily) white people toward Black people. I’m smart enough to recognize that anyone with true racial hostility toward Black people or who believes in the inherent inferiority of the group isn’t going to soften their opinion of me simply because I’m half something else. Simply because I’m half Black doesn’t mean that I won’t ultimately experience 100 percent of whatever anti-Black racism is inbound. I’m cognizant of that much.
Biracial people get fetishized a lot. You see this with biracial kids in advertisements and shows. You hear it when people talk about kids like they’re a chocolate-vanilla swirl — or how “biracial kids are always better looking.” These ideas equate being biracial to a watering down of Blackness, and a spice added to whiteness. How do you deal with the fetishization of you as a biracial person?
Michael: I mean, I make “hybrid vigor” jokes with my other mixed friends, but I’m not trying to hear that shit from anyone else. I’ve always been sensitive to standing out, being called out for being obviously different or having the ways I’m different yelled back at me as though I hadn’t noticed. Doing that shit is a quick way to never having a friendly interaction with me again.
Meghan: It’s been something I’ve had to deal with for as long as I can remember. It became a huge deal when I was in the Navy. Guys would always ask me, “What are you mixed with?” as a pickup line. There was an unfortunate comment that my partner made to my father, over two decades ago, regarding our children — he said it “looks like the white washed out the Black in one shot.”
Ian: On a generalized level, it’s weird, but if I’m being honest, whenever it was applied on a personal level, I always loved it. I don’t know anyone who has ever lamented being called attractive, at least not at the height of their attractiveness when every physical asset was fully working in their favor.
Steph: I haven’t heard much of these comments in the past couple years, so maybe people have gotten the message — or maybe I don’t interact with people who say things like this anymore. Either way, I don’t feel very fetishized — maybe because I don’t have that “mixed look.” People do say I was a cute kid, but that’s just the truth!
In general, most people don’t know what to make of me, or what experiences to “assign” to me; they don’t know what assumptions to make. And people will respond to that in different ways: Some will fawn or fetishize, some are genuinely curious, some are suspicious, some are angry or dismissive. I try to keep a sense of humor about it and not take any of it too personally. Most people mean well, and besides, I wouldn’t be able to function if I took it all to heart.