Good long read by Leah Donnella on what to call those with mixed ethnic and racial origins (I still like Lawrence Hill’s remark at the end of Blood: Who among us is not mixed up?):
So what makes one term fall out of favor, and another take off? In a country where the share of multiracial children has multiplied tenfold in the past 50 years, it may be a good time to take stock of our shared vocabulary when it comes to describing Americans like me.
A diversity of terms
I start digging into the history of that vocabulary, over time and around the world. It turns out we’ve had a dizzying multitude of monikers, many of which are offensive. Skip ahead if you want to avoid some of the worst — otherwise, here we go: muwalladeen, mulattos, mestizos, mestiҫos, blended, biracial, interracial, multiracial, multiethnic, gray, high yellow, half-breed, mixed-breed, cross-breed, mutt, mongrel, mixed blood, mixed race, mixed heritage, quadroon, octoroon, hapa, pardo, sambo, half-cracker but a nigger, too.
In early Rome, we were di colore, “of color.” In Japan, we are mostly called hāfu (half) but sometimes we get to be daburu (double). We were half-castes in the U.K. until 2001 (2001!), when the census officially deemed us “mixed.”
In South Africa, we are coloured, officially, and unofficial “bushies,” a slang term that comes from the idea that multiracial children are conceived in the bush.
In Brazil, where multiraciality is assumed, the options are colorful: cor de canela, cor de rosa, cor de crema, cor de burro quando foge (the color of a donkey as it runs away).
In the United States, when it comes to describing — or even acknowledging — people who identify with more than one race or ethnicity, the official track record is spotty.
In 1790, the first-ever decennial U.S. Census survey asked each head of household to enumerate the free white males, free white females, “other free persons,” and slaves living on his property. The “other” category was murky. Some people who weren’t considered monoracial may have been marked under “other free persons,” but there’s no way of knowing how many, or what their makeup was.
In 1850, things got a little more explicit. The U.S. Census Bureau rolled out two new racial categories: “B” for black and “M” for mulatto, a term for someone with one black and one white parent that became sort of a catch-all for anyone perceived as racially ambiguous, including many Native Americans.
As for white folks, they didn’t have to answer the race question at all; they were considered the default.
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An 1860s pamphlet published, supposedly, by abolitionists encouraging black and white people to get together and procreate.
At the start of the American Civil War in 1861, “amalgamation” was the word of choice for describing cross-racial canoodling. Then, in 1863, the word “miscegenation” came along. It was first used in a pamphlet published, supposedly, by abolitionists encouraging black and white people to get together and get procreating.
The pamphlet praised diversity as one of America’s greatest strengths, and it suggested that the country’s triumphs were achieved not only by its “Anglo-Saxon progenitors, but from all the different nationalities.”
If that sounds unbelievably progressive, it was. The pamphlet was a hoax, put out by anti-war Democrats hoping to trick the public into believing that President Lincoln, who was running for re-election, had a secret plan to “solve America’s ‘race problem’ with a campaign of interracial sexual relations that would create a new ‘American race,'” as race studies scholar Philip Kadish puts it.
In some ways, the “miscegenation” hoax didn’t work; Lincoln was re-elected, and slavery officially ended in 1865. But the term lived on as states passed anti-miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage, and “became the foundational justification for the Jim Crow segregation that followed,” writes Kadish. “With its hoax origin forgotten, ‘miscegenation’s’ scientific connotation — and the fact that it has the same prefix as ‘mistake’ or ‘misbegotten’ — planted the notion that races represented different species that should be separated.”
As this perverse origin story makes clear, when it comes to the words we use to describe race, it’s important to know the history. While miscegenation is by no means considered a neutral word today, very few people know just how laden it is. Unpacking the history of these terms can help us better understand how Americans felt about racial mixing in the past — and to identify any lingering skittishness we may have inherited.
As demographics change, language falls behind
Today, I have the option of selecting more than one race on my Census form, if I want. But that choice is still very new: until the 2000 survey, Americans had to pick just one.
In the past, Census surveys introduced — and later dropped — terms like “quadroon” (someone with one black and three white grandparents) and “octoroon” (someone with one black great-grandparent), but that did nothing for someone with, say, a Chinese mother and Latino father.
These surveys offer a window into how government officials thought about race in the U.S. over the years, but the language that normal people use in their daily lives, and the identities they embody, have always been far more complex.
So the next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at people who insist on shouting from the mountaintops that they’re a quarter this, half that, a dash of the other, keep in mind that for decades, they had very limited options.
That started to change in the mid-20th century, in the wake of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that officially legalized interracial marriage. The Loving decision overturned a trial judge’s opinion, written in 1958, that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
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Mildred Loving and her husband, Richard P. Loving, are shown on Jan. 26, 1965. In 1967, the ruling in the Lovings’ Supreme Court case officially legalized interracial marriage.
A surge of scholarship, personal writing, activism and community organizing around these issues was bubbling up alongside Loving. These writers, activists and scholars had to choose how to describe themselves and their communities. For some, existing words felt unsatisfying, so they invented new ones. For example, a 1979 graduate dissertation by Christine Iijima Hall, then a researcher at University of California, Los Angeles, appears to be the first influential usage of the word “multiracial” for describing people with blended ancestries.
“This dissertation explored the lives of a particular multiracial/multicultural group,” she wrote in the abstract, defining “multiracial” as “being of two or more races.”
By most accounts, little scholarly research had been done about these identities before Hall’s paper, in which she profiled 30 people with black American fathers and Japanese mothers. (Hall’s own parents are black and Japanese.) There was even less scholarship about people whose backgrounds didn’t involve whiteness.
What little did exist, Hall says, tended to cast people like her in a negative light. She points to Everett Stonequist, a sociologist who in 1935 referred to mixed-race people as “marginal men … poised in psychological uncertainty between two or more social worlds,” their souls reflecting “the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions of these worlds.”
(That sort of characterization wasn’t exactly shocking — the “tragic mulatto” trope was almost a hundred years old by the time Stonequist wrote about it.)
Hall’s subjects didn’t seem to suffer such internal discord. They didn’t necessarily agree about what to call themselves — they variously identified as “Afro-American,” “Japanese,” “Black-Japanese” and “other” — but overall, Hall found, “all felt happy and lucky” to be who they were.
Hall’s use of “multiracial” as an umbrella term for describing individuals started leaking into popular culture. G. Reginald Daniel, a leading scholar on issues of multicultural identity and a sociology professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, says Hall’s dissertation was one of the first instances in which the word “multiracial” was used to describe an individual, rather than a larger group or a society as a whole. He first heard it used that way in public by a panelist on The Phil Donahue Show in the early ’80s, and thought: “Wow, that’s interesting. I like the sound of it.” Later, Daniel and his colleagues began to incorporate “multiracial” into their own work.
‘Multiracial’ or ‘mixed’?
In light of Hall’s paper, “multiracial” was adopted by several advocacy groups springing up around the country, some of which felt the term neutralized the uncomfortable connotations of a competing term in use at that point: “mixed.”
In English, people have been using the word “mixed” to describe racial identity for at least 200 years, like this 1864 British study claiming that “no mixed races can subsist in humanity,” or this 1812 “Monthly Retrospect of Politics” that tallies the number of slaves — “either Africans or of a mixed race” — in a particular neighborhood.
Steven Riley, the curator of a multiracial research website, cites the year 1661 as the first “mixed-race milestone” in North America, when the Maryland colony forbade “racial admixture” between English women and Negro slaves.
But while “mixed” had an established pedigree by the mid-20th century, it wasn’t uncontroversial. To many, “mixed” invited associations like “mixed up,” “mixed company” and “mixed signals,” all of which reinforced existing stereotypes of “mixed” people as confused, untrustworthy or defective. It also had ties to animal breeding — “mixed” dogs and horses were the foil to pure-breeds and thoroughbreds.
Mixed “evokes identity crisis” to some, says Teresa Willams-León, author of The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed Heritage Asian Americans and a professor of Asian American Studies at California State University. “It becomes the antithesis to pure.”
By the 1980s, some of those made uneasy by “mixed” had a welcome alternative in Hall’s “multiracial.” But others felt “multiracial” was still better for describing groups, not individuals. “Sometimes, when people hear multiracial, they think of a multiracial society,” says Williams-León, one in which “there are blacks, there are Latinos, there are Asian-Americans, and we all live together.” Mixed, in this line of thinking, avoided that confusion.
Biracial is, of course, another widely used term. It began showing up regularly in scientific papers in the 1970s, often referring to communities with both black and white members. But because of the specificity of “bi,” meaning two, some argued that “biracial” was too limited a term.
Then there’s the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies, which debuted in 2011, and is the first major academic publication to focus on mixed-race identity. Lest you think naming the publication was easy, editor G. Reginald Daniel, the U.C. Santa Barbara professor, included a lengthy note in the first volume explaining the many factors that went into calling it the Journal of Mixed Race Studies, rather than Journal of Multiracial Studies, or Journal of Mixed-Race Studies or Journal of ‘Mixed’ Race Studies.
Ultimately, the publishers went with “Mixed Race” in the title, but it’s not the only term you’ll see in any given volume. “We accommodate the terms mixed race and multiracial interchangeably in the journal,” Daniel wrote, “since both are widely used in the field of mixed race/multiracial studies and consciousness, as well as in the public imagination.”
Today, “mixed race” seems to have won out in academic writing. A Google Scholar search for that term results in 2.5 million results. Results for “biracial” and “multiracial” combined offer up about half that. But the debate continues, inside and outside the ivory tower.
Some resist any terminology for multiracial people, period. “All this talk is disturbing,” says Rainier Spencer, director of the Afro-American Studies Program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and self-professed racial skeptic. “What drives my antagonism is that people are coming in and saying, ‘We’re new, we’re different, we are the answer to race problems in America,'” says Spencer. “Population mixture has been going on for hundreds of years. Calling people ‘mixed’ erases the history of race in the U.S.”
The history of race and the weight of science, some might say. According to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, “Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.” So discussions of “mixedness” are even trickier, because they inherently rely on cultural, not scientific, understandings of race.
Sharon H. Chang is an activist and author of the new book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World. She also runs social media for the Critical Mixed Race Studies team, which was founded through DePaul University. In her writing, Chang tends to use “mixed race” and “multiracial” interchangeably, but in regular conversation, when someone asks her about her background, she says “I’m mixed.” She used both in the title of her book to convey that there are ongoing conversations about terminology and what it means at any given time.
That sort of linguistic fluidity is common, says Andrew Jolivette, an activist and chair of the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Jolivette says there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to describing someone’s racial identity. He recommends simply asking someone what they prefer, “because we all have different experiences,” he says. “I don’t think we should create universal truths for everybody. Everybody’s experience is different, even if we’re the same mix.”
But let’s be real: When it comes to how people describe themselves, most of us are more likely to take cues from celebrities and public figures than from painstakingly titled scholarly journals. Rihanna
, Key and Peele
and Shemar Moore
have all used the term “biracial” to self-identify. Barack Obama, ever tongue-in-cheek, likes to throw around mongrel
. Slash, Nicole Richie
and Trevor Noah
have used “mixed.” Author Mat Johnson
, whose 2015 novel Loving Day
centers heavily on mixed race identity, has reclaimed “mulatto” as his identifier of choice.
Some don’t use any of those words, choosing instead to describe their specific ethnic makeup, like Olivia Munn, who has spoken about being connected to multiple parts of East Asia, or Yawna Allen, a tennis player who’s Quapaw, Cherokee, Euchee, white and black.