Jeannie Phan for NPR
It’s the summer of 1998 and I’m at the mall with my mom and my sister Anna, who has just turned 5. I’m 7. Anna and I are cranky from being too hot, then too cold, then too bored. We keep touching things we are not supposed to touch, and by the time Mom drags us to the register, the cashier seems a little on edge.
“They’re mixed, aren’t they?” she says. “I can tell by the hair.”
Mom doesn’t smile, and Mom always smiles. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” she says.
Later, in the kitchen, there is a conversation.
“Children aren’t ice cream,” Mom tells us. She’s smashing chickpeas on the counter. Anna and I shove Doritos into our mouths, sensing trouble. Falafel is a classic Donnella-family tension dinner. “You’re not some chocolate-vanilla swirl cone,” Mom says. “You’re human children.”
Mixed, I now understand, is an insult. Things are mixed, not people.
For the next decade or so, I proceed to not think of myself as mixed. Fortunately, my hometown is small enough that I almost never have to explain my background — everyone knows my parents. Dad is the bearded black guy who speaks softly and coaches Little League, and Mom is the bespectacled white lady who explains things passionately and organizes the Hebrew school carpool.
When I get to college, I tack up a photo of Mom and Dad in my dorm room, show up to Office of Black Student Affairs and Hillel events in equal measure, and let my friends do the math. “Mixed” is not in my vocabulary. I hear it in passing, but shrug it off like any casual slur.
When “What are you?” does come up — via strangers at the gym, on the bus, in Taco Bell — I take a deep breath and dive in. “Well, my mother’s paternal grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from what would now be called Ukraine,” I begin, to the dismay of everyone involved.
I’m thrilled to pieces when my little boo from Degrassi makes it big and I can finally say, “You know Drake? I’m like him.”
I get through grade school and college assuming polite society agrees with my mom, that calling someone “mixed” is dehumanizing and intrusive. But at work one day, I see a copy of a book called Mixed Me! floating around. It’s by dreamboat actor Taye Diggs, who is black and had a kid with Idina Menzel (aka Queen Elsa from Frozen), who is white. I’m shocked to see that word in big crayon letters scrawled across the cover of a kids’ book.
I point it out to my teammates on Code Switch — folks who traverse the very frontiers of race, culture and ethnicity for a living — expecting an outpouring of finely worded indignation. To my surprise, no one cares.
Stuff like this keeps happening. A co-worker talks about the adorableness of “mixed” babies. A multiracial friend posts an article about dating as a “mixed” girl on Tinder. I come across a line of hair-care products at Target called Mixed Chicks, and even I have to admit it’s a catchier name than “shampoo for women with ancestry from multiple parts of the world whose hair isn’t traditionally catered to in mainstream beauty products.”
I don’t want to start throwing around pejoratives willy-nilly, but it would be nice to have a single-syllable answer the next time someone asks, “What are you?”
But first, I need answers. Is “mixed” a slur, or what? Where does it come from? Who is it for?
More broadly, who gets to decide which words work and which are verboten? There are very few spaces left in America where calling someone a “mulatto” wouldn’t elicit some serious side-eye, but for a long time, the word mulatto, like Negro or Oriental, was largely a nonissue.
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 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.
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.”
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.
Consensus remained elusive, and competing terms existed side-by-side. In Chicago, the Biracial Family Network (BFN) was founded in 1980. In 1986, a similar group founded halfway across the country called itself Multiracial Americans of Southern California. Influential books on the subject include Paul Spickard’s Mixed Blood, published in 1989, and Maria Root’s The Multiracial Experience and Naomi Zack’s American Mixed Race, both of which came out in 1995. (As did Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, ushering in what one researcher called a “multiracial memoir boom.“)
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, Drake, 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 and mutt. 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.
Others just choose one identity and stick with it, like Melissa Harris-Perry, who acknowledges her white mother but identifies as straight-up African-American. In fact, according to Pew Social Trends, 61 percent of adults with a mixed racial background don’t consider themselves multiracial.
Lots of people adjust how they describe themselves according to the situation. Even Christine Iijima Hall, the pioneer scholar who popularized the term “multiracial,” doesn’t have a uniform answer for the question “What are you?” Hall says she often introduces herself in terms of her specific lineage, but it all depends on context.
“In an African-American group, I would say, ‘I am mixed’ or ‘My mother was Japanese,’” Hall says. “I don’t need to say the African-American part because most African-Americans know I am part black.” But that changes in different groups, and has changed over time.
The language we use is also distinctly regional. In places like California and Hawaii, with relatively high rates of multiracial folk (nearly 4 percent and 23 percent, respectively,) “mixed” gets tossed around pretty casually. In much of the rest of the country, where the rate hovers around 2 percent, the vocabulary seems to still be in flux. It’s also dependent on the particular racial makeup of a place — as we’ve seen, there’s a long, well-documented history of how black and white multiracial folks have been identified, but the same can’t be said for other combinations.
“People make their individual solutions,” says Naomi Zack, a pioneer in the study of multiracialism. “They talk about it. They change their identities. They go with the path of least resistance for what identity they pick up. Or they live in places where not as much emphasis is put on racial identity.” Maria Root, one of the founding mothers of mixed-race studies, created a multiracial “Bill of Rights,” which includes the right to create and change one’s identity across time and place.
This episode from a multimedia project called “Evoking the Mulatto” is a good example of young people grappling with how they identify as well as how they are identified:
The last word
So back to my original dilemma: After all this hand-wringing, time travel and jet-setting, where do we stand on these words? Do I start calling myself “mixed”? Have I found something better? In thinking about this too much, am I becoming the tragic mixed-up mixed blood that everyone warned me about?
As with all of my small crises, I wind up calling Mom again. She is, after all, the one who started me down this rabbit hole. I tell her about my research, and in our respective kitchens, we have a conversation.
We talk about segregation, and beauty standards, and colorism. We talk about adoption. We talk about antiquated medical instruments. I remind her of that day 20 years ago in the mall, with Anna.
She tells me more stories from my childhood — like how once, when she was nursing me, someone came up and asked her, “Is that baby yours?”
I tell her my own story about the time, when I was working at McDonald’s, that a customer came up to me and said: “You look pure. Where are you from?”
We start talking about the Loving case, and she mentions something I hadn’t yet stumbled across. Yes, interracial marriage was legalized in the 1960s, she says. “When your dad and I were teenagers,” she reminds me — not ancient history. But in the same decade that law was passed, and even after, several states also passed laws to limit and in some cases ban interracial blood transfusions.
As Mom puts it, it was considered “better for a white person to bleed to death than to be ruined by getting the blood of a black person.”
“Context matters in a really big way,” she tells me. “Why does anyone ask you, ‘What are you?’ Whose business is it? Whose right is it to do that? Strangers don’t often, or ever, come up to me and ask me ‘what’ I am or speculate about it. Someone can’t immediately put you in a box or a frame of reference, that’s their problem. It should never be yours.”
My mom asks if I’m going to include all of that. “Maybe I just want you to add these things to vindicate me,” she says, “so I don’t sound so stupid at the beginning, trying to encapsulate for my 5- and 7-year-olds all my feelings about race terminology in a line about ice cream cones.”
We’re both laughing when we say goodbye. Later, I turn back to my notes and realize, quietly, that I still have no answers.
But talking to my mom, doing all this research, hearing from historians who’ve devoted their entire careers to investigating these questions and still fumble when they’re asked “What are you?” — it’s had the welcome effect of allowing me to care a little less.
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