Which Box to Check? Categorizing Multiracial America Is Getting Complicated

A new study shows the number of multiracial adults in the U.S. is on the rise.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 11, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

If you’ve only lived in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or another major American city, it can be easy to think the whole country is a peaceful mélange of people of all races and backgrounds. Of course, this isn’t the reality. In many of our major cities, homogenous communities proudly thrive alongside pockets of diversity. The fabled ethnic and racial melting pot has long been engrained in the American identity, but so has our obsession with putting people into easy-to-digest categories.

Enter the Pew Research Center, which on Thursday delivered a voluminous report on America’s multiracial people. This group—if we can call it that—is growing three times as fast as the population as a whole. More than 9 million Americans chose two or more racial categories when asked about their race for the 2013 census.

But Pew researchers say the census likely underestimates the multiracial segment of the adult population by failing to account for the racial backgrounds of respondents’ parents and grandparents. Including those parameters, Pew estimates that nearly 7 percent of the U.S. adult population is multiracial, rather than the census estimate of 2.1 percent. Sixty percent of multiracial adults polled by Pew also said they were proud of their mixed racial background, though it’s worth noting that 61 percent of adults with said background don’t consider themselves multiracial. This growing population is young: The median age of multiracial adults in the U.S. is 19, compared with 38 for single-race Americans.

In the same decade that U.S. voters elected the country’s first biracial president—who identifies as black—the number of biracial people of white and black backgrounds more than doubled. So did the number of biracial Americans of Asian and white backgrounds. With that growth has come discrimination: 55 percent of multiracial respondents said they have endured racial slurs or jokes. A greater proportion of black–American Indian and white-black biracial respondents reported these incidents as well as facing poor service in restaurants and other businesses.

The existence of this substantial new report demonstrates the American obsession with racial identification. (France, on the other hand, has deliberately avoided categorizing the ethnic and racial origins of its diverse population. The country, however, has yet to sufficiently process the meaning of its diversity.) Despite this fixation in the U.S., research from the University of California, Davis, shows that the average American struggles to identify multiracial people. But that doesn’t mean he or she isn't trying constantly, much to the chagrin of some of the people on the receiving end of questions such as “What are you?”

As other heavily relied on categories—such as those used to measure and mark gender and sexuality—become increasingly fluid in mainstream American culture, the Pew study begs the question: When, if ever, might the same fluidity be extended to race? If the trend continues, the population of multiracial adults will keep growing. The Pew study noted that multiracial adults are more likely to have spouses and partners who are also multiracial, and while just 1 percent of American babies were multiracial in 1970, in 2013 the number was 10 percent.

This “trend” is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the way Americans think and talk about race might have to.