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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

March 2, 2009

Written by C.N.

Identity Formation Among Multiracial Americans

As I’ve discussed numerous times on this site and blog, there is no denying that American society is becoming increasingly racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, despite the apprehension that some Americans have toward these demographic trends. With that in mind, it is also inevitable that the number of multiracial Americans is also increasing, with our own President Barack Obama being the most prominent example.

With that in mind, the question for many sociologists is, where will this burgeoning population of multiracial Americans fit into the American racial landscape? Many sociologists have documented — and others can surely attest — that American society tends to be structured around monoracial identities. That is, on the institutional and individual levels, our culture and our thinking has historically revolved around using distinct, “clear cut” racial categories (although of course, these categories exists only culturally, not biologically).

With this social constraints in mind, is it better for multiracial to choose one identity more than the other? As Time magazine reports, a new study suggests that rather than being forced to choose one identity over another, multiracial Americans may be happiest and best-adjusted when they identify with both/all of their identities:

In the early years, research on these kids highlighted their difficulties: the disapproval they faced from neighbors and members of their extended families; the sense that they weren’t “full” members in any racial community; the insecurity and self-loathing that often resulted from feeling marginalized on all sides.

That simple but harsh playground question — “What are you?” — torments many multiracial kids. Psychologists call this a “forced-choice dilemma” that compels children to claim some kind of identity — even if only a half-identity — in return for social acceptance.

But the new Journal of Social Issues paper suggests this dilemma has become less burdensome in the age of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. The paper’s authors . . . write that those kids who identified with multiple racial groups reported significantly less psychological stress than those who identified with a single group, whether a “low-status” group like African-Americans or a “high-status” group like whites. . . .

The writers theorize that multiracial kids who choose to associate with a single race are troubled by their attempts to “pass,” whereas those who choose to give voice to their own uniqueness find pride in that act. “Rather than being ‘caught’ between two worlds,” the authors write, “it might be that individuals who identify with multiple groups are better able to navigate both racially homogeneous and heterogeneous environments than individuals who primarily identify with one racial group.” . . .

In short, multiracial kids seem to create their own definitions for fitting in, and they show more psychological flexibility than those mixed-race kids who feel bound to one choice or another.

For me, the most important part of this study is the finding that multiracial Americans are able to “create their own definitions for fitting in.” In other words, they are actively shaping their own identity, rather than waiting around and letting others dictate to them what their identity should be.

For many of us, this idea may not sound new or significant. That is, isn’t it a given that we shape our own identity? Well, yes and no. Ultimately, we are responsible for choosing how we identify ourselves (“Am I Asian, Asian American, Vietnamese American, or just plain American?”). But, others around us and our society and culture in general exert a very strong influence on our choice, more than most of us realize.

So in that sense, it is somewhat innovative and significant when someone steps out of these conventional identity boundaries and instead, creates their own identity that actively includes elements of both or many cultures.

Having said that, I would like to point out that in fact, Asian Americans (and Latino Americans) have been doing something like this for many generations, as we reconcile our identities as both Asian and American. So actually, we might say that multiracial Americans are now doing through the same process that we as Asian American have been going through for years.

I point this out not to diminish or minimize the cultural significance of multiracial Americans or their increasing population size. Rather, it’s just the opposite — I hope that sharing this common process of actively shaping our own identities that combine elements from diverse cultures is a way for our communities to connect with each other.

This is especially important as the racial dynamics in American society continue to evolve and from time to time, lead to confusion and even conflict. In such times of cultural adjustment, it’s always helpful to have similarities that can bridge any such differences.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Identity Formation Among Multiracial Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/03/identity-formation-among-multiracial-americans/> ().

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