The term biracial refers to individuals who are born to parents who are each of a different racial background. For example, the child of an African American mother and an Asian American father would be considered biracial. Similarly, a person with one White parent and one Native American parent would also be considered biracial. The term multiracial, which is used to describe individuals of two or more races, is inclusive of the term biracial. An example of a multiracial individual would be someone with White, Native American, and African American parentage.

It is important to note that distinctions between race and ethnicity are complex and, at times, controversial within U.S. society. Currently the U.S. Census considers Hispanic an ethnicity rather than a racial category. Therefore, an individual with one Latino/a parent and one White parent, for example, would not be considered biracial, though he or she may feel as though he or she is of a mixed cultural background. This is complicated by the fact that many social scientists believe that race is a social construct, with racial groupings being based on historical classifications rather than true genetic differences among people. The term multiethnic, which refers to individuals of multiple ethnic backgrounds, is sometimes preferred to describe individuals of mixed heritage because ethnicity is a broader term that denotes a shared identity and ancestry among members of a particular cultural group. However, the term multiethnic would also describe someone of Japanese and Chinese descent, and this experience would be seen as different from a more traditional multiracial (e.g., Japanese and White) experience.

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It is also important to recognize that many individuals who fit the definition of biracial may not choose to use this term to describe themselves. They might elect to identify with only one side of their racial background (opting for a monoracial identity) or use other terminology such as mixed. Indeed, individuals of mixed racial background have various options of self-identification that are based on demographic background, familial influences, skin color, and other cultural experiences.

Historical Perspectives

The number of biracial individuals has increased over the years, particularly with increasing rates of interracial relationships and the repeal of antimiscegenation (racial mixing) laws in the late 1960s. Dating back to the early 18th century, antimiscegenation laws sought to maintain the purity of White European bloodlines in U.S. society by limiting the birth of biracial children. Such norms held to the rule of hypodescence, or “one-drop rule,” a rule that even the slightest degree of racial mixing eliminated the possibility for an individual to legally identify as White. Although the offspring of interracial relationships have been noted in American history for centuries, it was not until the civil rights movement and the repeal of antimiscegenation laws that the U.S. government was pushed to formally acknowledge and give equal liberties to the many adults involved in interracial relationships as well as those who were of mixed racial background.

In addition to the legal and cultural norms that implied that biracial offspring and mixed race relationships were taboo, the government also traditionally classified individuals in a way that limited how people of mixed racial heritage could identify themselves. For the 210-year span between the first national census in 1790 and the recent decennial census in 2000, individuals had to identify themselves as belonging to only one racial group. At times, however, efforts were made to track individuals of mixed African/White heritage. On the 1890 national census a mulatto was defined as someone three- to five-eighths Black; a quadroon was one-quarter Black, and an octoroon was one-eighth Black. These definitions applied only to Black/White biracial combinations and were eliminated by the next census in 1900, as they had very little rational justification or public support. Between 1900 and 2000, no effort was made to distinguish people of mixed racial heritage, and the classification trend fell back to using the “one-drop rule” to determine who could and could not identify as White. Any individual with “one drop” of non-White blood had to identify legally with the non-White portion of her or his racial background, thus emphasizing the importance of purity in White ancestry.

The 2000 U.S. Census marked the first time in history in which respondents were allowed to indicate more than one race for their self-classification. This landmark change allowed biracial and multiracial individuals to acknowledge their mixed background. An estimated 6.8 million, or 2.4% of the U.S. population, selected more than one race. This modification of the traditional census format was not met without controversy, however, as many civil rights groups viewed the counting of individuals belonging to more than one race as a potential threat to their political strength. Nevertheless, the change seemed to mark a cultural shift that has allowed for individuals of biracial or multiracial backgrounds to express the full range of their heritage and not be artificially placed into specific minority groups. This new option for classification, along with the legalization of interracial marriages over the past 30 years, has led to what researchers have called a biracial baby boom. Indeed, there is increased visibility and awareness about individuals of mixed racial background in the media as well as in academic arenas. It is expected that the biracial population will continue to grow, and in turn, counselors and psychologists will come in contact with more youth and adults of mixed heritage.

Biracial Identity Development Models

Researchers and clinicians across many areas of psychology have worked to understand the process by which individuals of mixed racial heritage develop conceptualizations of themselves and their racial identity. The primary effort in this area has been the development of models to identify and examine how biracial individuals create personal and racial identity. These models have changed over time, paralleling changes in historical and sociopolitical perspectives regarding biracial individuals in the United States, as well as increased research about biracial development.

The earliest description of biracial development was Everett Stonequist’s marginal person model. In 1937 Stonequist wrote about biracial individuals as individuals who were linked to two different worlds but never truly belonged in either. Stonequist believed that mixed racial heritage would complicate normal identity development by creating confusion with a person’s ability to identify with a specific social, racial, or ethnic group. This negative description of identity stood as the primary source of understanding for biracial individuals for many years, until models were introduced that described biracial development as somewhat less pathological and, proceeding through a series of distinct stages, could explain various identity outcomes.

The first of the stage models of racial identity was a 1971 model by William E. Cross, Jr., which focused on Black racial identity. Although not specific to individuals of mixed heritage, Cross’s model was highly influential to subsequent models of biracial identity development. In his model, Cross saw racial identity development occurring across a series of distinct stages. Soon, many authors were producing models of biracial development that portrayed biracial individuals as going through a series of distinct, linear, developmental stages throughout their life span. James Jacobs, another contributor to the body of literature about stage models, saw biracial individuals as first noticing racial and ethnic differences between people, then understanding what personal meaning these differences held, and finally synthesizing these meanings to become an individual of combined heritage. Similarly, George Kich saw biracial individuals first becoming aware of statuses of differentness, then personally struggling for acceptance, and finally accepting a biracial identity.

Many stage models, although significantly different from Stonequist’s first description of biracial identity, still held onto the basic premise that biracial development would be inherently more difficult or less healthy than monoracial development. This assumption began to shift with W. S. Carlos Poston’s five-stage model of biracial identity development. Poston’s model suggested that biracial individuals progress through five stages: (1) awareness of personal identity; (2) choice of a specific group categorization; (3) enmeshment or denial from having to select one identity that may not perfectly fit the biracial individual; (4) appreciation for having broader, multiple, ethnic identities; and (5) integration of all different identities into one unified self. This model was one of the first that provided a positive outcome for biracial individuals by incorporating the idea that biracial individuals could create a healthy, integrated sense of racial identity.

Stage models dominated the literature about biracial identity development until recently, when limitations of these models became evident. One concern with stage models was that newer research suggested that biracial identity development may not proceed in a linear fashion or be uniform for all individuals. In addition, many stage models fail to recognize the significance that environmental influences, such as early life experiences, family settings, culture, and other salient aspects of life, could influence the identity development of biracial individuals. These limitations have led many researchers to advocate for more complex, fluid, and multifaceted models of development that highlight biracial identity within specific cultural and environmental contexts.

Maria Root’s ecological identity model is a recent model designed to incorporate contextual influences on biracial identity. This model highlights the myriad influences that can affect an individual’s racial identity, including history, geographic location, family, physical appearance, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, among others. Root’s model also suggests that there are several outcomes of identity development for biracial individuals, without claiming that these outcomes will either occur in a specific order or even necessarily occur for all biracial individuals. The five identity outcomes in Root’s model are (1) acceptance of ascribed identity as labeled by others, (2) identification with dual racial or ethnic groups, (3) personal identification with a single racial group, (4) identification with a new group, such as biracial, or (5) adoption of a symbolic race or ethnicity by taking more pride with or placing more emphasis on one side of the individual’s race. According to Root’s model, biracial individuals may elect any of these outcomes at various points in their lives, depending on personal experiences and contextual influences.

Changes in basic understanding and conceptualization of biracial individuals across both the scientific community and the culture of the United States are largely reflected by changes in models of biracial identity development. Understanding of biracial identity started by society initially viewing biracial existence as inherently problematic and maladaptive out of the belief that biracial individuals could never wholly identify with, or fit into, a larger racial group. This perception has changed over time to eventually conclude that biracial individuals may form a cohesive identity, but to do so these individuals would have to go through universal and concrete steps before forming a positive identity. Finally, modern perspectives are reflected in current identity models, which identify the roles that external ecological forces play in the lives of biracial individuals and the fluid process of identity.

Psychological Functioning in Biracial Individuals

Researchers have studied biracial children, adolescents, and adults to better understand their psychological functioning. Psychologists have been interested in whether early descriptions of biracial individuals as confused and marginalized were accurate and how biracial identity develops in different situations. These studies have highlighted the influence of historical and societal perspectives on race and how these can affect the well-being of biracial individuals. One of the most common findings relates to the experience of discrimination, based on being biracial, and the negative effects of stereotypes. Biracial individuals often describe experiences of discrimination, particularly those involving physical appearance, that took place during their childhood and even as adults. Furthermore, stereotypes about biracial individuals as confused and unhealthy contribute to widespread assumptions that being of mixed race is problematic. Other stereotypes, particularly of biracial women, include perceptions of exotic and sexualized behavior. Like stereotypes of any other groups, these generalizations can be internalized and negatively affect biracial individuals and can also contribute to discrimination targeted toward them.

Research also suggests that biracial youth may experience additional challenges and benefits as a result of their mixed racial heritage. One example is developing a personal identity. Whereas all adolescents grow and struggle with their sense of identity, multiracial adolescents also must integrate aspects of a racial identity that is unique because of its complexity and because of the fact that it does not fit into rigid, monoracial categories. Although being multiracial does not necessarily predict negative consequences for youth and adolescents, research suggests common challenges faced by multiracial youth, such as pressure (from family or others in society) to identify with one ethnicity over the other. For example, an African American/White female may be persuaded to identify with her African American background from her parents although she identifies more with her White peers, who may also reject her. Rejection from either family or peers can contribute to identity confusion and internalized negative stereotypes.

Whereas early research and theory focused on the negative aspects of mixed heritage individuals, recent research has highlighted strengths and positive aspects of biracial identity. Researchers have recognized that biracial individuals have the opportunity to be exposed to more cultural traditions and languages and may develop increased respect and appreciation of their parents’ cultures. In addition, some studies have noted that biracial individuals have more positive attitudes toward other groups of different races than do those of monoracial backgrounds, highlighting the utility of being exposed to multiple cultures.

Qualitative studies also have shed light on the positive aspects of being biracial. In some studies, biracial adults noted there were challenges in various contexts of their lives, especially when they were growing up, but that overall they appreciated and took pride in being of mixed race. Furthermore, many of these individuals exhibited resilience and positive coping strategies as they faced various challenges, such as discrimination and prejudice. Taken together, there are many strengths that contribute to positive and healthy psychological functioning in biracial individuals, and it is expected that researchers will continue to elucidate these assets and resources as they work to understand the complexity of the biracial experience.

Counseling Biracial Individuals

Clinicians who work with biracial clients should be aware of challenges and strengths possessed by individuals of mixed race, as well as current research about identity development and psychological functioning. It is important to remember that biracial individuals may not present to counseling with racial identity as their primary concern; however, their identity will likely influence various other presenting concerns they may bring to therapy. Thus, it is important for clinicians to explore the meaning of race and ethnicity in the lives of clients to better understand their importance and role.

Clinicians working with biracial individuals are also encouraged to remember that identity development may not be linear and that each person may not pass through the same set of stages or changes. Although it is expected and likely that an individual will grapple with identity factors during adolescence, for example, it also is possible for individuals to revisit various identity issues throughout life, depending on personal and contextual factors. For example, a biracial college student who grew up in a diverse community may find herself moving to a less diverse city where her university is located. At this new setting she may find that she is confronted with challenges regarding how others perceive her identity and understand ethnicity. She may find that she revisits issues related to her racial background and may work to redefine herself in this new context.

Though there is some research to suggest that having an integrated identity may be helpful and adaptive for individuals of mixed race, it is not necessarily the only healthy or functional identity outcome for everyone. Indeed, many individuals may choose to identify as monoracial and still experience well-being and healthy psychological functioning. Clinicians should be aware of the multiple options for identification that exist for an individual and should not assume that choosing a biracial label is the only marker of positive psychological functioning.

Finally, because biracial identity can be influenced by numerous contextual factors, it is important for clinicians to understand a client’s environment and the ways it influences a client’s identity. Root’s ecological model of identity serves as a useful framework for identifying the various aspects of a client’s context that may play a role in his or her choice of identity, such as geographic location or physical appearance. Clinicians are also encouraged to explore the difference between how others see the client (the public or ascribed identity) and how the client sees himself or herself (the personal or private identity). Understanding the degree of convergence or divergence of these identities, as well as its influence on a client’s well-being, can help provide a deeper understanding of a client’s identity.

Multiracial Families

Interracial relationships are those relationships formed between two individuals whose racial backgrounds differ from one another. Two individuals with different racial heritages in a romantic relationship are often identified as an interracial couple. A U.S. Census 2000 brief reported an estimate of 246,000 Black-White unions that exist out of the 50 million marriages  within the  United  States. Although Black-White unions dominate the percentage of interracial marriages within the United States, interracial relationships are not limited to these two racial backgrounds. Other examples include an Asian female and an African American male, a Latino male and a White female, and a Native American male and an African American female. Although interracial relationships are still met with opposition, historical and societal changes have led to greater acceptance of younger generations who choose to become romantically involved with individuals of a different race.

Despite this growing acceptance, interracial couples may face additional issues that are not encountered by couples of the same race. Interracial couples sometimes experience hostility from society as well as from their own families and, in extreme cases, may be excluded from the family if relatives are not accepting of the relationship. Negative stereotypes and myths about biracial offspring may also contribute to negative attitudes toward adults who choose partners who are of a different race from themselves. Furthermore, the challenges of an interracial relationship can be exacerbated by the potential differences in the couples’ cultural values. These cultural values will influence various aspects of the relationship such as gender roles and expectations of partners, communication styles, and parenting styles, among many others.

Researchers have discussed various counseling interventions to use with parents and children of multiracial families. It is important for counselors to examine their personal views and biases on interracial marriages and biracial or multiracial individuals so as not to bring those biases into the therapeutic relationship. Adolescents especially may be in great need of support from someone with a nonjudgmental stance who does not ascribe judgments based on stereotypes. For these youth, bibliotherapy, for example, reading about experiences that are similar to their biracial experiences, may be a useful intervention. Also, helping clients communicate their questions or concerns to other family members about being biracial is important for clients’ acceptance of themselves. Children of mixed racial heritage may question why their physical appearance is different than that of their parents. Parents can communicate with their children an appropriate label to consider for their family so that children know what to say when confronted with the question, “What are you?” Clinicians can also provide psychoeducation to parents and families as they attempt to learn about the experience of having a mixed family and the unique issues they may be facing.

Future Research

Psychologists have noted that research about biracial individuals is still in the early stages of development but is definitely growing. With the increasing numbers of biracial individuals and clients in the United States, it is expected that researchers will continue to explore issues of identity, psychological functioning, and counseling interventions with these populations over the next years. There are several areas for future research that will further the field and expand our understanding of biracial individuals. One area includes conducting studies that explore more diverse samples. Past research has focused primarily on biracial individuals of Black and White heritage, but little research exists with combinations of other races. To understand the common experiences faced by all biracial individuals, as well as the unique issues related to those of specific racial combinations (e.g., Native American-Black), more research is needed.

Another area for further research relates to the methodology that is employed to study biracial issues. The majority of past research has relied on qualitative studies, and although this has provided useful models and frameworks, the field is poised to begin studying the biracial experience with larger populations to identify findings that can be generalizable. Indeed, many identity development models that were developed through qualitative studies can be tested with larger, diverse samples of biracial individuals. In addition, researchers may consider utilizing mixed method studies that combine qualitative and quantitative approaches to explicate processes of identity development that change over time.

Another area for further research is the exploration of issues related to multiple identities. It is clear that being biracial is only one aspect of any individual’s identity, as every person also represents diversity with respect to gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and other aspects of culture. To have a comprehensive understanding of the experiences and background of any individual, it is critical to understand the complexity of identity and how various aspects of culture interact. Some researchers have begun to explore biracial lesbians, for example, in an effort to understand the experience of being of mixed race, female, and attracted to the same sex. Continued research about multiple identities will further the field in understanding the complexity of biracial identity and psychological functioning.


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