Americans like to fantasize that a mixed-race future will free them from the clutches of racism.
But this illusion is incompatible with an America in which the presidential election was won by the candidate who ran a “Make America Great Again” campaign, which many critics have pointed out was widely heard as a call to “Make America White Again.”
If the election results are a vindication for those championing the politics of President Trump, the demographic trends point in the opposite direction. Today, the United States’ mixed-race population is growing three times faster than the general population, and optimism about the impact that mixed-race people can have on a racially-divided country abounds.
“What Biracial People Know,” a recent op-ed in The New York Times, argues that the growing multiracial population may act as a “vaccine” to the bigotry that buoyed Trump’s campaign, granting America “immunity” to the longstanding politics of exclusion shaped by racism.
But this hope that a mixed-race future will result in a paradise of interracial and ethnically-ambiguous babies is misleading. It presents racism as passive — a vestigial reflex that will fade with the presence of interracial offspring, rather than as an active system that can change with time. A 2015 study by Pew Research Center concluded that mixed-race Americans describe experiences of discrimination in the form of slurs, poor customer service, and police encounters. These figures were highest among people of black-white and black-Native American descent.
In their personal lives, mixed-race people may feel pressure to identify with one group or the other. They may have their sense of identity or belonging dismissed by the groups to which they belong, or by the dominant society.
Diana Sanchez, an associate professor in psychology at Rutgers University and a scholar of multiracial identity and experiences, says mixed-race individuals may face subtle forms of aggression in their daily interactions. “People have trouble putting multiracial people in a box … and have opinions about how they should be racially categorized,” she explained. In such instances, mixed-race people may not seamlessly blend in with others’ perceptions, but rather be told that they do not belong to a group, or that they must choose only one, contrary to their personal identity. For some, this disconnect between their sense of self and how the world identifies them can be difficult to navigate.
But when it comes to systemic barriers, experts point out that instances of racial discrimination for mixed-race people may not be very different from the experiences of people who identify as belonging to a single race. Tanya Hernandez, professor of law at Fordham University and the author of the forthcoming book Multiracials and Civil Rights, points out that in legal cases covering a wide-range of contexts, including education, employment, public accommodations, and criminal justice, “people who identify as mixed-race … describe … strikingly binary, black/white or White/non-white forms of discrimination.” Hernandez adds that many mixed-race people find themselves discriminated against, not explicitly because of their mixed-ness, but because of their belonging to a non-white group. She explained that in most of these cases, “the individual…is lumped together in stark contrast to whites, so it’s a white/non-white racial hierarchy.”
The fact that mixed-race people who present as non-white face discrimination because of their proximity to a non-white group reinforces the idea of racial discrimination emphasizing categorization with one group, rather than hybridity. As Sanchez notes, regardless of personal identity, “a lot of research points [out that] mixed-race people tend to be perceived along the lines of their minority identity.”
But what happens to those who aren’t easily categorized?
While not all mixed-race people are considered racially ambiguous, and not everyone perceived as racially ambiguous is of mixed parentage, there is evidence that the inability to categorize people as one race or the other may itself present new forms of bias. Sanchez’s research suggests that white people from less-diverse neighborhoods have more difficulty processing the faces of mixed-race individuals, and that this may result in bias. White people with less exposure to non-whites “have more discomfort trying to make decisions about mixed-race people…and that has consequences for their beliefs around those groups,” she notes.
The upshot, according to Sanchez, is that “the more [people] are exposed to racially-ambiguous individuals, the more likely they are to see race as a social construct, not a biological one.” That realization, that race is a social fiction, “would be a step in the right direction … in terms of trying to reduce racial prejudice and social inequalities,” she says. If people are willing to accept that race is a human fabrication, they may also be more willing to shift their attitudes and perceptions about other groups.
Still, Hernandez, whose work often compares discrimination in the United States to parts of Latin America, is not particularly optimistic. She points out that the myth of racial mixture leading to societal harmony has long been a feature of many Latin American countries. She illustrates the point with the popular notion that Brazil has eluded racism through racial mixture, or the idea that Venezuela is a “café con leche” society in which everyone is racially mixed and free of prejudice. In these cases, Hernandez reiterated that the mere existence of multiracial communities “has not undermined the continuing racial hierarchy, in which the darker you are, the worse you are thought of … White supremacy is alive and well in Latin America.”
Acknowledging that mixed-race people may experience discrimination and that institutional racism, along with individual prejudice, can take forms that target mixed-race people, is central to developing policies that address the dynamic face of racism and the effects it has on our communities. But realizing that a mixed-race society can also uphold racism is crucial to a nuanced understanding of the challenge of recognizing and overcoming racism and bias.
Ultimately, the narrative that imagines mixed-race people as a panacea for racism is a flawed one that reinforces ideas around the very existence of race. Instead, we might want to refocus our conversation around how the collective fiction of race is weaponized to limit access to equality and justice for some groups and not others, then maybe we’re onto something.
Alexandros Orphanides is a New York City-based writer of mixed-race descent. His work covers political, social and cultural issues