Caught in the Middle: Raising a Multiracial Teen in a Rural Place

By and — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Ethnicity and Identity

During adolescence, most teens are preoccupied with questions about self and identity such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?”  Teens do have some degree of choice when it comes to how they view themselves and present themselves to others, but their ethnicity, gender, and age, have been commonly thought to be relatively fixed aspects of self.
The notion of ethnicity as unchangeable, however, is increasingly being challenged by an ever-growing population of youth who are the offspring of interracial unions (1). These youth are deviating from a long-standing tradition in the U.S. of using the “one-drop rule” which began during the Jim Crow Era.  This rule dictated that the presence of even a single drop of non-white blood, a hint of non-white features, or proof of non-white lineage should grant mixed-race individuals a minority status (2).  In part because of progress made in race relations during the Civil Rights era and insistence by members of the multiracial movement (3) that the U.S. Census provide separate group recognition for multiracial individuals, today’s multiracial youth have more say in how they acknowledge the various aspects of their ethnic heritage.  

A New Emergence of Multiracial Identity

This more fluid perception of ethnic identity is usually signaled by the vocabulary multiracial individuals use to describe themselves to others.
  • Some choose to identify with the ethnicity of both parents and embrace a blended ethnic identity, using terms such as “mixed,” “multiracial,” “swirl,” or “biracial” (4, 5).
  • Others may relate more strongly with the ethnicity of one parent over the other, using a single racial identifier to describe themselves as Black, Hispanic, Asian, or less commonly, as white.
  • Still others may leave ethnic terms out of their descriptions of self altogether, choosing not to emphasize ethnicity as an important part of their identity. Researchers call this a transcendent ethnic identity (4). 
It is also not unusual for multiracial youth to find that their ethnic identity changes during different stages and circumstances in their lives. For example, an individual may think of herself as “mixed” during her teenage years but find that she wants to affiliate more strongly with her African American, Hispanic, or Asian roots during adulthood.  As the son of a white mother and African father, President Barack Obama provides a compelling account of this changing perception of ethnic identity in his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (6).

Having Choices In Ethnic Identity Can Be A Source Of Stress

Although having choices in ethnic identity may seem like a step in the right direction, it can also be an added source of stress during the already turbulent teenage years. Teens who live in communities with strongly defined boundaries between ethnic groups may find themselves in a tug of war when friends, family, and community members expect mixed-race youth to conform to different, and often conflicting, attitudes about race and ethnicity.
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