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.

Difficulties for Rural Youth

Mixed-race teens living in small, rural communities may be more likely to experience this feeling of being caught in the middle than those who live in larger towns.
  • Rural places, particularly those experiencing a recent influx of immigrants, may be especially prone to strained race relations and more rigid definitions of what qualifies as white and non-white.
  • Recent immigrants often retain strong ties to the homeland and emphasize ethnic pride, which may add to expectations mixed-race youth feel to acknowledge certain aspects of their ethnic identity (2). 
  • Part-Hispanic youth may feel compelled by peers and family members to have a connection to the homeland, be encouraged to speak Spanish, and participate in cultural events and holidays.

Difficulties For Part-Hispanic Youth

In our recent study of part-Hispanic youth in a rural community we found that youth were very aware of the rigid boundary between white and Mexican members of their community.
  • They experienced a quite literal color line during their lunch break when they had to choose between hanging out with their white friends on one side of the gym or their Hispanic friends on the other. Under such circumstances, youth saw themselves as being in a no-win situation no matter which aspects of their ethnicity they chose to acknowledge.
  • Choosing a blended identity caused friction with their Hispanic friends who saw this as a sign of disloyalty and a way of communicating that they thought they were somehow superior.
  • Choosing a white identity was not considered an option for youth who were occasionally subjected to the same racial slurs and other forms of racial discrimination from whites in their community as their Hispanic peers and family members.
  • At the same time, feeling accepted as a full member of the Hispanic community was difficult when they were teased by peers and family members about having lighter skin tones, not speaking Spanish, and being seen around town with a white parent (5). 

The Media’s Impact On Boys’ Racial Identity

Mixed-race males often feel pressured to be like men of color in the media. In our study, we found that many part-Black males from a largely white town gained their understanding of what it meant to be Black from images of Black entertainers in music videos and movies. The perception that their peers admired the “gangsta” images of rappers and hip hop artists on TV and saw them as “cool,” “masculine,” and “tough” seemed to be a strong factor in how likely these youth were to think of themselves as Black rather than multiracial. In this case, part-Black males were torn between feeling they could achieve a higher social status among classmates by taking on this “gangsta” persona and disappointing parents who associated that persona with sexual promiscuity and lower academic achievement (5).

What Can Parents Do To Help Multiracial Teenagers?

  • Be aware that your child is surrounded by conflicting messages about race and ethnicity and may feel confused about where they fit in.
  • Realize that the racial climate in your community, attitudes about race and ethnicity conveyed by family members, and messages about race in the popular media all affect how teens view their ethnicity.
  • Try to provide balance for negative stereotypes by exposing your child to an assortment of cultural events in your community.
  • Encourage them to make friends with kids from diverse backgrounds.
  • Talk to your kids about how race and sexuality are portrayed in the media.  
  • Be supportive of your teen’s ethnic identity.
  • Recognize that there is no one “appropriate” or “healthy” way for mixed-race youth to experience their ethnicity, and help them cultivate a sense of self-love and pride in who they are. Self-acceptance serves as the most important buffer between your child and racial discrimination.  
  • Talk to your teen about racism and racial discrimination. This might rank on the awkwardness scale with talks about sex and drugs, so be prepared to experience some resistance. Even if you have not personally experienced racial discrimination, don’t assume that it doesn’t happen in your community. Help your teen come up with a plan of action for coping with racial discrimination.
For more on parenting a mixed-race child and a comprehensive guide to resources for interracial families in your state, refer to Raising Biracial Children by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy (7).  


  1. Dalmage, H. (2003) Tripping on the color line. New Brunswick: Rutgers University.
  2. Herman, M. (2007). Racial identification among multiracial youth: Implications for adjustment. In Quintana & McKnown, (Eds.) Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child. New Jersey: Wiley.
  3. Root, M.P.P. (1996). The multiracial experience: Racial borders as the new frontier. London: Sage Publications.
  4. Rockquemore, K.A. & Brunsma, D.L. (2002). Beyond black: Biracial identity in America. London: Sage Publications.
  5. Mouzong, C. (master’s thesis, 2008) “I’m the best of both worlds” Factors influencing the racial identities of biracial youth.
  6. Obama, B. (1995). Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance. NY: Crown.
  7. Rockquemore, K.A. & Laszloffy T. (2005). Raising Biracial Children. New York: AltaMira.