Extant multiracial identity literature has been troubled with mixed findings regarding multiracial identity endorsement and mental health, social adjustment, and academic achievement (Shih & Sanchez, 2009). A possible reason for this is that multiracial individuals are a heterogeneous population with multiple racial combinations as well as living in different geographic locations and generations, which may have implications for the construction of racial identity. This chapter reviews the existing literature regarding models of multiracial identity and factors associated with the identity development process such as experiences of identity questioning, identity challenges and resilience, and racial malleability. Finally, previous research on multiracial identity and psychological well-being is described as well as theoretical frameworks of self-concept and multiracial identity in order to identify the gaps that may be filled by this study. Overall, the field of racial identity has only recently begun to focus upon multiracial individuals, there are some theories and research, but more understanding is necessary.
One concern with existing literature on multiracial identity is that monoracial models of racial identity have been applied to the process of racially identifying for multiracial people (Gillem, Cohn, & Throne, 2001; Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2002). A contributing factor to the monoracial approach to multiracial individuals has been the conceptualization of race in the United States as dichotomous, with an either/or approach to racial identification (Daniel, 1992). This approach to racial identity underlays the line of research applying traditional models of multiracial identity, which have been linear and suggest there are less optimal ways of identifying similar to monoracial models (Kerwin, 1993; Kich, 1992; Poston, 1990). Parallel conceptualizations of identity 16 processes and outcomes are problematic as recent research highlighted a variety context factors that play a role in multiracial identity (Herman, 2004; Lou, Lalonde, & Wilson, 2011; Renn, 2003; Root, 2000).
In this chapter, the current state of multiracial identity is discussed. Knowing the history of multiracial identity in the United States is essential to understanding the existing research as well as the lived experience of multiracial individuals. Though the United States is a multiracial society, monoracial constructions of race are still the predominant viewpoint and tend to be how people racially categorize other people (Chen & Hamilton, 2012). Thompson (2012) provided a detailed account of the debate between the multiracial social movement and the United States Congress to prove the importance of multiracial individuals having the right to self-identify with more than one race on the US Census. Given the existing view of distinct racial categories in the United States, a multiracial individual might be viewed negatively for crossing racial borders rather than having his malleable identity viewed as a creative strategy in coping with artificial boundaries (Daniel, 1992; Giamo, Schmitt, & Outten, 2012). Therefore, this chapter begins by understanding the historical context of multiracial identity in the United States and the ways that history may impact the current discourse as well as the existing research on multiracial identity. Multiracial Identity Theory A framework proposed by Thornton and Wasson (1995) incorporated historical context to conceptualize shifts in approaches to multiracial identity research. They indicated three ways scholars have approached multiracial identity theory: the problem approach, the equivalent approach, and the variant approach.
Further, they posit that 17 multiracial research must be considered within the sociopolitical era in which it was conducted in order to make meaning of the contribution to current studies of multiracial identity. The Problem Approach One of the original theories of multiracial identity is based on the narrative of the multiracial people as the “tragic mulatto” or describing them as “the marginal man.” Stonequist (1937) theorized that multiracial individuals were more susceptible to psychological issues, hypersensitivity, an inferiority complex, and moodiness. The concept of the marginal man focused upon the isolation, issues of rejection and belongingness within their multiple racial groups. Stonequist’s theory was developed during segregation of Blacks and Whites and period of overt racial tension (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Films have characterized the experience of multiracial people during this time period by highlighting the forced choice dilemma inherent in this segregated era whereby multiracial individuals had to identify as their minority status or attempt to pass as White (Bogle, 2001; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). The climate of this time period motivated the approach to theory, which focused on the deficits of identifying as multiracial (Thornton & Wasson, 1995).
Several recent research studies appeared to utilize the problem approach in their assumption of deficits. Specifically, one study examined adjustment problems (Cooney & Radina, 2000) where multiracial children were considered to be at-risk due to their multiple-identity heritage. Another study examined evidence for increased vulnerability of multiracial youth for self-reported delinquency, school problems, internalizing symptoms, and issues with self-regard (Milan & Keiley; 2000).
Also, researchers noted 18 that multiracial adolescents are more at-risk for substance use, violent behaviors and other problem behaviors when compared to their monoracial peers (Choi, Harachi, Gilmore, & Catalano; 2006). This body of work that compares youth with multiple heritages to monoracial backgrounds employed methodology and theory, to test the costs of having a multiracial identity. Criticism of recent studies suggested that the method for assessing multiracial identity might have confounded the findings. Specifically, Binning and colleagues (2009) noted that previous research lacked ways of measuring a psychological connection to identifying as multiracial, which may explain the equivocal outcomes of previous research.
In their study, multiracial adolescents reported equal or higher psychological well-being and social engagement compared to their monoracial peers. Given the inconsistent mental health findings for multiracial individuals, more research is needed regarding how individuals identify and the impact on psychological well-being. The Equivalent Approach Another historical shift in race relations in the United States ushered some recognition of the need for racial identity models and the inclusion of multiracial individuals within these models (Shih & Sanchez, 2009). This historical period followed the civil rights era, and was ushered in by a significant historical event.
The Loving v. Virginia case in 1967 challenged anti-miscegenation statutes prohibiting interracial couples to marry in the United States, which led to a shift in the racial climate (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). The equivalent approach assumed that monoracial models of identity are parallel to the experience of the multiracial individual (Thornton & Wasson, 1995). 19 Therefore, this conceptualization ignored the unique processes associated with multiple determinants of a socially constructed identity. During this time period, research on multiracial identity lumped multiracial individuals with other people of color or conducted research to highlight similarities between the groups. One example is Morten and Atkinson’s (1983) study, which proposed a Minority Identity Development model. An inherent assumption of this model is that mixed race individuals would have similar experiences in their identity development as other minority groups. Empirical research supported the equivalence of multiracial individuals and monoracial counterparts, Cauce and colleagues’ (1992) study showed that there were no differences between the two groups on self-reports and maternal reports of family and peer relations, life stress, behavior problems, psychological distress, competence or self-worth.
The design of the Cauce and collegues’ (1992) study represented an equivalent approach, in that a small sample of participants were matched to other people of color and found to be equivalent. A critique of the equivalent approach comes from recent research that has highlighted the ways in which multiracial individuals have unique concerns. For example, equivalent models of racial identity lacked a multiracial perspective and therefore could not capture the choices multiracial individuals had to make given multiple backgrounds (Poston, 1990). Though equivalent approaches moved away from a focus on problems, equivalent models were inadequate for addressing specific factors that are unique to multiracial identity (Shih & Sanchez, 2005).
Thus, theory has recently shifted toward recognizing the unique differences of being multiracial. 20 The Variant Approach As the biracial baby boom of the United States occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a shift in the awareness of more biracial children and the potential unique needs of this population. The variant approach is exemplified by responding to the unique needs of this population and attempted to modify existing monoracial models of identity for multiracial individuals (Shih & Sanchez, 2009). An example of this modification process is Poston’s (1990) Biracial Identity Development Model.
Poston (1990) noted that equivalent models and problem approach models reflected “society’s bias by postulating that individuals with biracial heritage do not establish firm identities, but that they have marginal identities” (p. 152). In identifying the shortcomings of the existing models, the author proposed a new model that was specifically for biracial individuals. Similarly, several models of multiracial identity that exemplify the variant model conceptualize based on monoracial trajectories of identity such as Collins (2000), Jacobs (1992; The Identity Development Model of Biracial Children) as well as Kerwin & Ponterotto (1995) and Kich (1992).
The common theme of these models is a stage process by which multiracial individuals explored and valued their various racial heritages in order to integrate their identities into one accepted, appreciated, multiracial identity. Another similarity of the linear models is the concept of identity occurring in stages. Comparable to stage models of monoracial identity such as Cross (1971) and Morten and Atkinson (1983), linear models of multiracial identity proposed that there is a stage characterized by multiracial individuals feeling conflict and tension surrounding their racial identity. 21 Critics of linear models noted that the models are founded on monoracial views of identity development where the ecological factors that impact development were ignored (Jackson, 2012).
Further, linear models have focused on healthy ways of identifying as valuing all racial backgrounds and integrating them into one multiracial identity (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Given research on the ecological factors that may impact differing ways individuals may identify, there is a clear need for a more comprehensive and complex model that incorporates the lived experiences of multiracial individuals. The Ecological Approach Rockquemore, Brunsma, and Delgado (2009) proposed a fourth approach to multiracial identity development: the ecological approach. The previous decade of research highlighted the many factors in the environment or specific contextual experiences that effect an individual’s identity development (Renn, 2003). Rockquemore and colleagues (2009) characterized the ecological approach as having certain assumptions. First, context-specific logic is involved in the various ways that multiracial people construct their different racial identities.
Second, identity development does not follow predictable stages as was suggested by linear stage models since there is no optimal resolution of multiracial identity. Third, “privileging any one type of racial identity over another (i.e., multiracial over single-race identity) only replicates the essentialist flaws of previous models with a different outcome” (Rockquemore, Brunsma, & Delgado, 2009, p. 19). An ecological approach, therefore, incorporates unique aspects of multiracial identity development in ways that the previous three approaches, problem, equivalent and variant have not.
22 Initial examination of multiracial identity utilizing an ecological approach has been compelling. Stephan (1992) sought to understand specific factors and debunk linear approaches to understanding multiracial identity. The study highlighted the importance of cultural exposure in ethnic identification as well as physical appearance, surname, and whether the individual felt accepted by his heritage group. Further, Stephan (1992) found that individuals who identified as multiracial benefited from increased contact with members of their heritage groups, cultural enjoyment and diversity of experiences as well as intergroup tolerance. In contrast to previous approaches, there has been a shift to acknowledging the unique lived experiences that may contribute to the identity development of multiracial individuals and an attempt to understand the ecology of multiracial identity as it pertains to positive implications for multiracial individuals. Several studies have reinforced the concept that multiracial individuals may declare different identities in various situations and contexts (Rockquemore, Brunsma, & Delgado, 2009). In order to identify this complex phenomenon, various researchers employed different methodologies to understand these experiences from longitudinal data (Hitlin, Brown, & Elder, 2006) to multi-phase studies including qualitative interviews and survey data (Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2008).
Hitlin, Brown and Elder (2006) reviewed the findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescence Health in order to assess how identity development changes throughout social interactions during adolescence. Findings from this study suggested that racial identity was malleable and certain multiracial combinations were more likely to have malleability than others (e.g., Native American multiracial individuals). Higher self-esteem and socioeconomic status, as assessed by mother’s educational background and neighborhood racial composition, 23 were associated with a more stable racial identity.
In contrast, higher cognitive ability was associated with a more malleable racial identity over time. These findings match Rockquemore and Brunsma’s (2008) study, which acknowledged the role of appearance, social group racial and ethnic composition, and racial experiences. Given findings on the nature of shifting identities for multiracial individuals, it is essential to explore the factors that contribute to the context-specific logic when a multiracial individual asserts an identity.