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In the wake of what Root (1992; 1996) deems the "multiracial baby boom," the multiracial child population is the fastest growing population in America. A 'multiracial' individual is defined as one with socially and phenotypically distinct racial heritages. The term multiracial includes individuals who are biracial (those of two races in their heritage), as well as more individuals with more than two distinct racial heritages.

Multiracial Individuals

Ever since the 2000 Census, which marked the first time individuals were able to mark off more than one race, individuals identifying as multiracial has steadily increased to a total of 9 million people, approximately 3 percent of the population. In fact, the percentage of people identifying as multiracial grew three times faster during the last decade than the number of Americans reporting a single race (U.S. Census, 2012), and estimations state that by the year 2050, approximately I in 5 individuals will identify as multiracial (Smith & Edmonston, 1997); however, even this may be a gross underestimation given the tendency of individuals to report only one race, even when aware of multiple racial heritages (Perez & Hirschmann, 2009).

Of course, it is crucial to begin any discussion of race and identity of multiracial or multiethnic individuals with the acknowledgement that race is an artifice that can be viewed from a sociopolitical historical paradigm rather than a biological one (Milan & Keiley, 2000; Root, 1990; Spickard, 1992). Consequently, it is the social and cultural implications of race and how they impact the multiracial adolescent that is of particular interest here, specifically the developmental processes of identity formation.

The majority of research on ethnic identity focuses on monoracial adolescents. When studying ethnic identity in multiracial individuals, historically, the small number of studies have only Black/White individuals are represented (Brown, 1995; Field, 1996; Gibbs, 1987; Gibbs & Hines, 1992; Gillem, Cohn, & Throne, 2001; Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, & Harris, 1993; Poston, 1990). As a result of historical factors, such as repealing of anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 and the corresponding increase in interracial dating and marriages, research with the multiracial population is an increasingly growing field (Bracey, Bamaca, & Umana-Taylor, 2004; Gibbs, 1998). Simply having parents of multiple racial groups does not automatically mean an individual will identify as multiracial. Psychologically interpreting multiracial status is related to how individuals relate to their multiracial heritage (Binning et al., 2009). Given the change in the racial composition of the United States and the complexities of multiracial identity, it is important to extend the discussion on ethnic identity formation to multiracial individuals and families.

The Relationship Between Ethnic Identity and Psychological Well-Being

The concept of ethnic identity measures how much an individual identifies with his or her own ascribed ethnic group and the extent to which that identification is salient and significant to them (Phinney, 1996). Building off of the ego identity literature, ethnic identity formation focuses on the developmental phase of adolescence and young adulthood (Phinney, 1996). The importance of this construct and its relationship to various mental health related outcomes has been recognized; these outcomes include self-esteem (Binning, Unzueta, Huo, & Molina, 2009; Greig, 2003; Phinney & Chavira, 1992; Roberts, Phinney, Masse, Chen, Roberts, & Romero, 1999), self-efficacy Smith, Walker, Fields, Brookins, & Seay, 1999), depression (Lee, 2005; Roberts et al., 1999), and (lack of) effective psychological coping skills (McMahon & Watts, 2002; Mossakowski, 2003).

Earlier studies of multiracial children were based on the premise that this population was particularly susceptible to social stigma and marginality by family and peers (Gibbs, 1998; Stonequist, 1937). It was largely hypothesized that difficulties with this marginal status was what led to significantly lower self-esteem in multiracial individuals (Brown, 1990; Stonequist, 1937). More recently, however, studies have incorporated the "bicultural competence theory", in which multiracial individuals may develop unique cognitive strengths due to negotiations between two cultures (Bracey et al., 2004; de Anda, 1984). In Grove's (1991) comparative study of Asian, White and multiracial Asian/White students, for example, the latter group took pride in their racial ambiguity as it allowed them flexibility in their self-identification and behaviors. Regardless of theoretical framework, the majority of studies on multiracial and ethnic identity formation and development recognize that the presence of a dual heritage places multiracial individuals in a unique and oftentimes complex situation.

Multiracial Adolescents' Racial Identification

The normative stressors to forming a stable identity prevalent during adolescence may be heightened for the multiracial adolescent (Collins, 2000; Gibbs, 1987; Gibbs, 1998; Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995; Phillips, 2004). Gillem & Thompson (2004) argue that multiracial individuals continue to be pathologized and defined as "genetically inferior and socially marginal" (pg. 2). The developmental process by which individuals come to understand their identity is filtered through cumulative racial experiences and embedded in a system of inter-group relationships. Throughout middle childhood, many multiracial individuals may not face difficulties with their mixed race heritage. It is during adolescence and early adulthood when many problems of identity and exclusion based on racial heritage come to the forefront (Grove, 1991; Kerwin et al., 1993). It is a dialectical process between internal and external processes and individual and social definition (Brown, 1990; Nagel, 1994). Factors, such as the often tense race relations in different regions of the country and the ratio of racial and ethnic groups in the community, will affect society's perception of the multiracial individual and as a result, the individual's self-identification (Harris & Sim, 2004; Nagel, 1994; Root, 1996). Some argue that as individuals get older--particularly if they lack encouragement, resources, education, or comfort level with their multiracial identity, they may be more likely to identify with a monoracial, and commonly minority, heritage due to appearance and/or social expectations (Harris & Sim, 2002; Nagel, 1994).

Many believe that one of the most important tasks for multiracial adolescents is to integrate the dual racial identifications into a healthy multiracial identity (Gibbs & Moskowitz-Sweet, 1991; Phinney, 1996; Poston, 1990; Wardle, 1992). However, Sue & Sue (2016) caution that being multiracial simply offers the individual the opportunity to be bicultural, and does not necessarily require it. Ethnic identification in multiracial adolescents and young adults is complex and adolescents may identify with one, both, or neither of their biological parents' heritages (Gibbs & Hines, 1992). Moreover, this identification is not static, but rather dynamic and is related to an individual's self-esteem, cultural upbringing, and community (Phinney & Chavira, 1992; Phinney, Lochner, & Murphy, 1990). Suzuki-Crumly & Hyers (2004) found that multiracial adolescents were more likely to identify with their minority heritage than their majority one. They suggest that identification with the minority group may be personally advantageous as individuals can attribute negative feedback to prejudice, which may be less painful than attributing it to personal weaknesses. Moreover, research suggests that multiracial individuals who identify with either their minority heritage or both heritages have better self-concepts and higher satisfaction of life than those who only identified with the majority group (Field, 1996; Suzuki-Crumly & Hyers, 2004).

Fluidity of Racial Identity

Racial identity is fluid; it may change over time and according to situation (Harris & Sim, 2004; Nagel, 1994) and racial identity for multiracial adolescents may be even more mutable as their community (e.g. home of residence to the new dorm life and experiences of a college setting) changes (Harris & Sim, 2004). Harris & Sim (2002) studied patterns of racial classification and found strong support for the fluidity of race; measures of race were taken from adolescents who were interviewed both at home and at school and from their parents' racial background. Only 20% of multiracial adolescents identified themselves as multiracial in both contexts; and of those, 30% selected different racial combinations at home and school. White/Blacks were the most consistent, with 60% having consistent identification at home and school. White/ Asians were next with 46%, and White/American Indian at 25%.

It is important to note--and to educate parents and professionals working with this age group--that difficulty in forming this stable identity can be expressed through a range of psychological symptoms, such as low self esteem (Bracey et al., 2003; Kerwin et al., 1993; Suzuki-Crumly & Hyers, 2004), depression, behavioral problems, and delinquency (Choi, He, Herrenkohl, Catalano, Toumbourou, 2012). At the milder end of the spectrum, some individuals may suffer from identity confusion, with mild symptoms of sadness, while those with more severe symptoms, such as anti-social and depressive behaviors, may suffer from a negative identity and self-evaluation (Gibbs, 1998; Milan & Keiley, 2000).

However, as noted by research in the realm of bicultural competency theory, multiracial adolescents and young college-age adults benefit from exposure to distinctly different racial groups and often learn to function in multiple cultural environments (de Anda, 1984), particularly as they become exposed to varying groups and communities in college settings and acquire a new level of social understanding and acceptance for their multiracial identity. Specifically, multiracial adolescents who acquire this flexibility often exhibit a cognitive style that gives them stronger problem-solving skills', they become adept at interpreting and responding to the demands of varying social situations and various cultural orientations (de Anda, 1984; LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993; Stephan, 1992). Stephan (1992) proposed multiracial individuals have the opportunity to learn the values and behaviors of two or more ethnic groups, and thus, learn to effectively interact with individuals from diverse ethnic groups. In other words, multiracial adolescents are often well versed in understanding and following the rules and norms of numerous cultural contexts.

Competent multiracial adolescents and young adults thus often come away with a broader base of social support and a strong sense of personal identity and efficacy (LaFromboise et al., 1993). In one study, for example, Bracey et al. (2003) found multiracial Asian adolescents benefit from this bicultural competency by having significantly higher self-esteem than their monoracial counterparts.

Ecological Factors

Two well-known correlates of ethnic identity formation are the family, specifically parents (Kerwin et al., 1993; Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2004; Wardle, 1987) and peers (Phinney, Romero, Nava, and Ffuang, 2001). In her study of ecological factors on ethnic identity in multiracial youth, peers and family showed the most consistent effects (Herman, 2004). Support from parents and peers has two purposes as it serves as a mechanism in forming an ethnic identity and developing a greater self-esteem (Blash & Unger, 1995; Diggs, 1999; Laible, Gustavo, & Roesch, 2004), both of which are also interrelated.


Multiracial families also face unique challenges compared to monoracial families. For example, there may be disapproval and rejection from extended family, neighbors, and the community (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995). Multiracial children may face additional conflict within the mixed race families due to differences in language, religion and child rearing practices (Salgado de Snyder, Lopez, & Padilla, 1982) as well prepartion for discrimination and racial labeling within the community (Kerwin et al, 1993).

Parents have numerous mechanisms of affecting how their children racially identify, both directly and indirectly. Directly, parents choose which culture(s) they will teach their children and ethnic socialization is a direct predictor of ethnic identity. This socialization includes learning about culture as well as messages that parents choose to tell (or not tell) their children about race (Salgado de Snyder et al., 1982). Nishimura (1998) found that some multiracial families did not discuss race with their children; however, that this could be harmful and unrealistic as it did not properly prepare their children for questioning from others.

Indirectly, parents choose the neighborhood and school that their child will attend, thus, impacting the exposure their child will have with various racial and ethnic groups. With respect to neighborhood racial composition, as the percentage of minorities increases, the more likely the multiracial individual will identify with the minority group (Hwang, Saenz & Aguirre, 1997; Qian, 2004; Xie & Goyette, 1997). Educational composition has a similar effect (Qian, 2004); multiracial children are more likely to identify with the minority group as the level of education within the neighborhood increases (Hwang et al., 1997; Xie & Goyette, 1997). On a related note, highly educated couples are more likely to identify their children as minorities than less-educated couples. Surname also has an impact and because a child will often carry the surname of the father, the children may often identify with the racial group of the father (Qian, 2004).


Conformity to peer norms is often not only valued, but also expected during adolescence. The process of forming a healthy identity can be disturbed by peer rejection. Adolescents and young adults are at risk for rejection by both the majority and minority groups due to differences in physical appearance and family background (Gibbs, 1998). The normative stressors to forming a stable identity prevalent during adolescence may be heightened for the multiracial adolescent. Multiracial teens must integrate identifications with parents from two or more different racial backgrounds while also negotiating their individual social status with their peers, and achieving a sense of belonging is often a source of conflict for multiracial adolescents (Gibbs & Moskowitz-Sweet, 1991). Exclusion can become especially salient for multiracial adolescents because adolescence is a period when racially homogenous friendships are typically formed (Collins, 2000; Kerwin et al., 1993; Porter, 1991). Faced with peer pressure, many multiracial adolescents must choose one racial group to associate with (Kerwin et al., 1993). Many times multiracial children may find it difficult to get support from peers (Collins, 2000). For example, Smith & Moore (2000) found that multiracial Black students were more likely to experience less cohesive friendship groups and to have more negative experiences with their Black peers than their monoracial counterparts. Grove (1991) found similar results with his study of Asian/White college students, who reported feelings of marginality when with monoracial Asian peers, who did not consider them to be "real Asians."

This potential lack of connection and inclusion with friendship groups has important implications for the multiracial adolescent as friends serve as an indication of social ability and help influence social, emotional, and intellectual competencies (Hartup, 1978). These complications may place multiracial adolescents at greater risk for delinquency and peer conflicts (Gibbs, 1987; Gibbs & Moskowitz-Sweet, 1991; Herring, 1992; Milan & Keiley, 2000); multiracial adolescents may withdraw socially and become more vulnerable to peer pressure from delinquent groups (Choi et al., 2012 Cole, Terry, Zakriski, & Lochman, 1995; Gibbs, 1987, 1989).

Conversely, since friendship groups tend to be racially homogenous, multiracial adolescents may have access to both groups and thus, have a wider circle of friends. In her study of multiracial college students, Renn (1999) found that many reported feeling welcomed by different groups and felt able to move fluidly between groups. Similarly, Corrin & Cook (1999) found multiracial individuals are more likely to have racially diverse friends and continue doing so as they get older, while monoracial individuals are more likely to move into even more segregated relationships.

Tailoring Interventions

Armed with knowledge of the unique strengths, vulnerabilities, and developmental identity formation trajectories of multiracial adolescents and young adults, what interventions should be tailored to meet their unique needs? First, education and mental health professionals need to be prepared to meet the unique needs of multiracial adolescents and their families at a time in which their identify formation is at the forefront. Professionals that encounter and work to support this population, particularly as they enter the college realm--including college counselors, those who work in student affairs or residential housing, and those faculty and staff who advise college student groups that focus on inclusion and diversity--should be trained in understanding the identity development process for multiracial youth and the problems that may occur that are distinct from monoracial adolescents and families. Moreover, these professionals should be familiar with the very common and hurtful microaggressions those within this population often experience daily (and will continue to experience) based on their appearance or perceived racial identity from those around them. For example, a common questions asked of multiracial individuals is, "So, what are you anyway?" This can be viewed as benign or it may be seen as an uncomfortable and harassing question commonly known as a form of racial "microagression", specificially a "microinvalidation" (Sue & Sue, 2016). This is a good opportunity for education and mental health professionals to help multiracial adolescents develop coping skills to address questions and respond to bias; provide a forum to discuss their own mixed race heritages in a safe forum; to normalize and validate the feelings of marginalization that this population often experiences; and to gently encourage multiracial adolescents and young adults to use college groups and clubs as a forum to further explore their ethnic identity.

Moreover, recognizing issues that may be unique to multiracial individuals and their families--and incorporating resourceful intervention techniques when working with these families -is also important. Such interventions may include identifying resources and curriculum around multiracial individuals and families; offering parents education about the unique challenges for their adolescent (and those that may arise as they enter the college arena); and a safe forum to allow parents to be able to discuss these challenges with their adolescent or young adult. It is important to recognize that parents may feel helpless and ineffective in supporting and teaching their adolescent about multiracial experience; one way to enable parents to feel more comfortable addressing issues of race may begin by having them reach out to learn more about college cultural groups that their adolescent may gain exposure to on their campus, particularly groups that may resonate with the adolescent's identity formation as they enter college.

Future Directions

The process of ethnic identification is an important aspect of identity formation for adolescents and young adults, particularly for those that identify as multiracial in a country increasingly divided on issues of race and gender. In addition to understanding the formation of ethnic identity, future considerations include highlighting for adolescents and young adults the incredible within-group diversity that exists and the encouragement of finding a place within that diverse group. Gonzalez-Backen (2013) encourages studying different ecological contexts, such as communities of varying levels of ethnic composition and varying levels of ethnic socialization within families and peers in order to better understand and normalize these within-group differences for young people. Recognizing and educating young adults and their families about the intersectionality of additional factors that intersect with identity development (such as gender identity and formation; sexual orientation; and age) is also crucial in order to highlight the unique path of the multiracial adolescents' identity development across these variables.

Sheri Castro-Atwater

Loyola Marymount University

Anh-Luu Huynh-Hohnbaum

California State University, Los Angeles


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Author:Castro-Atwater, Sheri; Huynh-Hohnbaum, Anh-Luu
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Date:Jun 22, 2018

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