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The complexity of mixed-race ancestry

Alan Flurry

Some people see themselves as part of a sole racial group, others identify with multiple groups

Mixed-race ancestry, a widespread fact of the human population for centuries, does not uniquely translate to any specific racial identity. A new study authored by a University of Georgia sociologist describes the experiences, beliefs, and personal characteristics such as skin color that play a role in self-identification.

While the current era provides individuals with greater latitude about racial self-identification, the factors that determine the “choice” people make about how to identify themselves remains unclear. But how people respond to that question today can emphasize why differences in race and ethnicity matter and how historical differences connect to contemporary experience.

“Some people with mixed-race ancestry might say ‘it doesn’t matter how I see myself – what matters is how others see me,’ and that impacts how they see themselves, how they move about the world,” said Vanessa Gonlin, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of sociology. “And just as others may assert some level of choice in how they identify, they may be still reacting to how they are treated.”

Her study was published in the journal Social Sciences in April as part of the broader ongoing discussion about racial identification.

Gonlin provides guidance about the factors involved in racial identification that can go far beyond official U.S. Census language, but also reveal the underlying constructs that define categories and classifications.

“The 2020 U.S. Census, for example, classified as white those who are from or whose ancestors are from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Lebanon, and Egypt, as just a few examples,” Gonlin said. “Race is a social construct and our idea of who is classified as white changes over time.”

Another example of how race is socially constructed are the Census questions in which Hispanic/Latinx origin is asked separately from the race question. “If you say Hispanic or Latinx on the ethnicity question, then often times you say ‘other’ on the race question, which indicates that people who might say ‘yes, I have Spanish origin’ or ‘I’m from a Spanish speaking or a Latin American country, but I don’t see myself as white or Black or Indigenous or Asian or Pacific Islander,’ that is indicating that our current construction of race is not matching theirs,” she said.

Gonlin added that’s also the reason why some advocate to have a Hispanic/Latinx racial category rather than ethnic category.

Self-perception, discrimination, a connection to certain groups and even the fate of those groups often determines how people feel about their own race and ethnicity as well as how they believe they can identify.

Gonlin designed The Mixed-Race Ancestry Survey (2019), conducted on Mechanical Turk, that asked 486 participants unique questions about their racial identification and lived experiences. Only people with mixed-race ancestry were included in the study, which controlled for age, gender, region, education level, income and skin color. Though participants were aware of having multiple racial groups in their ancestry, respondents could identify as monoracial, multiracial, or both.

While there are many constituent parts to the story of how mixed-race people identify, the growth in official multiracial identity in the U.S. only goes back to the 2000 Census when people had the opportunity to identify with more than one race. Thus, the growth in multiracial identification is less about a growth in actual numbers and more about a growth in how Americans identify themselves.

“There have always been people with multiple racial groups in their ancestry, and always people who would have identified as multiracial if they could. I think if people are able to assert the identity they feel closest to, that is a positive.”

Image: mixed race jewelry model via creative commons license.



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