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Child and Adolescent Social Work
Volume 7, Number 4, August 1990
Biracial Identity and Social
Philip M. Brown, Ph.D.
This comparative analysis of classic and recent literature explores the developmental and social implications of biracial identity in the
U.S. Though specific attention was given to Black-White biracial persons, a
broader analysis yielded some surprising insights into the nature and implications of the "biracial personality" and the accompanying differences in interpersonal styles and social relationships.
Despite t h e p e r s i s t e n t c u l t u r a l s t e r e o t y p e s depicting the U n i t e d
S t a t e s as a c u l t u r a l m e l t i n g pot, rigid divisions b e t w e e n economic,
class, racial a n d e t h n i c groups endure. Ours is a h e a v i l y stratified
society w i t h distinct b o u n d a r i e s and rigid b a r r i e r s a r o u n d socially defined groups, roles and s t a t u s positions. T h e s e c i r c u m s t a n c e s are difficult e n o u g h for Blacks, Hispanics, N a t i v e A m e r i c a n s a n d o t h e r
groups who do not fit n e a t l y into m a i n s t r e a m W h i t e society (and are,
t h e r e f o r e , socially m a r g i n a l ) . H o w e v e r , w h a t h a p p e n s to those individuals whose racial a n d c u l t u r a l h e r i t a g e is rooted in both W h i t e
a n d n o n - W h i t e groups? T h e s e individuals belong to both while simult a n e o u s l y not fully b e l o n g i n g to e i t h e r (eg. Black a n d Caucasian).
D u a l racial i d e n t i t y likewise implies a d u a l e t h n i c a n d c u l t u r a l focus
as well. F o r t h e biraciaP p e r s o n t h e s e two c u l t u r a l connections are
reflected in t h e t y p e of life one leads; t h e n a t u r e of one's achievem e n t s a n d failures; as well as o t h e r social a t t i t u d e s a n d aspirations.
1For the purposes of this paper, the terms "biracial" or "mixed race" shall refer to
those individuals whose parents come from White and non-White racial and ethnic
groups (eg. one Black parent and one White parent). Moreover, it is consequently assumed that biracial persons are (at least to some degree) bicultural as well (eg. MexicanAmerican).
Dr. Brown is in private practice. Address communications to me at Phoebe Hart
House, The Hill, Portsmouth, N.H. 03801.
9 1990 Human Sciences Press
In fact, this person will be a kind of dual personality possessing a
dual social and psychological consciousness which exceeds the kind of
"dual consciousness" first suggested by W. E. B. DuBois (1961). This
"dual reality" constitutes the essence of the social and psychological
dilemma confronting biracial persons. Moreover, this social paradox
creates a lifelong social purgatory in which biracial persons are forced
to reside.
Due to their unique developmental history, mixed race children
will typically possess more insight and sensitivity to both racial
groups t h a n single race children since they know firsthand what the
racial identity of each implies. For the biracial child, the process of
acculturation is rooted in two potentially contradictory frames of reference. This can create what J u d y Cavell (1977) terms "non-linear"
r a t h e r t h a n "linear" identity development. In other words, whereas
"whole race" persons develop a relatively linear identity in t h a t their
internalized cultural values and self-concepts are reinforced and affirmed by society, biracial persons experience a distinctively different
process based upon simultaneously possessing two cultural frames of
reference. As a result, biracial persons undergo basic changes in this
process and reconstruct their basic self-image as well as their position, role and status in an ongoing way throughout their lifetime
(Cavell, 1977). Everett Stonequist further illuminates this notion in
his classical work, The Marginal Man, when he points out the unwillingness of White society to distinguish between what he calls
"mixed bloods" (mulattoes) and "full bloods" (Blacks).
"This fact is of fundamental significance in comprehending the general
characteristics of the American 'mixed blood.' He is not the dejected,
spiritless outcast, neither is he the inhibited conformist. He is more
likely to be restless and race conscious, aggressive and radical, ambitious and creative. The lower status to which he is assigned naturally
creates discontented and rebellious feelings. From an earlier spontaneous identification with the white man, he has, under the rebuffs of a
categorical race prejudice, turned about and identified with the Negro
race. In the process of so doing, he suffers a profound inner conflict.
After all, does not the blood of the white man flow through his veins?
Does he not share the higher culture in common with the white American? Is he not legally and morally an American citizen? And yet, he
finds himself condemned to a lower caste in the American system! So
the mulatto is likely to think of himself. Living in two such social
worlds, between which there is antagonism and prejudice, he experiences in himself the same conflict" (Stonequist, 1937, pp. 24-25).