In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Multiracial, Mixed-Race, and Biracial Identities

  • Introduction
  • Multiracial Identity Development
  • The Role of Phenotype and Social Classification in Multiracial Identity
  • Demography of Multiraciality
  • Shifting Multiraciality
  • Multiraciality outside the Black-White Binary
  • Non-US and Global Multiraciality
  • Youth and Family Dynamics
  • Multiraciality and Politics: The Politics of Multiraciality
  • Multiracial Intersectionalities
  • Multiraciality in Culture
  • The Interactive Effects of Multiraciality and Racism
  • Critical Mixed-Race Studies

Sociology Multiracial, Mixed-Race, and Biracial Identities
David L. Brunsma, hephzibah v. strmic-pawl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0249


Scholarship designed to ask questions about the meanings of, identities of, and experiences of the offspring of interracial unions has been around for almost a century but has only seriously and significantly developed since the 1990s. From the early days of theorizing such experience from the counselor’s chair, psychological models planted early seeds, yet the ground of multiracial experience was one fundamentally wrapped up with institutions, social structures, political movements, histories and stories, racialization and microaggressions, family and peer dynamics, and other important social, cultural, economic, historical, collective, and political realities. Multiracial scholarship developed early on from an interest in understanding how the offspring of interracial unions, whether white/black, black/Asian, Latinx/white, and so on, develop understandings of themselves, as well as how others influence that understanding; thus, identity was a crucial starting point. Appearances, phenotype, and the sociocultural models of racial classification and the role that these play in the complex process of multiracial identity formation, development, maintenance, and change have become staple research questions. The racial demographics of race and multiraciality, along with the politics of census categorization and the tracing of such demographic and policy shifts over time, have provided more-macro contexts that have played into the ways we both study and, therefore, understand multiraciality. In the 2010s, scholars really began to move outside the black-white binary, more intersectionally and transdisciplinarily, and across national and historical contexts to develop an even more nuanced and complex theoretical and empirical understanding of multiraciality. From early-21st-century developments in critical mixed-race theory to the political importance of multiraciality in social movements, and from the role of multiraciality in popular culture and marketing to the potential and pitfalls of multiraciality and its politics dismantling ideas of race, realities of racism, and the pursuit of racial and social justice, scholarship on multiraciality has given us deeply important understandings.

Multiracial Identity Development

The core intellectual agenda in the scholarly study of multiraciality from the beginnings centered on multiracial identity—how it forms and develops, and how it is maintained and changed. Identity has always been at the heart of psychological and sociological research on multiraciality. The early work of Poston (Poston 1990) raised key early questions from the counselor’s chair and set a research agenda regarding multiracial psycho-social navigation. Two edited collections, Root 1992 and Root 1996, brought together the best and cutting-edge scholars whose work through the 1980s and 1990s added important social, cultural, political, temporal, and demographic dimensions to this central intellectual agenda. Scholars would begin creating empirically grounded models and taxonomies of multiracial identity that would be used by scholars in the first two decades of the 21st century, including key models in Rockquemore 1998, Rockquemore and Brunsma 2002, Rockquemore and Brunsma 2004–2008, and Khanna 2011. Others (such as Renn 2012) would eventually engage more fully with intersectional identity in institutional contexts, and Brunsma 2006, an edited volume titled Mixed Messages, would bring together the second generation of scholars on multiracial identity whose work was in building theory, culminating in a theoretical agenda set in Rockquemore, et al. 2009.

  • Brunsma, D. L., ed. 2006. Mixed messages: Multiracial identities in the “color-blind” era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    An interdisciplinary collection of original, critical scholarship on multiraciality. This volume was the first to bring together the burgeoning social-scientific scholarship conducted during the lead-up to the 2000 census change. These twenty chapters (plus a critical introduction) covered the broad areas of the sociocultural politics of (multi)racial identity, critical essays on the multiracial movement, early sociological work on racial socialization in interracial families, and continuing scholarship on racial-identity formation in multiracial individuals.

  • Khanna, N. 2011. Biracial in America: Forming and performing racial identity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    Using in-depth interviews, Khanna studies the processes shaping black-white (multi)racial identity and how biracials perform their race. Using a social-psychological approach, this book is particularly recognized for its analysis of biracials’ reflected appraisals, which is how biracials negotiate their identity in relationship to how they think others perceive them. Khanna finds that the one-drop rule still has a large influence in black-white biracials’ feeling that they are black.

  • Poston, W. S. C. 1990. The biracial identity development model: A needed addition. Journal of Counseling & Development 69.2: 152–155.

    An early theoretical intervention from counseling psychology into the scholarship and theoretical assumptions of multiracial (biracial) identity development. The author attends to extant theories of racial-identity development and provides crucial critiques of their applicability to multiracial identity development. This article took us away from deficit/tragic models of identity development to more positive/agentic ones. Implications for both research and counseling are offered—many of which have been followed to this day.

  • Renn, K. A. 2012. Mixed race students in college: The ecology of race, identity, and community on campus. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    A widely read study of multiracial identity within the context of higher education. Combining ethnography and interviews of fifty-six multiracial students at six colleges, this study focused on the role of context, peer cultures, and public/private negotiations of multiracial identity. Four identity themes—monoracial, multiple monoracial, extraracial, and situational—lead to further refinement of her influential developmental ecological framework for studying multiraciality in institutional context. Implications for policy and practice in higher education are discussed.

  • Rockquemore, K. A. 1998. Between black and white exploring the “biracial” experience. Race and Society 1.2: 197–212.

    Considered one of the first critical, sociological engagements with multiracial identity formations and their social-structural locations. Using in-depth interviews with young adult black/white multiracials, the author develops the first sociological typology of multiracial identity where multiracials craft meaningful “Border” (biracial), “Protean” (contextually shifting), “Transcendent” (no racial identifiers), or “Traditional” (white or black), identities. The roles of appearance and social-structural location and its effects on these identity options are theorized here as well.

  • Rockquemore, K. A., and D. L. Brunsma. 2002. Socially embedded identities: Theories, typologies, and processes of racial identity among black/white biracials. Sociological Quarterly 43.3: 335–356.

    This study extends the typology of black/white multiracial identities in Rockquemore 1998. Using the typology to summarize extant empirical literature, this study tests hypotheses predicting each identity type, using a survey sample of 177 black/white multiracials. Results indicate the importance of racial composition of social networks, appearance, experiences of discrimination (from whites and blacks), and feelings of closeness (to whites or blacks). The idea of identity validation and invalidation is developed in this article.

  • Rockquemore, K. A., and D. L. Brunsma. 2004–2008. Beyond black: Biracial identity in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A key book in the sociological scholarship on multiracial identity. Each edition of the book provides a historical overview of racial identity in the United States, summarizes and engages with the extant literature on multiracial identity, and critically plots the racial-political contours of the multiracial movement and the census. This work provides empirical evidence of the social structure of multiracial identity, theorizes the role of appearance in multiracial identities, and provides thoughts on future directions.

  • Rockquemore, K. A., D. L. Brunsma, and D. J. Delgado. 2009. Racing to theory or retheorizing race? Understanding the struggle to build a multiracial identity theory. Journal of Social Issues 65.1: 13–34.

    Taking stock of some twenty years of scholarship on multiraciality in order to build theory, this piece considers researchers’ conceptualization of and assumptions underlying racial-identity development among mixed-race people, the challenges to current efforts at understanding the identity-category-identification matrix, and the implications of new identities emerging within the multiracial population. It ends by warning about multiraciality’s potential for reproducing of dominant ideologies, and that scholars should reckon with their own blinders.

  • Root, M. P. P., ed. 1992. Racially mixed people in America. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    A foundational book in the study of mixed-race communities, and one of the earliest edited volumes that take a late-20th-century evaluation of multiracialism. Issues addressed in this book include experiences of multiracials, factors affecting multiracial identity development, changing demographics, and methods used to study multiracialism.

  • Root, M. P. P., ed. 1996. The multiracial experience: Racial borders as the new frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    The second foundational volume edited by pioneering multiracial scholar Maria P. Root, which continues to investigate the factors affecting multiracial identity. This volume examines difficult questions in areas such as adoption, border crossing, intersections with gender and sexuality, and the relationships among multiracial identity, racialization, and racism. This book also features Root’s famous chapter “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People.”

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