- Racial Identity and Academic Performance: An Examination of Biracial Asian and African American Youth
In the last three decades since the last anti-miscegenation laws were repealed, the United States has witnessed an increase in the number of multiracial persons, prompting a growing awareness of multiracial families. 1 The U.S. Census recently considered whether to add a multiracial category to the 2000 Census. Despite growing interest in the biracial population, there is little research on their psychological and socioeconomic outcomes. Does biracial status confer a relative disadvantage in psychological adaptation as early theorists warned? In turn, do biracials benefit in their socioeconomic outcomes relative to their ethnic counterparts? Using a nationally representative data set of youth (the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988), this article examines whether biracial youths encounter greater psychological difficulties as previous theorists suggest. I also examine whether the school outcomes of biracials more closely resemble that of their minority or white counterparts.
The recent acknowledgment of multiracial persons stands at odds with popular assumptions of racial and ethnic categories as immutable and unchanging as well as the assumed exclusiveness of racial groups in the United States. 2 Mixed racial status, although not officially recognized, [End Page 223] may have important policy implications and brings to question race-based policies, even those enacted to protect minorities. For example, in 1993, seven-year-old Brianna Combash was classified as black on her California school records. Because she is classified as black, the school district cannot administer an IQ test to her, which has been recommended by school psychologists as an aid in diagnosing the specific nature of her learning problems. The ban on IQ tests for black children was the result of a court ruling about a decade ago meant to protect black children from being labeled “mentally retarded.” However, because Brianna is actually biracial and happens to have a white mother, her mother has the option of changing Brianna’s racial designation to white, hence allowing the school to administer an IQ test. Otherwise, she would have to pay for a privately administered IQ test. As Brianna’s mother put it, “If I changed her race, I’d have to hide that from her. She’s seven. She’s already aware of different races and has feelings about being brown. Do I want to do something I would have to hide from her? Which is the greater good?” 3
Although biracials are often forced to choose a single racial designation over another on official documents, in reality, their racial status may be somewhat ambiguous. In some respects, biracials have been seen as “marginal” people in a society where identification with a single racial group is the norm. 4 Biracials may not be accepted by either of their monoracial peer groups, nor do they benefit from adequate racial socialization by parents because neither parent is biracial. In addition, biracial children from comparable family backgrounds can have very different life experiences based on their physical appearance. For instance, an Asian-white youth who has typically “Asian” physical attributes may experience little problem in gaining acceptance among other Asians but will be unable to pass for White. Another Asian-white youth may have more features typically associated with Whites, while another has more ambiguous features. These three Asian-white youths will experience differential treatment by others based on their appearance, and these experiences can shape the way they self-identify. For biracial blacks, one’s lighter skin color may preclude socializing with blacks, while darker skinned biracials may find it difficult to identify with Whites. [End Page 224]
It is notable that some of the earliest essays by the Chicago School on race and assimilation examined how understanding “the marginal man,” a category that includes individuals of mixed race ancestry, can lead to a clearer conception of social change. Specifically, because the position of the marginal man clearly demarcates the significant boundaries of the day, it acts as a lens to the dynamic process of group interaction among immigrants and natives as well as among racial groups. Robert Park addressed the notion of the marginal man:
One of the consequences of migration...