BLACK/WHITE INTERRACIAL YOUNG ADULTS: Quest for a Racial Identity

The racial self-identification of 119 young adults of mixed black and white racial heredity was explored. Data showed interracial identity to be the most prevalent, and that it was associated with the least conflict. Compartmentalization into a private interracial identity and a public black one appeared to be the most frequently utilized coping mechanism for dealing with societal pressures to negate white roots.


For most of U.S. history, children of mixed black and white racial heredity have been categorized as black within the official system of racial classification. This tradition puts pressure on them to negate their whiteness in favor of their blackness. Adams (1973) and Drake and Cayton (1945) believed that despite initial resistance, interracial children eventually adapt to this societally imposed identity restriction, and that by the time they reach adulthood they “almost always” view themselves as black. The consistent labeling as black, together with socialization in the black community, were seen by these scholars as gradually conditioning the interracial child toward a black identity. More recent social scientists (Arnold, 1984; Gibbs, 1987; Poussaint, 1984; Spickard, 1989) also noted the common occurrence of black identities in interracial individuals. However, they also observed interracial and/or white identities. Because of the lack of formal research on interracial young adults at a time in their lives when, according to Erikson (1959), identity is more or less defined, there is virtually no understanding of whether interracial children indeed “blacken out” as they approach adulthood or of the prevalence of interracial or white identities.

Jacobs (1977), Spickard (1989), and Porter (1971) noted that society’s insistence that interracial children are simply black, when in reality they incorporate a dual racial heritage, undermines the formation of a healthy racial identity and creates conflicts. With whiteness idealized and blackness frequently associated with negative stereotypes, discrimination, and oppression, the negation of the white part of their identity becomes even more difficult for them. An article in The New York Times (Atkins, 1991) suggested that adaptation to the societally prescribed black identity may be less common and more difficult than has been generally assumed. Atkins noted a mushrooming of support groups for interracial or multiracial students in major universities throughout the U.S., including New York University, Harvard, Yale, Kansas State, University of Michigan, Stanford, and University of California.

Popular opinion holds that interracial people who have disassociated themselves from their white roots and adopted the socially endorsed black identity have successfully resolved their conflicts about racial group membership. Gibbs (1987) saw interracial identity in black/white racially mixed adolescents as evidence of defensive denial. White identity is generally regarded as detrimental to the emotional health of interracial people since, according to the official system of racial classification, it is an illegal identity for them. However, the validity of these assumptions has received almost no systematic research.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the 1967 Supreme Court Decision, Loving vs. Virginia , opened the doors to interracial marriages. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 65,000 black/white interracial marriages in 1970 and 218,000 in 1989 (United States Bureau of the Census, 1981, 1989). This represents an increase of 300% in less than 20 years. Expansion of our knowledge of one of the most important developmental tasks faced by interracial children, the formation of a stable and clear racial identity, has become increasingly important.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the 1967 Supreme Court Decision, Loving vs. Virginia, opened the doors to interracial marriages. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 65,000 black/white interracial marriages in 1970 and 218,000 in 1989

The findings presented here are excerpted from a larger research project (Brown, 1991) that examined the relationships among racial identity, conflict, and self-esteem in interracial young adults. In addition, associations among these three variables, experiential factors, and physical characteristics were explored. In view of the general lack of knowledge about racial identity in interracial people, a retrospective and cross-sectional research design was chosen. The data presented here, obtained from a single measurement, examine aspects of racial identity and conflict in this population.

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