Race Isn’t Just Black and White

People of mixed race are ignored. It’s time to acknowledge our identity and insights.

In a 2007 television interview, presidential candidate Barack Obama was asked at what point in his life he had “decided” he was black. He was, after all, raised by his white mother and white maternal grandparents, the interviewer pointed out. “Well, I’m not sure I decided it,” Obama replied. “I think if you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American. And when you’re a child in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself.” Simply put, any supposed choice was theoretical. This is true for many mixed-race people, who experience a frustrating lack of control over how we are racially perceived. Historically too few to resist identity norms, we have been told who we are, not asked.

Growing up in Nigeria the son of a Nigerian father and Polish mother, I was often referred to as “oyinbo” (white person) by Nigerians. Yet in white-majority societies such as America and Britain, where I now live, I was subject to “the one-drop rule” that any black ancestry makes a person black—a notion that white segregationists dreamed up centuries ago, and that still shapes perceptions of mixed-race people. If Obama had asked to be called “the first biracial president of America,” many would have frowned in confusion. “First black president,” people get. But “first biracial president”? Here in Britain, when the mixed-race wife of Prince Harry, the actress Meghan Markle, described herself as biracial, it sparked a national debate as to what exactly that meant, and whether she should define herself so.

In such debates over Obama and Markle, monoracial commentators dominated the discussions. I felt odd watching discussions about Markle’s identity on British TV in which everyone on the panel was either black or white, with no mixed-race voices. That’s like an all-white panel debating what blackness means, or vice versa. Mixed-race people—conditioned by the need to survive in a world dominated by monoracial groups—have rarely contested such impositions too robustly. Instead, as in the case of the one-drop rule, we have simply adapted to the logic of the monoracial elephants around us.

Obama was boxed in not just by continued white attachment to the racist one-drop rule, but also by continued black attachment in certain circumstances. Blacks, historically relegated to the bottom of a racial hierarchy by dominant whites, have long been denied status as a collective. Therefore, no group yearns for it more. Hence, while black people aren’t overly bothered whether a regular mixed black-and-white individual identifies as black or not, they do care whether a high-profile one does. The higher your profile, the more it matters.

Few individuals of black ancestry have enjoyed the level of global prestige that Obama attained during his 2008 campaign—only Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and a handful of others. None has come close to the level of global power Obama achieved. He was conscious of how strongly the denial of prestige had shaped black psychology, and would have known that if he had suggested he felt biracial rather than black, many African Americans would have interpreted this as him distancing himself from blackness. Many black thought-leaders would have accused him of considering himself better than black people, even of aiding white supremacy. It would probably have cost him some black votes as well.

I don’t doubt that Obama strongly identifies with blackness. The point is that, even if he didn’t, he would have needed to pretend he did. Even for those mixed-race individuals not involved in politics, we know there is plenty of complexity in navigating biracialism, when monoracial groups are always imposing their membership rules on us. You may engage but you know that membership will always be conditional, contingent on you behaving in a manner pleasing to the influential voices in the group. If not, you may be told you were never really one of them anyway. The revocability of belonging is how monoracial groups have kept mixed-race people in line for centuries.

But while researching my book Biracial Britain, I got a sense from many of those I interviewed that attitudes are shifting. The game-changer has been our growth in numbers. There are now millions of us in Britain and America. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann, in his book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, says that demographic projections show Britain will be 30% mixed-race by the end of this century, with that figure rising to 75% by 2150. A similar shift is taking place in the United States, although calculating the changing proportion of mixed-race Americans can be a challenge. The U.S. Census has compiled data on race ever since it began in 1790. But it was long the census-taker who designated each person’s racial identity. Only in 1960, did the subject get to choose—and only since 2000 have Americans had the option of selecting more than one race. By the following U.S. Census in 2010, the number identifying as black/white biracial Americans had more than doubled; those citing mixed Asian/white heritage had risen by 87%. And such trends are sure to continue. In 2015, one-in-six (17%) of all American newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity—a more than fivefold increase since 1967, according to Pew Research.

We are the future. Mixed-race people, especially the younger generation, sense this. They see so many others around them—they are increasingly confident about asserting their identities rather than simply accepting that which monoracial society assigns them. Many still struggle with the contradictions and uncertainties of navigating multiple racial identities, but there is also a growing realization that the ambiguity around biracialism is not simply our problem. As the 38-year-old daughter of a Zimbabwean father and English-German mother told me, “It is less we who are confused about being mixed-race than it is society being confused about how to deal with us.”

Unlike gravity, race is something that we humans imagined into existence—this thought that you can distinguish qualitatively based on skin color. But it’s an idea that remains influential. While most people today would agree with a statement like, “Deep down we are all just human beings irrespective of skin color,” our perceptions of each other are still heavily influenced by racialist thinking. The good news is this: That which has been imagined can be reimagined.

From the point of view of the individual, it doesn’t really matter whether race exists or not. What matters is the significance attached to it. What do people believe being black, white or brown-skinned says about you? If a preponderance of white people had positive opinions about black people and vice versa, identifying as different “races” would not be an issue. It is the blanket attribution of negative characteristics to the racial other that is the problem.

More than a decade on from Obama’s election, we now have a test of evolving thinking on race and identity: how the world deals with the racial complexity of Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother hailed from India, her father from Jamaica. The White House biography of Harris identifies her as “the first Black American, and the first South Asian American” to be elected to the vice presidency.

The contradictions that make living as a mixed-race person so complicated are also what grant us an advantage in terms of understanding society. If raised in an interracial home, you are likely to have experienced both positive and negative interactions with people of different skin color within your own family. When speaking frankly, mixed-race individuals tend to see issues around race and identity for what they are: complex spheres of our contemporary world that defy the easy divisions into good tribes and bad tribes, as is popular today.

Our experiences as mixed-race people teach that the world is not made up of black, brown and white people, but of those who have an open-minded inclusivist approach toward other human beings, and those who have a closed-minded exclusivist approach. The trick to making this world better for us all is to expand that inclusivist camp within every racial group.

Remi Adekoya is the author of Biracial Britain: A Different Way of Looking at Race, published Feb. 4 in the United Kingdom and July 2 in the United States. He teaches political science at the University of York.