Do Mixed-Race (Black/White) People have an Ethical Obligation to Identify as Black?

by Francis Wardle, PhD.

So says Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a March, 2012 article published in the New York Times. This article joins an increasing number of vocal voices published in progressive publications and in books published by academic presses. But why? At a period of time when same-sex marriage is becoming acceptable, and gender identification is greatly expanded, why do intellectuals insist on the very narrow one-drop-rule definition of blacks in America?

This particular article, As Black as We Wish to Be, is by a black man married to a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed French woman. While insisting that his children must be loyal to the black community, he hypocritically argues that “exhortations to stick with one’s own, however well intentioned, won’t be able to change that” (marrying outside of the black race). As my black wife suggests, it seems that some black men who marry white women try to assuage their guilt by insisting their children identify as black.

What are Mr. Williams’ arguments? One, all biracial children “look black”, and therefore should identify as black, 2) America is still not fully equitable, providing social and economic justice to all, 3) people who choose a mixed-race identity are engaged in the “private joys of self-expression” (i.e. are selfish), 4) the one-drop rule that was created to protect the purity and superiority of the white race is not all that bad, 5) identifying as mixed by people who are truly mixed will have a devastating impact on government support for black programs and overall black well-being, especially in our schools, 6) racial self-identification means that racial identity will become a matter of individual will, and 7) identifying as black is required to “honor those who came before us”.

Let me address each of these arguments briefly.

All Biracial Children Look Black

This phenotypical argument is used by many. I remember a African American news correspondent declaring the fact that she was passed over by a New York City cab driver was proof that she was black. (As a white male I have been profiled on several occasions, including the time I was spent in jail for 24 hours high in the Colorado Rockies because I looked like a drug dealer). This is also the kind of argument we in psychology call self-fulfilling: if a biracial child (or adult) matches someone’s essentialist view of what a black person looks like, then yes, they look black. But if not, the viewer probably doesn’t even think they are biracial (and yes, they are often very confused).

My four children have been identified as Vietnamese, Cambodian, Moroccan, Native American, North African, Brazilian, Hispanic – all the time, Chinese, Asian, and Indian (Asian), but rarely black. Yes, people think they are adopted, their black mother is a maid or nanny, and their white father has no biological relationship to them. But this is because of the “pure white race mythology” that this writer perpetuates.

America is Still Not Fully Equitable

This of course, is very true. However, the thousands of illegal immigrants risking their lives to come here (most of who are minority) seem to think this place is worth the sacrifice. And the issue of inequality in the United States should be addressed, 1) by enforcing all anti-discrimination laws (for all people who are discriminated against), and 2) by increasing programs for low-income, homeless and others who are less fortunate, regardless of their race. Government programs that address inequality and injustice should not give preference to specific racial groups.

Selecting a Mixed-Race Identity is a Selfish, Private Joy of Self-Expression

Critics of the multiracial movement often accuse advocates of racial self-identification as advocating selfishness over loyalty. They argue that the only reasons we support a biracial identity is, 1) because we don’t want our children to be black, and 2) because we only care about individual self-esteem. And – just like Mr. Williams – these critics juxtapose individual self-worth against allegiance to the black community. It should be noted here that the famous black identity theorist, William Cross, divides a healthy black identity into two parts, RGO (loyalty to a group), and PI (personal identity).

This either-or argument is highly specious. First, race and ethnicity are central components of everyone’s identity, as are gender, ability, language, culture, and so on. Thus, a person’s full racial and ethnic identity should be accepted, and all individuals should be encouraged to accurately embrace who they are. Secondly, we need as many people as we can get in this country who feel good about themselves, and who have high self-esteem. Crime, drugs, domestic violence, dropping out of school, joining a gang, and so on are far more likely to occur in people who do not feel very good about themselves. Thus they find ways to act out against others, so that they can feel important.

One of the reasons I insist that multiracial children embrace and celebrate their full heritage is because they are often required to defend themselves against harassment and bullying, due to their mixed identity. Ironically, multiracial children receive harassment and bullying from all single-race peers, including black peers.It is also incorrect to assume that multiracial children and adults have no allegiance to the black community and no commitment to black equality, although constant criticism from people like Mr. Williams will make them think twice before supporting black causes.

The One-Drop Rule is Not all Bad

One of the most racist policies that slavery produced, and that the Jim Crow laws perpetuated, is the one-drop rule. Essentially the rule was passed by many states – and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – to keep the white race pure and unadulterated by genes from lesser races. Later the eugenics moment and the creation of IQ tests to measure intelligence were both used to solidify this racist idea, which continued as an official government policy during WWII, when Americans – including African Americans – were involved in fighting the racist Nazis.

It is simply unimaginable why advocates of social and political justice and equality support the one-drop rule. I do considerable work in Brazil, including studying constructs of race and racism in this large, multiracial society. But whenever the topic is discussed, all Brazilians, from intellectuals to people in the street, always interject, “But you have the racist one-drop rule”. That ends any further discussion.

To support the one-drop rule is to perpetuate the idea that the white race is pure and must remain pure. It is a view still held by the U.S. government (i.e. the census), but, while the U.S. government has never been a paragon of justice and equality, the fact that so many social justice advocates support it is embarrassing.

Choosing to be Multiracial has a Negative Impact on Government Programs, Especially Schools

This, of course, is always given as the main reason mixed-race children must identify as black: the power of numbers. But it’s false on several levels:

1) Most of k-12 funding (about 90%) is local and state funds, and not federal funds. The local and state funds are allocated according to a variety of formulas, but race in not one of them. A specific area that is funded directly by the federal government is IDEA – funds for children with disabilities. A disproportionate number of these children are black (and Hispanic). Ironically, however, the federal government has never fully funded this program, siphoning off funds for programs such as the Race to the Top.

2) The U.S. census (and other agencies that collect demographic data) takes the results of people who check more than one race and disaggregate these numbers back to the 5 single-race groups, including African American. So anyone who selects African American and some other race on a federal form will be counted as African American in these single-race tabulations.

But I think it is good that more multiracial people are insisting on being identified as multiracial, because this group is still generally ignored by the government, multiculturalists, and diversity experts. My community college refused to allow students to identify with more than one race until required to by the federal government; most multicultural texts ignore multiracial people, and, of over 500 entries in a new early childhood book for which I was asked to contribute, multiracial families were somehow totally missed. (To their credit, multiracial families has been added now that the omission has been pointed out).

Racial Identification Becomes an Individual Choice

This, of course, is the way it should be. What gives a government – especially a government of the people – the right to decide the racial identity of its citizens? After all, the census is supposed to reflect racial identity choices of the American people, and not dictate a person’s racial identity, despite Mr. Williams’ assertion to the contrary. (It should be noted here that, while the U.S. census provides people with a very limited number of choices for their racial identify, the census continually insists that individuals must self-identify, and that it’s not their job to determine a person’s race). Further, why should we use a racial category system that was produced as a central part of our racist past? It is time to allow – even encourage – people to select their own racial and ethnic identity. Actually, many Americans are already doing so.

New immigrants from Africa are maintaining their national, tribal and religious affiliations. Hispanics, who the U.S. census claim can be any of the five racial groups, tend to see themselves as a separate race, and more and more Asians subscribe to their individual national and cultural identities, rather than to the broad and inaccurate Asian census category. And Mayas from S. Mexico and Central America reject the census view that they are Hispanic. (Ironically, in those countries the Maya are oppressed by the Latino majority).

Identifying as Black Honors Those who Came Before Us

No-one is suggesting that the history of African Americans – and for that matter, Africans throughout the Americas – should be eliminated from history books; no-one is saying that multiracial children should only celebrate the white side of their family’s history. What we are saying, and what Frederick Douglas said so eloquently many years ago, is that mixed-race people can and should celebrate both the white side of their background and the black side. After all, when I meet white people, they often tell me, “my ancestors are German and Irish”, or “Italian, Welsh, and Portuguese”. Why can’t we do the same with multiracial families?

Clearly we have a deep dept to the history of Africans in this country. But, in my family, we also have a dept to our Caribbean relatives, our Native American ancestors, our Asian forefathers – and yes, my English ancestors, one of whom helped pass the first child labor laws, and who was instrumental in establishing trade unions. But maybe this issue again comes back to the one-drop rule: the strange notion that humans can only understand and appreciate a single racial identity, and, because of the rule of hypodescent, that legacy must be black. But places like Brazil and Belize, where mixed-race is one of the official racial groups, obviously challenge this uniquely American fixation!


With the increased number of multiracial families in this country, and a broadening of tolerance of differences, interracial relationships are much more accepted in America today. But many people in are still confused about the children produced by these relationships. One of the main confusions is the identity of these children. Many writers and intellectuals, such as Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a piece published by the New York Times, argue that children of black/white relationships have a moral obligation to identify as black (and others must follow the rule of hypodescent. However, in this short piece I have argued that it is time to finally discard the one-drop rule, and to encourage multiracial children and adults to embrace and celebrate their full heritages, histories, and multiracial identities.

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