What's the difference between biracial and multiracial?
Biracial…multiracial...mixed…these terms that are often used interchangeably, although there are some differences when you actually think about the definitions of them.
Biracial generally refers to someone who identifies as being mixed with two races.
Multiracial both refers to people who have three or more racial races, but it also is an umbrella term that refers to people with two or more races.
Mixed race is another term used to describe people who have two or more races. I generally use mixed race or multiracial when I’m speaking to groups of people who have two or more races; it feels more inclusive when I don’t know how everyone identifies.
The shortened ‘Mixed’ is colloquially used to reference people with Black ancestry, but is also used sometimes to describe other types of multi-X people.
Multi-X is a newer term that is intended to encompass multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic identity.
What’s the difference between race, culture, and ethnicity?
These are also terms that tend to be used interchangeably. But they are different.
Race is ascribed to individuals based on physical traits, such as skin tone or hair color or texture. Think about our modern ideas and language around race: Black, white, Asian, Latinx.
Ethnicity is a broader term that refers to common ancestry, culture, religion, language, nationality, and more. People of the same race can come from different ethnic backgrounds. The Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda are different ethnic groups, but many people would see them as sharing the same race. Jewish people and Catholic people both appear white, but usually identify differently ethnically, and definitely culturally.
Culture is really learned behaviors, beliefs, values, and customs; these can be related to race or ethnicity, but sometimes they aren’t. Consider the culture of different towns in the same country, the culture of different places you’ve worked, or the culture of being working class versus wealthy.
And there are other ways that people are categorized, depending on local or historical context. For instance, the caste system in India, which is something I can’t speak a whole lot on, shares similarities and differences with race.
What is racial identity?
Racial identity, cultural identity, and ethnic identity describe how an individual person actively identifies. Racial identity tends to be used in the context of the United States, where race dominates our systems historically and present day. This is why biracial and multiracial are such common terms here.
While biracial or multiracial might feel good for some people, I have many friends who identify as Black even though they have one white parent because they don’t feel their experience in the world is that of a white person; how can it be, if your skin is literally not white?
Karine Bell recently shared about her own experience:
“As a bi-cultural Black woman, I am sometimes black, never fully white, sometimes not black, but always mixed. I’ve held this line of tension in my body for as long as I can remember, and the notion of straddling worlds always made sense to me. What has, at times, been the source of frustration and even despair (where do I belong?) has become something I embrace as a liminal space of non-identity and non-belonging that has powerful creative potential.”
How should I identify myself?
Your identity is complex. And that’s ok!
The thing about being mixed race or multi-x is that it’s up to you how you identify (even in writing this sentence, I struggled with what ‘umbrella term’ I should use).. Here are a couple things to keep in mind as you do so:
You are allowed to identify in as many ways as you would like. Your experience is probably a layered one. Mixed, mixed race, biracial, and Black all feel good to me, personally.
Your experience of your racial identity can and probably will change throughout your life depending on what’s going on for you, who you spend time with, and perhaps even how other people you know identify.
Big feelings about identity
As you find your way, you might run into feelings of shame or guilt, or notice that you’re “should-ing” on yourself a lot. It’s important to find support to process these feelings.
As mixed race people, many of us struggle to navigate how our different racial backgrounds bear distinctly different, sometimes contrasting, experiences with privilege and oppression. At the same time, feeling like our identity has to be simple or we have to atone for racial privilege can bring up a lot of shame that only hurts us and sabotages our desires in the end. We have to learn how to manage it clearly, from a place of centered accountability.
I help people do this work on an embodied level. There is often healing to be done, as well as simply embracing what is. I also talk to my clients at length about the value of relationships and community in identity and belonging.
Check out my free community building guide for people with mixed ancestry right here.
Doyle JM, Kao G. Are Racial Identities of Multiracials Stable? Changing Self-Identification Among Single and Multiple Race Individuals. Soc Psychol Q. 2007 Dec 1;70(4):405-423. doi: 10.1177/019027250707000409. PMID: 19823596; PMCID: PMC2759722.