Checking More Than One Box: A Growing Multiracial Nation : Code Switch The last Census showed 9 million people, about 3 percent of the population, reporting more than one race. That's an increase of one-third from the decade before — and that number is only going up.
NPR logo

Checking More Than One Box: A Growing Multiracial Nation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Checking More Than One Box: A Growing Multiracial Nation

Checking More Than One Box: A Growing Multiracial Nation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

It's a day to appreciate mothers. When I was a kid going out with my white mother, she got asked: Is he yours? With a follow-up: Is he adopted? Which apparently in the '70s was easier to imagine than an English woman marrying an Indian. How different are things today? On this Mother's Day, that's our cover story: our multiracial nation.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible)

LARRY BRIGHT: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible)

RATH: This week on a sunny humid day in Silver Spring, Maryland, a little boy is practicing his numbers. His African-American dad, Larry Bright, holds his son's hand as the boy steps from post to post in this leafy playground just outside of Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Twenty. What comes after 20?

BRIGHT: Twenty-one.


BRIGHT: And then twenty...


BRIGHT: Very good.



UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: ...twenty-four.

RATH: At the top of the slide, he starts counting in his other language.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

THIEN KIM LAM: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

RATH: Hi mother, Thien Kim Lam, is teaching their son Vietnamese.

BRIGHT: How do I say...

LAM: Slide. (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAM: Mm-hmm. My husband is African-American, and I'm a Vietnamese-American first generation. And we have two children, and they are a perfect mix between the two of us.

RATH: Larry and Kim's son is multiracial, and he's just one of thousands born in what's been called a multiracial baby boom. Fifteen percent of marriages today are interracial and interethnic. Six years ago, her firstborn was just 1 year old, and she was adjusting to life as a new mother.

LAM: I didn't have any friends with children, and I wanted to go out and meet other moms.

RATH: So she took her daughter to Ellsworth Park, but everyone there - moms and nannies alike - thought Kim was her daughter's nanny. The other moms wouldn't talk to her. The nannies questioned her techniques.

LAM: I mean, you're talking to, you know, this girl in Vietnamese. How does her family feel about that? Did they hire you to do that? I said, no. Actually, I want to teach my daughter my culture and my language as well.

RATH: It was a profound moment for her.

LAM: It never occurred to me that my motherhood would be questioned because I didn't look like my daughter.

RATH: It inspired Kim to start a blog, I' She was shocked by how many people experienced what she had. She thought it was a problem just the parents were having.

LAM: We didn't really talk about race when she was younger because I thought, well, if I don't talk about it, she'll just think everybody is equal and the same. And that wasn't the case.

RATH: That came into sharp relief when her daughter turned 2. She threw a tantrum.

LAM: Yeah, I want to look like mom. I wish I had light skin and straight hair. And I froze because I thought, I don't - what did I do wrong? Like, I never pointed any of these things out. So that was a big lesson for me. You can't not talk about race.

RATH: Kim Lam and her husband, Larry Bright, both grew up in Louisiana where society asked them to choose between black and white. Even for Kim as an Asian-American, there was nothing in between. But going forward, it seems their two children will have more choices.

LAM: I'll think they'll go as multiracial. I'm trying to set a balance in teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they're American. That's what makes them American, is that they have this great mix of cultures.

RATH: That mix of cultures is uniquely American, and it's hard to ignore the growing trend that Kim Lam and her family are part of. Our president is a biracial man. And in media, multiracials are everywhere. And more than ever, they're touting their mixed heritage.


KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Jordan and I are - we're biracial.

JORDAN PEELE: Yes. Half black, half white.

RATH: Even Michael Key and Jordan Peele made their names playing black characters on the TV show "MADtv." But last year, they premiered their own show where they take multiracial issues on with glee.


PEELE: Keegan and I both have white moms.

KEY: Yes, yes.

PEELE: This is true, we have white moms. And the thing about having a white mom being a black guy is as a kid, a white mom can't hit a black kid in public.

KEY: Can't do it. Can't do it.

PEELE: Gets too racial too fast.

KEY: That's right. It escalates. It escalates to this racial thing.

RATH: But it's not often so lighthearted and funny. Beyonce turned heads when she appeared in this commercial for L'Oreal makeup.


BEYONCE: There's a story behind my skin. It's a mosaic of all the faces before it.

RATH: On the screen, three phrases flashed: African-American, Native American, French. The backlash was immediate. The singer was criticized for abandoning her black identity, but the multiracial community embraced her.

It's not just that there are more multiracial and biracial people around. The government is now counting the group differently. For the first time in modern history, the 2000 Census allowed us to check more than one box per race.

The last Census showed nine million people, about 3 percent of the population, reporting more than one race. That's an increase of a third from the decade before, and it's only going up.

JEFFREY PASSEL: The youngest age group, kids under 5, 7 percent are identified as having more than one race group. If we look at, say, the elderly, 65 and over, it's only 1 percent.

RATH: That's Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. More people are choosing spouses outside their own race. And as we said, about 15 percent of all new marriages today are interracial and interethnic. Again, Jeffrey Passel.

PASSEL: That's more than double what it was in 1980 and probably five times what it was in 1960. We've reached a point where over 8 percent of all the people who are currently married are in mixed marriages.

RATH: Why the change? Attitudes are evolving. Over the past few decades, says Passel, more people have simply come to view intermarriage as no big deal.

PASSEL: More than two-thirds of people in our surveys, when asked if it - how they would feel about someone in their own family marrying someone of a different background, said they'd be fine with it.

RATH: Ask young people - those under 40 and those who are find with it - rises to more than 80 percent. But racial identity is more complicated than just checking a box. Passel points to research that looked at kids with one black and one white parent.

PASSEL: When they are asked at home about their racial identification, the children tended to say that they were biracial or white and black. When they were asked at school, a much higher proportion of them identified simply as black, suggesting that it may be that their peers or their teachers or the school identified them one way, and at home, they identify differently.

RATH: That's part of a long trend of multiracial people identifying as just one race. Marcia Alesan Dawkins is a professor at the University of Southern California. Her father was one such multiracial man: part black, part white.

MARCIA ALESAN DAWKINS: He has lived his life as an African-American man. He lived through segregation, he lived through civil rights. And though he acknowledges these other aspects of his identity, he sees the world from the perspective of a black man, and that's how he chooses to identify.

RATH: But just one generation has made a world of difference for Dawkins herself, who is part white, black and Latino.

DAWKINS: My sister and I see the world a little differently. I don't think it's better or worse, but I think it's a credit to a lot of the progress that has been made both ways that people can choose to identify just as one or choose to identify as two or more.

RATH: There are a lot more people who identify solely as one race. Do you know anything about who is doing that and why?

DAWKINS: Yes. The Census reports to us that white people are most likely to report having one race only. And one of the reasons sociologists and historians suggest for that is because of the way in which whiteness has been defined. It comes to us through law and history and custom that to be white, you actually can't be anything else.

RATH: This is the one-drop rule.

DAWKINS: Exactly. So if you're going to say you're white operating with this mindset, then it makes sense to say you're only white. And then African-Americans are next most likely to say they only have one racial background. And I think that's the other side of this one-drop rule, right? So you may have all of this white or other ancestry going on, but because of the one-drop rule, you identify only as black.

So what's been interesting for me, and this also hits home with my own personal experience, is what I call Blatinos, right? So Latinos who also identify as black are more likely to identify as multiracial than people who are black and who are mixed also, but don't have Latino or Latino roots.

And so there's something, I think, about ways in which Latino cultures think about race and think about identity that allows for some more fluidity that is also intersecting and affecting this conversation and leads us to think about things like immigration and public policy and education in ways that are really affecting our nation at the moment.

RATH: And does this make things a lot harder for researchers?

DAWKINS: Absolutely. At the end of the day, this is less than 3 percent of our nation's population. So I think we still have to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Americans identify as having one race only, that that's not a bad thing, but that we have to be really careful about how we read and interpret and spin these census results.

RATH: What are some of the other downsides to these racial categories becoming less stable?

DAWKINS: Yes. Colleges are having a really tough time now managing diversity and affirmative action programs. And we're seeing this in cases that are coming up before the Supreme Court as well that this two or more population goes to college the most with the exception of Asian-Americans. This is generally a very highly educated population. The Census suggests that they also come from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds than mono-racial groups.

So a lot of people are fearing that traditional mono-ethnic or mono-racial groups might be discriminated against at the expense of this new population that's coming better prepared and able to tick off all those boxes in terms of diversity, but may or may not be having the same experiences as someone who is Latino American, someone who is African-American or Native American.

And so just as we've seen historically that mono-racial groups need to take responsibility for maybe not giving multiracials the freedom to be all of who they are all the time, multiracials also have to take some responsibility and say, hey, wait a minute. How does our entrance into this conversation disrupt, for better and for worse, resources and communities that have worked really hard to be organized?

RATH: It is difficult to talk about multiracials as a group. The issues I face as an Anglo-Indian are utterly different from what Marcia faces as a black, white and Latina person. As she points out, for better or for worse, we only have the model of the black and white dynamic to work with. To advance the discussion, we need more than just new categories. Perhaps we need a new way to talk about race in America.


Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.