This piece is part of the Growing Up Amid the Rise of Racism Series
In the U.S., people of color (POC) are often relegated to particular racial identities even when they would prefer a different identification, which impacts their experiences, relationships, and position in American society. In a recent project, I collected data on 70 Millennial college students through journals and interviews, and the stories I heard from these Millennials suggest that the ways in which other people see their race may actually be more influential than self-identification.
Millennials, born between 1980 and 1998, have grown up in a racial reality much different from previous generations. They are the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history, and the overall population of POC in the U.S. has steadily increased through their lifetime. Millennials saw the election of the first black-identifying president, Barack Obama, which many people use to assert equality has been achieved. In reality, racial tokenism belies the truth of persistent racial disparities across many social institutions, like education, the labor market, housing, and criminal justice.
The way Millennials (and POC more broadly) identify racially matters, at both an individual and societal level. Individually, there is the psychological stress of confirming or disconfirming external perceptions of race that at times conflict with self-identity. Societally, there are the implications for future demographics in the U.S., for instance assertions that by around 2050 the U.S. will be a majority-minority country and how changes might impact sociopolitical life (particularly in the views of many white Americans).
Janet Helms defined racial identity as “a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group.” The idea of perception is very important as it speaks to individual agency, however self-perception is only one part of racial identity. How individuals are perceived by others also plays an important role (arguably a more important role), as race in the U.S. context is largely based on physical attributes, or what people see. For instance, think about the controversy that emerged when Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, attempted to express a black racial identity.
In my study, multiracial Millennials talked about the pressure they felt to identify with only one race. Mason (all names are pseudonyms) journaled about how he altered his own self-identification entirely because of how he is perceived by others:
“My mother is Chinese and my father [is] Irish, but I look more Chinese than Irish so I classify myself as Chinese…if someone were to ask me what I am, race wise, and I said Irish, they would most likely look at me funny…”
Further, for multiracial Millennials with one black parent, the “choice” these students have for their racial identities is essentially made for them — they are viewed almost exclusively as black, and thus often assume a black identity so they can avoid fighting outside perceptions. Gianna, who is Haitian and Filipina, told me that when she was younger she identified as both black and Asian because she was proud of being multiracial, but now things are different:
“…I consider myself to be black more than identifying myself as mixed because generally people judge based on what they first see. They’re not going to see this girl is half something and half black. They’re just going to be like, ‘She’s black.’”
This phenomenon associated with having black blood demonstrates the lingering significance of the historical “one-drop rule,” which required that anyone with known black ancestry be legally considered as only black, and mirrors research on biracial identities. As we also see with stories like Mason’s, the fact that multiracial Millennials with one white parent are still expected to identify solely with their minority background demonstrates how the one-drop rule extends to anyone with non-white ancestry.
Even Millennials who see race as unimportant, or who would prefer not to identify racially at all, are still expected to express a minoritized racial identity because of how other people see them. Maya, who is Indian, spoke to this:
“My racial identity doesn’t extend too much beyond the way I look…it’s almost like this foreign concept to me that I have to accept because I look a certain way, and so I am perceived a certain way, but it’s not necessarily something that’s important to me.”
Djeneba, whose mother is white American and father is West African, prefers to identify herself as “American.” Growing up in almost all-white schools and neighborhoods Djeneba learned to identify as biracial, however, since others often denied her the ability to identify simply as American because she looks “mixed,” even going so far as to be “surprised” when they find out her mom is white (also demonstrating how “American” is implicitly understood as “white”).
External classification was significant for Millennials of color who phenotypically appear white or have passing skin tones as well. Ishita, an Indian immigrant, brought up her skin color on multiple occasions, even discussing a time a professor was surprised about her identity, telling her that she didn’t “look Indian” because of her pale complexion. The implications for skin color were most apparent, however, for Latinx Millennials.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinx origin is an ethnicity, not a race, however in practice many Latinx people disagree. In the last census, Latinxs accounted for over 95% of all people who checked “Some Other Race” (over one-third of all U.S. Latinxs), suggesting that many Latinxs believe current racial categories to be insufficient. Research indicates that several, often intersecting factors impact Latinxs’ identity decisions, including generation in the U.S., country of origin (many of which have different racial classification systems), proximity to other races (including settlement locations), and physical features. The latter two factors speak specifically to the role of external perceptions.
All but one Latinx Millennial expressed in some way that they believe their race is Latinx, whether or not they would check a different race if they “had to” because of a technicality (e.g. skin color). Patti, who is Dominican and Mexican, identifies as Latina, but understands that she is technically white because of her skin color, and that most people perceive her as white until she starts speaking or they get to know her. Patti also talked about other family members, however, and how their darker skin colors would lead them to check a different box — and be perceived differently.
Miguel, originally from El Salvador, discussed how he previously considered himself white, but was forced to shift his racial identity after immigrating:
“When I moved to the [U.S.] at the age of 15 I added another two labels to my life, I became a Latino/Hispanic and also a minority.”
This change happened in large part because other people — mainly his white fraternity brothers — constantly reminded him that he was a minority, despite his phenotypically white appearance.
As these Millennials demonstrate, external evaluations of racial identity exert such a strong pressure that it is almost futile to push back against them, despite self-identity preferences: “People see me like this, so why should I fight it?”
Requiring that POC identify in specific, racialized ways — even when they do not want to — actually serves to protect and maintain white dominance, in large part through shifting definitions of race. We see this historically in that some early European immigrants were not originally considered white: the Irish, for example, were only later assimilated into American whiteness, in large part because they distanced themselves from the black laborers they had worked alongside for decades.
Contemporary examples also exist. The Census recently proposed changes to their race questions that would effectively make “Latinx” a racial option and create a new category for Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) people, who are often phenotypically white but are not considered white in the traditional American sense. Under the Trump administration, however, these changes were abandoned, and some researchers suggest that this is in part because they would result in a decrease in the total white population, possibly impacting white American social dominance.
Additionally, shifting definitions of race result in more subtle ways of organizing American society along racial lines. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has suggested that the U.S. is moving from a historically bi-racial system to a more nuanced, loosely organized tri-racial hierarchy of whites at the top (which includes groups like fully assimilated Latinxs, e.g. Senator Ted Cruz, or some lighter-skinned multiracials), an intermediary group of “honorary whites” (lighter-skinned Latinxs and Asians, like most Cubans or Chinese and Japanese Americans), and “collective blacks” at the bottom (including blacks and dark-skinned Latinxs and Asians). As this hierarchy is based largely on skin color, external evaluations are increasingly meaningful.
All of this demonstrates the importance of external perceptions in racial identity decisions. Interestingly, though, many people continue to assert that race is unimportant and invisible, and Millennials are the first generation that has been raised amidst pervasive media coverage of this supposed “post-racial” U.S. society. In a contradictory twist, however, POC are still expected to identify racially in specific ways that, in the end, really only serve whites and whiteness.
Jonathan M. Cox is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Dr. Cox’s research interests include racial and ethnic identities, racial ideology, the experiences of college students, and diversity and inclusion processes. He is currently investigating the racial identities and racial ideologies of college Millennials. His research highlights the ways in which color-blind ideology differentially impacts the experiences of white Millennials and Millennials of color, with an intentional focus on intra-racial differences among various minoritized groups.