“W hat are you?”
That is a question commonly asked of individuals who are multiracial. As a society, we have gotten used to checking off a metaphorical — and often literal — “box” when it comes to questions of race. We seem to expect everyone to “just pick one.”
But the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of our nation’s racial makeup, but also in the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to two, three or more racial groups.
The U.S. Census Bureau first started letting respondents choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in its 2000 survey. Since then, the multiracial population (defined as individuals who have at least two different races in their backgrounds) has grown rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black Americans who identified as biracial more than doubled, and the population of Americans who identified as being of both Asian and Caucasian descent grew by 87 percent. In addition, according to information compiled from the 2010 census and the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the percentage of infants born to parents of two or more different races increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And, of course, in 2008, in a historic event that in part reflects the nation’s growing multiracial population, Americans elected a biracial president, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan farther and a white mother.
The Census Bureau estimates that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. However, in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and issued a report, “Multiracial in America,” estimating that 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. The Pew study arrived at this figure by taking into account not only how individuals describe their own racial backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the U.S census does not do.
The Pew survey also found that many people with mixed racial backgrounds do not identify themselves as “multiracial.” In fact, 61 percent of such respondents identify themselves as belonging to only one race. However, the survey also discovered that individuals’ racial self-identification can change over the years. Some choose to identify with a different part of their racial background later in life or decide to begin identifying as multiracial rather than monoracial (and vice versa).
Counselors who study multiracial issues and in some cases are multiracial themselves say that this finding of shifting racial identity is indicative of one of the core issues of being from multiple races — identity and belonging.
On the outside looking in
“When I was young, I didn’t know I was different,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Leah Brew, who is half white and half Japanese. “Then we moved, and I was made fun of [at her new school] because they said I was Chinese.”
Brew didn’t know what being Chinese meant, but based on the teasing she was subjected to, she assumed it was something horrible. “So I asked my mom if I was Chinese, and she said, ‘No, you’re Japanese,’” Brew recounts. She was relieved but soon found that when she corrected her tormentors, it made no difference. Although Brew was also white, it was her Japanese appearance that mattered to her classmates.
As she grew older, Brew, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, became interested in exploring the Japanese side of her heritage and even traveled to Japan. Although she loved experiencing the culture and the people, she didn’t feel quite at home there either. For one thing, she says, she inherited her white father’s height and towered over everyone on the street. “I thought, ‘No, that’s not it’” — where she “belonged,” Brew says.
“When I moved to California, I thought this was it” because the state has many residents from various racial backgrounds, Brew says. “But the other biracial people I encountered were very dissimilar to me and got their identities from other things, like religion.”
Today, Brew, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees a significant number of multiracial and multicultural clients in her practice. She also helped write the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, a set of professional counseling practices developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network to competently and effectively attend to the diverse needs of the multiple heritage population. When it comes to her own identity and culture, Brew says she at times sees herself as mostly white and at other times mostly Japanese. She acknowledges that she is always moving back and forth between the two.
C. Peeper MacDonald, a practitioner and counselor educator whose research focuses on multiracial issues, is both white and Native American. Most people assume she’s white, however, which makes MacDonald feel that they are missing or ignoring a large part of who she is.
“I often use the opportunity [the assumption of her monoracial whiteness] to correct people and educate them about my identity,” MacDonald says. “I do, however, often get the sense that people feel that I am reaching. For example, I often hear, ‘Oh, well, everyone in the United States has Native American in them.’”
MacDonald, who teaches undergraduate psychology classes part time at Georgia Gwinnett College and is also counseling and supervising part time at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, often feels compelled to “prove” her ethnicity, she says. For instance, she will share her Cherokee name with people, which seems to satisfy them.
It was actually MacDonald’s interest in her family’s Native American heritage that led to her maternal grandfather reclaiming his history. For most of his life, MacDonald explains, her grandfather experienced severe racism because he was a Native American, so he often identified himself as Hispanic instead. MacDonald’s mother was raised by her white mother and a white stepfather and, as a result, has never really considered herself Native American, even though MacDonald says her mother does not look white. It wasn’t until MacDonald started asking as a child about the Native American side of the family that her grandfather, then in his 70s, started to embrace his heritage again.
ACA member Derrick Paladino, who is part Puerto Rican and part Italian American, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. When kids at school would question him about “what” he was, Paladino would simply say Italian because that seemed easier and perhaps safer.
Paladino, who also helped to develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, says he didn’t have a lot of contact with the Puerto Rican side of his extended family when he grew up, so he didn’t have much opportunity to explore the Latino part of his identity. When he ultimately decided to go to college at the University of Florida, Paladino says he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting other Latino students.
“I got my Latino Students Association card, and I was so excited,” Paladino recalls. “But I discovered that because I was not fluent or hadn’t had [what was considered] the full Latino experience, I didn’t fit in well.”
Paladino, a professor and coordinator in the graduate studies in counseling program at Rollins College in Florida, may no longer stand out like he did in the white Connecticut enclave in which he grew up, but like most people of color, he is still subject to many assumptions and microaggressions. For instance, Paladino, who co-wrote and co-edited the book Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families (published by ACA), has been asked by a cashier at a department store whether he was his son’s nanny. Recently, as he stood in line at an amusement park, he was asked to settle a bet between two people he didn’t know. The wager? Whether Paladino was Puerto Rican.
These counselors’ stories provide a glimpse of the myriad forces — societal, familial and personal — that shape and challenge the lives of multiracial individuals. Counselors can play an integral role in helping their clients navigate these forces.
That sense of not quite belonging — or even being told that they don’t belong — often starts early for multiracial individuals.
As Brew notes, as early as elementary school, multiracial children can begin experiencing microaggressions such as that question: “What are you?” Or, as in Brew’s case, these children might become the targets of racist taunts based on their actual or perceived ethnic backgrounds. For that reason, it is important for the parents of multiracial children to talk to them about race and racism from an early age, she says.
“Parents, in general, are reluctant to do that, but when parents do engage in it, the children are more prepared to handle comments,” Brew says. “There was an interesting study out of [the University of Texas at Austin] where they asked participants to talk with their kids about racism. When it came down to the wire, most parents dropped out of the study. It was simply too hard.”
Because the topic is so difficult and sensitive, counselors can be a tremendous asset to these parents by helping them to have conversations about racism with their children and with each other, Brew says. “This conversation needs to be explicit and purposeful,” she says. “The parents may need to work on thinking in inclusive ways rather than judgmental ways — the way we teach our students to respect differences. It’s the seed that helps teach children about their own culture as well.”
“I think it’s important for parents to start with very small children talking about skin color and how it’s different, but to give no meaning to color,” Brew continues. “We all see differences, and that’s fine. It’s when meaning is applied that differences become a problem. For biracial children, talking about how mommy and daddy — or mommy and mommy, or daddy and daddy — are different is also important to note, although, again, not giving meaning to those differences.”
“If the child is likely to experience racism or any other type of prejudice based upon differences, then [it’s] letting kids know that some people don’t understand differences and believe that people are bad based on how they look or how they dress, etc.,” she says. “Then when it actually happens, kids can feel safe to talk with parents, who should validate the child’s experience and help them make sense of it.”
It isn’t unusual for multiracial children to grow up, like Paladino did, in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even if these children don’t encounter bullying or overt racism, being one of the few (or perhaps only) children of color in an overwhelmingly white environment can exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. Counselors can help these children cope, Paladino says.
“I would want to continually validate what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be ‘otherness’ or not fitting in,” he explains. “At a young age, it may be difficult for [children] to fully grasp why they are experiencing these feelings, so I really want to be there for them in this part of the journey and allow them to ventilate feelings, thoughts and experiences.”
“For the parents, if they are a part of counseling or a parent consult, I would talk to them about what their child is feeling,” Paladino continues. “[I would] help them to experience empathy toward their child, talk to them about how to create a safe space for their child to talk and ventilate about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing, and help them look up children’s books as a way to talk about feeling different.”
School counselors — indeed all school faculty members — also play a critical role in helping multiracial children cope with racism and the struggle to feel included, says Taryne Michelle Mingo, an ACA member and former school counselor whose research focuses on marginalized populations. “I would [as a school counselor] develop a trusting relationship with the children and let them know that I can be a support system,” she says. For instance, she explains, if a child is being taunted or verbally abused, it is important for the child to view the school counselor as a safe person whom he or she can trust and feel comfortable going to for help.
One of the primary tasks for school counselors, Mingo says, is to get to know their students and make sure that everyone feels included. During her time as a school counselor, Mingo, who is African American, worked at a majority white school where only a small number of students were African American. Children of color aren’t typically used to seeing themselves reflected or represented in school materials, Mingo says, so she was careful about making sure there were dolls and books in her office that included children of multiple races. “Make sure that [these children] know they are visible,” she urges. “[That as counselors you are saying], ‘We know you are here.’”
When children who were feeling excluded showed up in her office, Mingo, who is now an assistant professor in the Counseling, Leadership and Special Education Department at Missouri State University, would engage them by asking them what they thought about themselves aside from what anyone else thought about them. She would have them describe themselves and ask them to draw a self-portrait. She would then go on to ask them what they liked to do and who their friends were.
If during the course of the conversation Mingo discovered that the child was feeling harassed or hearing negative comments, she would inquire where the child was and what was happening when he or she heard such comments. Mingo then asked what the child said or would have liked to say in response to those comments. Finally, she and the child would practice responding.
Mingo would also bring in the child’s teachers to make them aware of what was happening. When possible, she also liked to bring in the child’s parents or parent so that she and the parents could work together to more effectively support the child as a team.
In some cases, a child’s feelings of exclusion might be emanating from within the family itself. Not necessarily within the immediate family, but more often from the extended family, which might not have approved of the multiracial relationship in the first place, Paladino says. He notes that it was only in 1967 that it became legal to marry outside of one’s own race throughout the United States. That’s when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Brew has worked with multiracial couples and families facing the disapproval of extended family. “In terms of working with extended family racism, I first provide empathy to both partners,” she says. “Then I provide psychoeducation about the damage to self-esteem on children who listen to that type of talk. The biggest challenge is that so many minority families are hierarchical, so the adult child may not feel comfortable initiating these kinds of conversations. When it’s a Caucasian family member, then the relationship can often be less hierarchical, so the biggest challenge is just getting that partner to buy in and set limits with family members.”
“I haven’t had experiences with needing to cut off family members,” Brew continues. “[I] try to avoid that unless abuse is part of the picture. So, I help the clients manage their feelings about their own family members’ disapproval and try to offer support so that they eventually have the courage to confront their families. If they choose to confront, of course we practice that many times and prepare them for the worst possible outcome so they feel more confident.”
But even when there is no racial tension in the family, a multiracial person’s parents and other monoracial family members can never truly understand what it is like to be multiracial or multiethnic, Paladino says. “Validation is huge for this population,” he says. “They need support to figure out what they are, to allow them to be angry at family, angry at friends.”
MacDonald agrees. “My father, who is white, never understood why it was important for me to identify as biracial,” she says. “He views me as white and thinks I should identify as white. In a way, my white dad has always been a symbol for me of white culture because he also holds beliefs that don’t acknowledge institutionalized oppression and a belief that because we live in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — beliefs in which I do not share. Even as adults to this day, we do not speak of race, politics or privilege.”
Identity and acceptance
Ultimately, it is up to the multiracial individual to determine how he or she wants to self-identify. “A lot of clinical work is to help my clients articulate and identify what is from what culture so that they can make choices,” Brew says. “What feels right in different situations? Who am I, and what’s the right way to be?”
Counselors can play an important role by helping multiracial clients sift through all of their experiences and beliefs in the search for identity, says Mark Kenney, who helped write the multiracial counseling competencies and co-founded ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. He advises counselors to start by validating a client’s personal experiences and creating a safe environment for self-disclosure.
In some cases, counselors may need to help clients find resources, such as social groups or books, to explore their heritage because these clients didn’t have full access to part of their heritage growing up, Kenney says. He uses Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as an example. “His white family can’t tell him about being African American, and his father is Kenyan, so he can’t impart the African American experience,” Kenney notes.
Although identity is a pressing issue for many multiracial individuals, so is the question of feeling accepted or belonging. Kenney returns to the example of President Obama. Because of his phenotype, or physical appearance, most people automatically view Obama as African
American, and physical appearance is often an important factor that influences how multiracial individuals ultimately choose to identify themselves, Kenney explains. Given his lineage, Obama could have decided to identify himself as white, Kenney says, but because of the way he looks, society at large wouldn’t see or “accept” him that way, especially in our current racial climate. At the same time, Kenney continues, because Obama’s father was black but not African American (and because his mother was white), other people may not embrace Obama fully as being African American.
MacDonald says she sometimes struggles with feeling that she is a legitimate member of the multiracial community. “I am often viewed as white and, as a result, receive white privilege,” she explains. “So in many ways, I am an outsider to the multiracial community because I still receive privilege versus minority status.”
Again, counselors can help multiracial individuals reconcile these factors, but the process may not be smooth or easy. “Helping the person sort through their particular journey and come to their own decision about how they want to identify may put them in conflict with their family and their community,” Kenney notes.
With multiracial clients, Kenney likes to use solution-focused and narrative therapy. With narrative therapy in particular, clients can write a new story of their identity, he says. Kenney also stresses the importance of counselors familiarizing themselves with multiracial identity models so they are aware of all the factors involved in a person choosing an identity.
Because individuals who are multiracial might not be or feel fully accepted by any of their racial groups, counselors should help them seek out individuals who possess similar backgrounds, Kenney says. If organizations for multiracial individuals aren’t readily available in their communities, counselors might consider forming groups — perhaps using the group therapy model, but for social rather than therapeutic purposes, Kenney says.
Kenney and Paladino also recommend bibliotherapy as an effective intervention with multiracial clients who are struggling with their identity or sense of belonging. Paladino says he personally found Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, edited by Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn, very helpful in his journey.
All of the counselors interviewed for this article caution against assuming that individuals who are multiracial have come to counseling because of their multiracial status. At the same time, Brew and MacDonald say it is important not to automatically assume that no connection exists between the person’s presenting problem and his or her multiracial status. After all, being multiracial does exert influence on clients’ lives, just as do other factors bound up in identity, such as being female, having a disability or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Catherine Chang, an ACA member whose research specializes in multicultural issues, believes that society needs to change how it identifies people. Counselors can help, she says, starting with their intake forms and how they designate racial background.
“We force people to check a box,” Chang says. “I’m 100 percent Asian and married to a Caucasian man. My children have to check two separate boxes — white, Asian. They can’t check multiracial or biracial.”
Chang urges counselors to offer an option for multiracial individuals on intake forms and to also leave space for clients to fill in what they feel their background is. Paladino agrees, noting that check boxes don’t encompass multiple heritages such as being black and also being Jewish.
Finally, Chang says that it is important for counselors to examine their own heritage and how that background affects who they are and how they interact with individuals from other groups and races.
Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s online article about transracial adoption, “Adopting across racial lines” wp.me/p2BxKN-4xn
To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, take advantage of the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
ACA Interest Networks and Divisions
- Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network (counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks#Multiracial)
- Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (multiculturalcounseling.org)
- Counselors for Social Justice (counseling-csj.org)
- Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, written and edited by Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Derrick A. Paladino
- Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latina/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
- Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
- Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
- Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook
- Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker
- “Queer People of Color” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
- “Microcounseling, Multiculturalism, Social Justice and the Brain” with Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey
- “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does it Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee
- “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee
VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas)
- “The Invisible Client: Ramifications of Neglecting the Impact of Race and Culture in Professional Counseling” by Issac Burt, Valerie E.D. Russell and Michael Brooks
- “Appreciating the Complexities of Race and Culture” by Ria Echteld Baker
- “Counselors’ Multicultural Competencies: Race, Training, Ethnic Identity and Color-Blind Racial Attitudes” by Ruth Chao
- “Enhancing Multicultural Empathy in the Classroom and Beyond: A Proposed Model for Training Beginner Counselors” by Jorge Garcia, Gerta Bardhoshi, Matthew Siblo, Sam Steen and Eileen Haase
- “Ethnic Minority Clients’ Perceptions of Racism-Related Stress in Presenting Problems”
by Ruth Chao
- “Interracial Adoption and the Development of Cultural Identity” by Kimberly Kathryn Thompson
Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II and David G. Zelaya
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.