A condensed history of multiracial identification in the United States

How to write about mixed and multiracial people, Part 1

(Image by rawpixel.com / Freepik)

Mixed-race identity is chic right now: Our fictionalized stories are bestsellers, and public figures such as Naomi Osaka and Kamala Harris are a regular part of the national conversation. Heck, we’ve even made the news as one of the fastest-growing populations in the 2020 United States Census. As our identities have become trendy and more journalists seek to write about our experiences, it’s important that they respect what we have to say and honor who we are.

We multiracial people reject many assumptions, generalizations and categories. We are not a monolith, and we may even disagree on the terms multiracial versus mixed. Yet this is who we are—we’re both and neither, and our identities can be fluid depending on context.

When it comes to writing about mixed-race and multiracial people, it is critical to understand the historical context behind the terms, learn how to speak to sources and write about them, and examine any bias throughout the journalistic process. To help journalists produce nuanced reporting about mixed-race and multiracial people we’ve compiled a two-part guide based on our SRCCON 2021 presentation, “When ‘Check One’ Does Not Apply: Covering and Being Mixed Race in Journalism.”

In this article, we are going to review an abbreviated history of mixed-race people in the United States. If you are looking for a reporting guide, please see our companion article: Guidelines for reporting on multiracial people.

Throughout our articles, we alternate between the terms “mixed,” “mixed race,” and “multiracial.” We use all of these terms to refer to people whose background is a mix of different racial or ethnic categories.

Defining “mixed” today

Ask people what it means to be mixed and you’re sure to get a different answer each time. The same is true for data collection and reporting. The 2020 Census, which allowed people to self-report their race and ethnicity, reports that 10.2% of the U.S. population is mixed. (In 2019 it was estimated at 3.4% of the population.) Comparatively, in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 1.4% of respondents self-identified as mixed. Pew chose to categorize all respondents with multiracial parents or grandparents as multiracial too, and said 6.9% of the U.S. population is mixed.

For anyone who’s been forced to identify a certain way, it can be challenging to learn how organizations label you even without your consent. But Pew, our newsrooms, and other organizations aren’t the only ones seeking to define something as undefinable as racial constructs.

The same is true for mixed individuals. We can be fluid in our racial identity, claim only one race, or claim every race in our background. What matters is how we identify—not what a third party deems us to be. Yet at the same time, we as journalists know that categories and abstractions are at times necessary to observe and analyze trends.

Unfortunately, while there is no one way to define “mixed race,” our histories are full of examples limiting us with a single box. As the demography of the U.S. has changed over time, the Census has also radically changed how it asks questions about race.

Two hundred years of census categories

In 1800, the second U.S. Census labeled us as “All other free persons/Free colored” or “Slaves;” and in 1850 “mulatto” was introduced as a subcategory of “colored.” Mulatto, now considered an antiquated and offensive term in America, was used specifically to refer to someone with one white parent and one Black parent.

The first several censuses only categorized people as white or Black. In 1860, “taxed” Native Americans were counted for the first time, and “Chinese” appeared as a category only in California. The first Asian racial categories to appear nationwide on the Census were “Chinese” in 1870 and “Japanese” in 1890, highlighting concern towards Chinese railroad workers and the subsequent rise in Japanese migration to replace Chinese immigrant labor.

For Asian Americans, in particular, severe immigration restrictions throughout the 19th and 20th century (e.g. the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1917) prevented any kind of demographic representation in the Census. It wasn’t until the 1960s, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that Asian immigration was widely expanded and the Asian American community could begin to be recognized.

The “Other” category had appeared on the Census as a catch-all grouping beginning in 1910, but it wasn’t until 1960 that that the Census allowed respondents to select their own race. Prior to then, Census workers selected individuals’ races on their behalf.

Fast forward to 2000 when, for the first time, we were given the option to self-identify as more than one race. But the options were still limited to six racial categories: White; Black or African American; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander; or Some other race. These broad categories are still the framework the Census uses to identify race today.

An Age of ‘Loving’

One of the factors contributing to the lack of acknowledgement of multiracial people is that for many years, there were laws throughout the U.S. proclaiming it illegal for a white person and a Black person to marry. Anti-miscegenation laws, as they are known, slowly started to be removed midway through the 20th century but still had a firm root in the South.

Along came a couple, the Lovings, who after their 1958 marriage were arrested and excommunicated from their hometown for marrying. Banishment was seen as a kindness, as it was legal at the time to imprison someone for breaking this law.

Several years after moving, the Lovings brought their case to the American Civil Liberties Union. Loving v. Virginia was the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case in which it was ruled unanimously that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. That landmark decision also paved the way for the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings.

The implications of the ruling have been playing out in real time. In 2015, one in six newlyweds had married someone of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to one in 30 in 1967.

The relatively recent legalization of mixed-race marriage in America, coupled with the Census’s official recognition of mixed-race people only 20 years ago, underscores our acute need for informed journalism that explores and documents the multiracial experience. A lack of historical archives makes the reporting we do today vital for America’s present and future. Our stories need to be told accurately, sensitively, and with the nuance mixed people have not necessarily been granted in the past. To help further this goal, we have a companion article withg guidelines for reporting on multiracial people. Together, we hope these two articles can provide guidance and spur thoughtful approaches to stories about people like us.

As with all SRCCON sessions, we hope that these pieces are the start of a conversation, not the end. We encourage you to share these resources with your newsrooms and continue the conversations there. If you want to chat with us, or have ideas for how to update this guide in the future, please reach out. You can find us on Twitter at @jazzmyth, @caitlinsgilbert, @Lakitalki, and @KaitWells.


  • Caitlin Gilbert

    Caitlin Gilbert is a data visualization journalist at the Financial Times, where she covers U.S. and world news with data- and graphics-based reporting. Prior to joining the FT, she was a data journalist at Reuters Graphics and completed her PhD in neuroscience and genomics at Rockefeller University.

  • Jasmine Mithani

    Jasmine Mithani is the data visuals reporter at The 19th, an independent newsroom covering the intersection of gender, politics and policy. She also writes the newsletter Data + Feelings about being human and being data. Her experience in journalism spans outlets national to hyper-local, including FiveThirtyEight, National Public Radio, and South Side Weekly.

  • Lakshmi Sarah

    Lakshmi Sarah is a digital producer for KQED news and currently teaches at San Francisco State University. Previously she worked with AJ+ and Fusion Media Group. She has written and produced for a variety of publications, from The New York Times to KCRW Berlin. She likes thinking about innovative media and experimenting with new journalism formats. She and Melissa Bosworth co-wrote Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality (2018).

  • Kaitlyn Wells

    Kaitlyn Wells is a freelance service journalist and staff writer covering all things pets and style at the New York Times’ Wirecutter. Her first picture book, A Family Looks Like Love (Penguin Random House, May 2022), is inspired by her experiences growing up mixed race. The story follows a pup who learns that love, rather than how you look, is what makes a family.


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