Guidelines for reporting on multiracial people
How to write about mixed and multiracial people, Part 2
When it comes to writing about mixed 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 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 introduce guidelines for reporting on mixed-race populations. If you are looking for historical background, please see our companion article: A condensed history of multiracial identification in the United States.
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.
While it can seem daunting to cover an identity that has been so historically misrepresented, there are several key ways in which the reporting process doesn’t have to be. We’ve broken down this guide into quickfire Do’s and Don’ts focused on sourcing, copyediting and pitching. We’ve also described some overarching narratives about mixed-race people that we would caution journalists to avoid or approach with caution, given their media saturation.
In order to make some of these concepts more tangible, one example of a mixed-race person who has been at the center of many articles in the past few years is Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris, who identifies as both Black and Indian, has been accused of changing how she identifies in order to appeal to different voters. She has been consistent in her identity, though some media organizations have chosen to highlight one aspect over the other.
The prime directive of sourcing and copyediting for stories about mixed-race people should start from centering an individual or individuals’ identities, however they define them. Use the language of the source, even if it goes against your newsroom’s style guide.
DO always question your data sources.
Often, the way people are classified into racial categories is missing critical nuance, has changed over time, or is just wrong (e.g. voter file data, Census data, college admissions data, etc). For example, police files may show what race law enforcement perceived someone to be, without anyone asking a person how they identify. In other cases a journalist may perceive someone as being one race, when they may identify as multiple.
As with all data reporting, ask yourself the fundamental questions:
- Where did this data come from?
- Who collected it?
- What was the motivation of the people who collected the data?
- What is missing?
DON’T conflate differing definitions in a longitudinal data sample.
One of the most common mistakes in using Census demographic data is conflating differing race definitions or aggregations. The race categories that have been used over the past decade are commonly separated into “alone” or “in combination” with other races, as well as a separate category for “two or more races”; these definitions are not interchangeable, especially when defining multiracial communities. Complicating the Census data further, the Hispanic/Latino identity information is collected in a separate ethnicity, not race, question. Very often, demographic data will simply breakdown Census data into White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic, with every other category lumped into a vague “Other” label, without any explanation of what data is specifically being shown. Always check to see how categories are established and defined in the data, as the way in which the data is collected can vary widely!
DO always ask sources how they identify.
Center the source and let them guide their definition of identity. Here are some sample questions you can use when asking a source how they identify:
- “What is your racial background?”
- “How do you identify ethnically?”
- “What is your ancestry?”
We recommend prefacing the question with the reason why, e.g “My newsroom is tracking demographics about our sources in order to ensure our coverage is representative of our audience.”
DON’T assume language fluency, identifiers or religion.
This is sage advice to follow whenever you are interviewing someone new, but making this error when talking to someone multiracial can prompt the source to shut down. Mixed-race people can feel lots of shame about their level of fluency in languages other than English.
DO always use the identifier provided by the source, even if it goes against your style guide.
It’s so important, we’re saying it twice! We can’t stress this enough. The erasure of multiracial people is real, and it’s harmful to perpetuate this because it’s a stylistic choice made by a historically white institution. If you’re worried your readers won’t comprehend the source’s identity you can always include an explainer in the following sentence.
DO use the most specific demographic category available.
The census’s “Two or more races” category certainly is a mouthful, but is more inclusive than literally “Other”-ing a chunk of your readers. Of course, there will be times when you must use the label “Other” because it’s the most granular category available. One way to provide more context and use more inclusive language is to add a note explaining which races or ethnicities are included under the “Other” banner.
DON’T insist on demographic statistics adding up to 100%.
With the way different surveys break out (or don’t break out) Hispanic/Latino ancestry, sometimes the most holistic and complete data picture can come from showing overlapping categories. With higher resolution information about identity (the 2020 census survey offered many more categories and opportunities for self-reporting of race), it becomes even harder to get to perfect 100% category compilations. Those cross-sections of identity are valuable; make sure to be transparent and call out the unruly sum in order to not confuse readers.
DON’T reduce identity for brevity’s sake.
Reducing identity to broader categories means you’re making a choice to value certain parts of a person’s or group of people’s identity over others. This type of reduction can lend itself to “purity” type framings and hearkens back to the racist “one drop rule.” It also subtly challenges the legitimacy of someone’s racial identity, and usually implies one racial or ethnic identity is more important than the other—a decision that can only be made on the individual level. We saw this happen when coverage of Vice President Kamala Harris only referred to her as Black, skimming over any mention of her Indian ancestry.
When we simplify or remove nuance about identity, we miss the chance to properly cover that identity and to show support to our diverse audiences. Another common mistake is to abstract a specific experience to a larger one, often to save space in heds and deks. However, if a story is about someone Taiwanese, name that instead of substituting with “Asian.” Likewise, one would say “Nigerian American” instead of “African American” or “Black,” unless the source specifically identified as one of the latter.
DON’T assume “multiracial” means a specific mix of identities.
When the media uses the term “mixed race,” there is often an underlying assumption that the term refers to people with one white parent and one Black parent (or one white parent in general).
Most of our points so far have been straightforward: do this, not that. We also wanted to call attention to some fuzzier issues that can be more difficult to parse. We have compiled this list of considerations related to story framing and what sorts of articles about mixed-race people get written.
DON’T make “dilution” a key part of your story.
Oftentimes, multiracial people are subtly (or not-so-subtly) implied to be “less than” or have a less legitimate claim on their ancestry than monoracial people. A perfect example of this is in the movie “Dear White People,” where the Black Harvard dean implies that the reason Tessa Thompson’s activist character is so passionate about Black rights is because she is “overcompensating” for being mixed race.
This implication is, in nicest terms, deeply icky. It plays into ideas of racial purity and supremacy. If a source brings up the topic organically, do not feel the need to censor them, but when thinking about the thesis of a story we suggest steering clear of any rhetoric that implies the identities of mixed-race people are splintered parts instead of multiple wholes.
DO question the monopoly of racial categories and frame your stories as specifically as possible.
When you pitch your story, think about all the facets of identity you are honing in on. Are you focusing on a specific mixed-race population? A group with specific shared ancestry? Do they follow the same religion, or are they concentrated in a locale? The more pointed your inquiries, the richer—and more accurate—your story will be.
DO examine the role of whiteness in your thesis.
Many multiracial people are racially ambiguous, and can be perceived as a different race than they actually are. Colorism can be a difficult topic to broach with friends and family, never mind sources, but it is an important one. Does the source you’re interviewing from benefit from proximity to whiteness? How so? Do not be afraid to ask questions related to treatment or discrimination based on appearance.
- Have you been made to feel “othered” because of your appearance?
- Do you find it difficult to talk about your identity with others?
- Have you ever been treated differently by white colleagues/acquaintances/friends because of your appearance?
- How do you think your proximity to whiteness has affected how others treat you?
DO critically examine how you choose to describe the appearance of mixed-race people.
There is a common fetishization of mixed-race beauty, especially in children. Usually the people who are put on a pedestal are light-skinned and considered beautiful because of how their ancestry “exoticizes” whiteness. We’re definitely not urging you to never refer to mixed-race people as beautiful—every race is! We are prompting you to always examine why someone is being hailed or treated the way they are.
This phenomenon is particularly of note in the film industry, where light-skinned Black people are given more prominent roles and held up as a vision of Black beauty or Black identity — because, of course, lighter skin is closer to the European ideal.
DON’T perpetuate harmful character tropes, such as the Tragic Mulatto/a.
The Tragic Mulatto trope was birthed in the 1840s, and describes a tragic mixed-race character whose problems all stem from their multiracial heritage. Historical examples include Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the work of Lydia Maria Child, but this storyline stubbornly persists today. Consider Stark Trek’s half-Vulcan Spock, mocked by Vulcan children for being too emotional and then ostracized by humans for being too different. The trope even appears in Shonda Rimes’s Bridgerton, where Marina Thompson is heavily implied to be mixed race and is additionally villainized throughout the progression of the series.
DON’T reuse tired and cliche story frameworks like “torn between two words,” “a Romeo and Juliet love story,” or “unable to relate.”
This is a tricky needle to thread, because for some mixed-race people, many of these phrases can feel like accurate descriptions of their experience. We see an issue when these sort of stories are the only ones being told about mixed-race identity. Before pitching a story centered around mixed-race identity as Other, research previous work your outlet has published to see if there is a pattern of perpetuating this narrative.
Allyship in Action
To be an ally is to be actively listening and learning. Here are some recommendations for allies to continue learning on this topic.
Remember that language changes overtime, and adjust accordingly. Use style guides for guidance and always ask your interview subjects how they identify. The National Association of Black Journalists and the Diversity Style Guide as well as language guidance from AAJA are great style guides to bookmark. Remember to use this language in your everyday life too—not only when you’re filing copy.
Most importantly, remember that we exist. Challenge your binary thinking of what it means to be mixed race, and familiarize yourself with the spectrum of mixed-race experience. Listen to stories about the varieties of multiracial experience in order to facilitate your personal expansion of the term. Personally, we recommend the following stories:
Passing, by Nella Larsen
“I read this novella in high school, and it completely blew me away—it was the first time I had read anything that reflected my own struggles with balancing two different cultures and grappling with my identity. The story follows the relationship between two childhood friends who are mixed-race Black women in 1920s Harlem; as the title suggests they also pass as white in different settings. It’s an incredible piece that navigates how race, sexuality, gender, and class intersect on identity. Plus, it was just adapted into a movie featuring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga this year, so I recommend reading it before watching!” (Caitlin)
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
“Whew this book hit me like a ton of bricks. Michelle’s portrait of both growing up biracial (specifically with an Asian mother and White father) in America and her relationship with her mother was deeply familiar to me. Her writing is so beautiful and personal, especially in the sections that focus on her family and food. It’s a cathartic read for anyone that has experienced both shame and pride for the non-White parts of their identity and how that manifests in their relationship with their parents.” (Caitlin)
Happy Trail, by Daisy Prescott
“I didn’t think that this romance novel I casually picked up would make me sob with feelings of validation! I recommend this book because of its depiction of a relationship between a white-passing mixed-race person and a white person. I found Jay’s struggles to be relatable and not over-dramatized. Reading Jay’s reaction to being called a white guy reminded me of the countless times I’ve had to navigate that situation in my own life. Also, I’m a sucker for a couple snowed in with only one bed to share…” (Jasmine)
This is our brief guide to better reporting about multiracial people. We also suggest you check out our companion article: A condensed history of multiracial identification in the United States.
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 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 (she/her) is a queer multiracial entity focused on making complex ideas accessible to everyone. She has worked as a visual journalist, game developer, civic tech software consultant, data editor, and user experience designer. Her experience in journalism spans newsrooms national to hyper-local, including FiveThirtyEight, National Public Radio, and South Side Weekly.
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 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.