“What are you?” – Clinical Complexities of Biracial Identity

Linda Bortell Psy.D.

“I hate that question” a biracial college freshman lamented to me. “People look at me and it’s almost like I’m not a person because they don’t know what kind of person I am.” She was discussing being biracial (African-American and Caucasian) and feeling like people NEEDED to find a category for her. My patient stated that once people “put her in a box – it was ok.”  Another patient said to me, “ Sometimes I still can’t believe we have an African-American President.” She was an older African American woman and we continued to talk about the significance of President Obama. Later on that day a 17 year old biracial (African-American and Mexican) young man lamented to me, “The football coach always treats the Black kids as special. The rest of us are not seen as skilled, even though I’m a better athlete.”  When I pointed out that he was half African-American, he said, “Tell that to the Black kids. I’m not one of them.” In these examples, the issue of being biracial was marginalized.

As culturally competent psychologists, it is our job to help patients integrate and understand issues of race/ ethnicity/class/gender/disabilities/ socio-economic status/sexual orientation and social justice. The issues of dealing with biracial people need to be understood in a developmental perspective for each individual. While most biracial teens and adults may feel more fluidity in social situations involving race and/or culture, at times they feel significant pressure to “fit” one category. While the 2000 US Census was the first time biracial people could identify as such, biracial people may feel that they continue to be categorized by labels from others. They may struggle with their own internal identity, if they identify with one race more.

Sociologist Kerry Rockquemore, Ph.D. states that biracial people tend to fall within 4 different categories of identification. The first is the “border” identity, when the biracial person tends to encompass both socially accepted racial categorizations of black and white. They also include elements accepted from the combination. A “protean” is an individual who uses different identities and personas in appropriate contexts. Some biracial people use a “singular” identity, where they identify with one race or the other. They do not identify as being biracial. A 4th category is the “transcendent,” where there is a conscious denial of any racial identity. These people focus on being members of the human race and do not identify in other ways.

Clinicians must be aware of the impact of being biracial on individual patients as well as families. For most patients digging deep into the issues of race and ethnic identity can be challenging. Biracial patients may struggle more with labels and their internal identities.  “ When Halle Berry is Black and Barack Obama is Black, I guess I should just be Black?” was a question posed by a biracial adult. She felt like she wanted to understand both sides of her racial background – but she felt constantly labeled by her environment. In therapy she struggled to find ways to communicate the dissonance she felt with her “white” side and struggled with the shame she felt at communicating that with her white therapist. She felt as if she explored one side, she was dismissing the other. By studying the history of race relations in the United States she was able to understand some of her deep seeded fears of exploration and to open herself up to who she was.

A 14 year old in the book “What are you? Voices of mixed-race young people” clarifies her issues in the following: Being biracial isn’t hard because we’re confused about our racial identity. It’s hard because everyone else is confused. The problem isn’t us – it’s everyone else.”  Our teaching, interpreting and listening may not be with a biracial person, but maybe in helping someone else in understanding the issues. Being a culturally competent psychologist is looking at all of our patients and helping them to understand and accept the multicultural landscape that is California.

Fuyo-Gaskins, P. (1999). What are you? voices of mixed-race young people. New York, NY: Henry Hold and Company.

Rockquemore, K. (2007). Beyond Black:biracial identity in American. Lanham, MD: Rowment Littlefield.

About Dr. Linda Bortell:
Dr. Linda Bortell is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping families cope with divorce. She treats trauma victims from the perspective of helping them put the trauma within the narrative of their life, and understanding its’ impact. She believes it’s important to understand the blueprint that is laid down early in our lives, and how we continue to operate consciously and unconsciously off that blueprint. She works with children as well as adults. Additionally, she has worked with people around issues of infertility and its’ impact on the individual, couple and family. Her office is in 625 Fair Oaks Ave. Suite 270 South Pasadena, CA 91030, and may be reached by email to Dr. Linda Bortell or phone: 626.799.7941.

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