Multiracial in the Age of Obama

It’s never been easy being a multiracial person in America, but are things changing with a mixed-race president? Biracial author Sundee Frazier is cautiously optimistic.

Barack Obama made history by becoming our first “black” president. But, as some are quick to point out, he is black and white. Though our society is becoming increasingly multiethnic, we are still obsessed with racial labels — “Is she black, white, Hispanic, Asian?” Unfortunately, our standard racial categories don’t include a natural spot for multiracial people. Instead, we often pressure them to choose one or the other.

As a person of mixed race, author Sundee Frazier has experienced this pressure firsthand.

Born in Seattle and raised in Washington State, Frazier’s family background is African American on her dad’s side and Swedish/Scottish on her mom’s. Her life experiences as a mixed-race person play a major role in her writing, where she addresses multiracial issues and themes.

Check All That ApplyFrazier’s books include the widely read and discussed Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person (InterVarsity Press, 2002) and Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It (Delacorte Press, 2007), a work of juvenile fiction for which she was awarded the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award from the American Librarian Association in 2008 and appeared on NBC’s Today show. Her next novel, The Other Half of My Heart, which comes out next summer, is about biracial twin sisters whose relationship is tested when they visit their Southern grandmother and compete in a pageant for African American girls. She spoke to UrbanFaith about the experience of being a multiracial American — and Christian — in the age of Obama.

URBANFAITH: What’s it like being a multiracial person in this country?

FRAZIER: Being multiracial colors every aspect of my life. I’m reminded of my multiracial existence every time I look in the mirror, see the family pictures in my hallway, or interact with a new person — because the topic of my racial identity often gets brought up in some way or another.

We often hear about the challenges, but what are some of the benefits?

I’m able to see more than one side of racial arguments and divisions, and so I empathize with or understand multiple points of view — a strength clearly demonstrated by our multiracial President. I’m able to move between groups and sometimes translate one to the other. I’m able to relate to a diverse group of people and have a diverse friendship circle. I have so much culture to draw from in defining my sense of self, and I’m able to claim membership in more than one ethnic group.

And what are some of the hardships that you’ve faced as a multiracial person?

It’s sometimes difficult being a “double minority,” meaning a minority within a minority; not having an automatic “in-group” with which to identify; having people from one of your ethnic or racial groups question your authenticity as a member of the group.

What was it like for you growing up, and do you think it’s easier for today’s multiracial children and young people?

I was born in 1968. Growing up, I became increasingly aware that my biracial background was different from the vast majority of children I knew. Even though my Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in Ityounger brother and I are five years apart in age, I always felt closer to him than to my peers because of the fact that we both knew what it felt like to be different racially. I had hoped that things had gotten easier for today’s multiracial children, now that “multiracial” is an actual category on official documents and forms — it wasn’t when I was a kid — and there are more role models in the media. However, I’ve heard from librarians who’ve read my novel, Brendan Buckley’s Universe, and they tell me how extremely grateful they are for my book because they know of biracial children in their schools who are really struggling with finding their place. That makes me really sad, and yet I know the problem is not with being biracial but with our society, which is so racially polarized. Everyone goes through a stage of trying to figure out who they are. Multiracial kids aren’t unique in that regard. But we do have a unique set of issues to work out.

What kind of effect, if any, do you think Obama’s presidency will have on their sense of identity?

Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency means a lot to multiracial people — especially those who are black-white. He is the first African-American president, but he also clearly comes from an interracial family, and that means a lot to me as a person from that same background. When he gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech, that was when it really hit home for me that he was not only going to be the first black president, but the first multiracial president — one who would not only seek to understand both sides of any conflict, but could actually empathize and speak to the different sides as a member of each. That is a unique ability that people of mixed-race backgrounds possess. Seeing him give that speech was thrilling for me, and I believe his presence on the international scene will encourage many other mixed-race people to speak out about our unique perspectives and strengths, and to offer these perspectives and strengths to the world.

How has being multiracial influenced your outlook on life?

Being multiracial has caused me to think a lot about the meaning of race for my identity. Ultimately, what gives me peace is knowing that regardless of how others see or label me, I am first and foremost a child of God, loved by God, and made in God’s image, which is too complex and rich to be represented by any one ethnic group.

I believe every ethnic group offers a piece of God’s image for the rest of us to see. Mixed-race people reflect that part of God’s heart which is all about “breaking down the wall of hostility and making the two one.” In our very creation, we represent God’s commitment to reconciliation. Being a person of two races — two races that have historically been opposed and continue to be at odds — has made me a person that yearns for reconciliation. I yearn for peace between people groups because when there is discord I feel it on a very personal level. On the flip side, when there is reconciliation and acceptance, I feel it deeply, as well. Reconciliation and love between the races is the issue that drives me and cuts me to my core. This shows up clearly in my fiction writing.

What particular challenges do multiracial people face in terms of identity issues?

I would say being able to accept themselves fully, regardless of whether they experience acceptance from others within the racial groups to which they belong; being able to see themselves as whole people rather than as fragmented — part-this, part-that — and as somehow “less than” than others who have a single-race identity; and being able to construct and maintain a solid identity in a society that still doesn’t completely accept race mixing and doesn’t know what to do with people whose experiences, psyches, and internal and external realities result in them feeling more “multiracial” than anything else.

Do you think multiracial people tend to identify with one race more than another? And if so, how do they decide?

I think people who assert a multiracial identity are inherently saying they identify with all their races to some extent. It’s important to recognize that peoples’ public and private identities may differ. Someone may announce he is one thing to the world, but internally feel like he is another. He may live a “monoracial” identity in public but allow his multiethnic ways to show more with his family and close friends.

As for me, I truly identify with both because my experience is very biracial. When it comes to racial identity, our country’s paradigm is either/or, but I consider myself both/and. I was raised in a two-parent home where one parent was white and the other black. Both sides of my extended family came together often for family events, so I grew up seeing black and white people eating, laughing, and celebrating together. I was exposed to both black and white cultural influences.

So, has it always been an even balance for you?

I do feel a stronger pull toward my black heritage and culture — because I’ve always felt very close to my extended black family, and because I am proud of how black people have overcome in our country and constructed a culture in the face of terrible persecution and oppression. Because black people had to work so hard to reconstruct an identity post-slavery, black culture is ironically easier to identify, while white culture — although ubiquitous — is harder to define specifically.

But regardless of whether I can identify the white cultural influences in my life, I know that at the very least I have benefited from white privilege because I have a white parent and because of how I look. This is another fact of my multiracial existence. I know what it feels like to be a minority as well as to be included as a part of the majority. Accepting this truth has helped me accept my biracial self.

When a multiracial person identifies with one particular race, does that mean they are rejecting the other race?

In a sense, yes — at least in terms of their personal identity. But that doesn’t mean they’re rejecting their family members of that race.

How does appearance, such as skin color, influence a multiracial person’s identity?

It may have a huge influence or it may have little influence at all. It really depends on where and how the person was raised; what kinds of messages they received about who they are; and how good or bad they were encouraged to feel about being a part of their racial groups.

In this country, of course, whatever racial group you most clearly resemble is the one you will be labeled as. But that doesn’t mean you will have the same view of yourself. Some people clearly think a multiracial identity is silly for people whose physiognomy looks “monoracial.” However, those people do not determine who I am. I think what’s most important is that people are at peace internally about whatever choices they make regarding their racial identity, and that they recognize that it can change over time as they make new discoveries about themselves.

How do you feel about multiracial public figures, such as Tiger Woods and President Obama, being designated as one race instead of multiracial by the media?

Tiger Woods and President Obama have each asserted their own identities — Woods as mixed race and President Obama as black with mixed-race heritage — and that’s how it should be. If the media and others call them something other than what they have said they are, that is unfortunate, but we can’t control how others view us.

The fact that their racial status has been the source of such great debate says to me we are in an era of flux when it comes to racial identity. There would have been no debate or discussion 40 years ago; they would have been black, period.

Some people listening in on this conversation might say we’re doing more harm than good by talking about race in the first place. They’d suggest a color-blind approach is the only way to overcome our differences.

Personally, I wish we lived in a society where race didn’t impact one’s access to resources as unjustly as it does here. Because race-based inequities exist, I understand mixed-race people’s tendency to identify more strongly with their historically oppressed ethnic groups. I’m biracial, but I stress my African-American heritage for this very reason.

For Christians, however, whatever our race, we should be committed to aligning ourselves with whoever in our midst is oppressed or struggling, whatever their race. The issue of personal racial identity is important. I believe God wants us to be at peace with how He made us and to see the purpose behind our mixed-race creation, but racial identity is not more important than becoming people of love and justice.

How has your faith influenced your own experience as a multiracial person?

Knowing I am first and foremost a loved child of God and that God’s ultimate intention for me is to make me like Jesus relieves me of having to keep up some kind of racial image. Our racial identity is secondary, or even tertiary (after gender), to our identity as children of God.

However, our Christian identity does not nullify our ethnic one. I believe God has given us each an ethnic background intentionally and wants us to embrace our ethnicity and share it with others. The many ethnicities in this country and world reflect God’s creativity, diversity, and inability to be grasped completely by any one group.

I know I am mixed race for a reason, and I strive to understand that reason so that I can use it, as well as every other aspect of my personhood, to glorify God and reflect God’s image in me.

For more information about Sundee Frazier and her work, visit her website at SundeeFrazier.com.

About the author, Kyle Waalen

Kyle Waalen is an editor at Urban Ministries, Inc., a freelance writer, and a regular contributor to UrbanFaith. He has a bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Taylor University-Fort Wayne, Indiana, and an MS in Written Communication from National-Louis University in Chicago.
  1. Kyle, thanks for doing this interview. It is nice to see a TUFW person – I worked there this past year and have good friendships with employees there.
    Although I classify myself as Ethnically African-American it has been interesting for embrace that racially I am diverse. My paternal grandparents were both black/white biracial and my maternal grandparents had a significant amount of Native American blood. Even in my apparent “blackness” I have come to realize that I am more than that both historically and biologically (it is interesting to notice and acknowledged features that resemble more whiteness than blackness).
    Perhaps most pertinent for me and my understanding of a multiracial/multiethnic existence is the reality that I am inter racially married to a woman who has a Taiwanese heritage. My children will be “multi” in many ways. Not only will they have diversity within their blood and with their immediate family, but they will have relatives in Taiwan and a history there that has contributed to their existence.
    Sundee, thanks for your work. My family has greatly benefited from your perspectives and insight.

  2. Interesting report just out. Multiracial people are now the fastest growing demographic group in America: http://tinyurl.com/lr6kgq

  3. I remember Sundee from her role on the worship team for the Urbana Missions conference but was not aware of her bi-racial background until her book was published.
    Her thoughtful perspective is helpful to those of us who have never had a reason, need or for that matter opportunity to question our racial identity. Without the help of folk like Sundee and others we are pretty much unable to consider this issue on our own.
    Reading this interview also brings to mind the challenges that missionary kids talk about relating to the dominant western culture. Perhaps they also are forced, by life experience instead of race, to do the hard work of figuring out what their identity is. Most of us take what the culture we live in provides us without question. Or, maybe that’s just me. :-)