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Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America - Book Review

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice MultiRacial
April 4, 2016 Shauna Harris University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Please note that reviews are written by members of our community and reflect their specific lens of experience and understanding.


Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America

Authors Kerry Ann Rockquemore and David Brunsma

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

ISBN 978-0-7425-6054-3

Reviewed by: Shauna Harris

Beyond Black is a groundbreaking study that used both interview and survey data of young black/white individuals that sought to understand the meaning of being racially mixed in the United States by providing a theoretical and methodical analysis of racial identity for multiracial individuals in post-civil rights America.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore and David Brunsma document the comprehensive range of racial identities of individuals that have one Black and one White parent and provide a sociological explanation of the identity choices facing those who are racially mixed.  The purpose of focusing on black/white racially mixed individuals stems from the fact these two groups still have the most social and spatial separation in the United States.  Racial categorization among black/white individuals still poses continuing questions about how racially mixed individuals construct their identity and the constant use of the one-drop rule to identity multiracial individuals as black.

Chapter one provides a scholarly foundation for describing the reasons it is necessary to study multiracial identity development.  Chapter one provides a discussion of slavery, miscegenation, the ‘one-drop’ rule, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights era and how black individuals have been racially categorized in the United States over hundreds of years.  One of the most interesting discussions is the social mobility of racially mixed individuals with a darker skin complexion.  Individuals with a lighter skin complexion had social and material advantages over other blacks because of their lighter hue and physical features resembling white people.  Racial stratification within society became and is still the norm, which has impacted and continues to impact the lives and experiences of individuals in the black community.

Chapter two focuses on the past and current research on multiracial individuals.  Before the 1960s, being multiracial was equivalent to being black.  Researchers operated under the assumption of the ‘one-drop’ rule to categorize multiracial individuals or those with any African ancestry.  The authors provide an understanding of the theoretical framework in addition discussing prior research exploring the social and cultural factors along with physical characteristics that have examined to understand the connection to how multiracial individuals identify and how society perceives their identity.  Based on the literature review, the authors believed there was a gap in empirical research on racially mixed individuals and sought to design a study to further examine the social processes that dictate the meaning of racial identity for multiracial people and to address limitations in previous research.  The study included in-depth interviews along with surveys from college students located in the Midwest, Southern, and Eastern parts of the United States.  Institutional types included a private Catholic university, historically black university, and a regional public university.

Chapters three provides a detailed description of the various ways multiracial people make meaning of their racial identity in post-civil rights United States.  The authors discuss theoretical models of identity development and explain how racially mixed individuals vary in how they self-identify.  For instance, some multiracial people identify as white, some black, others biracial and there are those who fluctuate between identifying as black or white.

The authors go in depth in chapter four to explore the impact of social, contextual, and structural factors on how racially mixed people identify.  Factors such as physical appearance, family, childhood experiences, peer networks, and geographical location play a role in how a person of mixed heritage identifies; however, in chapter five, there is a larger discussion that focuses on physical appearance and social interactions with others and how these two factors influence how racially mixed people identify.

The final chapter outlines the power that economic and political factors have impacted racial categorization of identities for multiracial people and continues to seek to answer the question, who is black today versus who will be black tomorrow.  Going back to the 2000 census data, there was a push to change the way individuals in the United States could identify themselves.  The charge was led primarily by white mothers of racially mixed children.  The debate of who is black in the United States has historically caused tension and continues to be an ongoing discussion among political leaders and advocacy groups for multiracial people seeking to identify beyond the box.

This book did not resolve the question of who is black.  As presented in the findings, understanding multiracial identity is complex.  Political, social, cultural and economic factors all play a role in how racially mixed people make meaning of their identity and how they choose to identify themselves with the rest of society.  Although the authors discuss the need for additional research on multiracial identity development, and racial categorizations, there are no clear recommendations on how to obtain this information to move forward.