Multiracial-ethnic Identity Development: Salient Adolescent Experiences

This article examines how different childhood experiences can affect multiracial-ethnic identities and impede the developmental process.

By Olivia A. Vinckier

Published 4:02 EST, Mon November 16th, 2021

Olivia A. Vinckier  

Abstract- This article examines how different childhood experiences can affect multiracial-ethnic identity and impede the developmental process. With the growing number of multiracial individuals in America, previously published literature was reviewed and synthesized. The purpose of this review is to shed light on the impact that racial experiences in a multiracial individual’s adolescence can have on their multiracial-ethnic identity, as well as the development of such an identity and mental health. Findings show that physical appearance, racial miscategorization, and racial questioning, as well as being an outsider of their monoracial group, are all salient factors that affect multiracial-ethnic identity development. The review also examines how confidence and security in personal multiracial-ethnic identity can benefit their mental health. Overall, salient childhood racial experiences can affect multiracial-ethnic identity development, which impacts one’s well-being.   

Keywords: adolescent, race, microaggressions,

ethnicity, multiracial-ethnic identity, passing 


Salient childhood experiences can dramatically affect one’s multiracial-ethnic identity (MR-EI) in adulthood, as well as prompt exploration of their heritage and culture. Microaggressions like racial questioning and miscategorizations are common experiences among multiracial individuals. These encounters and other influential variables, such as physical appearance and family, impact the development of MR-EI in adolescence and the understanding of their identity in adulthood. The reviewed literature is formulated on multiracial individuals in the United States, for it is an ethnically diverse country with a growing number of multiracial citizens. The paper will also discuss race as a term and its flexibility, as well as its existence or use in the United States.

  1. Defining the Terms

In the presented paper, the term adolescent or adolescence is frequently referenced to describe the group in discussion. The majority of the reviewed papers here used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which characterized adolescence from 12-18 years of age. Race and ethnicity are key terms that are the basis of the entire discussion. Race is defined as a socially constructed group based on physical characteristics and their shared history due to these features [1]. Since the concept of race is simply a social construct, it changes over time and in different contexts. Ethnicity is defined as the social construct which uses ancestry, geographic origin, and culture to form groups and identify differences [2]. The noted difference is that race is based on physical differences while ethnicity is based on geography and culture. Along with race, there is racism, defined by Harrell [3] as “a system of dominance, power, and privilege based on racial group designations; rooted in the historical oppression and a group defined or perceived by dominant group members as inferior”. Monoracism is a unique form of racism where multiracials are oppressed simply because they do not fit into monoracial categories [4]. In this paper, microaggressions are defined as intentional or unintentional, brief verbal, behavioral, or environmental degradations, that are insults towards people of color [5]. 

Root [6] refers to multiracials as people of two or more racial heritages. Due to the similarity and overlap of both racial and ethnic identity, this paper often refers to the term multiracial-ethnic identity (MR-EI), since distinctions are unlikely to be made, and both are equally relevant [7]. Passing as monoracial is defined as when one changes, implies, conceals, or is dishonest about their self-expression to fit in and become acceptable to the targeted audience in context [8]. Racial terms might not have a genetic meaning; however,  they are still a categorical illusion carrying a significant social purpose, i.e., the basis of hierarchy in America. The truth is not in the categories themselves but the realness of their prejudice, racism, and discrimination that comes with association and categorization [9].

  1. Purpose 

The purpose of this paper is to understand the impact childhood experiences can have on a multiracial person’s identity development, security, and understanding. For multiracial people to completely understand their MR-EI and have a secure identity in adulthood ,they must be aware of how they came to their identity [10]. It is noted that a strong ethnic identity yields better overall well-being, mental health [11; 12; 13; 14]. Additionally, ethnic- and//or racial-based discrimination is associated with lower self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms [11].

This paper will cover salient factors that can affect the development and security of a multiracials identity: physical appearance, education,  and environment Physical appearance is one of the most salient factors in identity development. It can be influenced by personal perspective about one’s physical appearance and knowing outsiders’ assumptions about them. Feeling foreign in their race, especially within family and peer groups, can lead to negative experiences such as hazing [6] and microaggressions [14]. Environments include neighborhoods, households, and peer groups.

Thus, the research question of this literature review is: How do salient racial experiences in multiracial adolescents affect multiracial-ethnic identity development?  


I used certain key terms within the Google Scholar database to discover peer-reviewed articles. The key words were “multiracial”, “identity”, “racial experiences”, and “psychological”. I then evaluated and selected articles based on methodology, relevant salient racial experiences (ie; physical appearance, family, peers, neighborhoods,) and overall quality of study. Over the span of four months,  I reviewed 24 relevant articles that covered 10-15 years. I utilized Poston’s Biracial Identity Developmental Model [15] to frame the effects of salient racial experiences on multiracial-ethnic identity development. Poston’s [15] model consists of the following stages: personal identity, choice of group categorization, enmeshment/denial, and integration. 


  1.  Race 

Due to the similarity and overlap of both racial and ethnic identity [7], this paper often refers to the term multiracial-ethnic identity (MR-EI) since distinctions in the literature are unlikely to be made, and both are equally relevant. How one develops a secure and individualized MR-EI is complex and different from how a monoracial individual develops their racial identity. Therefore, will be able to understand how multiracial individuals decide their multiracial-ethnic identity by exploring the history of race and reviewing Poston’s Biracial Identity Developmental Model, which is described later on in the paper. 

Race is not just a term that incorrectly socially differentiates people. Children are taught that race is an accurate classification of genetic and biological differences. These views are all inaccurate and outdated. Outsiders may think that they see phenotypical differences in skin color, hair texture, and eye shape. They, therefore, use that to build and support an illogical relationship between biology and racial identification. Yet the divisions we see in society are not natural because they are not biological. Race is simply a social construct, although mistaken as phenotypic differences, that has fluctuated for centuries in America [1]. The different criteria in almost every United States census since 1790 just shows these are not scientific categories, but political ones [16]. However, it is not to say that race is an illusion since race is the social base in American society and culture. We have allowed it to impact our daily lives with no real correlation to a person’s genetics [9; 17; 18]. 

Overall, the importance of racial categorization is merely to fit or to be placed into a socially constructed group.

  1. MR-EI Development and Poston’s Model 

In this paper, I used Poston’s Biracial Identity Developmental Model to describe multiracials’ development as well as biracial individuals. Poston’s Biracial Identity Developmental Model [15] is a five-step developmental process. Poston created this model by comparing  monoracial whites  to minorities and multiracial individuals in adolescence by studying their relationships with their parents. He used samples from the data of The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, conducted by.

The process begins at a young age when one chooses their (1) personal identity, whether that is gender, sexuality, or race. Membership in any group is just becoming salient, and identity is based on self-esteem and self-worth as they develop and learn from their family. Then during a time of separation and pressure, there is a (2) choice of group categorization. Society pushes them to choose an identity, commonly of one racial or ethnic group. They force them to choose to feel a sense of belonging or lose a chance to participate with peers, family, and social groups. Hall [19] identifies that factors used to make this decision begin with (a) group status. This factor could be families’ ethnic backgrounds, neighborhood demographics, and the ethnic influence of peers. Next, (b) social support factors come into play, such as cultural and parental/family acceptance and social participation within schools or communities in general. Finally, and arguably most critical are (c) personal factors. These can include language and cultural knowledge, physical appearance, age, political involvement, and overall personality [19]. At this point, it would be very unusual, but not impossible, for the adolescent to choose a multiracial-ethnic identity. Following their group categorization, confusion and guilt about one’s choice and how they feel it does not fully represent them would lead to(3) enmeshment and denial. A lack of acceptance, self-hatred, and guilt projected from one or more racial groups come during this stage. As time passes, feelings of appreciation (4) might arise. The individual will begin to value their multiple identities and broaden the scope of their group orientation. At this stage, they still tend to identify with a single racial group. However, exploration about their racial or ethnic heritage and culture is likely. Finally, the biracial (although truly multiracial-ethnic) identity developmental process is concluded with (5) integration. They finally can experience wholeness in one’s identity and appreciate all their racial and ethnic attributes. At this level, a secure and integrated MR-EI develops [15].


Racial experiences in adolescence that affect MR-EI can vary from person to person. However, consistently, findings show that physical appearance and experiences within one’s racial community (family, neighborhood, and peers) can impact MR-EI development and the security of their identity in adulthood.

  1. Physical Appearance 

In Carwell’s et al.’s, [13] study on critical incidents that are central to a person’s MR-EI development, a participant recalls that her friend commented that her hair is too long for her to be Black. This microaggression on her physical appearance causes the participant to question her own racial identity [13, pp. 1669]. We see that microaggressions like these can impede the developmental process and insecurity in one’s multiracial-ethnic identity. 

It is estimated that as many as one in five Americans could identify as multiracial by 2050 [20], and yet people still make assumptions based on how others look. Being faced with constant miscategorization and racial questioning can lead one to constantly explain and justify their physical appearance, even if it might seem obvious to them. Doing so can trigger individuals to think differently about their racial attributes, affecting their clarity and security about their identity. Multiracial individuals might also feel rejected and therefore disassociate from their race group if they believe they do not look or “fit in” with their peers. One may feel they are supposed to look the same as the racial group they identify with and feel misplaced if they do not. However, those who are more aware of how they racially look to others show consistency in their identity over time. They also tend to internalize the constant assumptions made about their race [21].These individuals might prefer to  “hide” part of their identity to avoid questioning and miscategorization about their race.

  1. Passing 

Hiding or concealing one racial identity can also be referred to as “passing”: a choice made to maximize benefits, life chances, and quality of life, or even avoid discrimination. Multiracials can make this drastic change in identity either temporarily or permanently, shifting from a more mistreated minority to a more acceptable minority or simply from minority to majority. Multiracial individuals’ physical and cultural ambiguity allows them to permanently, or situationally “pass” into a socially-defined, pre-existing, racial, or ethnic group [8, pp. 62]. However, this privileged opportunity creates an exclusive, unequal tool that is only realistic for multiracial and not monoracial individuals. While it benefits the individuals who can pass, monoracial and less ambiguous multiracials do not get the luxury of passing and are still left to struggle with discrimination. 

  1. The One Drop Rule 

Throughout time, physical appearance has impacted the way one is racially classified. A century-old example is when multiracial individuals with even a drop of Black heritage are considered Black due to the one-drop rule. The one-drop rule, also known as the rule of hypodescent, was used throughout United States history to classify individuals into socially constructed race groups. Anyone with a “drop” of African ancestry would be considered Black (or at least to have it stated on their birth certificate) [22].

In records, we see many individuals with White and Black racial ancestry label themselves as Black due to the one-drop rule, claiming a Black identity unaware of their European genetics. An estimate of 75%-90% of the American Black identifying population has White ancestry. Roughly 6% of the whole American White identifying population has Black lineage. Therefore, centuries of relations between Europeans, Africans, and indigenous Americans in the United States have caused these individuals to claim a monoracial identity when they could very well be multiracial [9]. 

States determined blackness by a variance of fractions: 1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 An individual’s racial classification could actually change when they crossed state borders. The fluidity of racial categorization in America shows the absurdness of such classification [9]. 

The one-drop rule can become problematic for multiracials by forcing them into predetermined, socially constructed race categories because of this stigma created over time. It gives the outdated racist “rule” a chance to grip modern-day diversity. Not only does this create opportunities for division and discrimination, but it also prevents multiracials from expressing their ambiguous selves [8]. 


Racial community is a broad group that can largely impact an individual’s multiracial-ethnic identity development. One’s racial community can include peers, family, and neighbors. Multiracial individuals may feel rejected by a single race group that is a part of their identity [21]. Rather than feelings of rejection, they may instead feel pressure from their racial community to identify with a specific race group, usually related to the parent of color [23]. 

Miville, Constantine, Baysden, and SoLloyd [23] interviewed ten multiracial adults about their childhood experiences. Many interviewees reporte feeling peer-pressure from associated racial communities to define themselves within the pre-existing racial categories.The researchers also found that peer groups and communities who view and accept one as multiracial provide an escape when faced with multiracial-targeted racism. Therefore, a lack of such a community can take away access to relatable racial experiences, causing one to remove themself from their multiracial-ethnic identity.  

  1. Hazing 

These multiracial individuals discussed might also experience hate crimes. A common and extreme incident, mostly reported within Black communities, is hazing. Hazing is an example of when actions are performed to prove that one is an insider. It is a degrading process usually to show racial and ethnic authenticity. The test is pass/fail, and results are fluid since the giver of the test determines the outcome and already has assumptions about the (multiracial) person. The tasks or tests tend to be cruel and require submission of aspects of their multiracial-ethnic identity. Two examples from the Black community are stealing and denying all White people or parents. These incidents tend to occur in mid- to late adolescence. It is traumatic and derails one’s identity development [6].

  1. Experiences Within Family 

Being multiracial with two monoracial parents can be a unique challenge. Not only is this individual beginning to explore two new cultures and the combination of them both, but they are also the pinpoint of the union of two completely different families and cultures. This section will explore how rejection and microaggressions projected from monoracial sides of the family can affect MR-EI development. It also covers the positive effects that discussions about their mixed-race heritage can have on their identity and finally, how immersion in one’s multiracial and monoracial community can also benefit overall well-being and MR-EI. 

Studies show that favoritism and isolation from monoracial family members can lead to a negative sense of self and a less-developed multiracial-ethnic identity. Participants in a Nadal et al., [14] study on nine multiracial participants described how family members from one side made them feel isolated from the other and questioned their MR-EI. Feeling less favored by monoracial family members had negative impacts on the participants’ mental health. Racial microaggressions from family members are another critical factor that impacts multiracial-ethnic identity in adolescents. These microaggressions either (a) can impede the multiracial-ethnic identity developmental process, or (b) significantly affect one’s mental health and identity. Sometimes monoracial family members do not acknowledge what they’re doing since they might not be fully aware of their monoracial biases. As defined early in the paper, this bias refers to monoracism. The acts of prejudice, accidental or purposeful, lead multiracials to feel isolated from their family. The impact is particularly strong for only children or children who are the only multiracial individual in their lineage.

Discussions about race and ethnicity can lead to a more positive sense of self and a more developed MR-EI. It is critical to address these topics instead of avoiding them to show support towards the child’s MR-EI. Supportive interactions with multiracial family members can also reaffirm and uphold the child’s decision involving their multiracial-ethnic identity [14]. Findings also show that becoming involved with extended family, multiracial or not, can increase confidence in individuals’ multiracial identities, and their multiracial self-understanding strengthens [26].   


The purpose of this literature review was to synthesize research on salient racial experiences in adolescents and the effects of such experiences on multiracial-ethnic identity development and security of identity in adulthood. It is important to understand how childhood racial experiences within a family, neighborhood, and peer group affect an adolescent’s MR-EI development. Physical appearance is a critical factor in this process due to the lack of understanding that race is a social construct [24]. Assumptions about one’s race based on the way they look, talk, or act, can lead to racial miscategorization and questioning, two things that can lead to personal questioning and insecurity [13]. This insecurity directly affects mental health, diminishing the overall quality of life for multiracial youth.

With a plethora of research about salient childhood racial experiences that can affect multiracial adolescents, the state of the literature reviewed is positive and informative. However, there is a significant gap in research about the idea of new racial categorization. There are few articles [8] about whether there should or should not be new race groups and what they could be. 

Further researchers could conduct a qualitative study of multiracial individuals’ opinions on the importance of proper racial categorization for multiracial individuals. Current research that does explore racial miscategorization and questioning also supports the idea that there is a lack of proper racial categorization for multiracial individuals [10]. Therefore, it is critical for research to study the narratives of multiracial individuals on this topic.

 Do we need new categories with the rise of multiracial-ethnic individuals year by year? When combining the colors yellow and blue, we do not call it yellow and blue, but green, a color different from the original two. So this begs the question, do we need a new green? 

Olivia Vinckier, Youth Medical Journal 2021


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