Identifying Mixed-Race Cultures

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  • 0:04 Mixed-Race Cultures
  • 0:33 Identity and Flexibility
  • 2:13 Mixed Race Community Examples
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Racial identity can be a strong factor within many societies. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of multiracial identity and examine a few major examples in the Western Hemisphere.

Mixed-Race Cultures

What is your race? It's an important question in many societies. Racial identity, or the cultural interpretations of ethnic heritage and physical appearance, can play a large role in how people interact. Some cultures have highly homogenous populations and strongly associate a single race with their national identity. Other places are a bit more complex. So how do multiethnic cultures handle these issues of identity? Let's take a look.

Identity and Flexibility

Racial identity is a matter of choice, so a society's definition of racial categories can be pretty interesting. Multiracial cultures, for example, often have a level of flexibility that others don't. People can identify with one side of their heritage in certain situations but then identify with the other side in others. In a truly multiracial culture, where the majority of people identify with multiple racial categories, racial identity can be a very fluid concept.

Of course, multiracial communities only make up a minority in some societies. They may find flexibility within their own cultures, but rigidity in the mainstream. African Americans in the United States have dealt with this issue for decades. During segregation, lighter-skinned African Americans had a degree of mobility because they could participate in white society if they were willing to sacrifice a level of self-identification as black. African Americans with darker skin, however, were more restrained to a single category, even if they had some white ancestry.

Since mainstream American culture wasn't historically a multiracial one, at least in terms of outward appearances, racial categories tended to be more rigid. However, as time has progressed and as the number of multi-racial households and families increases, we're starting to see a shift in how Americans typically look, and it doesn't exactly fit one broad category. This isn't to say that the races we see and recognize in the early 21st century will cease to exist, but rather, that they will continue to combine together to create something new.

Mixed Race Community Examples

As we can see, multiracial identity is an extremely complex subject that changes from culture to culture. Perhaps the best way for us to understand identity in truly multiracial societies is to look at a few major examples here in the Western Hemisphere.

Let's start with one of the most highly embraced multiracial categories in the Americas: mestizos. A mestizo is a person of mixed European and Amerindian heritage. The term itself first appeared as part of the strict racial hierarchies in the Spanish colonies of Latin America, but today has emerged as the dominant identity of the region.

For example, let's look at Mexico. The de facto Mexican ethnicity is mestizo based in mixed Spanish and Aztec heritage. Mexican mestizos select attributes of Spanish and Aztec heritage and identify with them to different degrees. For example, Mexicans speak Spanish and are predominantly Catholic, but their food is based in Amerindian cuisine and they actively celebrate their Aztec ancestry.

Mexico is a multiracial society, but this can be tricky in its own ways. Since one specific form of mestizo identity is seen as the national standard, it is less flexible. Someone who actively practices the Aztec religion, for example, would be seen as an outsider. Similarly, Mexico's mestizo identity is so Aztec-focused that it tends to exclude the other roughly 50-60 Amerindian groups who call Mexico home.

With legacies of slavery spanning the hemisphere, another common multiracial identity is that of mulattos, or people of mixed European and African heritage. This is a racial term that varies widely in use across the Americas. In the United States, the categories of white and black were historically treated as exclusive. In recent years, the number of Americans who identify as biracial has increased, but the use of the term mulatto is still taboo.

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