For Kip Fulbeck, the son of an American father and Cantonese mother, identity is all about context.
Growing up in Southern California, among his Taiwanese and Chinese relatives he was the white kid who didn’t speak their language, appreciate their food or understand their customs. At public school in the San Gabriel Valley, classmates picked on him for being the only Asian student.
“It was bizarre and confusing being beaten up and called a ‘Chinaman’ when I was certain – even told by my siblings and cousins – that I wasn’t Chinese,” said Fulbeck, an art professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, known for his work promoting multicultural awareness.
Fast forward a few decades and people of mixed racial backgrounds have become more common. Multiracial Americans account for 6.9% of adults and are growing three times as fast as the population as a whole, according to a 2015 Pew report. Interracial couples accounted for 10% of heterosexual married couples and 21% of unmarried same-sex partners in 2010, according to Census data.
And yet, studies show that racial identity can still be fluid for this growing population.
As their numbers and profile rise, researchers say the labels they use to self-identify, and why they choose them, pose social and political consequences for the American racial landscape.
“Racial identification is significant for the implementation of affirmative action, the drawing of legislative districts, and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in employment, education and housing,” said Lauren Davenport, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.
A growing body of research looks at the factors that influence self-identification. Much of it has examined the role of family, peers and environmental context in determining how multiracial Americans self-identify. A new study by Davenport, published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review, examines the influence of social identities in determining the groups that multiracial people identify with.
Based on a sample of more than 37,000 Asian-white, black-white, and Latino-white biracials – the makeup of the majority of the multiple-race population – Davenport said her findings underscore a new “racial moment” in the United States.
“Assessing the labeling decisions of biracials allows us to better understand how social class, gender and religion inform personal understandings of race in the United States,” Davenport said. “These findings show that for the growing mixed-race population, racial labeling choices are intimately linked to social group attachments, identities and income.”
Those decisions also reflect the larger shift toward self-determination of identity, perhaps the most significant development in recent years for the multiracial population.
Changes in the U.S. Census and other data collection efforts that let people choose more than one race helped pave the way. Their public profile is rising, too, thanks to writers, artists and filmmakers whose work leads to greater multicultural visibility in mainstream America. Fulbeck is one of those advocates, through his award-winning “Hapa Project,” which features stories and images of people who self-identify as having mixed ethnic heritage including Asian and Pacific Islander roots.
“This is based obviously on our numbers dramatically growing, but even more due to the willingness of many individuals to speak out – to question basic fundamental biases like the check-one-box-only ethnicity questionnaire that we simply can’t fill out honestly, to address a lack of accurate media representation amidst a plethora of stereotype, to be bold enough to insist on defining oneself rather than have others outside do it for you,” Fulbeck said.
Traditionally, biracial Americans of part-white parentage have identified culturally and politically with their minority race. Overall, Davenport’s study suggests the tide is turning toward acceptance of the multiracial label, despite previous research suggesting otherwise.
The study, “The Role of Gender, Class, and Religion in Biracial Americans’ Racial Labeling Decisions,” is based on data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey from 2001, 2002 and 2003. Conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles, the survey is completed by incoming freshmen at community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities across the United States.
Overall, the study found that 71% of black-white biracials, 54% of Asian-white biracials, and 37% of Latino-white biracials identify as multiracial.
That black-white biracials were the most likely to self-identify as such is noteworthy, she said, given the legacy of the one-drop rule – known in social science as hypodescent – which for decades structured how people from part-black backgrounds were legally and socially identified.
It’s also consistent with census data showing that “black and white” has become the largest multiple-race population in the United States, tripling in size from 2000 to 2010, she said. (The share has grown for other groups, too. The white and Asian population increased significantly from 2000 to 2010, growing by about three-quarters of a million people, with an 87% change in its size, according to census data.)
As for black-white biracials, “I think it relates to the fact that the ‘one-drop rule’ has been so strong for this population that they feel like historically they have been given less of an ability to choose their race,” Davenport said. “I believe this movement towards multiracialism is partially a response to that frustration.”
While black-white biracials were the most likely to identify as multiracial, they were also the least likely to self-label as white. Davenport found that 5% of black-white biracials identify as white only, compared to 11% of Asian-white biracials and 18% of Latino-white biracials.
Gender emerged as the single best predictor of racial identification, according to the study. All else being equal, biracial women are much more likely than biracial men to identify as multiracial, suggesting racial boundaries are less malleable for men.
The study also found that wealth as measured separately by household income and median neighborhood income was highly correlated with racial identity, supporting previous research showing that affluence “whitens” racial self-identification. All else being equal, the study found that biracials from more affluent families and who live in wealthier areas will perceive greater commonality with their white peers and be less apt to identify as singular racial minorities.
The study also examined the influence of “ethnic religions,” defined as religions that are racially homogeneous and accentuate a shared cultural heritage, history or homeland. The study found that biracials belonging to ethnic religions are more likely than nonaffiliated biracials to identify exclusively as a minority, suggesting a “cultural overlap between certain religious identities and racial/ethnic backgrounds,” the study says: Baptist for blacks; Catholic for Latinos; and Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim for Asians reinforces identification with that minority group.
The study also acknowledged other factors, such as family structure and the impact of regional and neighborhood effects on racial identification, and found lesser correlations between them and racial identification. Asian-white and Latino-white biracials who reside in the Pacific West or the Northeast are more likely to choose a multiracial label, whereas those living in the Midwest are more likely to adopt a nonwhite or multiracial identification, according to study results.
Regardless of background, one thing is clear: Everyone’s experience is different, influenced by a confluence of factors, environmental, social and otherwise.
Getting thrown in a trashcan and being called a “chink” made it clear to Fulbeck how others saw him, coloring his impressions of himself. He rejected his Cantonese heritage until he finally met others who related to his experiences, beginning a period of self-reflection.
Through encounters with academics, artists, authors, musicians and playwrights as a college student, and researching and meeting actors and activists, he began to question and re-evaluate who he was. For his senior project, he documented his Chinese grandmother’s experience in a nursing home where no one spoke Cantonese.
“All of my peers told me it was the best work I had ever done,” he said. “The epiphany here was realizing I could tell my own story, address concerns relevant to me, and that doing so allowed others to find parallels and relevance in their own lives, that through specificity came universal meaning.”
His next project, a film about hapa identity called “Banana Split,” put him on the map and taught him that identity was a conscious and ongoing process, and that he had the right to define himself.
“Now, it’s truly about who I am, who I want to be and larger issues of existence.”
CNN’s Julie In contributed to this report.