On Multiraciality: Perceptions of Homogeneity and Difference

“I note the obvious differences between each sort and type./ But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”  (Maya Angelou, Human Family)


It’s been said that young primates engage in social learning in three main ways (van Schaik 2016). They can obtain information horizontally (from peers), vertically (from parents), and obliquely (from other adults). For the most part, the vertical transmission of information tends to flow in one direction; juveniles learn from the experiences of their parents rather than vice versa.

Yet parents can also learn from their kids. The street is not entirely one-way. My own children (who are also primates, just like you and I) have taught me a lot: from what they learn in school, see online, or their slang (derp). As “biracial” children, they’ve also taught me a few things simply by existing. There are general lessons that most parents learn – that having children can reorient priorities, and that parenting is a mix of vicarious pain, joy, and fear. For me, one specific lesson as a specific parent of these specific children, has to do with the ways that people perceive similarities and differences. I’ve been hesitant to write about my kids here (we all deserve some privacy). Still, I think there are some lessons I’ve learned that might be useful.

First, a step back. Most of my recent ancestors, as far as I know, come from Ireland and Britain, with some Scandinavians thrown in there, as well as ancestors from other regions of Europe. Oh, and Neanderthals too; they aren’t exactly recent, but we can’t forget them. Before that, my ancestors eventually trace back to Africa, as is true of everyone. If someone were to ask me about my ethnicity, I’d probably say that I am Irish-American, though I know that any label must necessarily discard some complexity. After all, a single name cannot possible encompass the nearly infinite number of  ancestors standing behind me. Identity, ancestry, and genes certainly correlate with each other, but never perfectly so. My wife is the daughter of Korean immigrants and would refer to herself as Korean-American. And her recent family tree, as far as she knows, contains ancestors who lived not only in Korea, but also in northern China.

With the kids at the beach.

Of course, those are just recent ancestors, and the ones we know of. We know that all people belong to one species and thus share ancestry. It’s merely a matter of time of how far back we have to go until your family tree and my family tree intersect. In a genetic sense, we are all cousins.

Anyway, this is all a long lead-up to say that people would probably describe our kids as “bi-racial,” multiracial, “mixed,” or hapa. The chances of me meeting my wife would have been less likely a few centuries ago (though not impossible), given the distance between northwestern Europe and east Asia. In genetic vocabulary, we might say our kids are a microcosm of gene flow, which occurs when populations merge and have offspring. Whatever. To us, they are simply our kids, and we love them the way that parents are supposed to do. And they are good kids – smart, kind, healthy. We know that we are lucky.

As for the lesson, it’s not from anything our kids have done. Rather, it is about how other people sometimes perceived them. When they were young, their extended families, on both sides, certainly showered them with attention and love. They sometimes commented on their appearance. This isn’t unusual – kids all over the world often hear comments like “Oh, you have your mother’s eyes!” Or “your father’s nose!” The thing that stood out to my wife and me was that my family tended to say that our kids were more Korean-looking, while my wife’s family usually said that they looked more white, or “American” (the “American” comment is a whole other can of worms. Who counts as “American?”). Not all of our family members saw things this way. Different people had different perceptions and many people just kept their opinions to themselves. Still, we noticed a trend. 

I’ve talked to other parents who have kids of diverse backgrounds, and I’ve gotten a range of responses. Many had similar experiences to ours, but others didn’t. Altogether, these experiences made me wonder if people tend to see differences, rather than similarities, first.

There is a certain logic to this. Very often we define things not merely by what they are, but by what they are not. In a recent essay, Jessa Crispin argued that this comes into play in many groups identities. For example, atheists are defined by simply not being theists. Germans could be portrayed by how they differed from being French (I’m not sure about this example, but her idea is interesting). When it comes to people, do we tend to dichotomize them as being either “like me” or “not like me” with a propensity toward seeing the latter? If so, is this innate? Or does it depend on what we learn about human variation, and our experiences with diversity?

Seeing Differences

Here’s an example. In 2005, the New York Times ran a story about African-Americans who visited Ghana as tourists. Many were seeking to rediscover their roots in West Africa, which were tragically disrupted by the slave trade. However, some were dismayed that local Ghanaians referred to them as “obruni,” which roughly translates as “white foreigner.” One woman said “It is a shock for any black person to be called white. But it is really tough to hear it when you come with your heart to seek your roots in Africa.”

I think this reveals something about the way that we sometimes see differences and similarities. If a person can be called “white” in one country and “black” in another, then clearly much depends on the eye of the beholder. It is subjective.

Perspective. “The Revolution of Giraffes,” by Matthieu Robert-Ortis.

This is not limited only to the way that we perceive other people. There can be more than one way to see the same phenomenon, even for something as ordinary as a sunrise. Richard Dawkins relayed the following story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who contemplated the ways that people saw the movement of the Earth relative to the Sun:

“We’re now so used to the idea that the Earth spins, rather than the Sun moves across the sky, it’s hard for us to realize what a shattering mental revolution that must have been. After all, it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the Sun, small and mobile. But it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s remark on the subject: “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went ’round the Earth, rather than that the Earth was rotating?” And his friend replied, “Well, obviously, because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.” Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?” (Please read the story again if it wasn’t clear the first time). 

So, our perceptions are not fixed. We can change from seeing the Sun “rising” to the Earth rotating. The same applies to our perceptions of people. The government of Ghana, perhaps aware of the beneficial economic effects that tourists bring, asked its citizens to discard the term “obruni” and instead say “akwaaba anyemi” (“welcome, sister or brother).” People who are perceived as different or “others” don’t always have to remain that way indefinitely. Once hidden commonalities are brought to the forefront, then our mental categorizations can shift, and others can be brought into the fold.  


Essentialism and “Purity”

Those mental shifts may be harder to make for some people than others, particularly for those who score high on the concept of racial “essentialism.” According to Brian Donovan (2016), essentialists tend to think that races “possess an essence that is biological in nature and fixed at birth—one that distinguishes members of one category from those of another and which determines how the organisms in a category will look, function, and behave” (p. 3). Essentialists also put more stock into the role of genes as a direct cause of human behavior (i.e., they downplay environmental factors), overestimate biological differences between races, and tend to overlook variation within races. Among the most hardcore essentialists, races are clear-cut, naturally occurring categories that never touched or intersected in the ancient world. Therefore, to them, modern interbreeding or “mixing” is seen as a disruptive to the natural order of things.

An example of a truly hardcore essentialist was Judge Leon M. Bazile. In 1965, Bazile presided over the famous case of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were found guilty of the “serious crime” and “unnatural alliance” of interracial marriage in Virginia. He wrote that:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay [sic] and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arraignment [sic] there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Opinions like Bazile’s were once commonplace. In 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage between blacks and whites. By 2013, that figure was up to 87% (96% among blacks, and 84% of whites). In the last few years, roughly 12% of newlyweds in the U.S. married someone of a different race, believed to be an all-time high figure. Furthermore, the percentage of multiracial babies has risen from 1% in 1970 to 10% in 2013. Clearly, attitudes have changed toward greater acceptance of interracial marriage, though there are still some holdouts. For example, advertisements in 2013 and 2016 that featured interracial families were met with an outpouring of racist online comments. In one case, the vitriol was so extreme that the company had to shut down comments beneath the commercial’s YouTube video.

I suppose it makes sense – to a hard-core essentialist thinker – that interracial marriage might be upsetting. To someone like Judge Bazile, the idea that human races had separate, divine creations on different continents is a type of sacred taxonomy. It helps them to make sense of the world and why people in various regions of the planet might vary in appearance. To them, races seem to be eternal and static, and not meant to change from their divine origins.

Here, the concept of purity comes into play as well, including the idea of “racial purity.” It’s notable that “purity” is one of a handful of moral building blocks across human societies (Haidt 2013). When one’s sense of purity is violated, whether in the form of unclean food or a taboo idea, the response is often a visceral sense of disgust. We also know that disgust is often subjective and influenced by culture. To some people, eating insects, or interracial marriage, is disgusting. To others racism itself is disgusting. Subjective disgust doesn’t necessarily make the best moral argument. The point is that purity and disgust are emotionally powerful stuff.

There is some evidence that essentialist thinking is correlated with negative intergroup outcomes, including: closed-mindedness, greater tendency to engage in racial categorizing of others, worse memory for outgroup members’ faces, greater perceived differences between ingroup and outgroup members, and greater discomfort interacting with outgroup members (Tawa 2017).

In contrast to an essentialist perspective, an evolutionary approach suggests that nothing in biology really stays still, as populations and species evolve. This is not solely due to natural selection, but by other evolutionary forces, such as genetic drift and gene flow. It reveals something that a synonym for gene flow is simply “migration.” That’s what animals do – they migrate and then mate with who’s around. As the American Society for Human Genetics emphasized, this also means that racial purity was always a myth. As this graphic from anthropologist John Hawks shows, gene flow among modern humans and our cousins has been around forever. That’s the reason why I – and probably you too – have DNA from archaic humans such as Neanderthals. For example, a 24 thousand year-old skeleton of a young child in Portugal revealed anatomical features that are a mosaic of Neanderthals and modern humans (Duarte et al 1999). I wonder how this child was perceived by others, including their grandparents.

At any rate, this was not an isolated case. In a recent summary of the genetic makeup of Europe, Ann Gibbons recently wrote that the evidence reveals that “almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.” Similar scenarios are common across human populations.

Overcoming Essentialism

The fluidity required by evolutionary thinking is at odds with an essentialist view, but I don’t think one has to be a creationist to be an essentialist. To some extent, essentialism is built into us, including our language. Certainly, human genetic variation follows geographic patterns. However, one problem with essentialist thinking is that it takes messy, continuous variation and tries to draw firm lines around it. As Sarah Zhang put it:

“The trouble with the way we talk about race is that our biological differences are by degree rather by category. The borders of a country or continent are not magical lines that demarcate one genetically distinct population from another… But because we lack a common vocabulary to talk about these differences between people by degree, we draw boundaries with our words and categorize them: Korean, Mongol, Asian.

Those boundaries will depend who is drawing them and where and when.”

In his 1991 book One Long Argument, the famous biologist Ernst Mayr noted that Darwin’s ideas on evolution by natural selection faced several obstacles in his time. It wasn’t simply that Darwin faced religious opposition. While it’s true that some obstacles to evolutionary thinking were rooted in religious tenets (a widespread belief in a benevolent creator; belief in a young, constant and specially created world; belief in special creation for humans). But Mayr saw other, more secular, challenges as well. One of these was essentialist thinking:

Virtually all philosophers up to Darwin’s time were essentialists… They considered species as “natural kinds,” defined by constant characteristics and sharply separated from one another by bridgeless gaps. The essentialist philosopher William Whewell stated categorically, “Species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist [1840, 3:626]. For John Stuart Mill, species of organisms are natural kinds, just as inanimate objects are, and “kinds are classes between which there is an impassable barrier.”

Essentialism’s influence was great in part because its principle is anchored in our language, in our use of a single noun in the singular to designate highly variable phenomena of our environment, such as mountain, home, water, horse, or honesty.  Even though there is great variety in kinds of mountain and kinds of home. […]

In daily life we largely proceed essentialistically (typologically) and become aware of variation only when we compare individuals. He who speaks of “the Prussian,” “the Jew,” “the intellectual” reveals essentialistic thinking. Such language ignores the fact that every human is unique; no other individual is identical to him.

It was Darwin’s genius to see that this uniqueness of each individual is not limited to the human species but is equally true for every sexually reproducing species of animal and plant… And variation, which had been irrelevant and accidental for the essentialist, now became one of the crucial phenomena of living nature.”  (Mayr, 1991: 41-2)

Another example of essentialism Mayr used was that of shapes. In theory, there are essential versions of triangles and squares, with properties of three or four sides, respectively. Those properties are inviolable. You cannot hybridize a square and a triangle, coming up with a new shape with 3.5 sides. There are no such things as squiangles (or crocoducks for that matter). To an essentialist thinker, hybridizing different species or populations seems to violate the properties of the groups that they belong to.

Of course, populations are not shapes or inanimate objects. Essentialism is merely a mode of thinking about categories and their properties. This is one reason that drawing hard lines around groups of people is immensely challenging. As far back as 1775, the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach recognized that there were no truly hard lines around races. In comparing skulls of people from around the world, he wrote that:

“For although there seems to be so great a difference between widely separate nations, that you might easily take the inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope, the Greenlanders, and the Circassians for so many different species of man, yet when the matter is thoroughly considered, you see that all do so run into one another, and that one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.” — J.F. Blumenbach (1775), as cited in Gould (1994)

Although he felt that differences among different groups of humans were gradual rather than abrupt, Blumenbach nonetheless named five varieties of humanity: Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, Malays, and Caucasians (Bhopal 2007). Perhaps he, like all of us, was a prisoner of language and our propensity to think categorically, compelling him to place static labels on dynamic groupings. This has had echoes down to the present day. Not coincidentally, Blumenbach’s five varieties are basically the categories that Judge Bazile described in the Loving case mentioned above. However, whereas Blumenbach emphasized human unity and felt that all members of Homo sapiens had a common origin from which different groups “degenerated” (Gould 1994), Bazile took a superficial view of Blumenbach’s categories and reverted back into essentialism.

On closer inspection, the notion that there are four or five discrete types of humanity falls flat. For example, skin color comes in a wide array of variants. The photographer Angélica Dass illustrates this in her Humanae project. Dass has compiled photos of people from around the world and matched their pigmentation to the closest shade of Pantone. Clearly, there is a continuum of skin color, rather than a handful – or even two handfuls – of shades.  

A variety of skin colors. (With permission from the Humanae Project, by Angélica Dass).

Anthropologist Jon Marks (2001) reminded us that ancient people were never completely isolated. They were well aware of physical differences among humanity, and that such variation corresponded with geography. However, Marks pointed out that most long-distance travel at the time would have been done over land (by foot or horse), “where the physical differences between neighboring peoples were more subtle and gradual.” By contrast, once travel by ship became common, and one could be at sea for weeks or months at a time, it meant that people in one’s port of origin could appear very different from those at their destination, making phenotypic changes seem more abrupt. Put another way, if you took a plane from Johannesburg to Beijing, it would be obvious that people looked different. But if you walked or drove a car instead, it would be much harder to say where one race ended and another one began. According to Marks, this perception of abrupt shifts in variation could have been one factor in why naturalists like Blumenbach (and before him, Linnaeus) defined a handful of varieties of humans. The reality is that Homo sapiens has settled across the planet in a relatively short period of time, leaving few places uninhabited. That geographic continuity has in turn fostered genetic continuity across one single, globally dispersed species where neighbors tend to resemble neighbors.  

Yet, we’re still stuck in thinking in discontinuous categories. To describe people as “biracial” or “half of race X” is more of a linguistic shortcut than a scientific description. It also implies that there were whole races to start with. As Jessica Blatt wrote, one problem with genetic estimates of ancestry is “the idea that (someone) is 14% African rests on the assumption that there is such a thing as 100% ‘African,’ or 100% ‘European.’ ”  Similarly, Jon Marks wrote that commercial genetics companies “can also market ‘your continental origins revealed’ as, say, 64% European, 33% African, and 4% Asian… These conclusions depend crucially on cultural assumptions about the naturalness of the continents, the sampling of the reference populations, the demographic history of ancient populations, and the particular algorithm used. In short, there is no reason to think that the racialized results, which are highly culturally meaningful, are readily scientifically meaningful” (Marks 2013: 255).

Faces blending into each other, by computer simulation. Source: Reports of the National Center for Science Education, May 2002

Finding Commonality

There is some evidence that infants as young as six months show biases in favor of people who look like them. Studies like this have been framed with sensationalist headlines such as “Your Baby Is a Racist,” complete with evolutionary-sounding explanations such as: “if we weren’t rank racists when we were very little, the species probably never would have survived.” The implication is that racism is inevitable, that we are all born hostile to outsiders.

It is true that biases toward our ingroup are pervasive across societies. To paraphrase W. E. B. Du Bois, “the problem of almost every century is the problem of (othering).”  Still, ingroups are pliable, and they can form around cultural and ideological identities, or even sports teams, in addition to ones based on physical appearances. Nor are ingroups insurmountable.

However, to suggest that racism comes naturally and instinctively to infants only begs the question: how does an infant knows what it looks like, and in turn, who looks like them? We can easily imagine that an infant learns about faces based on the ones he or she sees most frequently, and who are probably genetically related to them. That sets up a scenario where a lack of exposure to people of different ethnicities might lead an infant to find unfamiliar faces from genetically distant populations harder to discern. Nor would an infant be as likely to associate unfamiliar faces with the care-taking that comes from their parents and extended family.

But what about infants from diverse families? Sarah Gaither and colleagues (2012) found that biracial infants recognized faces differently than did their monoracial peers, and might even be more “advanced” at it: “It also may be that biracial infants, due to their in-home exposure to two different race exemplars on a regular basis, begin to scan and learn about faces in a different manner from monoracial infants.” (p. 6). Furthermore, captive infant Japanese monkeys who were shown photos of human and monkey faces preferred to look at the faces of the species to they were exposed (Sugita 2008). While baby primates, including humans, show a preference for faces over other objects, the type of face they prefer to look at depends upon early exposure, even if those faces belong to another species. This sounds loosely reminiscent of studies of baby goslings that “imprint” on the first moving objects they see. But, be careful. Sometimes those studies can go awry. Therefore, our babies are not “racists” by default. Their preferences depend on whom they are exposed.  


Speaking of babies… earlier this year, Iowa congressman Steve King made a couple of high-profile incendiary remarks regarding nationality and immigration. In March, he tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” implying that immigration from certain countries to the U.S. should be curtailed. But who counts as “somebody else’s babies?” King has made a number of similar comments in his career, and this one got a lot of attention. Amid the controversy, he tried to clarify what he meant the next day, adding that he would “like to see an America that’s just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same, from that perspective.”

There are two ways to interpret King’s second statement about homogeneous. Either he meant that it would be preferable only if people within a very specific range of phenotypes lived in the U.S., or he went full Bulworth, and was advocating for a “voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction” (in other words, “everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody ’til they’re all the same color”). Given King’s history, he probably meant the first option, and we can reasonably surmise that he meant he’d like a country where people looked like him.

In any case, phenotypic homogeneity is no guarantee of social harmony. People who look like each other can sometimes produce very heated rivalries: English and Irish, North and South Koreans; Dinka and Nuer. And, just how homogeneous would a population have to be in order to satisfy King? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. You will never get to perfect homogeneity. Even in fairly phenotypically homogeneous settings, like in parliaments around the world, people will still find reasons for disagreement and even violent conflict.

When I did my research with the Hmong in French Guiana, I noticed that when two people met for the first time they expended a good deal of effort to find something they had in common. To an outsider, there might be a facile assumption that two Hmong people should just get along from the start. After all, they’re both Hmong. But that’s not the way that it works. To start, there aren’t just Hmong people. There are White Hmong, Green Hmong, Striped Hmong, Black Hmong, and Red Hmong, named for their clothing and dialects. There are also several clans. In order to navigate all of these complexities, Hmong people who’ve just met each other will try to figure out how they are connected. Ya Po Cha summarized how this works:

“instead of addressing people with a surname, Hmong people address each other with kinship. Two perfect strangers can determine their relationship to each other by figuring out if there are existing marriages between their two clans. If no mutual relatives are found, as long as there is a relative with the same last name, an arbitrary relationship can be established and they can address one another accordingly. So it is not unusual when two strangers meet and the first thing they talk about is how they are related and then they start treating each other like old friends.” (Cha, 2010:  35)

In other words, we can prioritize similarities over differences if we make the effort. At that point, there is an accompanying mental shift that comes with pulling someone out of the “not like me” box and placing them into a more amiable “more like me” box. “Well, now we ain’t strangers anymore.”

And, just like any system of taxonomy, we have “lumpers” and “splitters” when it comes to the way we categorize people. If you are a lumper, you might group all Hmong people together, or all Asian people, or all humans across the species. If you are a splitter, you might focus primarily on White Hmong people from the Ly clan from Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos. (And, if you want to keep splitting, there is also a subgroup from the Ly clan called the Lyfoung, named after a powerful politician named Touby Lyfoung). If you’re Emo Phillips, you might consider people who belong to the Church of the Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 to be OK, while those who are Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 to be heretics.

In a nutshell, how far up and down the taxonomic levels of similarity and difference we chose to focus is not exactly a scientific question, but a matter of preference. As a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was the sitcom Night Court. In one of the later seasons, the character Dan Fielding – a self-absorbed prosecuting attorney – was believed to have died in a plane crash somewhere in the remote arctic. After hearing the news, his distraught colleagues tried to put together a eulogy for him, but struggled to find anything kind to say. They then asked Bull, the gentle giant but slow-witted bailiff, if he could think of something. Bull replied earnestly, “Hmmm, let’s see. Did you mention that he was a mammal?!” You can always find something to like about someone, and some group that you both belong to, if you search long enough.

There is a group to which everyone who can read this essay belongs (and many who can’t). We are all mammals, of course, and primates, and humans. We are all one single, globally dispersed species. Each individual is unique, a variant of a human theme. Within any species, no population is completely distinct or similar to another. Similarity and difference are a matter of degree, not kind. Yet, people tend to think categorically, that the differences are absolute. Even worse, we sometimes even fall into a trap by thinking that other people are not fully human.

Reminding people of similarities can have tangible, beneficial effects. When Sasha Kimel and colleagues gave ethnic Jews and Arabs news stories that emphasized shared ancestry and genetic similarities between their groups, people reported feeling less bias and hostility, were more optimistic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and were more open to political compromise (Kimel et al 2016). Giving people versions that emphasized genetic differences and distinct lineages had the opposite effect. This indicate that we can be nudged to see others into a positive or negative light based on perceptions of similarity or difference.

Celebrity variants of a human theme. 

As social animals, the desire to belong is a powerful impulse. For our ancestors, social isolation likely would have meant death. Sadly, at different times and places, multiracial people have not always been well accepted, even for beauty queens like Ariana Miyamoto. However, the experiences of multiracial people are not monolithic. According to one 2015 survey in the U.S., 4% of multiracial people said that their background was a disadvantage in their life. About one-in-five (19%) said it had been an advantage, while 76% said it made no difference.

In his essay “What biracial people know,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote that one of the advantages of being multiracial is that “being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent. Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal.” Multiracial people won’t be a panacea to tribalism or racism. They won’t save the world.

In any case, we never really expected our kids to save the world. Like most parents, we just want them to have a life relatively free from fear, pain, and want; to feel loved and accepted; to find meaning and happiness; and to have their inherent dignity recognized by others. We are grateful to those couples who’ve blazed the trail before us so that our kids can live in a time and place when they multiracial people are more accepted than they used to be. The author L.R. Knost once wrote that “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” We hope that our kids can help continue that trend for generations to come.


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