The Strengths of Being Multiracial

In a recent NYTimes piece, “What Biracial People Know,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff assembles a variety of compelling studies demonstrating that people of mixed heritage—-or even people who have similarly cultivated a “limber-mindset,” perhaps by living an extended period of time in another culture—have sharper mental acuity, and stronger problem-solving abilities, than those with a monocultural background. Even as young as 3 months old, these infants begin having greater facial recognition abilities than their counterparts. When presented with word-association and other creative problem-solving tasks, those reminded of their multiracial heritage performed better than those who were not similarly primed.

The research Velasquez-Manoff reviews echoes other studies done around monolingual vs. bilingual education that reveal that fluent bilingual students tend to perform better in school than either Spanish-only OR English-only students—challenging the advisability of the “straight-line assimilation” admonishments of old. But Velasquez-Manoff goes even further by looking at not just at individual-level outcomes, but societal outcomes—such as “economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process”—to argue that an entire community benefits when groups forge intimate connections beyond just their own tribe.

This piece comes across as much a celebration of diversity as a stark warning—warning to those who would like to turn the clock back to a time when many took solace in the comfort of the uniformly familiar. With facts like these—“multiracials make up an estimated 7 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and they’re predicted to grow by 20 percent in 2050”—Velasquez-Manoff makes it evident there is no turning back this tide. In the shift from an Obama to Trump administration, he argues, the step back from multiracial to relatively monoracial is evident. And this “closing in” of ranks, as if fearful of an impending multiracial nation, emanates from a grave misperception that “out-groups gain at in-groups’ expense”—the great zero-sum game fallacy. In presenting this collection of studies, Velasquez-Manoff makes an excellent case for those who fear a society where whites are not the majority. He demonstrates that everyone in a society stands to benefit when its members are better able to perceive a situation and solve a problem from multiple vantage points—skills that are clearly heightened in multiculturally fluent individuals. He writes, “cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogenous ones, and that often means higher wages for native born citizens.”

Velasquez-Manoff seems to implore—even if diversity scares you and you want nothing to do with it, just on the basis of this evidence that you’d be part of a stronger, richer, smarter society, wouldn’t you want to come on board for the ride?

Yet if it were that simple, of course it would have been done by now. I have two biracial children myself, and several older biracial stepchildren. Recently I asked one of my stepsons, now nearing college graduation, when did he first realize there was this thing called race separating us? Of course he spent nearly every day of his life going back and forth between families of different skin colors, but that never passed the radar. After all, when a rainbow of shades and tones is your daily reality, it’s hard to tell where this dividing line is that everyone’s talking about. I’ll never forget having to explain to my daughter about legal segregation—she was assigned the part of Dr. King in a kindergarten play, and all she was told was he gave a speech and had a dream, so I had a lot of filling in of details to do! I could see her rolling all of her different family members through her head, trying to figure out which ones back then would have been considered black, and the funny thing is she got 99% of them “wrong” by society’s standards—I mean, after all, who do you know who looks “black?”

It’s instructive to see the nonsense logic of “race” through a kid’s eyes. But my stepson told me it was not until he started to notice the differences in the churches he would attend with each part of the family—all the while seeming to be talking about the same God—but doing so very differently. Such a clear indicator that race has so little to do with skin color and so much to do with the way we humans have persisted in organizing ourselves. What once existed by law now continues de facto, because the scars are very deep, because we fear venturing out of comfort zones, because we continue to be excluded subtly rather than overtly—there are so many reasons. (See Gene Zubovich’s thoughtful essay for more on church segregation specifically.)

Our churches and our families are some of our most intimate spaces. We go there to take refuge from the onslaught of pain that the world “out there” throws us. Many of us turn to a spiritual community, or an intimate relationship, to feel safe, to be able to let down our guard, to finally no longer have to worry what everyone else thinks, or what someone might do to hurt us. Velasquez-Manoff cites a study of college roommates (by Sarah Gaither at Duke), matched across racial lines, and in this intimate space, yes -— it was not easy, at first. But after initial discomfort subsides or is worked through, the gains for both parties to the relationship are undeniable.

Velasquez-Manoff writes: “Diversity is hard. But that’s exactly why it’s so good for us,” and quoting Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School, likens it to the pain of muscles in a workout—the hurt is indicative of something growing stronger.

Indeed, research I’ve done with Kathleen Korgen shows that even in close cross-racial friendships, friends tend to avoid the topic of race altogether, or else joke about it without taking racism seriously as a difference between them. Is it any wonder that research shows us many more young people are having cross-racial dating relationships now, but far fewer of those dating relationships actually move onto an interracial marriage —- hence sociologist Zhenchao Qian reminding us this is the “last taboo.”

It is one thing for two people to connect one-on-one, but quite another for them to forge a marriage which bonds their entire social/familial circles —- that will take some hard word, creating conflicts, some of which might never get fully worked out. Those who are already facing the daily pain of racism may not see themselves as able to voluntarily sign themselves up for yet another battle with this monster called race—-after all, so much of it they did not sign up for and is out of their control. And on the flip side, someone like President Donald Trump with a fragile ego and in unfamiliar territory may seek to surround himself with sameness in effort to assuage his own fears—-as might many of his supporters also.

As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey argue in their forthcoming book Elite White Men Ruling, Trump operates from a white-virtuous-arrogance frame. Elite white men often have little to no intimate contact with nonwhites yet boldly attempt to speak with authority about them nonetheless. Diversity can be scary to the monoracials on both “sides,” albeit for quite different reasons.

Yet Velasquez-Manoff’s brilliantly crafted piece demonstrates with a mountain of evidence that facing those fears and struggles will produce a result that is so worth it! And he further shows us that even without interracial marriage or offspring of our own, we can take the plunge to “diversify” our own experiences to similar positive results. But no pain, no gain. So time to get to work to make this a stronger brighter world for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond. Because after all, there is no turning back this tide of multiracials coming up to show us the way!

Dr. Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Chair of Social Sciences at Saint Leo University, Virginia campus. In addition to teaching and writing books on race relations and racism, she leads community workshops on race, including the upcoming “Loving Across Differences.”