What does it mean to be “biracial”? I mean this question seriously, because it seems the word is used inconsistently. Taking the word literally to mean anyone who has ancestry in more than one distinct race, a large set of biracial people don’t call themselves biracial. Indeed, I figure that set includes most black Americans.
Back in the days of slavery, breeding of black slaves with whites was very common (or at least so I’ve read). Sometimes this happened out of pure lust combined with exploitation, when masters took advantage of their slaves – the famed case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is the leading (though still disputed) example. But unlike in that case, much interbreeding was not even hidden. Slaves were often considered more valuable if they had some white blood, so slave owners would deliberately cause their female slaves to become impregnated by white men. The offspring would bring higher prices in slave markets. Sad but true.
It stands to reason that black Americans descended from slaves are likely to have some amount of white heritage. Brent Staples, writing in Slate, reaches the same conclusion: “Outside of recent African immigrants to the United States, there are virtually no black Americans of purely African descent, which is to say no black people who lack white ancestry, left in this country.” This is confirmed by casual observation: most black Americans are nowhere near as dark as black Africans. I suppose it’s possible that the blacks brought to America as slaves came from African tribes with lighter pigmentation. However, I think most came from West Africa, and the West Africans I’ve met have definitely been a good bit darker than black Americans.
Interestingly, the same may be true in reverse, according to at least one historian: “If any branch of your family has been in America since the 17th or 18th centuries, Dr. [Ira B.] Berlin [professor of American history at the University of Maryland] said, ‘it's highly likely you will find an African and an American Indian.’” If that’s right – and Staples’s article provides even more evidence – then there’s a good chance that I’m biracial, since as I have numerous ancestors who emigrated to America before the Revolution.
So it seems that most Americans who consider themselves black and many who consider themselves white meet the strict definition of biracial. Yet most do not call themselves biracial. That term seems is most often used by people with a recent mixed-race coupling (parents or grandparents) in their past. (It also seems more commonly used by people with part-Asian heritage, but I’m less confident about that generalization.) Why? I figure that designating oneself as mixed race is more a statement of cultural alignment (or non-alignment) than genetic heritage. Those who call themselves biracial or mixed emphasize their connection to multiple cultures, while those who pick a specific race emphasize their connection to one culture.
If my hypothesis is correct, then the growing percentage of people who call themselves biracial (or mixed race) does not merely reflect a growing population of people with dual genetic heritage – although that’s assuredly part of the story – but also a growing willingness of people to embrace multiple cultures instead of exclusive identification. (The fact that biracial/mixed only recently became a standard option on official forms also contributes the jump, of course.)