CSWAC Blog

The Multiracial Movement – Lessons Learned

Part 3 of a 3-part series.

The multiracial movement failed to grapple with white supremacy, and many racial justice activists to this day suspect that multiracial identity is a thinly disguised strategy for people aspiring to become white. Nor is that suspicion groundless. Multiracial people and pairings have been present throughout our history. In some of those times and places, aspiring to whiteness is exactly what drove the social claims that were being made in the name of multiracial identity.

But if the broader racial justice community seized upon what was at times historically true, the racial justice community itself has had a glaring blind spot. This is true even as the multiracial movement failed to actively analyze and reject collusion with a centered whiteness. More on this soon.

All around the country there are literally tens of thousands of people who are learning about racism and white supremacy. This is a grassroots and, in many ways, a middle class movement driven by a small but growing number of training groups. The emerging analysis of white supremacy is clear, and it points to actionable pathways for change. The hegemonic nature of whiteness is being revealed to those previously unable to see it for what it is. Literally decades of work have gone into making this happen. This grassroots work, along with work in the academic sector, has given us what we need to decenter whiteness.

But now the blind spot. There is a paucity of work on building multiracial community. Multiracial community is being built, true. Much of the grassroots education taking place on white supremacy is being done in and by multiracial organizations. And this multiracial character is intentional on the part of the training organizations, although less might be said about academia in this regard. Still, the educational effort being put forward fails to center and illuminate the need and means for building multiracial community. This is not a fatal flaw, but it’s a severely limiting one, and will become increasingly so as the work to unmask white supremacy succeeds. The crux of the matter is that decentering whiteness and building multiracial community go hand in hand. Whiteness will not be decentered unless something else takes the central position in our society. That something—we call for a multiracial center—cannot take the center until whiteness is decentered.

Is it simply enough to decenter whiteness, to dismantle white supremacy, and then hope what is left after white supremacy is gone will be something more humane? Will it just spring up on its own?

At CSWAC we believe that we need to be as intentional about building multiracial community as we are about decentering whiteness. Toward that end, we draw some lessons from the multiracial community as it stood during the multiracial movement and continues today. These lessons grew out of our involvement within the multiracial community and movement. Some lessons were explicitly articulated at the time. Others are a result of our subsequent thinking and application to our present circumstances. Either way, here are some of the things we feel are of value.

The Monoracial Norm

The multiracial movement gave us language and perspective. In particular, the concept of “multiracial” contrasts with that of “monoracial.” On the face of it, these terms are simple. Multiracial refers to more than one race making up an entity. It might refer to a person with parents of more than one race. It might refer to a family whose members are from different races. It might refer to larger social groups such as work settings, organizations, institutions, or even societies.

The term “monoracial” refers to an entity comprising a single race.(1) Likewise, it might refer to a single person whose family heritage and parents have all been of the same race. It might also refer to families themselves, or larger groups. Our society is based on the assumption that monoracial people, monoracial families and, to a large extent, monoracial groups are normal. In fact, we live in a society that is monoracially structured.

The multiracial movement was closely attuned to the “one drop” rule. This is the historical rule that says one drop of black blood makes a person black. The one-drop rule enforces monoracial identity. It says one must be either black or white, and it specifies how the line is drawn. Although the legal standing and implications of this rule have diminished with time, our society continues to live in the aftereffect, such that monoracial identity remains the norm, and it is often projected upon those who assume a multiracial identity.

Understanding how monoracial norms exist and operate is key to understanding how we can move toward a multiracial society. At a societal level, we superficially have a multiracial society in terms of numbers. There are several races, and together they form a society. But the normative structure of that society is still monoracial and what is normalized are monoracial groupings. Whiteness, of course, plays a large role in this.

It is this monoracial normative structure to which we might look when asking why it is that multiracial community building has been relatively neglected by racial justice activists. Attention has been focused, nearly exclusively, on reforming the social standing of the dominant monoracial group, i.e. white people, relative to other monoracial groups (e.g. black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous). Little thought is given to how a truly multiracial structure might emerge as an outcome to this process (or not).

Co-dependence and Co-creation

Our concept of community is that it is a voluntary arrangement. If it proves unsatisfactory to one group or another, then a group can abandon the project. Multiracial community is an act of co-creation and co-dependence. For monoracial people in particular, one cannot form community across racial lines unless someone else of a different race also enters into the same community with you. You, alone, or you and people of your monoracial cohort, cannot create multiracial community on your own. It necessarily involves people of another race. Accordingly, at some elemental level there is an inherent equality among different racial groups in multiracial community.

This inherent equality in a multiracial community exists despite the inherent inequality of the larger society that privileges white people and oppresses people of color. One must keep an eye on both facts. It’s here one begins to see the complex interplay of monoracial and multiracial concepts, structures, and communities. The larger monoracial formations in society may be, and often are, antagonistic to multiracial communities.

It should be said that everyone has a knock against them, racially speaking. Whether you are a black woman, a white man, a mixed-race person of Asian and black descent, etc., there are plenty of stereotypes and biases out there and some of them apply to you. People in a multiracial community can expect society to direct these biases and stereotypes against them, and against the people they associate with. “Why are you living with those people?”, etc. It’s important that people in a multiracial community maintain some sense of shared purpose in the face of these assaults. They need to have each other’s back.

Holding Multiple Racial Identities

The multiracial movement highlighted that there is more to racial identity than a person’s monoracial status. Consider this. We are talking about life in the United States at the outset of the twenty-first century. Many members of a multiracial community will probably come from monoracial communities of origin. Members need to take on multiple racialized identities based on their individual heritage and their interdependent living circumstance. One might simultaneously identify, for instance, as 1) a member of a monoracial community, 2) a member of a multiracial community, (3) one who was raised in a monoracial community, or possibly one who was raised in a multiracial community, and 4), as an anti-racist.

The multiracial movement was about family and heritage. It was an intentional, lived experience. If there was confusion regarding political goals and approaches to change (colorblindness vs. color consciousness, for example) there was nonetheless an implicit understanding that we were a community. As Williams said in her study, “[T]here are precious few venues in the United States in which black and white people socialize on as regular and as comfortable a basis as they do at multiracial cookouts.”(2) The cookouts are gone now. And the multiracial movement, even as it envisioned itself as having lessons and examples for the broader society, did not have a plan or vision for extending its perspective into that broader society.

Building multiracial community, as CSWAC understands it, must move beyond family relationships and individual heritage. It’s open to anyone who would aspire to join with people of other races in the effort, whether it be in a geographic community, a work setting, a faith community or any other setting where community is formed. Indeed, we feel it has. Examples are out there. They just have not been visible, or necessarily outspoken about their multiracial character.

Anti-racism

Williams’ study identified that half of the leaders of grassroots multiracial support groups were white women. And the multiracial movement failed to be self-critical about how whiteness informed its character. Still, to characterize the multiracial movement as white-led would be going too far. Many of the prominent organizers, those who formed AMEA and lobbied in Washington, along with Charles Byrd who founded the highly visible and influential media outlet, Interracial Voice, were of multiracial heritage. The multiracial movement was preoccupied with matters of multiracial identity and safety.

The politics of the struggle to proclaim and validate multiracial identity were difficult to fit into an anti-racist lens. The most visible resistance came first from monoracial communities of color, most notably from the NAACP. It’s not that the multiracial community failed to respond to racism. On average, community members were more aware of racism and supportive of anti-racist matters than was the white population in general. But relationships between the multiracial community and the various monoracial communities were always troubled.

The multiracial community never developed a consistent strategy for challenging white supremacy. Many wanted to join forces with monoracial groups working for racial justice. They favored seeking accommodation with the NAACP and others, understanding that white supremacy was the larger concern for all. Others in the multiracial community advocated for a radical form of colorblindness that eschewed all racial categories and data collection, a position that would render much civil rights work impotent.

We come down firmly on the side of multiracial communities today taking an anti-racist stance that names whiteness and supports racial justice efforts aimed at ending white supremacy. In fact, it was the failure of the multiracial movement that led to us setting up the Center for the Study of White American Culture and turn our attention to the work we do now. Maybe it was partly the times since the multiracial movement began to wane by the year 2000. But the failure of the community to take an undivided and anti-racist stance may have played a role in the dissipation of the multiracial movement.

From the standpoint of multiracial community building, it’s likely multiracial communities will continue to face divisive pressures from monoracial communities. Racialized wedge issues and divided loyalties will be a fact of life for a long time, especially given the normative standing of monoracial structures. But multiracial communities must develop the commitment, understanding, and sophistication to navigate these concerns. In the end, if whiteness is to be decentered, everyone must take part. And if a multiracial society is to be achieved, it need not be at the expense and vitality of monoracial groups.


1. There is a comparison to be made between the term “monoracial” and the recently emerging term, “cisgender.” In each case, a new term is being used to name a normative condition in society, and by doing so, exposing the normative nature of that condition. The term “monoracial” points to what is the normative condition when we think about race in US society.

2. Williams, K. M.(2006). Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.