Ethnicity and race as 'symbolic': the use of ethnic and

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Ethnicity and race as ‘symbolic’: the use of ethnic and racial symbols in asserting a biracial identity Nikki Khanna Available online: 04 Feb 2011

To cite this article: Nikki Khanna (2011): Ethnicity and race as ‘symbolic’: the use of ethnic and racial symbols in asserting a biracial identity, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34:6, 1049-1067 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2010.538421

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Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 34 No. 6 June 2011 pp. 10491067

Ethnicity and race as ‘symbolic’: the use of ethnic and racial symbols in asserting a biracial identity

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Nikki Khanna (First submission June 2009; First published February 2011)

Abstract According to Waters (1990), most Americans have some choice in ethnic identity and the ability to practise symbolic ethnicity (Gans 1979). This choice, however, is available to whites only; black Americans have less choice because their ascribed race trumps any ethnic status. Drawing on interviews with forty black-white biracial adults, I ask: can ethnicity be optional for black Americans  in particular, for black-white biracial Americans who have been historically defined as black? Furthermore, can race, like ethnicity, be symbolic? I find that these biracial respondents frequently draw on white ethnic and racial symbols, not to identify as white or with a particular white ethnic group, but rather to highlight their white ancestries in order to identify as ‘biracial’. The functions of appropriating white symbols are explored.

Keywords: multiraciality; race; symbols; ethnicity; identity; racial identity.

Cooking ethnic foods; celebrating ethnic holidays; dressing in ethnic clothing. According to Herbert Gans (1979), these are some of the ways in which later-generation ethnics practise symbolic ethnicity  a type of ethnicity expressed through symbols. Ethnic symbols are abstracted from the older ethnic culture, and later-generation ethnics draw on these symbols as ‘easy and intermittent ways’ of expressing their ethnicities (Gans 1979, p. 8). Building on Gans (1979), Mary Waters (1996) describes ethnicity as ‘optional’ for most Americans. They can pick and choose among different ethnicities in their family backgrounds with little cost, and, indeed, expressing ethnicities can be functional  to connect with others and/or to make one stand out (e.g. by making one feel ‘unique’ or ‘interesting’) (Gans 1979; Waters 1999). # 2011 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0141-9870 print/1466-4356 online DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2010.538421

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According to Waters (1990), however, these options apply only to white ethnics; black Americans, for example, have few, if any, ethnic choices. This is because of the unique way in which blackness has historically been defined in the United States  having even ‘one drop’ of black blood defined one simply as black (Davis 1991).1 Like Waters (1990), other scholars have suggested that black Americans possess few, if any, ethnic options (Tuan 1998; Kibria 2000). Miri Song, however, challenges this assumption as ‘problematic’ (2003, p. 32) and ‘overly simplistic’ (ibid., p. 34), which raises several questions: can ethnicity be optional for black Americans  in particular, for black-white biracial Americans? Exploring symbolic ethnicity among this population is important because, while their multiple racial heritages seemingly allow for options, this population has historically been raced as black by larger society. Furthermore, can race, like ethnicity, be symbolic? For instance, is it possible for biracial people to practise symbolic race (i.e. express their racial identity through racial symbols) in the way that multi-ethnic people practise symbolic ethnicity?2 3 Recent studies suggest that Americans with black ancestry occasionally ‘do race’ by drawing on black racial symbols to assert their black identities (e.g. symbols such as black vernacular English, black visual arts, urban-style clothing) (Carter 2003; Banks 2010; Khanna and Johnson 2010). Little serious attention, however, has been given to the ways in which they draw on white racial symbols to assert non-black identities, which is probably rooted in the assumption that those with black ancestry have no option beyond black (Waters 1990, 1999; Tuan 1998; Kibria 2000). Finally, do black-white Americans (like their white counterparts) practise symbolic ethnicity and/or race because it is functional for them to do so? To address these questions, I interviewed forty black-white biracial adults about their racial identities and experiences. While previous scholars have argued that symbolic ethnicity is reserved for whites, I find that some black-white respondents, in some contexts, practise symbolic ethnicity. Because most claim they appear black to larger society (see Khanna 2010), they practise symbolic ethnicity not to identify with a white ethnic group (or as white) but rather to highlight their white ancestries in order to identify as biracial. Furthermore, I find that, as with symbolic ethnicity, respondents occasionally engage in symbolic race and draw on white racial symbols to express their biracial identities. Like ethnic symbols, racial symbols are easily expressed, but, unlike ethnic symbols, they are abstracted from socalled racial cultures and are often rooted in racial stereotypes. Finally, I find that, like their white counterparts, these respondents practise symbolic ethnicity/race because it is functional. Like whites, they use ethnic and racial symbols to connect with others and/or to stand out

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and feel unique. What distinguishes them from whites, however, is that they also use white symbols to negotiate negative black stereotypes, racial inequality and racial privilege.

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Fluidity and choice in ethnic identity Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, social scientists have spent a great deal of time trying to solve the ‘puzzle’ of ethnicity (Cornell and Hartmann 1998, p. 41)  put simply, is it fixed or fluid? Early scholars took a primordialist view and described ethnicity as something ‘fixed, fundamental, and rooted in the unchangeable circumstances of birth’ (Cornell and Hartmann 1998, p. 48). Hence, characteristics and traits attributed to ethnic groups were perceived as innate and natural. In the mid-twentieth century, however, scholars began seriously to question biological theories of ethnicity (and race). Instead of conceptualizing ethnicity and ethnic boundaries as fixed, they described them as subjective, flexible and dependent upon circumstance and situation (Barth 1969; Yancey, Ericksen and Juliani 1976; Gans 1979). Building on this work, later scholars similarly argued that ethnicity could be flexible and involve choice (Lieberson and Waters 1986; Waters 1990; Nagel 1994, 1995; Song 2003). Nagel (1995), for instance, examined the three-fold increase in the Native American population from 1970 to 1990 (according to the US Census) and found that the usual explanations (e.g. increased birth rates, decreased death rates, immigration) failed to account for the rapid growth. Instead, she argued that the population increase was due to changes in selfdefinition, in which individuals who identified as non-Native American in one census, identified as Native American in the next (most probably due to a resurgence in ethnic pride that characterized the post-civil rights era). Likewise, Waters (1990, 1996) finds that ethnicity is flexible and optional, although for whites only. Minorities have limited ethnic options because their ascribed race trumps any ethnic status; thus, they cannot practise symbolic ethnicity. For instance, Waters claims that, ‘a person with black skin who had some Irish ancestry would have to work very hard to decide to present himself or herself as Irish  and in many important ways he/she would be denied that option’ (1999, p. 203). Raced as black, any ethnic claims (e.g. Irish) go unrecognized by larger society. Other scholars have also suggested that black Americans possess few, if any, ethnic options. Mia Tuan (1998), for example, argues that, for black Americans, ‘the issue of ethnic options is irrelevant’ (as cited in Song 2003, p. 24; see also Kibria 2000).

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Recent work on Asian Americans challenge Water’s (1990) claim that ethnicity is optional for whites only. Kibria (2000) argues that Asian Americans are able to transcend racialization as Asian by asserting particular ethnic heritages (e.g. ‘I’m Chinese, not Korean’). They can do this because they have access to ethnic/national backgrounds (unlike blacks, whose ethnic backgrounds were obliterated over time), but also because their social mobility has given them ‘some latitude’ to express their ethnic identities (Kibria 2000, p. 80). Tuan (1998), too, finds ethnic flexibility for Asian Americans and argues that, like white ethnics, they ‘choose’ the aspects of ethnic culture that they wish to express, while discarding those they do not (e.g. eating Japanese food, but not speaking Japanese). By practising symbolic ethnicity, they engage in the ‘most superficial forms of ethnic identification’ in order to express their ethnic identities in easy and intermittent ways (Tuan 1998, p. 114). Moreover, Tuan (1998) finds that, as for white ethnics, symbolic expression of particular ethnicities can be functional; one respondent described expressing her Japanese ethnicity in order ‘to feel unique in a social climate that currently celebrates multiculturalism’ (p. 114). Tuan (1998) discovers, however, that their ethnic choices are largely confined to their personal lives  they have the ability to exercise their ethnic options, but these options are limited in most public arenas and in most interactions with nonAsians who continue to race them as Asian. Despite this limitation, Kibria’s (2000) and Tuan’s (1998) studies suggest that Asian Americans possess more options than black Americans, and, according to Song (2003), their work is premised on the notion that black Americans possess no options. This is arguably supported by studies of black immigrants, which show that their ethnic claims (e.g. Haitian, Jamaican) go unrecognized by larger society which continues to race them as black (Waters 1994, 1996). Additionally, because of the one-drop rule, Waters further claims that even multiracial Americans with black ancestry have limited options. Even if they know that they have many non-black ancestors in their family lines, Waters argues, they are ‘highly constrained to identify as blacks, without other options available to them’ (1999, p. 18). Keeping in mind these claims of limited options for black Americans, I next take an historical and contemporary look at the options available to multiracial Americans with black ancestry. The one-drop rule and racial options for Americans with black ancestry: historically and today While sexual relations have occurred between blacks and whites since their earliest contact in the American colonies, these relations flourished under slavery. White men often used their slaves at will;

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thus, many black-white children of this era were born in the context of rape.4 To deal with the question of where these children belonged (free or enslaved?), an informal one-drop rule was born in the South  anyone with any ‘drop’ of black blood was considered black and therefore enslaved. Further, because slavery was built upon the assumption that whites were a superior race and could not be enslaved, the one-drop rule became increasingly important to rationalize the enslavement of those with some white ancestry and, in some cases, white appearance (Zack 1993). With the demise of slavery in 1865, white Southerners sought new ways of preserving their privileged position in the American South. This was achieved, in part, through Jim Crow legislation  laws mandating physical and sexual/marital separation (e.g. anti-miscegenation laws). Enforcing these laws further required legal definitions of who was black and who was white, and it was during this time that the once informal one-drop rule was formally codified into law (Rockquemore and Brunsma 2002). The informal rule maintained that any ‘drop’ of black blood made one black, but legal definitions defining blackness varied from state to state  some states defined blackness as having any ‘ascertainable’ black ancestry, while others defined a person as black if they were half, a quarter, one-eighth or even 1/32 black. In the mid-1950s, Jim Crow legislation began to crumble with the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Segregated schools were ordered to integrate, which was the first step paving the way for the dismantling of Jim Crow laws across the South, including laws defining blackness. One might assume that, as one-drop laws disappeared, Americans gradually gained more flexibility in defining their race. Waters argues, however, that, ‘The fact that there are no longer any legal constraints on choice of ancestry does not mean that these choices are completely ‘‘free’’ of social control. Certain ancestries take precedence over others in the societal rules on descent and ancestry’ (1990, p. 18). Put simply, the laws may be gone, but the informal rule remains. Moreover, Campbell notes that there is ‘widespread consensus that the ‘‘one-drop rule’’ is such a powerful force in the United States even today’ (2007, p. 922) and many scholars argue that the rule remains salient in constricting racial options for Americans with black ancestry (Davis 1991; Harris and Sim 2002; Qian 2004). Recent studies also suggest, however, that more options are available to black-white Americans today. Korgen (1998) finds that those born before the civil rights era often identify as black, but finds that those born in the postcivil rights era identify as black or biracial (and sometimes as white). She argues that factors other than the one-drop rule, such as physical appearance, are becoming increasingly important in shaping racial identity among black-white Americans (see also Brunsma and

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Rockquemore 2001). Collectively, these studies suggest that, while the one-drop rule continues to influence racial identity in the US, blackwhite Americans have more racial options than in previous decades.

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Data and methods This paper is part of a larger study examining racial identity among black-white biracial adults. For a period of twenty months in 2005 and 2006, I conducted semi-structured interviews with forty black-white biracial adults living in a large urban area in the southern United States. To participate in the study, respondents must have had one black parent and one white parent (as identified by respondents).5 The symbolic interactionist framework guided the construction of interview questions, and I asked open-ended questions on a range of topics including their racial identities, how others have influenced their identities, how their identities have changed over time and situation, and if and how they assert their identities to others. Because locating biracial individuals within the general population is often difficult, I relied on convenience sampling. I began recruiting respondents by placing flyers in a variety of places, including local colleges/universities and places of worship. Flyers read, ‘Do you have one black parent and one white parent?’ to target black-white biracial individuals. I omitted terms such as ‘biracial’ or ‘multiracial’ from the flyers, aware that individuals who did not consider themselves biracial/ multiracial might not have responded. I also asked interviewees to pass along my information to others with similar backgrounds. As an Asian-Indian/white woman, I was uniquely positioned as both an insider and an outsider with regard to the respondents. Specifically, I share a white-minority biracial background with respondents, but I do not share their black ancestry. To position myself partially as an insider, I shared my background with respondents. Often they were curious about my background before it was divulged, and I believe that sharing this information ‘broke the ice’ with many respondents. While some respondents may have perceived me as an outsider, no interviewer can completely escape this status when doing face-to-face interviews. Twine argues that, while having a shared racial background may grant one an ‘insider status’ with interviewees when doing racerelated research, ‘race is not the only relevant ‘‘social signifier’’’ (2000, p. 9); gender, age, sexuality, status as researcher, education, racial appearance and perceptions of my racial identity may have positioned me as an outsider for some respondents even if I shared their racial background. My challenge throughout this project was to be mindful of this insider/outsider relationship, and the potential effect on interviewee responses and my subsequent analysis.

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Finally, all interviews were audio-taped and transcribed. Throughout the interview and transcription process, I began generating categories derived both from theory (from the larger project) and from themes that emerged purely from the data. According to Siedman, ‘The researcher must come to the transcripts with an open attitude, seeking what emerges as important and of interest from the text’ (2006, p. 117). Heeding this advice, I was able to find unexpected themes, including the use of ethnic and racial symbols to express one’s ethnic/racial identity. From this theme, I created two categories: ‘ethnic symbols’ (when respondents drew on symbols relating to ethnicity) and ‘racial symbols’ (when respondents drew on symbols relating to race). To identify ‘ethnic symbols’, I was initially guided by examples presented by Gans (1979) (e.g. ethnic dress, food) and I searched in the data for instances where biracial respondents drew upon symbols relating to particular ethnic groups (e.g. Italian, German). Once I began coding for ‘ethnic symbols’, I soon realized that respondents were also drawing on symbols that appeared more related to race than ethnicity. Thus, I began coding for what I labelled ‘racial symbols’ and these included symbols that appeared related to whiteness or blackness in American society  rather than a particular white or black ethnic group (e.g. using black English vernacular, dressing in clothing that the respondent deemed to be distinctly ‘white’). Using a data analysis program (NVivo), I was able to code for these themes and organize the data into the categories that I created. Characteristics of respondents In this sample of forty black-white biracial individuals, the ages range from 18 to 45, with the average slightly above 24 years of age. More than half of the respondents, 57.5 per cent, fall between the ages of 18 and 22, which is typical college age; this is not surprising considering that much of my recruitment effort began at local colleges and universities. Of the remaining respondents, 27.5 per cent of respondents fall between the ages of 23 and 30, and 15 per cent are over the age of 30. Additionally, 22.5 per cent are men and 77.5 per cent are women. While the majority of respondents were raised with both biological parents (57.5 per cent), 30 per cent were raised solely by one biological parent and 12.5 per cent were adopted. Regarding socioeconomic background, the majority of respondents have a middle-/upper-middle-class background as measured by their educational backgrounds and that of their parents. All respondents are currently enrolled in college (67.5 per cent) or have a bachelor’s degree (32.5 per cent). Fifteen per cent of respondents are pursuing advanced degrees. While respondents often had limited information about their parents’ incomes, they frequently described parents who were highly

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educated. Most have at least one parent with some college (87.5 per cent) or a bachelor’s degree (75 per cent), and 47.5 per cent have at least one parent with an advanced degree. The sample’s middle-/uppermiddle-class status is further evidenced by the professional occupations of many of the parents (e.g. doctors, entrepreneurs, professors, teachers, lawyers, nurses, dentist, scientist, college dean, airline pilot, judge). Finally, regarding identity, the majority of respondents (thirtythree of forty respondents) label themselves using multiracial descriptors (e.g. biracial, multiracial). In comparison, only six respondents label themselves as black, and one as white. The fact that most identify themselves with multiracial descriptors (not just as black) mirrors recent studies, which similarly show a widening of racial options (Korgen 1998; Brunsma and Rockquemore 2001). Korgen (1998) argues that terms such as ‘biracial’ are becoming increasingly common today, and these findings further support her claim.

Findings Symbolic ethnicity Waters (1990, 1994, 1996) and Tuan (1998) argue that ethnic options are unavailable to black Americans because their race is ascribed to them, giving them little option to identify any other way. For black-white people, who are arguably ascribed a black identity by larger society, I find, surprisingly, that they do have some choice in identity and, at times, practise symbolic ethnicity. As for white ethnics, practising symbolic ethnicity is expressive; however, it is a way of expressing not their white identities (or white ethnicities), but rather their identities as biracial. Some of the ethnic symbols respondents use to express their biracial identities include food, clothing, national symbols, sports, music and language. Michael, who has a black mother and white (Italian) father, resists being labelled as black. Noting his desire to express his biracial identity, he says: Even though I may look black, I still hold onto what I really am. . . . I’m not solely black. . . . I like to point out to them that there’s more to me than that. People like to lump it up and say that because you have one-drop of black blood in you, you’re black. . . . I try to step outside of that [black] box.

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Noting that he looks black and that others use the one-drop rule to ascribe him a black identity, he tries to step outside of that ‘box’ by invoking ethnic symbols to draw attention to his Italian ancestry: I like to cook a lot of Italian food and I follow soccer in Europe. . . . I have an Italian flag in my room and I have a lot of Italian sports clothing. . . . I have this shirt that says, ‘‘Italian Stallion’’ and it has a[n Italian] flag on it. And my girlfriend always kind of jokes about it and says, ‘‘I feel like sometimes you’d like to be seen as more Italian than black.’’ I think I do because people don’t really treat me like an Italian person. So I like it to be known. . . . My room has a poster of Italian architecture...[Other people] may ask me where I got it and then when I say ‘‘Italy,’’ they’re like, ‘‘Oh what do you mean?’’ . . . [I respond] ‘‘I’m Italian. My father got it from Italy.’’ To counter being raced as black, Michael draws on numerous ethnic symbols to highlight his Italian ancestry  food (Italian food), sports (Italian soccer), ethnic/national symbols (an Italian flag hanging in his room), clothing (Italian sportswear, shirts that reference Italy) and other symbols (an Italian architecture poster). Using these symbols, he expresses his Italian identity, not so that people will think he is Italian (his physical appearance prevents that option), but rather to draw attention to his biracial identity. These symbols prompt questions from peers (e.g. why are you wearing an Italian shirt?), which give him the opportunity to express his Italian heritage, and hence his biracial identity. To further explain why he finds it important to express his biracial identity, he says: I find it really frustrating because I do so much in my education to negate [black] negative stereotypes. . . . I’m in applied physics with a minor in industrial engineering. So it’s like I’m not a lazy person. . . . And for people to just negate that and just see that I’m black and not even care about the fact that I’m mixed, it kind of hurts me to just kind of lump me into this category like, ‘‘You’re black. So that means you’re ignorant, you’re lazy, you steal, this and that.’’ By expressing his white ethnicity (and hence ‘mixed’ identity), Michael attempts to avoid negative black stereotypes. Other respondents also draw on ethnic symbols to highlight their biracial identities. Alicia, who has a white Jewish mother and a black father, describes ways in which she practised symbolic ethnicity for her white classmates. When asked how she is perceived by others, she says,

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‘[My black features are] kind of more dominant. I look more black than I do white. . . . They probably just assume I’m black.’ To counter this perception, she describes strategies she used to draw attention to the fact that she is not ‘just black’. Wanting to fit in with her white peers in school, she says:

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I highlighted my white side. I wore a little Jewish star [on a necklace] . . . it was this way of saying to people ‘‘I’m not just black. . . . I’m half like you.’’ And it doesn’t make me completely foreign when people meet me. To know that I’m mixed, I think in the little bit of racism in everyone, makes white people a little more comfortable. Like ‘‘Oh, she’s not just a black girl.’’ Alicia consciously wears a ‘Jewish star’ as a visible symbol of her whiteness. While she admits that no one confuses her as being white, she uses this religious symbol to highlight her white ancestry in order to emphasize that she is ‘mixed’. Moreover, Alicia’s practice of symbolic ethnicity is contextual. Like white ethnics who practice symbolic ethnicity in intermittent ways (Gans 1979; Waters 1990), Alicia opts to wear her necklace when her audience is white to highlight the commonalities between herself and her white peers so that she is not ‘completely foreign’ to them. According to Waters (1999), symbolic ethnicity serves two functions  to connect people with others and/or to stand out. Here, Alicia wears the necklace as a way of connecting with her white peers, but she also symbolically enacts ethnicity as a way to negotiate racial inequality. Noting the ‘little bit of racism’ in her peers, she emphasizes her white ancestry, and hence her biracial identity, to avoid being marginalized by her white peers for being black. Likewise, Kendra has a white mother (of German descent) and a black father and also draws on ethnic symbols in intermittent and contextual ways (i.e. when in the company of whites). When asked why she does this, she says: I feel like sometimes [when] white people know you’re mixed, they feel a little bit more safe with you . . . they’ll find out I’m mixed and they’ll be kind of relieved and feel like they can relate more. . . . [In school] I wanted them to know I was partly white because I wanted to feel like I was kind of like them and have them more comfortable with me. To convey that she is ‘mixed,’ she verbally asserts her biracial identity to others and deliberately talks about her white mother. Additionally,

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Kendra symbolically expresses her white/German ancestry by cooking German dishes for her white friends because, she says, ‘it’s my way of showing who I am’. Through food, Kendra expresses her identity  not as white or German, but as biracial. She practises symbolic ethnicity in order to connect with her white peers (so they can ‘relate more’), but also so that they will feel ‘relieved’ that she has white ancestry and ‘feel a little bit more safe’ with her since, after all, she is biracial, not black. Like Alicia, she asserts a biracial identity to highlight her commonalities with her peers so that they will feel more ‘comfortable’ with her (both respondents use this wording), but also to negotiate negative black stereotypes (e.g. that blacks are threatening in a way that makes whites feel unsafe). Angie, who has a white (German) mother and a black father, describes how she occasionally played up her biracial identity to her white peers growing up. Because of her black phenotype, she admits that ‘people look at me crazy if I say I’m white’; this undoubtedly illustrates the constraint in racial options for many biracial people. She cannot identify as white, but she does draw on German ethnic symbols to highlight the fact that she is ‘biracial’ and a ‘mixture of both [black and white]’. Describing her younger years, she says: I liked people to know I was biracial. When people would ask, ‘‘What are you?’’, sometimes I’d make a joke and introduce myself as German. I’d get this ‘‘(Gasp) Oh my God! Are you serious?’’ . . . and sometimes I like to show that I speak German. That really throws people off. Later when asked why she wanted (white) people to know of her biracial background, she says, ‘Because I want them to know that I’m half white. ‘‘I’m half of what you are.’’’ Like others, Angie expresses her German background in intermittent, contextual (when with whites) and functional ways (e.g. to connect with her white peers). Further, Julie has a black mother and a white (Jewish) father and claims that most people see her as black. She says that ‘whoever I’m with, I always let them know that there is this other component to me...that I’m both [black and white]’. To do this, she tells people that she is ‘mixed’ and sometimes even draws on ethnic/religious symbols to highlight her father’s ethnicity. She says, ‘[I] say things about my white culture more. . . . [I say] I’m Jewish every now and then. . . . I mean Jews are white.’ She also describes how she uses her last name to express her identity: ‘My last name. It’s a Jewish last name. People will say [my last name] and I’ll go, ‘‘Yeah, it’s Jewish.’’ [They will say]

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‘‘Oh your dad is Goldberg? What is your dad?’’ [and I say] ‘‘My dad is a white Jew. I’m mixed.’’’ By drawing attention to her Jewish surname, she is able to assert her ‘mixed’ identity.

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Symbolic race Respondents draw on white ethnic symbols, but also white racial symbols. Conscious of how their phenotypes race them as black, they use white racial symbols to express their biracial (not white) identities. Some respondents draw on what they perceive as symbols of whiteness to express their biracial identities via language, clothing, music and phenotypic symbols of whiteness. Jack, for example, who outwardly appears black, draws on white symbols (i.e. language as symbols) to highlight his biraciality to his white peers. To counter the perception that he is black, he consciously modifies his speech: I tailor my speech at times. Like I mean, I’ll use the word ‘‘dude.’’ I probably use that word twice a day, but if I’m around white guys, I’ll probably increase how much I use that or stereotypical [white] words like ‘‘sweet,’’ ‘‘awesome.’’ But the thing is that I say it around black people too, but I’m more conscious about it when I’m around white people. [Why is that?] Because I want them to know that I’m like them. When with white peers, Jack draws attention to his whiteness, and hence his biracial background to show that he is ‘like them’ (i.e. as a means of connecting with them). Similarly, Chris describes symbols he used to highlight his white (and hence biracial) background to his white classmates. Aware that most people assume he is black based on his physical appearance, he says: In high school, I would overly dress white. I would have to wear GAP, because GAP was more identified with white. So everything I had was GAP so that I could be like, ‘‘Yeah, it’s GAP. I’m white. See, it’s GAP’’ [gesturing to his clothes and laughing]. . . . You’d better believe that I would have my GAP stuff on so that everyone knew that I shopped at a white store. Chris races GAP, a nation-wide clothing chain, as white and uses GAP clothing to signal his whiteness symbolically to others. Chris also tells his peers he listened to white pop music (e.g. NSync, Britney Spears) to further highlight his white background. Like other respondents, Chris does not use these symbols to convey that he is white (he admits that his physical appearance prevents that option), but rather that he is

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biracial. When asked why he asserted a biracial identity at school, he says that he was trying to ‘fit in’ in his predominantly white school. Similarly, Anthony occasionally uses clothing as a symbol to highlight his biracial identity. Aware that people assume he is black, he occasionally wears ‘surfer shorts and skateboarder shoes’ to signal his whiteness. Like Michael (described earlier), he says that his clothing often draws questions from his black peers (e.g. Why are you wearing that?), which gives him the opportunity to talk about his biracial background. Unlike other respondents who practise symbolic ethnicity when with whites, Anthony expresses his white racial background when with black peers. When asked why he does this, he says he wants to feel ‘different’ from his black peers. Waters (1999) finds that symbolic ethnicity functions to connect people to a group or community, but also to make them feel different and unique. Stephanie describes how most people think she is ‘straight African American’. She explains ways in which she prompts questions about her racial background at her predominantly black college  for instance, by drawing on phenotypic symbols of whiteness. She dyes her hair blonde, not to identify as white, but to prompt questions about her background. When asked why she does this, she says, ‘I enjoy that. I enjoy people asking me what I am. I love that. It just makes me feel different and unique, so I enjoy playing [my biracial background] up.’ While feeling unique may be one motivation for expressing one’s biracial identity with black peers, Natasha describes another motive. When explaining why she enjoys drawing attention to her biracial identity, she says: With some of the [white] people . . . I would say it’s more of a comfort thing. I’m like, ‘‘I’m fifty per cent of what you are’’. . . . But I know here [at this predominantly black college] especially with black people, okay probably a lot of [respondents] have said this, but with my [black] friends, they’d be on the phone and [my girlfriend would] be going out with someone and [he would] be like, ‘‘Do you have any other friends?’’ And [she would reply], ‘‘Oh well there’s Natasha . . . she’s biracial.’’ And then I’m in. . . . All they have to say is ‘‘She’s biracial’’ and I’m in. . . . It gives me an advantage. Natasha identifies as biracial to connect with white peers, but she also identifies as biracial in black contexts in an effort to access white racial privilege that accompanies her biracial identity. Russell, Wilson and Hall (1992) call attention to the colour privilege associated with having light skin within the black community, but these findings also suggest that simply having a biracial background may grant one some degree of privilege within the black community.

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Thus, while the majority of respondents describe how others see them as black, they occasionally draw on ethnic and racial symbols to highlight their white backgrounds. Whiteness here is expressive and they use these symbols to express, not white ethnic/racial identities, but their identities as ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed’. As argued by Gans (1979) and Waters (1999), symbolic ethnicity has little cost for white ethnics and I similarly find few costs for these individuals. In fact, intermittently drawing on ethnic/racial symbols of whiteness to express their biracial identities actually provides them with several benefits  to connect with whites and to satisfy desires to feel ‘unique’ and ‘different’ from blacks. Most notably, I find that these respondents draw on white ethnic/racial symbols as a way to negotiate black stereotypes, racial inequality and racial privilege which differentiates their use of symbols from that of their white counterparts. Discussion and conclusion This study adds to the literature by exploring the extent to which black Americans (in particular, black-white biracial Americans who have been historically defined as black) practise symbolic ethnicity. While Waters (1990) argues that symbolic ethnicity is reserved for whites, I find that some biracial respondents practise symbolic ethnicity, not to identify as white (or with a particular white ethnic group), but rather to express their biracial identities. Recent research points to the widening range of racial options available to biracial people today, and I find that the majority of respondents in this sample (82.5 per cent) identify as biracial/multiracial, not simply as black as in previous decades. However, while I argue that these biracial respondents have options and practise symbolic ethnicity, these findings also provide support to Waters’ (1990) claim that minorities have less choice in how they identify as compared to white ethnics. The fact that only one respondent (of forty) identifies as white shows that their options are not unbounded. Respondents do not express symbolic white ethnicity, largely because a white identity remains inaccessible to them. Nonetheless, these findings shed new light on Waters’ (1999, p. 203) claim that ‘a person with black skin who had some Irish ancestry would have to work very hard to decide to present himself or herself as Irish  and in many important ways he/she would be denied that option’. Indeed, these findings reveal that the majority of respondents feel that others race them as black, which supports Waters’ (1990, 1999) argument that blacks continue to be somewhat constrained by their physical appearance and/or the one-drop rule. These findings suggest that a person ‘with black skin’ is likely to be denied the option of identifying as Irish, as Waters (1999) argues, yet

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I argue that they may draw on Irish ethnic symbols to draw attention to their white ancestry in order to identify as biracial (not necessarily as Irish or white). Additionally, Gans (1979) and Waters (1999) describe ‘symbolic ethnicity’ and I add to these works by examining ‘symbolic race’  the use of racial symbols to express racial identity. As described earlier, studies have examined how Americans with black ancestry use black racial symbols to assert their black identities, though little attention has been given to the ways in which they draw on white racial symbols to assert non-black identities; this is probably rooted in the assumption that they cannot assert non-black identities. While beyond the scope of this study to examine their use of black symbols (see Khanna and Johnson 2010 for a discussion of black symbols), I find that they draw on white racial symbols (in addition to ethnic symbols) to assert their biracial identities  clothing (e.g. GAP clothing, surfer shorts, skateboarder shoes), music (e.g. white pop music), language (e.g. words such as ‘dude’ and ‘sweet’), and even phenotypic symbols of whiteness (e.g. blonde hair). Like ethnic symbols, racial symbols are abstractions from racial cultures (often based on stereotypes and essentialized notions of race) and easily expressed. Finally, like white ethnics, these biracial respondents practise symbolic ethnicity/race in ways that are intermittent and contextual; they are selective about in what contexts they express ethnic and racial symbols (e.g. with white or black peers depending upon their motives). Furthermore, they express these symbols in functional ways. Like whites, they practise symbolic ethnicity and race to connect with and/ or to distinguish themselves from others. Looking more deeply into their underlying motivations, however, I discover that they also practise symbolic ethnicity/race to manage negative black stereotypes, negotiate racial inequality and, to some degree, access white privilege. In white contexts, they draw attention to their biracial identities to avoid being marginalized and stereotyped for being black. In black contexts, they draw attention to their biracial identities in efforts to access white racial privilege because, for some, being biracial (and having white ancestry) provides them an advantage among their black peers. These functions clearly distinguish the use of symbols among whites from that of black-white biracial people. Moreover, by drawing on ethnic and racial symbols to assert their biracial identities, these respondents do more than navigate the existing American racial hierarchy that relegates blacks to the lowest rung; their actions also reproduce the hierarchy. This is because by drawing attention to their biraciality, they intentionally distinguish themselves from their black counterparts as a way of saying to their white peers, ‘Hey, I’m not really black, so I’m not (fill in any negative black stereotype here)’ or ‘I’m not just black’. From their comments,

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being biracial is perceived (at least from their own perspectives) as something different from black. Thus, rather than challenge the current hierarchy (and turn negative black stereotypes on their head, for example), some respondents instead call attention to their biraciality, thus maintaining the status quo. In other words, their actions simply reproduce the American racial hierarchy which positions blacks on the bottom rung. Based on these findings, there are at least three areas for future inquiry. First, not all respondents invoked ethnic and racial symbols, which raises the following question: what factors affect who will and who will not use symbols? For instance, the majority of respondents in this sample appear phenotypically black (this is based both on their self-descriptions and my own assessment) and much of this analysis focused on their ability to practise symbolic ethnicity/race to assert a non-black (i.e. biracial) identity. Of the minority of respondents in this sample who appear phenotypically white, I find that they, too, practise symbolic ethnicity and race. Occasionally they draw on ethnic symbols to assert a particular white ethnic identity (raced as white, ethnicity is arguably ‘optional’ for them as it is for their white counterparts) or they invoke black ethnic or racial symbols to assert their black or biracial identities. None, however, draws on white racial symbols; arguably they do not need to since they are frequently raced as white. Because there were only four respondents in this sample who outwardly appear white, however, future work should further explore their use of ethnic and racial symbols in asserting black, white or biracial identities and more broadly explore additional determinants of symbolic use. Second, this study finds that these respondents practise symbolic ethnicity/race, yet it is important to note that this sample is relatively young, middle-class and Southern. Since recent research suggests that younger biracials (those born post-civil rights era) have more racial options than their older counterparts (pre-civil rights era) (Korgen 1998), future work should examine symbolic ethnicity/race among older black-white biracial Americans. If they perceive few racial options, are they less likely to engage in symbolic ethnicity or race? Additionally, being middle-class may provide a broader range of racial options for biracials than for their lower and working-class counterparts. Fhagen-Smith argues that the belief that biracials have the ‘right’ to multiple options is a distinctly middle-class value; this is because ‘lower and working-class people neither have, or are they socialized to expect or to demand, such choices’ (2010, p. 32). Future research should examine those from the lower and working-classes to see if they perceive themselves as having limited options and whether this affects their likelihood of engaging in symbolic ethnicity/race. Moreover, this research took place in the South, and, given that the

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one-drop rule is strongly rooted in the South, it is plausible that blackwhite biracials in other regions have more options and, therefore, engage more often in symbolic ethnicity and/or race. Thus, future work should examine respondents in regions outside the South. Finally, scholars find ethnic flexibility for Asian Americans (described earlier), yet Tuan (1998) discovers that this choice is largely confined to their personal lives; these options are limited in most interactions with non-Asians who continue to race them as Asian. Song (2003) argues that, because this flexibility is limited to their personal lives, this poses a significant constraint to their ethnic options. While beyond the scope of this study to investigate whether their biracial identities are externally validated, some evidence suggests that, to some degree, they are. While appropriating white symbols will probably not change how broader society categorizes them and treats them (most argue that ‘society’ sees them as black), their own words suggest that appropriating white symbols in their day-to-day interactions with black and/or white others indeed does influence others’ perceptions. For instance, Alice describes how revealing her biracial background seems to make ‘white people a little more comfortable’, or, in Kendra’s words, makes them feel ‘more safe’ and ‘comfortable’ with her. Natasha describes automatic ‘advantage’ afforded by her biracial background within the black community. There appears to be some validation in their interactions with others, which suggests that they do experience some degree of ethnic flexibility in their public lives. Future work, however, should examine Americans’ perceptions of black-white biracial Americans more directly  do they accept the biracial label? Korgen (1998) argues that black-white people are more likely to identify as biracial than in previous decades, which suggests that biraciality may be increasingly validated in the public arena. Notes 1. While the one-drop rule limited Americans with black ancestry to identifying as black, those who appeared white had the option to ‘pass’ as white; however, this option was available to only a minority of individuals. 2. The terms ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘multiracial’ and ‘biracial,’ are used throughout the text, not as objective labels, but as social constructs. For instance, the term ‘white’ was historically constructed to signify someone with no ‘non-white blood’ and black as someone with even a ‘drop’ of black blood (Davis 1991). The term ‘biracial’ (a recent construct) signifies someone of two races and ‘multiracial’ signifies someone with two or more racial backgrounds; Spencer (2006), however, argues that distinguishing between ‘black’ and ‘biracial/multiracial’ people is problematic since most so-called ‘blacks’ are indeed multiracial (given America’s long history of miscegenation). 3. This paper examines race and ethnicity  overlapping, but not interchangeable terms. Race is defined here as a social construct based on physical appearance (e.g. black, white, Asian), while ethnicity (also a social construct) refers to groups with shared cultural and/or historical backgrounds (e.g. Irish, Haitian). Occasionally, ethnicities are constructed in

1066 Nikki Khanna racialized terms. On the US Census, ‘Hispanic/Latino’ is treated as an ethnicity since it represents people of diverse races, yet sometimes Americans treat it as a race. 4. Sexual relations in this era also involved white women and black men (free and enslaved), although these unions were likely to have been much less frequent (Kennedy 2003). 5. This may be problematic since respondents may identify a parent as black when the socalled black parent is multiracial (see note 3).

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NIKKI KHANNA is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Vermont. ADDRESS: Department of Sociology, University of Vermont, 31 South Prospect Street, Burlington, VT 05405, USA. Email: [email protected]