This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copy desk’s newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!
When you have to describe what someone looks like, countless physical characteristics may come to mind: hair color, eye color, height, body proportion, the presence of scars or tattoos. But it would be hard to argue that any trait has as great an impact as someone’s race, especially here in the United States. Race is used as a catch-all to convey everything from skin color and nose shape to white supremacist assumptions about intrinsic value, intelligence, and culture. But as is so often the case when it comes to Western societal constructs, racial categorizations are steeped in white supremacy and obscure much more than they reveal. Why is it, for example, that calling someone mixed conjures up images of beautiful people with beige skin, wavy brown hair, and hazel eyes for some people instead of someone with skin and hair like walnut and full lips?
As of the 2020 US Census, almost 34 million people identified as being of more than one race. This trend, combined with a below-replacement birth rate and increased immigration, has contributed to the perception that the future is multiracial, not monoracial, as the US population has been assumed to be in the past. In 2013, National Geographic published a feature story called “The Changing Face of America” that explored a hypothetical future of majority-multiracial people through the eyes of individuals today who identify as such; LiveScience came to the same conclusion a year earlier. Many evolutionary biologists believe that so-called racial mixing will eventually lead to a homogenized, brown-skinned appearance for most people worldwide because lighter features are typically recessive.
Amid this increase in multiracial individuals and families, the language around race has begun to shift.
Zachary Ares, a BuzzFeed employee who identifies as both Filipino and white, has always known that his mixed heritage was in conflict with the expectations of his family and greater society.
“You’re sort of generalized as the all-encompassing Asian or the all-encompassing white person in the room,” he said, “based on what side you’re on.” He added that many people think that he’s Italian or Jewish based on his appearance, but nevertheless, he’s usually othered as Asian in white spaces and (white) American in Asian spaces. Everyone else is just plain confused and not shy about expressing that.
“I am Asian and I am white. There’s no like, oh, like only 50% of you understands XYZ. Well, no, I’m both of those,” he added.
Today, mixed has taken on a highly pejorative connotation because of its association with slavery and animal husbandry, but multiracial people have begun to embrace it. BuzzFeed, for example, has its own #mixed Slack channel for multiracial employees to congregate and talk about issues that matter to them. Ares said that he personally prefers the term mixed to biracial because the latter seems too clinical.
“It just feels like it’s something that is being reclaimed and it’s something that’s approachable, and it feels like something the community is embracing right now, and it’s no longer pejorative, and it’s no longer the goal,” he said. “We were both told from the white perspective that, like, being mixed was a negative, and then we were told from our POC side that being mixed is the goal. Nowadays, it just feels like we’re reclaiming it a little bit more, with an understanding that we are not the goal and we are not the shame in the family.”
Ares said that he often feels comfortable enough to let his guard down when he sees someone who is multiracial use the word, but that isn’t necessarily the case when monoracial people use it, especially if they’re white journalists reporting on a community they have no connection to. He believes that in those cases, the more clinical term of biracial is probably best.
Ares also compared the question of mixed versus biracial to Black versus African American or gay versus queer — totally up to preference and a sign of cultural shifts but requiring extra sensitivity from people who are part of the dominant group. For this reason, BuzzFeed News defaults to using biracial or multiracial instead of mixed if we cannot ask a source which they prefer. (As a rule, BuzzFeed News does not use hyphens when describing people with multiple heritages, ethnicities, or religions; for example, African American instead of African-American.)
As another example, Ares mentioned the push in recent years among many Latinos to use Latinx or Latine as a gender-neutral descriptor. This trend has led some well-meaning people to begin calling for Filipinos to adopt a similar suffix for gendered nouns (including Spanish loan words) in their indigenous languages. But Ares said that although the Philippines were colonized by the Spanish and many Filipinos have Spanish-derived names, allies should realize that communities are not interchangeable and any new terms should be based on the indigenous culture in question, not those of colonizers or anyone else removed from the community.
Biracial tends to refer to people with one parent who identifies solely as one race and one parent who identifies solely as a different race. Multiracial refers to any person who has at least two different racial origins. As always, we default to the ID that a subject prefers; when speaking about people more generally, multiracial is the most inclusive term. Words such as mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon, however, refer to classifications of Black people under the “one-drop rule” created during slavery and are only used when we’re quoting someone saying them. The term minority is similarly charged, as it is nonspecific and places “too much emphasis on historically dominant groups,” according to guidelines by Language, Please. Instead, use words like people or communities of color or historically underserved populations. It’s also important to avoid the urge to simplify someone’s identity to make it more legible to dominant groups; if a story is about a community of people who are Taiwanese, don’t just say Asian.
In discussions of Native ancestry, keep firmly in mind the context of blood quantum laws, which were created to make it easier for European settlers to steal the ancestral lands of Native Americans and deny tribal sovereignty. For this reason, tribal nations and communities have the final say in who is Native or not, not non-Native journalists. Additionally, Native Americans are not so much a “race” as they are citizens of sovereign nations, regardless of whether that sovereignty is acknowledged by settler governments such as that of the US. BuzzFeed News trusts people to choose the identity or identities that fit them best rather than try to suss out “objective” classifications based on racial pseudoscience that was imposed by colonialism. That said, it is also true that white people have historically lied about their ancestry in order to gain access to resources and communities that are intended for people they have marginalized. While it’s important to acknowledge this history, non-Native journalists should rely on guidelines from organizations like the Native American Journalists Association for evaluating the credibility of individual Native sources.
What about Middle Eastern and Arab people, who are considered white by the US Census? Studies have shown that these individuals do not consider themselves to be white and others also don’t perceive them that way. Again, it is usually best to be specific.
When discussing biology directly, genotype refers to the total genetic makeup of a person, while “phenotype” refers to how those genes are expressed. It is possible to inherit a recessive gene from one parent — such as, say, blue eyes — while inheriting a dominant gene, such as brown eyes, from the other parent. Although this person would possess both a blue-eye gene and a brown-eye gene in their genotype, their phenotype may only acknowledge the dominant trait, making their eyes brown. Offering this information in scientific contexts can help fight against the belief that individuals of different races are fundamentally different rather than points on a spectrum — in fact, 99.9% of our genetic makeup is the same regardless of racial origin. But in casual contexts, it’s probably best to avoid jargon. Race is not solely determined by phenotype, either — ancestry, culture, language, and nationality all factor in as well.
Journalists should aspire to be accurate in all aspects of their reporting, but racism means writing about racial identity is particularly impactful. “White replacement theory” is the white supremacist myth that white people will eventually be dominated by a brown-skinned majority in Western countries like the US, and it has widespread and dangerous consequences. Even though the percentage of US residents identifying solely as white has decreased, it’s easily still the country’s largest racial population. Even if it weren’t, however, there should be no expectation that racism will simply cease to exist because more and more people of different races are having children together, or because white people are no longer the majority. Colonialism in regions such as South Africa in the 21st century, where Black people are the majority population but still being oppressed by white settlers, and the US South during the antebellum period, where enslaved Black people were commonly sexually assaulted and forced to birth their captors’ children, shows us that white supremacy cares little about logical consistency and a lot about power. And this power can be reinforced when journalists write uncritically about the status quo.
Journalists who want to be accurate in their reporting should avoid lending credence to the white-replacement myth by refusing to present a majority-multiracial society as a foregone conclusion (who counts as white has changed drastically over time), to frame changing demographics as a sign of progress, or to suggest that white supremacy is on the decline. It’s also important to keep in mind that you can be biracial or multiracial without having white heritage — many people of color have children with other people of different races, and those unions won’t solve racism, either.
When rules of domination no longer benefit the people in power, they usually get replaced to maintain the status quo. It’s journalism’s job to provide readers with the information they need to make informed decisions about the society they currently live in as well as the society they want to take shape.
“As a journalist, it is also your responsibility to shine a light on people who don’t have a voice,” Ares said, adding, “If you are not the expert, seek out the experts, and give a voice to those experts and those people on the ground.” ●