Problem Behavior

University of Chicago Magazine, October 2006

For American children, says Yoonsun Choi, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration, early adolescence isn’t getting any simpler. Besides the awkwardness and looming angst, there’s this: more and more youth now find themselves navigating the uncertain territory of multiracial heritage. (Even the term is ambiguous; it can refer to having parents of different races or to generations-old diversity.) The multiracial experience frequently corresponds, Choi says, with higher rates of violence and substance use. “Consistently multiracial youth show, in almost all behavior problems—alcohol, smoking, marijuana, fighting—more problems than other children.”

This past spring Choi, who earned a social-welfare PhD from the University of Washington, published her analysis of a 1997 survey of 2,082 Seattle middle-schoolers in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. She found a “sizeable chunk”—20 percent—who, when asked about their ethnicity, checked more than one box. “This is pretty new,” she says. Until the last decade, children of mixed parentage routinely were allowed to pick only one category on standardized forms (and urged to identify only with that category). In the Seattle survey, part of a federally funded study aimed at improving minority-youth health, 454 students claimed two, or occasionally three, ethnicities. One claimed all five: Asian American, African American, European American, Latin American, and American Indian. Perhaps that student was goofing with the question, Choi says, but “likely not. I have met people with backgrounds like that. . . And studies on self-report have found that with kids it is pretty valid. They report honestly.”

Young respondents are particularly candid, she says, about “problem behaviors.” In the Seattle survey, conducted among 10—to 14-year-olds at four public schools in lower-income neighborhoods, multiracial respondents were significantly more likely than their monoracial peers to have ever smoked; the odds were 38 percent less for white students, 32 percent less for black students, and 51 percent less for Asian students. The probabilities remained similar for other substances too—when asked if they’d ever consumed alcohol or gotten drunk or high, multiracial respondents were much more likely than other groups to say yes.

The differences in violent behavior were even more striking. Multiracial youths were 63 percent more likely than white respondents to have been in a fight and 65 percent more likely to have threatened to stab someone. African American students, who held even with multiracial respondents for some violent behaviors, were 39 percent less likely to have hurt someone badly and 46 percent less likely to have carried a gun.

Choi has yet to decipher all the factors that exacerbate multiracial youths’ “bad outcomes,” but racial discrimination is part of the equation. Kids act out in response to ridicule or ostracism. In junior high and high school, “some [racial] groups are very exclusive. Other children will push you out if you’re a racial combination.” In similar surveys in Hawaii, she notes, multiracial youths did not show more problems than their monoracial classmates. “It’s not even an issue there—so many people come from multiple backgrounds.” In the U.S. at large, interracial marriages account for 4 percent of the total; in Hawaii they account for nearly half.

“However, there is some indication that a strong ethnic identity” with at least one race—a sense of racial or cultural pride, belonging, and confidence—”helps protect kids from these behaviors,” Choi says. But youths must strike a sometimes difficult balance. “This research is just emerging, but it is saying that ethnic identity for multiracial children is unique. They need to endorse every part of who they are, and for children of combinations from conflicting groups”—for instance, black and white or, Choi says, Asian and black—”that will be hard.”

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