In Mixed-Race Couples, Fathers Profoundly Influence Their Children’s Racial Identifications

[email protected], Sept. 15, 2006

Interracial marriage increased seven-fold from 1970 to 2000, and how the children of these marriages view their racial identity has a lot to do with their father’s race and the number of father-child interactions, according to Rice University sociologist Holly Heard. In particular, children in families where the father is African-American are much more likely to identify with their father’s race, compared to children with fathers of other races.

With the rising number of interracial marriages, more children are questioning their racial identity. Currently, 6.4 percent of all U.S. children live in households headed by interracial married couples, and the number of children likely to deal with the racial-identity question will continue to grow.

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The study provided three measures of racial identification: an exact match to the father’s race, identification to both parents’ races, or no acknowledgment of the father’s race or ethnicity. “Black fathers stood out as having a much more direct line to influencing their child’s racial identity than any other race,” said Heard. “Their children were three times more likely to indicate an exact match to their father’s [race] and almost eight times more likely to include their father’s race in their own racial identity.”

Heard believes it’s possible that this stronger effect could be linked to the “one drop rule,” a cultural convention dictating that anyone with even a small amount of African ancestry would be labeled as black or African-American. However, with the “one drop rule,” Heard expected children to exactly match their father’s race every time, discarding the race of the mother entirely. “Instead, we’re finding more evidence that the father’s race is being included [along with the mother’s], which tells us these children are aware of the option of choosing multiple races.” Heard said this could be indicative of a new “one drop rule,” one that allows additional races to also be incorporated. “That reflects more of what is going on socially as well.”

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The authors also found that time spent in father-child interactions may encourage or influence a child’s racial identification. They looked at nine different measures of father involvement—including level of parental control and “social closure” (how closely parents keep track of their child’s friends and those friends’ parents)—and found that the only one that directly impacted racial identity was activities. The number of activities that a father participated in with his kids had a strong effect on their either exactly matching or including his race.

According to Heard, it’s likely that activities create opportunities to talk to children about what race means and to explore and experience ethnic and cultural specifics that can be passed on. “Every father/child activity within a period of a month corresponds to a 34 percent increase in the likelihood that children will match with the race of their fathers. There is a 36 percent increase in the likelihood that children will include their father’s race when identifying the races to which they belong.”

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A common theme throughout all of Heard’s work is how race, ethnicity and social class influence family development and patterns. Heard earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Bratter holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has conducted extensive research around racial identity and multiracial populations.

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