there is not one single media representation of race in the media. Nor is there one representation of mixed race or multiracial individuals. Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the type of production (mainstream or independent), and the story being told, there may be a multitude or range of representations. At the same time, even with all these representations, there may be some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. 

Historically, mixed race individuals were often portrayed as the problematic – if not unlawful – byproduct of interracial relationships. Through 19thand 20thcentury American literature and media, mixed race identity was often thought through in binary black/white terms. The “tragic mulatto” stereotype was common, with mixed race characters depicted as downtrodden and distraught because they were unable to fit into either the “white” or “black” worlds. Some media portrayals also focused on light-skin mixed race individuals whose ambiguous racial identity allowed them to strategically ‘pass’ as white citizens in society.

Today, some of these common portrayals remain, but the increasingly globalized nature of identity means that the conversation around mixed race tends to move beyond an isolated focus on black/white issues to incorporate other racial and ethnic identities. Mixed race individuals are often talked about in futuristic terms, conceptualized as modern hybrid beings that signal a faster, stronger and better world ahead. They are also often sexualized and fetishized as mysterious, exotic, sexy and extraordinary looking.

Like other racial and ethnic stereotypes, those tied to mixed race individuals may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup. If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body language, their speech, where they live, what kind of work they do, how they interact with others of the same or different ethnicity, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

Dig in…do now

Begin by making a list of specific representations of mixed race individuals you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media on this site tagged “mixed race.” Then, consider:

  • What types of representations are these?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • Do they stand out from other characters in the story or seamlessly fit in?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are the stereotypes based on how the individuals look? What they say? How they speak? What they do? Where they come from? Who their parents are?
  • Are they protagonists or antagonists? Heroes or villains?
  • Who are their love interests? What happens to their relationships?