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Ego Identity and Self-Esteem in Biracial Young Adults



NOTE: This is a brief summary of a paper presented at the 77thAnnual Convention of the Western Psychological Association in Seattle on April 24th, 1997. All rights to both this summary and the original paper are reserved.


The current study compared biracial young adults (BYAs) with monoracial black and white peers on identity status and self-esteem. It was expected that BYAs would show no more psychological problems than monoracial counterparts, and it was hypothesized that they would score higher on measures of identity moratorium. Fifty-three participants (19 black, 13 white and 22 black/white biracial) between the ages of 18 and 28 were recruited from university-related venues. Participants completed the Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, and race-related questions designed for this study. Among the results, BYAs scored marginally higher on measures of interpersonal moratorium (F = 2.54, p = .08) and self-esteem (F = 2.86, p = .07) than both monoracial groups. Overall, the results were not consistent with the conclusion that BYAs are at increased risk for identity confusion and low self-esteem.


What About The Children?

When two people of different races decide to marry, they are commonly asked "but what about the children?" Up until recently, the answer from both lay and professional observers would most probably have been something like "they are in for trouble" (see, for example, Gibbs & Hines, 1992). Many of these pessimistic predictions would have been based on the assumption that Biracial individuals suffer from a fundamental confusion about who they are, resulting in impaired self-esteem (e.g. Teicher, 1968; Herring, 1995).

Loving vs Virginia

The profoundly negative attitude concerning interracial relationships and multiracial children is illustrated by the fact that only thirty years ago it was illegal in 16 states for a white person to marry a non-white person (the Supreme Court, in "Loving vs Virginia" ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1967).

The Idea of Race

The study of Biracial experience may seem to some to imply an acceptance of the popular notion that there is meaningful biological content to the category of race. A review of the relevant historical, anthropological, and genetic literature is well beyond the scope of this modest paper (see Spickard, 1992). It will suffice to note simply that recent scholarship has raised substantial doubt about the biological status of race, and that the current study only assumes that race has social significance. The focus of the current study is on black/white biracial individuals.

Conclusions From Recent Research

Increasingly in the last 20 years, study of psychological development in Biracial individuals has focused on empirical assessment of non-clinical populations. Such studies tend to conclude that Biracial individuals do not suffer from any more psychological problems than so-called "monoracial" counterparts (Poussaint, 1984; Brown, 1991; Cauce, et. al., 1992).

Ego Identity

Identity was described by Erikson (1963) as the central task of adolescence. Marcia (1966) identified two dimensions to ego identity, the degree of autonomous exploration of potential identity alternatives, and degree of commitment to a set of identity alternatives. The combination of high or low positions on each of these two dimensions results in four possible identity statuses: Diffusion (low commitment and low exploration); Moratorium (low commitment and high exploration); Foreclosure (high commitment and low exploration); and Achievement (high commitment and high exploration). Within this paradigm, Achievement is seen as the attainment of a clear sense of identity, while Diffusion is seen as identity confusion.

Purpose of the Study

The ego identity status of biracial individuals has not been looked at directly. If the earlier clinical studies give an accurate picture, biracial individuals should score higher on measures of diffusion (confused identity), lower on measures of achievement (healthy identity) and lower on measures of self-esteem than either monoracial black or white individuals. The more recent literature would suggest that multiracial individuals would be no different than monoracial individuals on these variables. The current study expected that biracial individuals will not differ from monoracial individuals on measures of diffusion, achievement or self-esteem. It was expected that biracial individuals would score higher on measures of moratorium, as they may in fact be more likely to encounter social stimulation to actively explore their identities.



Fifty-three participants for this study were recruited through advertisements in college newspapers; requests posted on electronic bulletin boards devoted to multiracial issues; recruitment posters and tables in high-traffic areas on university campuses; and requests for volunteers from students enrolled in lower division general education courses.


The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory - Adult Form (1987). A 25 item questionnaire designed to measure self-evaluation. Items are responded to as either "like me" or "unlike me". Reliability is reported as ranging from .78 to .85.

The Extended version of the Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status (EOMEIS-2) (Adams et al., 1989) is a 64 item questionnaire. Separate scale scores are derived for each of the four identity statuses in both the ideological (occupation, politics, world view, religion) and interpersonal (friendship, dating, sex roles and recreation) domains. Reliability of the status scales have been reported as ranging from .58 to .75, with a median r = .63.

Racial Identity Questionnaire. A questionnaire constructed for this study. Items assessed the following: race of the participant's father, mother and participant (with the options of "white", "black", "Asian" and "other"); the race of the participant with the additional alternative of "biracial"; strength of identification with the racial designation of "white", "black" and "biracial" (on a 7-point likert scale); amount of confusion about racial identity experienced at four different stages of life, elementary school, junior high school, high school and college (on a 7-point likert scale).


Participants were asked to complete the questionnaire and to return it in a self-addressed, self-stamped envelope provided.


Nineteen of the participants reported having two black parents, 13 participants reported having two white parents, and 22 participants reported having one white and one black parent.

Table 1 contains the results of One-way ANOVA's performed on the eight identity status scales (ideological and interpersonal), self-esteem scale, and the four racial confusion variables by racial group. As can be seen, of the eight identity status scales, the only significant race-group difference found was for ideological foreclosure, with black participants scoring higher than both biracial and white participants. There was a trend for biracial participants to score higher on interpersonal moratorium than white participants. Biracial participants also scored marginally higher on the self-esteem measure than either white or black participants.

Black participants reported more racial confusion in elementary school than white participants. Biracial and black participants reported more confusion in junior high school than white participants. Biracial participants reported more confusion in high school than either black or white participants. There were no significant race group differences on racial confusion reported at the college level.

When asked to choose a racial identification from the choices of "white", "black", "Asian" and "other", 7 of the 22 participants who reported having one black and one white parent chose "black" (31.8%) while 15 chose "other" (68.2%). When asked to choose from the same choices plus "multiracial", 1 chose "black" (4.5%), 20 chose "multiracial" (90.9%) and 1 chose "other" (4.5%). Participants were also asked to rate their commitment to the "white", "black" and "biracial" identification. A t-test for paired samples was performed on all three possible comparisons. Commitment to the "biracial" identity was significantly stronger (M = 6.14, SD = 1.52) than commitment to either the "black" or "white" identity (M= 4.64 and 3.64, SD = 1.47 and 1.47, respectively, t(21) = 3.27 and 5.88, p = .004 and .001). Commitment to the black identity was significantly stronger than commitment to the white identity, t(21) = 2.15, p = .04.


Main Findings

The pattern of results was consistent with the expectation that there would be few if any psychological differences between biracial individuals and their monoracial counterparts. Those differences which were found were actually in favor of biracials. Biracials scored marginally higher on the measure of self-esteem and interpersonal moratorium, and, along with white participants, significantly lower than blacks on identity foreclosure.

Racial Confusion

One of the more interesting findings in this study was the changing pattern of reported racial confusion by each racial group over time. These results appear to be consistent with the interpretation that non-white individuals are more likely to experience race-related confusion in the United States than white individuals. Differences between black and biracial (at least, "black/white" biracial) individuals may have more to do with the timing of exacerbations of this confusion and its relative resolution.

Racial Identification

Brown (1995) found that 65% of her sample of biracial individuals identified themselves as black on public forms, but identified themselves as "interracial" in private. She termed this a compartmentalization into public and private racial identities. A slightly different way of looking at this phenomena is as identity pluralism. In the current sample of biracial individuals, the average commitment to a biracial identity was high (6.14 on a seven-point scale), reliably higher than any other racial identification. However there was also a relatively strong commitment to a "black" identity (4.6, midway between "medium" and "fairly strong"), which was significantly stronger than commitment to a "white" identity (3.6, midway between "fairly weak" and "medium"). This suggests that, for biracial individuals at least, racial identifications are not mutually exclusive. The relatively weak commitment to a "white" identity was probably due to hypodescent (see Harris, 1964).


There are several serious limitations to the current study. Most importantly, the biracial participants were about two years older than the monoracial participants, which provides a possible alternative explanation for the findings. Another limitation is the fact that this study made use of convenience samples. The biracial participants particulary can not be viewed as representative of the larger population of biracial individuals. With these limitations in mind, it seems reasonable to cautiously generalize these results to middle-class, well-educated biracial individuals who primarily identify themselves as "biracial".


The results of the current study are not consistent with the common assumption that biracial individuals are at high risk for developing identify confusion and resulting low self-esteem. It appears that for this sample, and other biracial individuals similar to them, the struggles of identity and self-esteem are, at worst, no more difficult than for their monoracial peers.

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