Don't believe the hype! Multiracials are not new. They are the products of racial blending of various groups -- beginning with Native Americans and European settlers -- throughout US history. Multiracial identities have been leveraged for social and anti-social purposes since the dawn of print media. Even in today's networked world we are still figuring out how this "full color" demographic fits into a historically black-and-white racial context.
Welcome to the second decade of the 21st century and to the era of the "Mixed Mindset," which is highly mediated, intensely personal, and increasingly political. On one hand, the Mixed Mindset represents a step backward - into the history of mixing that predates a black-white only mentality. On the other hand, the Mixed Mindset represents a step forward - it's about everyday contact and practical encounters that acknowledge racial categories, disturb racial common sense, and create a mindset within which it is okay to name and question racial meanings. The logical end of the mixed mindset is a space where many racial categories and meanings can exist simultaneously, even if they're contradictory, making it more difficult to maintain neat and independent groupings.
Here's how that works. The Mixed Mindset is about answering questions like "who are you?" and "what do you need?" Here are a few facts about who today's multiracials are based on how they answered the 2010 US Census.
But to keep things moving, let's turn our attention to what today's multiracials are saying they need. I call these needs the three As: Adaptation, Acknowledgment and Affection.
Adaptation. The Mixed Mindset is all about "collapsing contexts". In choosing how to identify and when, today's multiracials must account for both the audience and the context of their communication more generally. Some behaviors are appropriate in one context but not another, in front of one audience but not others. The Mixed Mindset brings all of these contexts crashing into one another and it's often difficult to figure out what's appropriate, let alone what can be understood. That's why it's important to ask multiracials how they're defining their own experiences and about how they would like to be addressed.
Acknowledgement. Advertising and publicity materials that portray organizational representatives, consumers, or other stakeholders need to be inclusive in their depictions of racial and ethnic groups. Also, we must remember that the Mixed Experience is not a monolith. Some multiracials care deeply about history and heritage. L'Oreal figured this out in its 2011 "True Match" campaign.
Other multiracials care more about the present and the future and prefer to assimilate into only one cultural or racial group. Ads for Dr. Dre's Beats headphones appeal strongly to this group.
Managing these competing interests is a critical when dealing with and appealing to the mixed mindset. By assuming all multiracial individuals have figured race out, we can turn a blind eye to variances of the mixed experience and feel justified in not examining our own prejudices and racism. Translation: Today's multiracials want images that acknowledge their experiences by delivering breadth and depth. They also want these images to be engaging and worth sharing (I.e., viral appeal).
Affection. Let's be honest. Who doesn't want to feel loved? As long as brands and companies are showing the love, consumers will show them how to better connect with hidden facets of the mixed experience and changing definitions created by the Mixed Mindset. But this love mustn't be blind. Today's multiracials do not want to be poster children for a socially and politically egalitarian society. And they do not want to be the targets of ongoing racial biases or causes of racial tension. They want to see themselves reflected in mainstream society and they want to love what they see. They want to be loved for being human and imperfect, for fitting in and standing out, no more and no less than anyone else.
So what does this mean?
All this means that we're forced to contend with a society in which racial identities are being truly reconfigured. As we are already starting to see, this creates questions about who multiracials are and what multiracials need, about their relationship to the past and to the future ahead of us all.
Specific ways of talking and thinking about multiracials may come and go, but the underlying questions and experiences -- Who are you? What do you need? -- are here to stay. We won't turn the clock back on these. Advertising's first answers to these questions, like Ethnic Ambiguity and polyethnic marketing may end up being fads from the early 21st century, but the mixed mindset will continue to develop as we go forward.
If we get away from thinking only about individual experiences and focus also on the impact of technology, media representations, population growth, and public policy, we can see how change is unfolding before our very eyes. One of the most daunting challenges we face is learning how to adapt to an environment in which racism exists even as multiracial representations and dynamics play an increasingly important role. This is also our great opportunity. We are all implicated in it - as PR professionals and policy makers, as parents and friends, as individuals and as citizens. We are capable of creating communication that promotes positive change.
Remember, the mixed mindset is here to stay. Now we just have to evolve with it.