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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

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Investigations ::

Problem behavior

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.”

Choi’s examination of ethnic identity’s protective power echoes her research on immigrant children. In the U.S. “race and ethnicity are salient issues for children’s development, and immigrant children have a lot of things going on in that area,” she says. “You would say they are potentially at higher risk. But they behave way better than nonimmigrant children” of the same races. In other words, European-born whites get into less trouble than whites born in the U.S., and African-born blacks less than American-born blacks. “That’s true for all races,” she says. Immigrant children often come from close-knit, highly motivated families, but ethnic identity also plays a part in their good behavior. “If you look over the generations, pretty rapidly they regress to the mean.” The fastest change occurs among the children and grandchildren of African immigrants (Choi largely blames racial discrimination), “but it goes down pretty quickly for Asian Americans as well, who have the stereotype of being model minorities.”

It’s important to halt this regression to the mean, says Choi, who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, as a graduate student 15 years ago, “because by 2010 one out of every four children in this country will be an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.” Part of the solution to retaining an “immigrant ethos,” she believes, may be a more measured integration into American culture. “Rapid assimilation, which used to be thought of as the answer, may not be. Nowadays there’s a shift in people keeping close connections to their country of origin. And at this point it seems like that’s protection.”