A project of Brooklyn Historical Society


A Glossary Item
Voices of Mixed Heritage Glossary of Terms




This glossary is a resource accompanying the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations mixed-heritage oral history project, but it can be useful for anyone thinking about the history of race in the United States. While multinational stories are common among mixed-heritage people and families, this glossary focuses on the United States and its particular histories of immigration and racial categorization. The entries in this glossary are contextualized within the scope of the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history project, and are in no way intended to be a comprehensive or exhaustive listing. It is primarily an introduction to some concepts around mixed-race studies and racial justice.



We often reference the racial binary between black and white because that relationship has characterized American racial relations for centuries, but readers should be aware that race as a concept is changing due to increased immigration, social integration and other factors. Not only are there more mixed-heritage people in the United States, but these people are mixed among all backgrounds, not just black and white. New words and stereotypes are popping up, which this glossary considers. Terms from before the American Civil War might seem irrelevant to the experience of these new communities, but they reflect the American racial system, which created the attitudes of people today.



These glossary terms should be read as a starting point for further research and inquiry, and as an introduction to the analysis of the history of race and identity in America. Some terms you’ll find here have fallen out of practice, and others may in the future. Most of the entries make recommendations for additional reading and resources, and a listing of supplementary resources is also available at: http://cbbg.brooklynhistory.org/resources




In this project, narrators identified Blackness is the quality of identifying or being perceived as Black, as well as a culture with which people identify. Important aspects of Blackness include (but are not limited to) culture and representation related to African American life, Caribbean American life, and African migration. Blackness is connected to the ways that others perceive Black identity and the ways that Black people construct their own identities.

For more on Blackness, see:

Negritude in Africa

Postmodern Blackness by bell hooks.

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now by Toure

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Black Folk Don’t… by Angela Tucker



Colorism is the discriminatory practice of preferred treatment for people with lighter skin tones over darker skin tones. It attaches meaning and value to skin tone even within races. To learn more about the effects of colorism, watch Dark Girls.

Cultural representation:

Do you see yourself on TV? If not, who do you see? How does this influence your perception of yourself? People in pop culture are interpreted as representations of their group to the wider world. As a result, cultural mis-representation is often demoralizing due to the strength of stereotypes and importance of social visibility. More research on the importance of these representations can be found here



Diaspora refers to the scattering of a community from a concentrated homeland. There are many reasons for a diaspora, such as the forced migration of enslaved African people from the 16th through the 19th centuries; Jewish people fleeing persecution in Europe in the early 20th century; refugees leaving war-torn countries; and voluntary migration. Often communities maintain a strong cultural memory of the homeland, even as they embrace aspects of culture of their new homes.For example, this map shows the global migration from India and China.


Ethnicity refers to groups that are defined by self-identification to their social group, which usually is marked by a shared religion, language, heritage, ancestry, history, traditions, music, food, dress, or even appearance. These ethnic groups often align themselves by nationality, but not always. Though the adjective “ethnic” is often used as a euphemism for people of color, all people are members of ethnic groups, including white people. Narrators in our project identified in hundreds of different ways in regards to their ethnicity. 


Equity and Equality:

In the context of this project, equity refers to justice in civil rights issues. Equity refers to the principle of differentiated fairness, and the ability to give people what they need to survive, succeed and thrive. For example: health equity is the struggle to ensure that all people have equal access to medicine and care. Racial equity works for a world where racial signifiers such as skin tone do not determine one’s chances in life.

Equality on the other hand, is the principle of sameness. In social justice and human rights, this refers to the struggle to ensure that all people have the same social and civil rights and access to those rights. For example, gender equality refers to the idea that men and women should have the same civil and social rights, such as the right to be paid equally for equal work.


Coming from a Hawaiian pidgin word meaning half, “hapa” is a term used by millions of people who are part Asian to identify themselves. The Hapa Project, organized by Kip Fulbeck, has gathered the stories and images of hapa people, and shows the breadth and diversity of the Hapa community.

For more information, see Part Asian, 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck


Implicit Bias:

Implicit bias refers to the fact that, when tested, many people unconsciously exhibit biases based on age, race, gender, and sexuality, even if they are consciously opposed to such biases. These tests are available to everyone online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/.

For more, see:

Racing to Justice by John Powell

Jerry Kang: TedX talk on Immaculate Perception 



Markers of one’s identity, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, class, faith, immigration status, etc, intersect and overlap to form one’s social identity and subsequent experience of oppressive social systems. These intersections generate varying levels of privilege and oppression according to different configurations of social identity.

For more, read:

“Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color" by Kimberly Crenshaw: 

“How Do You Practice Intersectionalism? An Interview with bell hooks”



Identity is how you define yourself or how you are defined by society, culture and institutions. Identity encompasses things like like race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and much more. In the context of this project, narrators identified the question “What Are You?” as one that often caused them to grapple with their complex identities as mixed people.

For more, read Who Are We - And Should It Matter in the 21st Century? by Gary Younge.


Mulatto [Dated/Not Commonly Used]

Also: Quadroon, Octaroon

These words were invented to describe the percentage of African ancestry in a mixed-race person. Someone whose parents are black and white would be considered Mulatto; Quadroon refers to someone who is “one-quarter” black, etc.

Racial categorization of U.S. citizens was structurally controlled by the state, and implemented in culture and daily life.For more on this, see “One Drop Rule.” For the ways that these individuals were seen in popular culture at the time, see “Tragic Mulatto.”

For more, read Interracialism by Werner Sollors.



Mestizo is a term referring specifically to people of European and indigenous heritage. It was created during the era of Spanish colonialism. 

: [Dated/Not Commonly Used]

Also: amalgamation, melaleukon

Miscegenation refers to the mixing of races through sex or marriage. Anti-miscegenation laws prohibited the mixing of races and legislated the racial boundaries of marriage. Interracial marriage was illegal in most states until the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967). For more details on American laws prohibiting interracial marriages, see this Legal Map of interracial marriage restrictions by state 1662 – 1967: http://lovingday.org/legal-map

The term was made up in 1863 for an anonymous pamphlet called Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro (later found to be written by Copperheads George Wakeman and David Goodman Croly). This spoof pamphlet advocating for the intermarriage of white and black people, which at the time was a shocking suggestion, intended to discredit the Republican party of President Lincoln. 



According to Derald Wing Sue:

"Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

The term was first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD, in the 1970s .

Examples include things like complimenting a person of color on their English, clutching one’s purse in the presence of a Black man, or displaying images based in racist histories, such as the Confederate flag. Derald Wing Sue has shown that microaggressions lead to increased rates of stress, emotional and physical ill-health, stereotyping and exclusion, and more.

For more information, see Derald Wing Sue’s Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation.

For a more humorous take on microaggressions, watch Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls by Franchesca Ramsey. 


One Drop Rule:

The “one drop rule” refers to the concept that any person with any discernible or traceable African ancestry must be classified as black. As it was common for slaveowners to impregnate their female slaves, these children would be slaves, which worked to continue the system of slavery. The “one drop rule” is no longer used consciously, but it does continue to influence American ideas about race. For example: Barack Obama is the nation’s first black president despite his white mother. The influence of the one-drop rule today is a complicated issue.


Othering refers to a dynamic of exclusion, where people view or treat another person as intrinsically different from oneself. People of mixed heritage often deal with othering, as their dual ancestry can make them feel like an Other to both sides.

For a simple discussion of the Other and examples in literature, look hereFor a discussion of Othering and its effects, look here.


Post-racialism is a myth that purports the erasure of racial difference and discrimination. Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. Often the examples of the election of Barack Obama as President and wider acceptance of interracial marriage are touted as examples of postracialism or colorblindness, but racism continues in institutional and cultural life.


In its simplest definition, race is the historical and contemporary system that uses ancestry and appearance to categorize people into hierarchies. There is no biological basis for race but the issues of racism show that race is still structurally and institutionally relevant, and influences people’s lived realities.

For more, see:

Race: The Power of an Illusion on PBS



A. Internalized Racism:

Internalized racism involves private manifestations of racism that are often implicit or unconscious, so people are unaware of their internalized biases.

An example of internalized racism can be seen in the use of skin bleaching products, i.e. physically changing one’s outward appearance to be more European/American looking, which implies that European/American looks are superior. Internalized racism is one example of Implicit Bias (see entry). The Implicit Association Test (IAT) shows that people of color and white people alike have internalized negative racial biases.

B. Interpersonal Racism:

Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. When people interact with others, they bring out private, internalized beliefs about race. Some examples of interpersonal racism include public expressions of racial prejudice, hate, racial slurs, and bigotry.

C. Institutional Racism:

Institutional Racism occurs within institutions. It includes discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and practices, and inequitable opportunities and outcomes, based on race. Institutions can be single units or compound structures. For example, there can be institutional racism in one school, as well as the federal education system..

D. Structural racism:

Structural racism is the manifestation of racism between institutions, and at the intersection of various institutions. Structural racism is characterized by aspects of dominant culture, history, mainstream ideologies about race, and interconnectedness of institutions. To see a visualization of structural racism, see The Unequal Opportunity Race 

Racial Passing:

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group.

For more on passing, its effects, and history, read:

Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s piece in The Atlantic, What Interracial and Gay Couples Know About Passing

Allyson Hobbs book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life 

To see an example of the effects of passing in 20th  century literature, see Nella Larsen’s Passing.


Social construction:

A social construction refers to an ideology (for example, race or gender) which contrary to popular understanding, are not biologically determined, but still affect people in material ways. To learn about how ideas of race have changed over time, read this Ta-Nehisi Coates piece in The Atlantic, What We Mean When We Say Race is a Social Construct

Tragic Mulatto:

The Tragic Mulatto is a misleading trope of American media and literature established in the nineteenth century and continuing today. Stories featuring this trope show mixed-race people leading unhappy, conflicted lives bereft of community. An example of this can be seen in Kraft Milkbite commercials.


In this project, narrators identified whiteness as referring to the culture of the dominant European-descended settler population and privileged social status that identity generates.. Whiteness is often unconsciously treated as the “default” or “norm,” which implies that non-white people of color are “other,” exotic, or abnormal.


White Privilege:

White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people. These privileges are unearned and are distributed based on values of the dominant group.

For more, read: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.


Select Laws and Court Cases Related to Civil Rights and Identity

The Naturalization Act of 1790: 

This was the first law regarding American naturalization. It restricted the category of people who could become American citizens to “free white persons of good moral character” who had resided in the United States for two years.


1839: Married Women’s Property Acts

In 1839, Mississippi became the first state overriding coverture, the denial of legal rights to married women. Other states followed suit over the course of the 19th century. Married Women’s Property Acts allowed women to control their own wages or profits as well as real and personal property. Women were also allowed to be party to legal documents like contracts, and to execute their own wills. American women did not gain the right to vote until 1920.


1857: Dred Scott v. Sanford

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had sued for his freedom based on his residency in free territory. The case established that African Americans could not be American citizens, and therefore had no right to sue on their own behalf. The ruling also established that the federal government had no right to prohibit slavery in western territories.


1863: The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln’s Executive Order declared all enslaved people held in rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” 


1865: The Thirteenth Amendment

Ratified on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment declared that slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited in the United States, except as punishment for a crime.


1868: The Fourteenth Amendment:

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, established citizenship rights and equal protection under the law in the wake of the American Civil War. The amendment’s citizenship clause overturned the Dred Scott decision that African Americans could not be American citizens. The due process clause guaranteed all citizens legal rights in all proceedings, and protected citizens from unjust and illegal denial of basic rights by the state. The equal protection clause required that states provide the same rights to all of its constituents. These last two clauses have been instrumental in the progress of various civil rights movements.


1882 Chinese Exclusion Act:

This act prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers and established that people of Chinese descent could not become American citizens. Fears that Chinese laborers were taking American jobs and a growing racism towards Chinese people fueled the passage of the act. It was not repealed until 1943.


Pace v. State of Alabama:

In 1881, Tony Pace and Mary Cox were arrested for living together in an interracial relationship because it violated Alabama’s Code 4139, which banned marriage, cohabitation, and sexual relationships between white and black people. This 1883 Supreme Court decision reaffirmed the constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws. 


Plessy v. Ferguson:

This 1896 Supreme Court decision upheld American racial segregation laws. The ruling stated that requiring separate accommodations for black and white people was not unconstitutional so long as they were equally well appointed. The decision upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” that would persist until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.


1920: The Nineteenth Amendment

Ratified on August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment established that no American citizen could be denied the right to vote based on their sex.


1921 Emergency Quota Act:

Continuing the efforts to restrict immigration, this act was put into place due to fears that immigration would hurt the prospects of American-born citizens. Also known as the 1921 Emergency Immigration Act, it limited immigration from each country to 3% of the immigrants who are already in the country, as registered in the 1910 census.


1923: In an important precedent for what would become the Latino civil rights movement, the Court struck down a state ban on foreign language instruction in private schools in Meyer v. Nebraska. The law had prohibited all pre-eighth grade foreign language instruction, but the Court said such a ban violated the Fourteenth Amendment.


1924: The National Origins Act

Building on earlier restrictive laws, this act was the first act to impose a numerical limit on immigrants. The law established different quotas for each country. The quotas for Eastern and Southern European countries were low; quotas did not exist for Asian, African, and South American countries. The intent was to control the ethnic makeup of the United States and continue to limit immigration of “undesired” people, including low-wage workers and people of color.


1924 Indian Citizenship Act

Also called the Snyder Act, this law granted citizenship to Native Americans.


1948: Executive Order 9981

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces. 


1952 Immigration and Nationality Act:

This act consolidated various immigration restrictions established over the previous century... While the act abolished racial classifications found in the first 1790 Naturalization Act, it also reinforced the quotas established in the 1924 act. It further established classes of immigrants, prioritizing those able to support themselves, and severely limiting those of refugee status.It was vetoed by President Truman for being discriminatory, but his veto was ultimately overridden.


Brown v. Board of Education

This 1954 Supreme Court decision revoked the “separate but equal” precedent upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and opened the doors for the racial integration of American schools and other institutions. In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that that creating separate institutions for different races was “inherently unequal,” violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The case of Plaintiff Oliver Brown, as well as five others, were sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).


1964: The Civil Rights Act

Passed on July 2, 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this act abolished discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It barred unequal application of voter registration requirements, outlawed discrimination of public places, and prohibited school and workplace segregation and discrimination.


1965 Immigration and Nationality Act:

Also known as the Hart-Celler Act, it repealed the national quota immigration system that had been in place since 1921. It opened up immigration to the United States from Asia, Africa, South America, Latin America, and the Middle East. As a result of this change in immigration law, the United States has become more ethnically diverse. But the Act continued to prohibit the immigration of “sexual deviants” (i.e. members of the LGBTQ* community) under the auspices of the 1917 Immigration Act which blocked immigration by “mentally defective" or “constitutionally inferior” individuals.


Loving v. Virginia:

On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that all legal bans on interracial marriages were in violation of theFourteenth Amendment. This decision ended race-based limitations on marriage. The plaintiffs, Mildred and Richard Loving, were an interracial couple who lived in Virginia and married in June 1958 in Washington, DC. Virginia was one of the states where interracial marriage was a felony due to Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act (1924), punishable by up to 25 years in prison. The anniversary of Loving v. Virginia is celebrated every year in cities across America and is called Loving Day.


1974: Milliken v. Bradley

In this case, the Supreme Court blocked Detroit’s busing desegregation program, which transported students across school district boundaries to promote school integration.


1996: The Defense of Marriage Act

Signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996, this law allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.


1998: Bragdon v. Abbott

This case established that HIV-positive individuals were protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.


2013: United States v. Windsor

This Supreme Court case ruled that restricting the federal interpretation of “marriage” to only heterosexual couples was unconstitutional. The case centered around Ediwth Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were married in Canada. Upon Spyer’s death, Windsor sought to claim tax exemption as a surviving spouse. Her claim was denied, requiring her to pay over $350,000 in estate taxes, and prompting this case.