Research Report: Black + White = Black: Hypodescent in Reflexive Categorization of Racially Ambiguous Faces

Research Report: Black + White = Black: Hypodescent in Reflexive Categorization of Racially Ambiguous Faces

Psychological Science
Volume 19, Number 10 (2008)
pages 973-977

Destiny Peery
Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Galen V. Bodenhausen, Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Northwestern University

Historically, the principle of hypodescent specified that individuals with one Black and one White parent should be considered Black. Two experiments examined whether categorizations of racially ambiguous targets reflect this principle. Participants studied ambiguous target faces accompanied by profiles that either did or did not identify the targets as having multiracial backgrounds (biological, cultural, or both biological and cultural). Participants then completed a speeded dual categorization task requiring Black/not Black and White/ not White judgments (Experiments 1 and 2) and deliberate categorization tasks requiring participants to describe the races (Experiment 2) of target faces. When a target was known to have mixed-race ancestry, participants were more likely to rapidly categorize the target as Black (and not White); however, the same cues also increased deliberate categorizations of the targets as ‘‘multiracial.’’ These findings suggest that hypodescent still characterizes the automatic racial categorizations of many perceivers, although more complex racial identities may be acknowledged upon more thoughtful reflection.

After being told that Barack Obama’s mother was White and father was Black, a majority of White and Hispanic interviewees said they considered him multiracial (White, 2006). Does this result highlight the inadequacy of monoracial categories in understanding multiracial people, or does it merely reflect a superficial semantic distinction, with Obama still largely viewed and evaluated in terms of his Black heritage? The categories applied to multiracial persons carry important implications for their self-esteem and experiences of discrimination (Herman, 2004). Thus, it is important to understand how multiracial people are categorized by others…

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