Scholarly perspectives on the mixed race experience.
The Multiracial Category Movement originated in the 1980s when parents of biracial children began to challenge identification criteria on school data forms. By the 1990s, multiracial category advocates had shifted most of their energy to a campaign to secure the addition of a multiracial category on decennial census forms for the year 2000. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. The debate concerning racial categories, however, extends well beyond census classifications.
Although it is difficult to reduce such a controversial and complex topic to a few words, multiracial category proponents appear to believe that the category will: (1) challenge the use of racial categorization by forcing society to acknowledge that race is too fluid to monitor in an increasingly diverse society; (2) promote racial harmony by identifying a group that is capable of bridging the gap between Blacks and Whites; and (3) allow mixed-race persons to self-identify and to acknowledge all aspects of their racial heritages. Although one can understand the appeal of and the potential merit to these claims, proponents fail to engage sufficiently the complex history and present reality of colorism.
The first argument—that a multiracial category will eliminate racial classification altogether and move society beyond racial divisions—is debatable. The adoption of a multiracial category is equally likely to contribute to the proliferation of racial categories rather than to their elimination. Even assuming, arguendo, that a multiracial category will cause society to recognize that race is too fluid to monitor, this claim assumes that along with racial classifications, discrimination will also disappear. But, one event need not follow the other. The fact that racial labels may no longer be handy does not mean that discrimination will disappear. Rather, the virus of discrimination may simply mutate or find another host. Because skin color has been used historically as a basis for subordination in this country, skin color may provide an alternative site. That is, in the future, skin color differences may increasingly perform the role played by racial categories today. In this new social context, multiracial individuals and other persons of color will still be subject to discrimination on the basis of skin color to the extent that their skin is too dark or too light.
The second argument—that a multiracial category will produce an identifiable class of people who will facilitate interracial communications between Blacks and Whites—sounds like a modern-day appeal for a buffer class (a class distinguishable by its lighter skin tone). In the United States, however, buffer classes have not historically acted as catalysts for interracial harmony. Rather, they have served to increase the status of those in the middle (the buffer class) without fundamentally challenging the status quo for those on the top and bottom.1 In Brazil and Latin American countries where buffer classes have existed historically, the same dynamic has occurred. Thus, while tending to improve the lot of some, buffer categories fail to challenge existing racial and color hierarchies. In future discussions, proponents of a multiracial category must come forth with evidence that history will not repeat itself in the current context. In short, they must explain how a multiracial category will avoid simply reinforcing the existing racial and color hierarchy.
The third argument—that a multiracial category will allow mixed-race persons to self-identify and to acknowledge the totality of their racial heritages—is intuitively appealing. It seems that a goal of multiracial category proponents is to challenge the continued application of the one-drop rule (e.g., the notion that a person is Black if she has a trace of blackness in her physical appearance or in her ancestry). Again, this goal seems fair, neutral, and perhaps even laudable. However, as I explain below, an unintended consequence or negative externality of this objective must be considered: mixed-racial heritage and skin color may operate to elevate the status of lighter-skinned multiracial individuals, while doing nothing to alleviate the subordination of those who are darker or to change the idea that Black is undesirable.
Arnold K. Ho, Assistant Professor of Psychology Colgate University, Hamilton, New York
Jim Sidanius, Professor of Psychology and Professor of African and African American Studies Harvard University
Amy J. C. Cuddy, Associate Professor of Business Administration, Hellman Faculty Fellow Harvard University
Mahzarin R. Banaj, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Harvard University
This paper demonstrates that individual differences and social context interact to influence how we categorize biracials.
We show that the rule of hypodescent is used to enforce group boundaries.
Anti-egalitarians are shown to strategically engage in hierarchy maintenance.
Individuals who qualify equally for membership in more than one racial group are not judged as belonging equally to both of their parent groups, but instead are seen as belonging more to their lower status parent group. Why? The present paper begins to establish the role of individual differences and social context in hypodescent, the process of assigning multiracials the status of their relatively disadvantaged parent group. Specifically, in two experiments, we found that individual differences in social dominance orientation—a preference for group-based hierarchy and inequality—interacts with perceptions of socioeconomic threat to influence the use of hypodescent in categorizing half-Black, half-White biracial targets. Importantly, this paper begins to establish hypodescent as a “hierarchy-enhancing” social categorization.
Blogs: In the Eye of the Beholder: The science of social perception
Jason Plaks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology University of Toronto
The perception of race is subjective.
Many biracial people publicly identify themselves with only one race (for example, either black or white, but not both). President Obama raised eyebrows when he checked only one box on his 2010 Census form: “Black, African American, or Negro.” Halle Berry (who is biracial), in discussing her one-quarter black daughter, Nahla, has stated, “I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.” When pressed on why Nahla, who is 75 percent white, should be considered black, she conceded that Nahla may ultimately have some choice in the matter, but added, “I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her.” In other words, according to Berry, regardless of how she may choose to self-identify, as long as she has “one drop” of black blood, the world will see her as black.
Is this true? Clearly, there is a good deal of idiosyncratic variation from person to person in terms of how prototypical they are of a particular race. But if you average across many people, what do observers generally view as the threshold where one race ends and the other race begins?
A team of researchers led by Arnold Ho of Harvard University recently examined this question by using a face-morphing computer program. In one study, participants were presented with faces on a computer screen. They were told that each time they pressed the “continue” button the face currently on the screen would morph slightly (in reality, 1 percent increments) into a different race. They were further instructed to keep pressing “continue” until the exact moment they felt that the person on the screen now belonged to another race…
…The legal definition of race membership has a checkered history. Although the precise figure differed from state to state, many U.S. states outlined specific fractions of blackness a person needed to possess in order to be considered legally black (and therefore ineligible for rights and privileges that were exclusive to whites). Similar rules existed for Native Americans. Nowadays, the tables have turned in some respects. Because in some cases being black or Native American can be an advantage (for example, some affirmative action policies), many are motivated to see the threshold lowered so that the category is more inclusive, not less. In other words, we see some movement in the direction back toward the one-drop rule…
Harvard Half-Asian People’s Association
2011-03-25 through 2011-03-26
The Harvard Half-Asian People’s Association will host its third annual conference on mixed-race politics and identity issues, “So…What Are You, Anyway?” (SWAYA) on Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26, 2011 on the Harvard University campus. The event is open to the public and will feature an array of exciting guest lecturers who will speak on issues involving multiracial identity.
The conference will include lectures given by the Dean of Harvard College and other Harvard College professors, as well as student panels and discussion groups. Last year, the event drew over one hundred students and other guests from colleges and cities around the Boston area.
SWAYA will culminate in a special gala dinner* in honor of the 2010 recipient of the Cultural Pioneer Award, celebrity mixed-race artist Jeff Chiba Stearns, director of the award-winning documentary “One Big Hapa Family”. An international spokesperson on mixed-race identity, Stearns’ short films exploring multiethnic issues have been screened in hundreds of film festivals around the world and have garnered over 33 awards.
Jim Sidanius, Professor of Psychology and African and African American Studies Harvard University
Jim Sidanius is a Professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He has published more than 150 scientific papers and books discussing the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.
Arnold K. Ho is interested in social perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs that function to maintain social hierarchies. In one line of research, he examines the perception of multiracial individuals and its implications for racial hierarchies. In another line of research, he examines hierarchy enhancing attitudes and beliefs and individual differences in the preference for group-based hierarchy (i.e., social dominance orientation).
Individuals who qualify equally for membership in two racial groups provide a rare window into social categorization and perception. In 5 experiments, we tested the extent to which a rule of hypodescent, whereby biracial individuals are assigned the status of their socially subordinate parent group, would govern perceptions of Asian–White and Black–White targets. In Experiment 1, in spite of posing explicit questions concerning Asian–White and Black–White targets, hypodescent was observed in both cases and more strongly in Black–White social categorization. Experiments 2A and 2B used a speeded response task and again revealed evidence of hypodescent in both cases, as well as a stronger effect in the Black–White target condition. In Experiments 3A and 3B, social perception was studied with a face-morphing task. Participants required a face to be lower in proportion minority to be perceived as minority than in proportion White to be perceived as White. Again, the threshold for being perceived as White was higher for Black–White than for Asian–White targets. An independent categorization task in Experiment 3B further confirmed the rule of hypodescent and variation in it that reflected the current racial hierarchy in the United States. These results documenting biases in the social categorization and perception of biracials have implications for resistance to change in the American racial hierarchy.
Table of Contents
Historical Treatment of Biracial Individuals
Empirical Studies of Biracial Individuals: Identification, Categorization, and Perception
Overview of the Experiments
Experiment 1: A Blatant Test of Hypodescent
Results and Discussion
Experiment 2A: A Test of the Automaticity of Hypodescent
Results and Discussion
Experiment 2B: A Replication
Results and Discussion
Experiment 3A: Evidence of Hypodescent in Visual Face Perception
Results and Discussion
Experiment 3B: A Replication and Extension
Results and Discussion
The “mixing of races” in America provides a natural laboratory for measuring perceptions of new racial identities that diverge from older and simpler notions of race purity (Shih & Sanchez, 2009). Although social psychologists have studied how humans think about ingroups and outgroups for decades, relatively little is known about the perception of individuals who, by the fact that they embody mixtures of social identities within a single individual, blur traditional group boundaries. Such individuals provide intriguing test cases for social categorization and social perception. We focus on one aspect of such mixtures by studying how humans who meld two seemingly distinct racial groups are categorized and perceived, and thereby test how socially meaningful lines that determine inclusion into desired group memberships are drawn. Fundamentally, the categorization and perception of biracial and multiracial individuals more broadly can reveal how culturally entrenched social categories and norms guide, and even limit, social perception.
From a sociostructural perspective, miscegenation and biracial identity have profound implications for understanding the stability and permeability of extant racial group boundaries. In the United States, there is a clear and consensually agreed upon racial status hierarchy—members of dominant and subordinate groups alike agree that Whites have the highest social status, followed by Asians, Latinos, and Blacks (see Fang, Sidanius, & Pratto, 1998; Kahn, Ho, Sidanius, & Pratto, 2009; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999, pp. 52–53). However, many have argued that the increasing rate of interracial dating and marriage between racial minorities and Whites, and resulting patterns of biracial identification of their offspring, will lead to a fundamental change in the American racial hierarchy (e.g., Alba & Nee, 2003; J. Lee & Bean, 2004, 2007a, 2007b; Sears & Savalei, 2006; Thornton, 2009). For example, J. Lee and Bean (2004) suggested that “based on patterns of immigration, intermarriage, and racial/multiracial identification…, Latinos and Asians may enjoy the option to view themselves as almost white or even white, and consequently, participate in a new color line that is still somewhat exclusionary of blacks” (p. 237). Others, like Thornton (2009), have documented how the mainstream media perceives the significance of multiracial identification: “For mainstream [news] papers, we are in a new era, sans racial determinants, and in this context multiracial people embody a color-blind America…” (p. 121). These sentiments assume that biracials will be accepted as part of their dominant parent group and not limited by their minority parent group status. However, are biracial targets perceived accurately as equal members of both parent groups or more in terms of their dominant or subordinate group lineage? The five experiments reported here are aimed at addressing this question…
Never mind what you’ve heard. Halle Berry was not the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was actually the 74th white one. And never mind all this talk about America electing its first black President; Barack Obama is actually the 44th white man to hold the job.
That, at any rate, is as fair a conclusion as any, given that Berry and Obama and millions like them are the products of one black parent and one white one. And yet it’s a conclusion that almost no one ever reaches. Part-black generally means all-black in Americans’ minds. Just as part-Asian or part-Hispanic or part-anything-else usually puts individuals in those minority-groups’ camps. Such a curious bias is as old as the nation itself, and a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology illustrates just how stubborn it is—and suggests just what may be behind it.
It was in 1662 that the colony of Virginia first tried to codify the legal definition of people whose racial pedigree was less than completely pure. To make things simple in a land in which plantation owners were already taking sexual liberties with their slaves, the lawmakers established what they called the “one-drop” rule—also known as hypodescent—declaring that any person with mixed blood who resulted from such a pairing would be assigned the race of the nonwhite parent…
…But this much can be said for the folks who wrote such nasty rules: They may have been no better than most other Americans, but they were no worse either, at least in their tendency to apply the hypodescent rule in their own minds, often unconcsiously. To test how this phenomenon applies today, a team of Harvard University psychologists led by Ph.D. student Arnold K. Ho gathered a sample group of black, white and Asian volunteers and showed them computer-generated images of individuals designed to look either black-white or Asian-white. They also showed them family trees that depicted various degrees of racial commingling…
People classify biracial children as members of the minority parent group
People have the tendency to classify those of biracial descent as members of their minority parent group rather than as equal members of both races, according to a recent study published by Harvard psychologists.
The study, led by Harvard psychology graduate student Arnold K. Ho and co-authored by Harvard Professors James Sidanius and Mahzarin R. Banaji and Vanderbilt Professor Daniel T. Levin, employed computer generated faces of varying ethnicities and fictional family trees to test people’s intuitive racial classifications.
Study results suggest that participants classified half-white and half-minority persons as part of a minority. Researchers used computer generated faces of varying ethnicities and fictional family trees to test people’s preferences…
The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry.
“Many commentators have argued that the election of Barack Obama, and the increasing number of mixed-race people more broadly, will lead to a fundamental change in American race relations,” says lead author Arnold K. Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard. “Our work challenges the interpretation of our first biracial president, and the growing number of mixed-race people in general, as signaling a color-blind America.”…
…“One of the remarkable things about our research on hypodescent is what it tells us about the hierarchical nature of race relations in the United States,” says co-author James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force within American society.”…
Many have argued that the increasing rate of intermarriage between racial minorities and Whites and resulting patterns of biracial identification will lead to the dissolution of the American racial hierarchy (e.g., Alba & Nee, 2003; Lee & Bean, 2004; 2007a; 2007b; Thornton, 2009). However, little empirical evidence exists on perceptions of new racial identities that diverge from older notions of race purity and the “one drop” rule. We tested whether a rule of hypodescent, whereby biracial targets are assigned the status of their subordinate parent group, would govern perceptions of Asian-White and Black-White targets. Participants morphed faces from Asian to White, Black to White, White to Asian, and White to Black. Consistent with a rule of hypodescent, a face needed to be lower in proportion minority to be considered minority than proportion White to be considered White. In addition, the threshold for being considered White was higher for Black-White biracials than for Asian-White biracials, a pattern consistent with the structure of the current racial hierarchy. Finally, an independent racial categorization task confirmed that hypodescent and the current racial hierarchy guide how biracial targets are perceived. Potential distal (e.g., fear of contagion) and proximate (e.g., racism) causes of these phenomena are discussed.