How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
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Organizations Policy Dec 6, 2017

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

How are biracial people perceived in terms of race

Yevgenia Nayber

Based on the research of

Arnold K. Ho

Nour Kteily

J. M. Chen

As the nation has become more diverse, increas­ing num­bers of Amer­i­cans belong to more than one racial group. In 1970, just one in a hun­dred babies born was mul­tira­cial; these days, the share has climbed to one in ten.

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This makes it crit­i­cal for orga­ni­za­tions — and the researchers who study them — to under­stand how mul­tira­cial indi­vid­u­als per­ceive them­selves in terms of race, as well as how they are per­ceived by others.

What’s the expe­ri­ence of being mul­tira­cial and feel­ing like oth­ers are cat­e­go­riz­ing you one way or anoth­er?” asks Nour Kteily, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. 

The stakes are high. 

Being per­ceived as belong­ing, or not belong­ing, to a par­tic­u­lar group can affect well-being. An orga­ni­za­tion might cat­e­go­rize a mul­tira­cial per­son a cer­tain way for diver­si­ty quo­tas, for instance — but if she does not iden­ti­fy with that minor­i­ty, the cat­e­go­riza­tion may make her feel con­strained or stereotyped. 

Pre­vi­ous research in Amer­i­ca has focused almost exclu­sive­ly on how white peo­ple regard bira­cial peo­ple and has shown that they tend to cat­e­go­rize those of mixed race as belong­ing to the racial cat­e­go­ry of their minor­i­ty par­ent. In new research with two col­leagues, Kteily want­ed to know whether black peo­ple tend­ed to do the same thing. 

The research finds that over­all, both races view black-white bira­cial peo­ple as slight­ly more black than white,” says Kteily. 

But white and black peo­ple appear to dif­fer in why they might clas­si­fy bira­cial peo­ple this way. Name­ly, white peo­ple who clas­si­fy bira­cial peo­ple as more black tend to hold more anti-egal­i­tar­i­an views, while black peo­ple who clas­si­fy bira­cial peo­ple as more black show the oppo­site pat­tern, tend­ing to be more in favor of equal­i­ty between groups. 

The His­to­ry of Racial Classification 

The clas­si­fi­ca­tion of bira­cial peo­ple as black is tied to the lega­cy of racist laws that relied on the so-called one-drop rule,” which dic­tat­ed that even a tiny amount of black ances­try meant a per­son was con­sid­ered black. 

The one-drop rule, which social sci­en­tists call hypode­s­cent, was con­sid­ered legal in the U.S. for cen­turies. As recent­ly as the 1980s, a woman apply­ing for a pass­port was told she could not call her­self white because she had a black ances­tor four gen­er­a­tions back. Although the law is now defunct, stud­ies show that many peo­ple still think of those who are bira­cial as black. 

There’s a lot more to learn about how dif­fer­ent groups per­ceive mul­tira­cial individuals.” 

Take Barack Oba­ma, for exam­ple. He is com­mon­ly con­sid­ered America’s first black pres­i­dent, although his moth­er was white. Indeed, in the most recent U.S. Cen­sus, he cat­e­go­rized him­self as black, instead of check­ing mul­ti­ple box­es or writ­ing in mul­ti­cul­tur­al.”

In the past, as well as in this cur­rent study, researchers have found that among white peo­ple, the ten­den­cy to clas­si­fy bira­cial peo­ple as black is asso­ci­at­ed with high­er lev­els of anti-egal­i­tar­i­an­ism — the belief that cer­tain social groups are inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or to oth­ers. Anti-egal­i­tar­i­an white peo­ple are espe­cial­ly like­ly to clas­si­fy bira­cial peo­ple as black when they per­ceive eco­nom­ic scarci­ty or if black peo­ple appear to be gain­ing in social sta­tus — there­by pos­ing a threat to whites’ dom­i­nant position. 

Peo­ple who sup­port the tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chy are espe­cial­ly like­ly to clas­si­fy a black – white bira­cial as black,” Kteily explains, not­ing that doing so helps to main­tain sta­tus bound­aries between those groups at the top and those at the bot­tom of society. 

But how does the black minor­i­ty think about bira­cial peo­ple? Kteily, along with his col­leagues Arnold Ho of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and Jacque­line Chen of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah, set out to answer that ques­tion, which has large­ly been over­looked in research that has focused on white study par­tic­i­pants’ point of view. 

Bira­cial Iden­ti­ty and Egalitarianism 

In order to assess egal­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies, the researchers asked 200 US-born white par­tic­i­pants and 200 US-born black par­tic­i­pants to rate online how strong­ly they felt about state­ments such as We should do what we can to equal­ize con­di­tions for dif­fer­ent groups.” The par­tic­i­pants were a nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple, mak­ing this the first such study to look at hypodescent. 

The researchers also asked the par­tic­i­pants five ques­tions about a child with one black par­ent and one white par­ent, includ­ing Do you think the kid should be thought of as rel­a­tive­ly black or rel­a­tive­ly white?” and Do you think the kid will look more black or white?” 

Over­all, both black and white par­tic­i­pants rat­ed the bira­cial child as slight­ly more black than white. On a scale from 1 (“rel­a­tive­ly white”) to 7 (“rel­a­tive­ly black”), white par­tic­i­pants pro­vid­ed an aver­age rat­ing of 4.25, while black par­tic­i­pants pro­vid­ed an aver­age rat­ing of 4.42. In both cas­es, these rat­ings were (sta­tis­ti­cal­ly) sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from the neu­tral mid­point of the scale. 

How­ev­er, the rela­tion­ship between par­tic­i­pants’ egal­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies and how black they per­ceived the child to be dif­fered between white and black participants. 

White par­tic­i­pants who clas­si­fied the child as more black had slight­ly high­er lev­els of anti-egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, just as pre­vi­ous work had found. But, in a new find­ing, black par­tic­i­pants showed the oppo­site trend: those who clas­si­fied the child as more black were more like­ly to endorse the prin­ci­ple of equal­i­ty between social groups. 

As the authors write, the routes under­ly­ing these cat­e­go­riza­tions are not only dif­fer­ent, but oppo­site in spirit.” 

Shared Fates

Next, the team looked at how feel­ings of dis­crim­i­na­tion influ­enced black par­tic­i­pants’ answers about the bira­cial child. 

Based on pri­or work sug­gest­ing that egal­i­tar­i­an­ism is asso­ci­at­ed with sen­si­tiv­i­ty to inequal­i­ty and pow­er dif­fer­ences, the researchers rea­soned that more egal­i­tar­i­an blacks would be more like­ly to per­ceive dis­crim­i­na­tion against both black peo­ple and against black – white bira­cials. This sense of shared dis­crim­i­na­tion, the researchers pro­posed, could serve as one basis on which blacks would come to include black – white bira­cials as mem­bers of their own group. 

In one cor­re­la­tion­al study, the researchers mea­sured the extent to which black par­tic­i­pants’ agreed with state­ments like Black – white bira­cials are fre­quent­ly the vic­tims of racial discrimination.” 

The team found that the more a par­tic­i­pant agreed with such state­ments, the like­li­er they were to per­ceive bira­cial indi­vid­u­als as more black than white. 

In a final study, the researchers exper­i­men­tal­ly manip­u­lat­ed black people’s per­cep­tion of the degree of dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by black – white bira­cials by hav­ing them read one of two arti­cles before cat­e­go­riz­ing bira­cial people. 

One group of par­tic­i­pants read that bira­cial peo­ple do not expe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion, while anoth­er read pas­sages indi­cat­ing the oppo­site. A final group of par­tic­i­pants, in a con­trol con­di­tion, were not giv­en any infor­ma­tion to read about dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by black – white biracials. 

In all three groups, black par­tic­i­pants were also giv­en a ques­tion­naire that gauged their lev­el of agree­ment with state­ments such as Blacks and black – white bira­cials share a com­mon des­tiny” and Issues that affect the black com­mu­ni­ty also affect black – white biracials.” 

Rel­a­tive to par­tic­i­pants in the con­trol con­di­tion, those who read that bira­cials are in fact sub­ject to high lev­els of soci­etal dis­crim­i­na­tion tend­ed to feel a greater sense of shared fate with bira­cial indi­vid­u­als. This in turn pre­dict­ed a high­er like­li­hood of clas­si­fy­ing the child as more black than white. In con­trast, blacks who read that bira­cials did not expe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion felt less com­mon fate with bira­cials than those in the con­trol con­di­tion, and were less like­ly to clas­si­fy the bira­cial child as black. 

Reduc­ing the extent to which black peo­ple think that bira­cials are dis­crim­i­nat­ed against also reduces their ten­den­cy to think of them as black, because it reduces their feel­ing of a shared fate between blacks and black – white bira­cials. On the oth­er hand, increas­ing per­cep­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion against bira­cials also seems to increase blacks’ ten­den­cy to include them with­in their group,” Kteily says. 

That is sur­pris­ing, accord­ing to Kteily, because peo­ple are often restric­tive about whom they allow to be con­sid­ered part of their community. 

From many exist­ing per­spec­tives, if some­one is half white and half black, you might expect black peo­ple to be very hes­i­tant to say they’re black,” he says. Yet here, the over­all ten­den­cy is to see them as part of the group rather than out­siders. What we’re find­ing is con­sis­tent with sol­i­dar­i­ty and inclu­sive­ness root­ed in per­cep­tions of a com­mon neg­a­tive experience.” 

Beyond the role of per­ceiv­ing shared dis­crim­i­na­tion that the researchers iden­ti­fied, black people’s choice to include bira­cials with­in their group could, in the­o­ry, also stem from a need for col­lec­tive action: hav­ing more peo­ple who think of them­selves as black means there are more peo­ple to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion togeth­er, Kteily says. 

In future work, the researchers plan to explore such pos­si­bil­i­ties further. 

There’s a lot more to learn about how dif­fer­ent groups per­ceive mul­tira­cial indi­vid­u­als,” Kteily says. 

More Research Need­ed on Bira­cial Identities 

The researchers’ ideas could extend to how oth­er minori­ties clas­si­fy mixed-race indi­vid­u­als in their groups. 

We looked at how blacks see black – white bira­cials here, but this could extend to how Asians see Asian – white bira­cials, for exam­ple,” Kteily says. It is actu­al­ly a very broad question.” 

Know­ing how diverse groups per­ceive one anoth­er is increas­ing­ly cru­cial. Both com­mu­ni­ties and work­places stand to ben­e­fit from under­stand­ing the com­pli­cat­ed ways in which race is perceived. 

If peo­ple engag­ing in hypode­s­cent see a bira­cial per­son dif­fer­ent­ly than they see them­selves, it could shape that person’s sense of belong­ing or sat­is­fac­tion in a work­place,” Kteily adds. So it is impor­tant to expand stud­ies of social phe­nom­e­na to include more groups and con­sid­er the con­se­quences for those who are on the receiv­ing end of such perceptions.” 

Featured Faculty

Nour Kteily

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Jyoti Madhusoodanan is a Bay Area-based science writer.

About the Research

Ho, A. K., Nour Kteily, and J. M. Chen. 2017. “'You're One of Us': Black Americans Use of Hypodescent and Its Association with Egalitarianism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 113(5): 753–768.

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