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.

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.”