Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 22, 2020

The Racial Identities Multiracial People Adopt May Depend on How Others Treat Them

by Jasmine Norman
Pensive young biracial woman touching chin

If you are like many people in the United States, you may have given little thought to one of our fastest growing racial groups—people who are multiracial. People with mixed-race ancestry can identify in many ways. Some people who are mixed-race identify with just one of two or more racial groups, some identify with none of their racial groups, and still others strongly identify as multiracial.   

Jacqueline Chen and I were interested in understanding why some people who are mixed-race claim a multiracial identity more strongly than other mixed-race people do. What might lead some people’s multiracial identities to be more central and important to their overall self-concepts? In two studies, we examined how two types of social experiences related to the strength of multiracial identification in 354 mixed-race individuals.  

First, we examined research participants’ reports of other people’s comments about their appearance. “What are you?” is a question people who are mixed-race often hear. Furthermore, this question is often followed by questions about what race a multiracial person “really is.” In line with these experiences, we asked participants questions about whether other people saw them as racially ambiguous.

We also asked multiracial people how frequently other people provided feedback that their appearance was inconsistent with their racial background. For example, we asked them “How often do people express surprise when you disclose your racial/ethnic background?” Participants who received feedback that their racial appearance was inconsistent with their background more strongly identified as multiracial than those who did not experience such feedback. So, if many people tell Olivia that they are surprised she has both Black and White racial ancestry, this increases the chances that Olivia will strongly identify as multiracial.  

We also asked participants about their experiences with racial discrimination, including how often they experienced exclusion, unfair treatment, or prejudice from members of different racial groups. Among people who are not mixed-race, research shows a strong link between reports of experiencing discrimination and stronger racial identification. That is, people who say they experience more racial discrimination tend to view their racial identity as more important to their sense of self.  

However, for people who are mixed-race, discrimination or exclusion can come from a number of sources, including people who they may regard  as ingroup members. This might happen, for example, when an Asian-Black multiracial person feels excluded by an Asian person. We explored whether discrimination from groups who share a racial background with a multiracial person (that is, racial ingroup members) played a particularly important role in whether people identified as multiracial. Indeed, our results showed that people who reported more discrimination from racial ingroup members were more likely to identify as multiracial. For instance, if Tiger Woods (who has American Indian, Asian, Black, and White racial backgrounds) were to perceive discrimination from these racial groups, he would be more likely to have strong multiracial identification. 

But things weren’t quite this simple. The experiences multiracial people said they had with racial outgroups members (members of a group other than their own) were also related to their multiracial identity. In this case, however, people who perceived more discrimination from racial outgroups usually showed weaker—not stronger—multiracial identification. For example, if Tiger Woods felt he experienced a lot of discrimination from Latinos—a group with which he does not share a racial or ethnic background—he would be less likely to feel that his multiracial identity was important to his sense of self.

Our research demonstrated that other peoples’ comments and questions about appearance, as well as perceived discrimination from certain racial groups, relate to how strongly mixed-race people identify as multiracial. In studies such as ours, it is difficult to say for sure what causes what. Consider just one example—does being the butt of a racist joke from a racial ingroup member make people identify more strongly as multiracial? Or, does having a strong multiracial identity in the first place make it more likely that people will experience or perceive discrimination from ingroup members? It will take a great deal of future research to answer this question.   

Racial identity is more than a collection of boxes people check on a survey—it can serve as a form of social connection with others and offer people a deep sense of meaning. Consistent with the idea that race is a social construct, our findings highlight the interpersonal and social elements that are related to how strongly mixed-race individuals’ identify as multiracial.

So, before asking questions such as “What are you?” or “Wait, are you Latina?,” consider that the comments we direct towards others could have unintended psychological implications. Curiosity is normal, but if you really wish to get to know a person, it might be a good idea to wait for them to bring up the important question of race and identity. In today’s increasingly multiracial world, it might be equally important to not assume that a person’s physical appearance is always strongly linked to his or her racial identity.   

For Further Reading

Gaither, S. E. (2015). “Mixed” Results: Multiracial research and identity explorations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 114-119.

Norman, J. B., & Chen, J. M. (2019). “I am Multiracial”: Predictors of Multiracial identification strength among mixed ancestry individuals. Self & Identity.

Shih, M., & Sanchez, D. T. (2005). Perspectives and research on the positive and negative implications of having multiple racial identities. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 569–591. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.4.569

Vinluan, A. C., & Remedios, J. D. (2019). Who do Multiracials consider part of their racial in-group? Social Psychological and Personality Science [advanced online publication]

Jasmine Norman is an advanced PhD student in social psychology at the University of Utah. She studies person perception and social identity.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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