What Influences Racial Identity Among Multiracial People

Stanford Study Reveals Fascinating Results

A mixed race woman considers her racial identity. Research has found that gender affects racial identity.
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Over many years of teaching sociology, I've had many multiracial students describe in amusement, frustration, and anger the frequent questions others ask about their racial makeup. The questions are almost never direct, but take the form of around-the-way queries like, "Where are you from?" or "Where are your parents from?" Some are even asked the excruciating, "What are you?"

Fascinating results of a study conducted by political scientist Lauren D. Davenport show that how a multiracial student ultimately answers this question is strongly shaped by their gender, income and wealth of their parents, and their religious affiliation, among a few other things.

Davenport, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, reported the results of the study in a February 2016 article published in American Sociological Review. Overall, she found that biracial women are more likely than biracial men to identify as multiracial, and that this is most common among people who have one white and one Black parent.

To conduct the study Davenport drew from a nation-wide annual survey of incoming college freshmen administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Taking responses from the years 2001‒3, when students were asked about the racial identities of their parents, Davenport compiled a sample of 37,000 cases of biracial respondents, whose parents were either Asian and white, Black and white, or Latino and white. Davenport also drew on U.S. Census data to provide socioeconomic context for participants' lives based on their neighborhoods.

The results of the study show that, across all groups, women are more likely than men to identify as multiracial. The majority of women with Black/white parentage--76 percent--identified as multiracial (64 percent among men), as did 56 percent of those from an Asian/white coupling (50 percent among men), and 40 percent of those with Latino/white parents (32 percent among men).

Drawing on previous research and theory, Davenport suggests that these results might occur because racially and ethnically ambiguous women and girls are often framed as beautiful in Western contexts, whereas multiracial men are more likely to be framed simply as a "person of color," or not white.

Davenport also theorizes that the effect is more pronounced among Black-white biracial individuals due to the historical effects of the one-drop rule, which was a legal mandate in the U.S. that stipulated that a person with any Black ancestry was to be racially categorized as Black. Historically, this served to take the power of self-identification away from multiracial individuals, and it served to reinforce notions of white racial purity and white supremacy, by slotting anyone not "purely" white into a lower racial strata--a practice known as hypodescent.

But the interesting results do not end there. Davenport also found that respondents were more likely to identify with Black, Asian, or Latino as a singular racial identity than they were to identify as white, and that this was most pronounced among Latino-white students, with a full 45 percent identifying as Latino only. Yet, Latino-white students were also the most likely to identify solely as white; about 20 percent did so, as compared with just 10 percent of Asian-white students, and five percent of Black-white students.

Of these results, Davenport remarked,

Such stark variation suggests that the boundaries of whiteness are more permeable for Latino-white biracials and more rigid for biracials with an Asian or black parent. That black-white biracials are the least likely to adopt a singular white identification is to be expected, given the legacy of hypodescent, historical norms against “passing” as white, and the greater tendency for black-white biracials to be categorized as non-white by others.

Davenport also found significant effects of economic affluence (a combined measure of reported household income and median neighborhood income) and religion on racial identity, though these were less pronounced than the effect of gender. She writes, "Across biracial subgroups and net of all other influences, economic affluence and Jewish identity predict whiter self-identification, whereas belonging to a religion more commonly associated with racial minorities is associated with a minority identification."

Education level of parents in some cases also had an effect on racial identification. The research shows that Asian-white and Black-white students with a highly educated white parent are more likely to identify as multiracial than with their minority parent, but they are also more likely to identify as minority-only than they are to identify as white. Davenport observes, "these results suggest that education may generate a racially liberal consciousness for white parents, leading them to foster patterns of minority or multiple-race identification in their children." However, the effect of education is different among Asian-white students. In these cases, students with a highly educated Asian parent were more likely to identify as white or as multiracial than they were to identify as Asian.

Overall, Davenport's study reinforces the important observations made by Patricia Hill Collins about the intersecting nature of social categories and the systems that surround them, particularly as regards the intersecting nature of race and gender. Her research also reveals the powerful intersection of race and class, illustrated by the findings that economic affluence has what she calls "a whitening effect" on a biracial person's identity.

But of course, this research encompasses only a select kind of multiraciality--that produced by a white parent partnering with a parent of another race. It would be interesting to see how results might differ if the sample included multiracial individuals who do not have white parentage. This could reveal important insights about the power of whiteness or blackness, for example, in influencing the identity of multiracial individuals.