In families where biological parents are of different races and ethnicities, daughters are more likely to self-identify as “multiracial” than sons, according to a new study in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. This is especially true in families with one black parent and one white parent.
“It would seem that, for biracial women, looking racially ambiguous is tied to racial stereotypes surrounding femininity and beauty,” said Lauren Davenport, assistant professor at Stanford University and author of the study. She suggests it may be easier for women to identify with multiple racial groups because they are “cast as a mysterious, intriguing ‘racial other'” as opposed to men, who are more likely to be seen as a “person of color.”
Davenport’s study was based on a sample of more than 37,000 incoming college freshmen across the county who fit into one of three mixed backgrounds — Asian-white, black-white, and Latino-white. Using data from 2001 to 2003, Davenport looked at how these individuals chose to identify themselves.
She found that a higher percentage of women than men self-labeled as multiracial across all three groups. Among black-whites, 76 percent of women identified as multiracial, compared to 64 percent of men in that group. Fifty-six percent of Asian-white women classified as multiracial, as opposed to 50 percent of Asian-white men. And 40 percent of Latino-white women self-labeled as multiracial in comparison to 32 percent of those men.
In addition to gender, Davenport looked at how religion and class affect the way people identify. Multiracial people who don’t have strong religious ties were more likely to identify as multiracial, as well as those from highly affluent neighborhoods.
Overall, those with black and white parents were the most likely to identify as multiracial, and the least likely to describe themselves as white only. Seventy-one percent of black-white study participants identified as multiracial, while only 54 percent of Asian-white and 37 percent of Latino-white participants opted for the same label.
In the paper, Davenport attributed this tendency among people with black and white parents to the “one-drop rule,” more formally known as hypodescent, which structured how part-black individuals were once legally and socially identified in the United States:
Because people in this group have so strongly been expected to identify as black, they are choosing to assert a new identity, one that incorporates both their black and white heritages. It is also likely that, for some, a multiracial label reflects a desire to socially distance and distinguish oneself from blacks.
Davenport says understanding the way people identity themselves racially is crucial for its political consequences. Not only does self-identification shape the American racial landscape, but it also impacts the enforcement of laws, implementation of affirmative action, and allocation of political resources.
But studying multiracial identity can be tricky. The Pew Research Center spent a lot of time last year researching the mixed population of America. Not only did they find that many mixed-race Americans changed how they viewed their racial identity over the course of their lifetimes, but also that self-identification was highly dependent on situational circumstances, others’ perceptions, and personal upbringing.
So does this mean we’ll all start to subconsciously assume that all wealthy biracial women with zero religious affiliations are mixed? Probably not. But if the projection that one in five Americans will be of mixed race by 2050 bears out, we’re going to need to keep understanding how people relate to being multiracial.