Black + white = Not white: Understanding how multiracial individuals are categorized

Black + white = Not white
Jacqueline M. Chen is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah. Credit: University of Utah

How you perceive someone who is multiracial matters. Historically, the answer to that question for someone who was black-white multiracial had repercussions for who that person could marry, what school he or she could attend and other forms of discrimination the individual might experience.

Today, the United States is becoming increasingly , but social psychologists are just beginning to understand how multiracial individuals are perceived and categorized. A new study suggests that the so-called "minority bias" exerts a powerful influence—important since one in five Americans is expected to identify as multiracial by 2050.

University of Utah psychology professor Jacqueline M. Chen, lead author of the study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, that found observers were most likely to categorize someone who is black-white multiracial as non-white. The findings are the first to document minority bias as a guiding principle in multiracial categorization.

"The question of how perceivers racially categorize multiracial individuals is important because it impacts other social perceptions, like stereotyping, and interactions," Chen said. "The bottom line is that we find people tend to see racially ambiguous, multiracial people as racial minorities."

Previous studies have suggested that hypodescent—a practice historically incorporated in law of assigning someone with part-black ancestry to the racial category black—still plays a role in race perception.

But in the new study, the researchers found that is not the only categorization rule at work. They found that when encountering someone whose racial background was unknown, observers exhibited a minority bias in placing a multiracial person in a different non-White racial category such as Latinx, Middle Eastern or South Asian.

The study consisted of three different experiments in which participants used diverse methodologies to categorize facial portraits of individuals who were black, white or black-white multiracial.

"Our findings show that the categorization processes applied to multiracial faces are much more complex than a straightforward application of the hypodescent rule," Chen said. "We have found that perceivers quickly categorize multiracial faces as non-white and apply a wide range of minority categories to these individuals."

Chen said the study's findings have implications for phenomena such as stereotyping of and discrimination towards multiracial individuals; they also might explain how social expectations and interactions are shaped.

"The ways in which perceivers negotiate the increased multiracialism in their social environments will have important implications for multiracial individuals' social experiences and for the maintenance or evolution of existing social hierarchies," Chen said.

"The minority bias may lead perceivers to be less motivated to pay attention to, get to know, or remember multiracial because they categorized them as members of stigmatized racial groups," she said. "These potential implications of our findings are important for understanding race relations in the U.S. and the multiracial experience in America."

Explore further

Multiracial children often identified as black

More information: Jacqueline M. Chen et al, Black + White = Not White: A minority bias in categorizations of Black-White multiracials, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2018.05.002
Provided by University of Utah
Citation: Black + white = Not white: Understanding how multiracial individuals are categorized (2018, June 14) retrieved 25 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 14, 2018
I am so sick of this, their is only one race and its called Homo sapiens. Science like this is pretty poor for so called educated people.

Jun 14, 2018
I am so sick of this, their is only one race and its called Homo sapiens. Science like this is pretty poor for so called educated people.

In agreement, Cool...
I'm sure I failed a few job interviews for putting "Other; (Human)" in the ethnicity box...

Jun 14, 2018
My perception about the article is that it was about the perception of race rather than race itself. Thus a legitimate social study. I wonder though if the article's mention of "minority bias" was less a minority bias and more a "purity standard" for the perception of being white. Thus, any traits that deviate from that standard were perceived as belonging to a minority.

Jun 14, 2018
"diverse methodologies to categorize facial portraits of individuals". FACIAL PORTRAITS! In other words, an experience that nearly never happens. We meet people in person not photos. The real question is the categorization that happens between individuals face-to-face in real interactions where there is talk, mutual movement, a bit of the stuff that makes us human like smiling and shared eye contact. About that the study says nothing. It tells us nothing about the real world outside the need of some "social psychologists" to add another item to their CVs.

Jun 18, 2018
Interestingly, it is not only the "white" community which sees mixed race persons as "black".
IIRC Obama is clearly of mixed race. But he was welcomed in the "black" community as the first "black" President. I expect that if say a major news organization tried to call him the first "mixed race" President the reaction in the "black" community would not have been favorable.And of course many "black" celebrities are mixed race.
So the Chen et al study is quite incomplete. And in its disregard for the perspective of the Afro-American community, as equally involved in the racial-designation process as the European-American, is to say the least, disquieting.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more