“What are you?” It’s a loaded question, and for people with multiple racial ancestries, it can be a body blow to that person’s sense of identity and inclusion. According to new research from University of Utah psychologists Jasmine Norman and Jacqueline Chen, questions such as “What are you?” and other experiences of discrimination are related to mixed-race people’s identification as multiracial, particularly if that discrimination comes from monoracial people with whom they share heritage, or includes comments that a person’s appearance doesn’t match their background.
“It’s about: What groups are we belonging to? Who is accepting us?” says Norman. “The answers to these questions can be quite important in shaping multiracial people’s identities.”
The research is published in the journal Self and Identity.
An emerging American identity
Norman and Chen both come from families that include mixed-race individuals. “We had some shared heritage and culture,” Chen says of her cousins, “but we had differences as well.”
“I became interested in a lot of the different experiences that I have as a white individual versus my family members who do not always appear white or are multiracial,” Norman says.
Their experiences are becoming more common. A 2017 report found that 1 in 7 infants in the U.S. had parents of different races, up from 1 in 20 in 1980. How do these people of mixed-race carve out an identity in a traditionally monoracial society? Research shows that some identify with one race, while others identify with multiple groups or as multiracial. People with mixed-race ancestry can have several identities and “ingroups,” groups to which they can claim belonging.
“We were interested in really extending the notion of a ‘multiracial identity’ by investigating how strongly people associated themselves with this identity,” Norman says, “and how important being multiracial was to who they were and their self-concept.”
Particularly, Chen and Norman wanted to understand how perceptions of discrimination were related to a multiracial identity, and whether those associations with discrimination depended on the race of the perpetrator.
Chen and Norman surveyed 354 multiracial people in two studies, asking them about the strength and importance of their multiracial identity, how others perceived their racial identity from their appearance (i.e. “How often do you racially identify differently than strangers expect you to identify?”) and about their experiences of discrimination. In the second study, participants were also asked to what degree they felt excluded from—or encountered prejudice, from—multiracial, Asian, black, Latino/Latina and white people.
The results showed that the strength of a person’s multiracial identity was strongly tied to others’ comments about their appearance.
“So, we found that if you report that you have the experience of walking around in the world and hearing people say, ‘What are you?’ ” Chen says. “Or hear people expressing surprise that you are of a background that’s different from what they thought, such as, ‘Oh, I thought you look like you’re Latino, not half black and half white.’ Experiences like that may actually shape the identities of multiracial people.”
These types of experiences indicate “there may be something about the multiracial identity that is unique,” Norman adds. “It suggests that the multiracial identity is not just an overlap between different racial groups.”
Certain discrimination experiences also predicted stronger multiracial identity, particularly from people who are potentially in the multiracial person’s ingroup. “Participants had stronger multiracial identities to the extent that they experienced discrimination from monoracial ingroup members,” the researchers write, “and for part-white biracial participants, particularly white ingroup members.”
Feelings of being excluded by white people had a particular effect on multiracial identity strength.
“Rejection from white people could be particularly painful,” Chen says. “Or denial into the most socially advantaged group could cause some people to want to claim a unique identity. They might not feel like they want to identify as a minority, or even that they don’t feel justified in identifying as a full minority. If either of these is true, then multiracial people might want to or feel compelled to create their own niche.”
Although their results are correlational and do not provide evidence that discrimination causes increased identification, these findings are suggestive of certain formative experiences related to identification patterns among multiracial people.
Words have power
Next, Norman and Chen plan to explore how multiracial people’s perceptions of their own appearance match with outsiders’ perceptions, and how being rejected, or accepted, by different racial groups is tied to multiracial people’s mental health.
But in the meantime, they have some advice for monoracial people.
“Identity is flexible and complex,” Chen says. “Comments you make in regards to multiracial people’s appearance can shape their identity.”
“You might want to be a little more cautious in saying, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’” she adds. “If you were genuinely asking because you care about the person and you want to learn more about them, that’s great. But if you’re just asking to satiate your own curiosity, then maybe you don’t need to ask.”
Awareness of how comments can shape racial identity will become increasingly important, Chen says. “Just as Jasmine and I have these multiracial families, that’s going to become the new normal within America. Our research shedding light on some of these experiences is timely with respect to demographic trends.”
Find the full study here.