When it comes to race, people increasingly self-identify as belonging to several categories rather than one, reflecting our intermingled world – for example, some sources suggest one in ten British children now grow up in mixed-race households. Yet we still like putting people in neat taxonomies, and to understand this tendency, Steven Roberts and Susan Gelman at the University of Michigan looked at how adults and children approach racial categorisation. Their studies, published recently in Child Development, show that people’s age and own racial background influence how they make sense of mixed race, suggesting these judgments are shaped by a mixture of culture and perception.
Around 400 US participants, who self-identified as either black or white, viewed a series of photos of the faces of black, white and mixed-race girls (pre-testing had confirmed that most people identified the girls as belonging to the racial categories that the researchers intended). The task was to match each photo to one of three comparison characters: a black girl, a white girl, or an unseen mystery girl behind a curtain. Part of the instruction was: “Your job is to tell me if each girl that I show you is the same kind as one of these three girls.”
The first study involved white participants – adults, and children as young as four – and they had little difficulty assigning photos of black or white girls to the appropriate comparison categories. However, they were less ready to consign mixed-race girls to the third option, often using the black category instead, and rarely the white. That is, following previous research, white people saw blackness in models with features and skin tone that owed to a mixed parentage.
In another condition, photographs of the girls’ faces were accompanied by photos of their parents: for example, in the case of the mixed-race girls, one black adult and one white adult. With this information, adults and children aged ten years or older assigned mixed-race girls to the third category with more confidence, but still resorted frequently to the black category and shunned the white one. That this bias persists in the presence of parentage information suggests something at work beyond “looking black”; it suggests many white people (at least in the US) assume that having a black parent means you can’t be white. As the researchers Roberts and Gelman note, this parallels the principle of “hypodescent” found in many pre-emancipation American states, which tended towards awarding mixed descent people a lower social category, found at its most extreme in the “one-drop” (of black blood) rule.
White children younger than ten showed a different pattern when parentage info was provided. Unlike adults, they didn’t start using the third category more – they remained reluctant to assign girls a mystery status when more concrete alternatives were visible. Instead, they allowed the parentage information to steer them towards a white categorisation as frequently as a black one, rejecting hypodescent.
The second study with black participants paralleled the first in fundamental ways: parentage information encouraged participants to choose the third mystery option for the mixed-race girls, and adults were reluctant to see mixed-race girls as white under any circumstances. But crucially, black children saw mixed-race children interchangeably as white or black (i.e. they rejected hypodescent) and this was true whether they were given the girls’ parentage information or not. In fact, and unpredicted by the researchers, the parentage information tipped the youngest black children, between four and six, into hyperdescent: preferring to see mixed-race children as white.
This difference in the black children’s responses compared with the white children’s suggests the white children’s categorising bias may owe to the rareness of black and mixed-race people in their environment, such that any facial features they notice that deviate from the white norm tend to be salient to them. Black children are more exposed to whiteness, so don’t follow the same pattern. This suggestion is supported by demographic data which showed that the more the white children mixed with other white children, the stronger their bias for categorising mixed-race girls as black, and there was a complementary pattern among the black children (more time spent with other black kids was associated with categorising mixed-race girls as black).
To sum up this complex study, increasing maturity encourages the use of less clear-cut categories, but also opens the door to a hypodescent mindset, which in the case of black participants may have a distinctive motivation – Roberts and Gelman suggest it as a form of solidarity that includes mixed-race individuals within the broader black tent. Meanwhile, black children, and younger white children (the latter needing a bit of a nudge in terms of receiving information about a person’s parental heritage) are more even-handed in judging racial identity. It suggests exposure to a range of people makes us less likely to place other people in fixed racial categories, and that children’s assumptions about what makes someone “black” tend to solidify once they reach double digits in age.
Roberts, S., & Gelman, S. (2015). Do Children See in Black and White? Children’s and Adults’ Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12410
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