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Most Americans Have Trouble Identifying Multiracial People

Multiracial people are more often misidentified as being white than black, according to new research presented at the American Psychological Association’s 121st annual convention..

“Today, the distinctions among white, black, Latino and Asian people are becoming blurred by the increasing frequency and prominence of multiracial people,” said Jacqueline M. Chen, PhD, of the University of California, Davis. “Still, average Americans have difficulty identifying multiracial people who don’t conform to the traditional single-race categories that society has used all their lives.”

At the conference, Chen discussed six experiments that showed participants were consistently less likely to identify people as multiracial than single-race. People also took longer to identify someone as multiracial compared to how easily they identified black, white and Asian people, she noted.

When they made incorrect identifications, they were consistently more likely to categorize a multiracial person as white than black, the study found. Time pressure, distractions and thinking of race in either-or terms made observers significantly less likely to identify someone as multiracial, according to the researcher.

The study, conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, involved 435 ethnically diverse undergraduate students.

The students were asked to identify the race of black, white, Asian or multiracial individuals in photos. The researchers recorded each participant’s accuracy and time to respond.

Researchers then used a memorization task and a time limit in two experiments to determine if either would affect a participant’s accuracy.

In another experiment, the students were told the study was about reading comprehension and attention. They then read news articles about scientists claiming to find a genetic basis for race and were asked to view several photographs of faces and identify them by race.

According to Chen, scientists agree that the racial categories we use today are not based on biological differences, but are social constructions that change over time. She noted that until the mid-20th century, the Anglo-Saxon majority in the United States viewed Irish and Italian immigrants as different races.

In another presentation during the same convention session, Jessica D. Remedios, PhD, of Tufts University, reported that multiracial people value the accuracy of another person’s perception of their race.

“Our research found that multiracial people expect positive interactions with people who accurately perceive their racial backgrounds because that affirms their self-perceptions,” Remedios said.

She described an experiment in which researchers took photos of participants and told them they would trade the photo with a participant in another room. The person in the other room was actually fictional, and each participant received a photo of a white male and was asked to identify his race on a form with a list of several races and a place to add comments.

The participants read comments the researchers had developed for the fictional participant, then completed a questionnaire to assess their interest in meeting that person.

Another experiment did the same, but showed participants photos of a white man or woman and added questions to determine whether the participants were surprised by the identifications — whether accurate or inaccurate — and how they felt about themselves after reading the other participant’s comments.

The researchers found that multiracial participants were more interested in meeting the people who had accurately identified them. They noted that single-race people were surprised when their race was not accurately identified, but multiracial people were not.

Multiracial and single-race people had similar negative reactions to being misidentified, according to the researchers. They found that only multiracial participants indicated an accurate identification would support their self-image, while there was no effect on self-image among the single-race participants.

This study involved 169 undergraduates in two groups. One group consisted of students with parents of different races and single-race students, but no whites. The other combined multiracial and single-race students, including whites. Whites were not included in the first group because past research suggests they are not usually concerned with their race, but they were included in the second study to test whether whites and minorities react differently to others’ accuracy about their race, Remedios explained.

Source: The American Psychological Association


Most Americans Have Trouble Identifying Multiracial People

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Most Americans Have Trouble Identifying Multiracial People. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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