Study Looks at Biracial Assignment

People classify biracial children as members of the minority parent group

People have the tendency to classify those of biracial descent as members of their minority parent group rather than as equal members of both races, according to a recent study published by Harvard psychologists.

The study, led by Harvard psychology graduate student Arnold K. Ho and co-authored by Harvard Professors James Sidanius and Mahzarin R. Banaji and Vanderbilt Professor Daniel T. Levin, employed computer generated faces of varying ethnicities and fictional family trees to test people’s intuitive racial classifications.

Study results suggest that participants classified half-white and half-minority persons as part of a minority. Researchers used computer generated faces of varying ethnicities and fictional family trees to test people’s preferences.

Participants were also more likely to perceive people who were part black as black than they perceived those who were partially Asian as Asian. Additionally, these participants categorized more male faces as part of a minority than they did female faces.

This research supports the theory of hypodescent, also known as the “one-drop” rule, which states that when a child is born from parents in different racial groups, the child is more often perceived as a member of the race that is considered inferior or less advantaged.

Ho said that while the United States is becoming more racially integrated, it does so on top of the centuries-old “one-drop” rule. As recently as 1985, a Louisiana Court ruled that the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a black woman could not identify herself as “white” on her passport.

Ho said that he was inspired to investigate perceptions of biracials after a conversation he had with a political psychologist about “black exceptionalism,” a theory that argues Latinos and Asians will be fully assimilated into America while African Americans still be perceived as part of a minority group.

“I was uncomfortable with that thesis because I felt that that’s basically saying that there will be no barriers for assimilation of all non-black ethnic groups,” Ho said.

“There’s no doubt that the social distance between racial groups has declined in the last half century,” Ho added. “But what our data revealed is that our perception of biracial may be one mechanism by which racial boundaries are still preserved.”

—Staff Writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

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