Race and racial identity shape the ways people treat us, and people generally classify one another’s race quickly. This becomes more complex, however, for those who don’t fit neatly into a specific racial category. Research by Casey Stockstill shows that social perceptions about people who are multiracial can be shaped by factors such as skin color, as well as the racial identity that a multiracial person expresses.
Stockstill conducted two experiments with business students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the first, participants evaluated an applicant for a peer-counselor position at the school; the application came with a picture of the applicant, a light-skinned male. Stockstill presented four different versions of the applications, changing whether the applicant identified as “black,” “multiracial,” “biracial,” or “white” on their application. Then, in a second experiment, Stockstill did the same thing, but included a picture of a dark-skinned applicant instead. Stockstill asked participants to identify the applicant’s race and determine whether the applicant would be good for the job.
Regardless of skin color or asserted racial identity, participants’ evaluations of the applicants’ qualities and ability to handle the job were relatively similar. Stockstill did, however, find differences in the impacts of skin color and racial self-identity on how participants perceived the applicant’s race. For the most part, participants agreed with both the light-skinned and dark-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as black, biracial, or multiracial. On the other hand, participants were more likely to agree with the light-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as white than they were for the dark-skinned applicant. In other words, skin color was a greater predictor of how participants interpreted the race of multiracial applicants who asserted a white identity.
The racial identity of the participant also mattered. White participants were more likely to state that the applicant was non-white, particularly for the dark-skinned applicant. These findings — highlighting the conflict between skin color and self-asserted racial identification for how people perceive one another’s race — show us the persistence of racial boundaries even in a society that is more racially tolerant than the past. Since this is especially true for multiracial individuals who identify as white, it is clear that the category white has decidedly fewer shades of gray.