This week, Gender & Society released a study, “Engendering Racial Perceptions: An Intersectional Analysis of How Social Status Shapes Race,” that shows that we pile on a set of descriptions—like single, mother, and welfare-dependent—to build our most persistent stereotypes. This valuable study demonstrates intersectionality plainly enough to share with my students and broader audiences who want to understand why inequality persists even as things continue to change. When I teach this I’ll use Lisa Wade’s recent Soc Images post on managing stigma where she discusses intersectionality and the photo posted you can see below.

1 Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner (University of California-Irvine) and Aliya Saperstein (Stanford University) discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Drawing on nearly 20 years of longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), the researchers found changes in racial classification occurred for six percent of people each year; over the course of the study, 20 percent of those interviewed switched racial classifications at least once. Importantly, these changes did not occur at random. The fluidity was related to both social status and gender.

Penner explained:  “We often talk about racial stereotypes as affecting people’s attitudes in the sense that knowing a woman’s race can change what you think about whether she is on welfare. Our study shows the opposite also happens–knowing whether a woman has ever received welfare benefits affects what you think about her race.”

How did the study work? NLSY interviewers spent time interviewing subjects about a range of issues like their job, their living circumstances, and their relationships. At the end of their meeting, interviewers wrote down whether the person they had just interviewed was white, black, or other. In most cases, the interviewer did not know specific details of the subjects’ ancestry or how they would have racially identified themselves. Each racial classification provided a window into how that person was likely to be perceived and treated by other people. The changes the researchers detected allowed them to look in on those perceptions.

“Instead of adjusting our stereotypes to fit the world around us,” Saperstein explained, “people are more likely to adjust their view of the world to fit our shared stereotypes.”

How did being a man or a woman make a difference? The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women. To make the point, Saperstein wrote a blog post at Boston Review, “Can Losing Your Job Make You Black?

“Not all of our stereotypes about social status are related to race or gender, or a combination of the two, and our results reflect that complexity” Saperstein said. “But, overall, it is striking how consistent the patterns of racial fluidity are with societal expectations about what white people or black people do, and even what we expect of white women compared to white men.”

What to make of this?  People often wonder why inequality is so persistent despite many societal changes. The study found that gender and social class play a part in racial perceptions, but the key to the findings is that, when it comes to creating a mental picture of a person, these factors are not separate from one another. Penner and Saperstein found that racial stereotypes are reinforced through combinations—or intersections—of positive or negative statuses. The intersection of race, gender, and social class plays a key role in why these stereotypes—and the inequality that stereotypes support—are so challenging to erase.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, comments, “What is brilliant about Penner and Saperstein’s study is how it shows us that race is malleable – how we see other people as white or black is affected by what else we know about them. Yet even how we racialize someone draws on stereotypes that reflect both gender and race.”

The study is based on analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national longitudinal survey collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data covers years from 1979 through 1998, the most recent years in which interviewers recorded their racial classification of respondents.