Biracial people are one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. From 2000-2010, the number of self-identified biracial people (that is, people who identify with two races) increased by over a third. But, so far, very little research has been done on them. However, a study, published in July, 2019, in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that as the population of biracial people in the U.S. grows, stereotypes about them are taking shape.
The researchers asked a sample of more than 1,000 people to check off from a list which stereotypes they felt described people in six different types of biracial identities: black/white, Asian/white, black/Hispanic, black/Asian, Hispanic/Asian, and Hispanic/white. A seventh study had participants compare biracial stereotypes in more than one biracial category.
Two stereotypes consistently came up: Biracial people are attractive and struggle with fitting in.
"It seems like when people think about biracial people, they attribute unique stereotypes that are not consistent with their monoracial parents," says Sylvia Perry, co-lead author of the study and a psychology professor at Northwestern University.
The researchers found this aspect of the findings extremely interesting. Previous research suggested that people might assume biracial individuals are much more like the race of one parent than the other. For example, most people think of President Barack Obama as a black man, even though one parent was black and the other was white. Based on the results of this study, however, it appears biracial people are being thought of more and more as having their own unique characteristics.
Perry says understanding these emerging stereotypes is important because "they inform assumptions. We use these mental shortcuts to inform us about who they [biracial people] are, if they are someone we want to connect with or even hire."
You might be thinking this means that biracial people have a leg up because they're thought of as attractive. Not so fast.
"Stereotypes are positive and negative," says Perry. "One might characterize it just as a positive attribute, but that doesn't mean the way it manifests in life is positive."
Perry uses an example of a common stereotype applied to Asian people, that they're good at math. It might be thought of as a good thing.
"But if an Asian person is not good at math, or wants someone to think about other parts of them, that could be very threatening or negative toward their self esteem," Perry explains.
The same might apply to stereotyping everyone in a group as attractive — it might mean that people don't think they could also be smart or something else at the same time.
Perry says researchers still aren't entirely sure where this stereotype about being biracial and attractive originated, but they have some ideas. One draws on biology, and suggests that people with greater genetic variation, i.e. different combinations of genes, are better able to adapt to their environment and survive. So, perhaps humans have evolved to find the outward manifestation of genetic variation attractive.
A second idea is that across the U.S. a lot of people still haven't knowingly had many interactions with biracial people in person, and thus their only exposure comes through the media. It would follow that their impression of biracial people is based on an unrepresentative sample that skews towards what the masses might deem attractive.
As for biracial people struggling to fit in, Perry says there is other research that shows this is consistent with what many biracial people experience. How this plays out in social situations may confound the problem.
"If people assume because you can't fit in you might be socially awkward, it might impact your ability to connect in friendships," Perry says.
In Their Own Words
One of the limitations about these findings, Perry points out, is that 71 percent of the participants in the study were white. "It's possible people of color and biracial people might have different stereotypes," she says. She and her team hope to do follow-up studies in the future. In the meantime, I asked some biracial people what they thought of the findings.
Rube Hollis, 36, is a civil servant who works and lives in Washington, D.C. His mother is Korean and his father is black, but he is hesitant to identify as biracial. "The term 'biracial' is a bubble on a scantron [form] to me," he says. He notes that the only time he thinks about being biracial is when he's had to identify his race on a government form.
Hollis says it's difficult to generalize because so much of his experience of race depends on the context. But if he had to make one generalization about biracial people, it would be that they "have a wider range of perspective in dealing with other cultures, and are therefore more likely to embrace and understand other cultures."
Hollis grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and at the time he easily identified as black. Now, he tries to avoid being racially categorized as much as possible.
"As a male and being gregarious it's always been easier for me to talk to strangers," he says. But, "My sister had a lot of difficulty fitting in. This doubles down when she's viewed as Asian because she is supposed to be silent and demure. If she speaks out, she's fighting against the black stereotype of being loud and angry."
Aila Gomi, 24, is a material engineer in Columbus, Ohio. Her mother is white and her father is Japanese. "I feel like it's hard because when you say biracial there's so many combinations. I have a friend who is biracial but she's half Central American and half European. She doesn't have the same [issues] I do," she says. "One common thing can be language difficulty where people who identify as biracial but feel unaccepted by one side because of a language barrier or appearance, it can hinder that relationship as well."
For instance: "In Japan I automatically get labeled as a foreigner; they don't see me as Japanese because I don't look it," she says. "As soon as I start speaking in Japanese, they realize very quickly [that I am Japanese] based on the fact that I know their language and connect with them in that way. In the U.S. it's not until I mention something about my culture that people realize, oh, I'm half Japanese."