'Biracial Cool' May Be Limited to Women

New research finds female college freshmen from mixed-race households are far more likely to identify themselves as biracial than their male counterparts.
By Tom Jacobs,
(Image: Census)

If you're the child of a biracial couple, how do you identify yourself? When a form asks you to indicate your race or ethnicity, what box do you check?

Newly published research suggests the answer depends, in part, on whether you're a woman or a man.

A large-scale analysis of college freshmen finds that, among students with one black and one white parent, 76 percent of women refer to themselves as biracial, compared to 64 percent of men.

A similar gap was found among children of Latino and white parents (40 percent of women identifying as biracial, vs. 32 percent of men), and children of Asian and white parents (56 percent of women, vs. 50 percent of men).

"Biracial men may be relatively more inclined to identify as Asian, Latino, or black because they are more likely to be culturally perceived as men of color."

The results support the notion that "it is more socially acceptable for women to live in multiple racial cultures simultaneously," as well as the idea that "'blackness' in general is stickier for men," writes Stanford University political scientist Lauren Davenport, the study's author.

"Biracial men may be relatively more inclined to identify as Asian, Latino, or black because they are more likely to be culturally perceived as men of color," she writes, "whereas biracial women may be viewed as exotic ethnic 'others.'"

Davenport's study, published in the American Sociological Review, utilizes data from the CIRP Freshman Surveys. Looking at three years—2001 to 2003—it includes information on more than 37,000 mixed-race college freshmen.

She found that "the majority of Asian-white and black-white biracials, and a large percentage of Latino-white biracials, now opt to call themselves multiracial." The remainder are "more likely to identify as a minority rather than as white."

Besides gender, she found religion and socioeconomic status play a role in nudging people to one racial identity or another. For example, biracial students in the study were more likely to identify themselves as black or Latino if they belonged to a church associated with that race (Catholicism for Latinos, Baptists for blacks).

"Places of worship in the U.S. are highly segregated by race," Davenport writes. "This suggests that the positive effects of religious affiliation on minority identification may be driven as much by feelings of exclusion as by affection for co-ethnics."

Regarding socioeconomic status, "Economic prosperity has a distinct racial whitening effect on biracials' self-identification," she reports. "All else being equal, coming from a family earning at least $100,000 increases the likelihood of identifying as white."

All this suggests to Davenort that "the boundaries of racial group membership—once rigidly defined—are now more blurred."

"A new color line may be materializing in the United States," she adds. "The longstanding black/white divide may be giving way to a more complex hierarchy linking racial categorization and social class."

While that's a fascinating prospect, the most striking of the study's findings remains the gender divide. It suggests the perception of young mixed-race men is that they—unlike their female counterparts—are reflexively viewed as minority-group members, with the decrease in status that implies.

If society is going to label you as "black" or "Latino," calling yourself biracial may not have a large effect. That's the situation many mixed-race men find themselves in.

But when a woman's racial make-up is something you can't quite pin down, it's often perceived as intriguing or sexy. So for them, there's a great incentive to embrace the ambiguity.

It all suggests the concept of "biracial cool" may be largely limited to females.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.