The growing number of biracial Americans could, in theory, lead to a less prejudiced society. But new research suggests that these Americans aren't so much shattering stereotypes as finding themselves pigeonholed with new ones.
"A lot of stereotypes of black-white biracial people were completely different from the ones people have about white people and black people," reports Northwestern University psychologist Sylvia Perry, who authored the study with fellow researchers Allison Skinner and Sarah Gaither.
"This suggests that people might actually think of biracial people as their own racial group, rather than just a combination of their parents' racial groups."
In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the researchers report that two stereotypes appear to be applied to all biracial groups. Whatever their particular ethnic mix, biracial Americans are perceived as unusually attractive people who struggle to fit in.
In other words, they are widely viewed as easy on the eyes, but uneasy about their place in society.
The study featured 1,104 Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. Participants were overwhelmingly white (71 percent) and relatively young (mean age of 33). All completed one of seven studies in which they shared their perceptions of social stereotypes regarding a racial group or a specific biracial group, such as black/white or Hispanic/Asian.
"Participants were first asked to list as many stereotypes as they could come up [with] about the group to which they were randomly assigned," the researchers explain. They were then given a list of 85 stereotypes, such as "intelligent," "quiet," "family-oriented," and "violent," and checked off each they felt applied to their assigned group.
In the first study, the top three stereotypes for whites that participants came up with on their own were "rich" (offered by 32 percent of participants), "racist" (21 percent), and "privileged" (21 percent). For blacks, the stereotypes were "criminal" (33 percent), "uneducated" (27 percent), and "welfare recipients" (20 percent).
Still, the stereotypes participants were most likely to offer for black/white biracial Americans were "not belonging" (35 percent), "broken home" (16 percent), and "ostracized" (16 percent). All three stereotypes imply concern for the person, as opposed to fear or loathing.
The researchers went into the study suspecting that black/white biracial Americans would be widely categorized as black. But the data showed that these biracial Americans "had an equivalent number of stereotypes in common with white individuals (ambitious, attractive, likable) as [with] black individuals (athletic, loud, criminal)."
"Biracial individuals were generally seen to be an equal mixture of their parents' racial groups," Perry said in announcing the findings. This held true even among people who had a lot of personal contact with that specific racial group.
Overall, "our data suggests that there are universal stereotypes of biracial individuals—namely, that they are attractive, and struggle with belonging," the researchers conclude. "However, we also found that the perceived social stereotypes about biracial groups vary greatly."
"Although some biracial groups share a lot of stereotypes with their monoracial groups (such as biracial Asian/white individuals), other groups are stereotyped in ways that are largely distinct from their monoracial parent groups (such as biracial black/white individuals)."
These findings raise the fascinating questions of how stereotypes form, and why certain ones receive wide acceptance. While the attractiveness of multiracial people "could be evidence of an evolved attraction to people with greater genetic diversity," a conclusive answer is beyond the scope of this study.
But the results surely reflect white Americans' instinctive—and obviously problematic—tendency to categorize people, as opposed to using our finite cognitive resources to judge them as individuals. If certain people don't fit any pre-existing stereotypes, it appears we are happy to create new ones just for them.