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Mixed-Race People Are Confusing to White People, and It's Making Them More Prejudiced

An experiment suggests that confusion about mixed-race faces underlies prejudice against people with mixed-race backgrounds.
Don't be prejudiced toward these adorable kids. (Photo: Philippe Put/Flickr)

Don't be prejudiced toward these adorable kids. (Photo: Philippe Put/Flickr)

One of the fastest growing racial groups in the United States isn't a clearly defined racial group at all—it's the increasing number of people who identify with two or more races, or as mixed or multiracial. That fact presents special problems for psychologists who study race. For one thing, in a society that long kept black and white as separated as possible, whites especially may find people with mixed-race backgrounds difficult to classify. New experiments suggest that whites who haven't had much exposure to black people do, in fact, find mixed-race people confusing—and that leads to unwarranted prejudice.

"[D]ecades of research on intergroup contact has consistently found that exposure to racial out-group members can decrease both explicit and implicit bias," write psychologists Jonathan Freeman, Kristin Pauker, and Diana Sanchez in Psychological Science. One likely explanation is that those who have more contact with other racial groups tend to categorize people differently: If someone has never met a black person, black and white may seem like very clear cut categories, but if someone's met many whites and blacks (and others), concepts like race may be a bit more ambiguous.

People who lived in more racially diverse places had an easier time categorizing mixed-race faces.

Freeman, Pauker, and Sanchez argue that categorization is likely to play a role in how we perceive people from mixed backgrounds as well. That's because, for someone who sees race as black or white and nothing in between, a person of mixed race is an anomaly that's difficult to categorize. That difficulty, the researchers suggest, could ultimately lead to prejudice.

The researchers tested that idea with 194 white men and women who took part in an online experiment. Basically, their task was to look at a series of faces constructed by morphing a white and a black face together—some morphs were closer to the white face, and some were closer to the black face—and then categorize them by clicking on "White" or "Black" buttons at the top of the screen.

To see how difficult categorizing faces was, the researchers tracked how often participants' mice wavered back and forth as they moved to make their choices—a physical manifestation of a psychological wavering about race. In addition, the team combined participants' ZIP codes with U.S. Census data to determine the racial mixture of their neighborhoods. In a follow-up experiment, 149 new participants performed the same task, but also rated each face's trustworthiness.

Although the effect was small, people who lived in more racially diverse places had an easier time categorizing mixed-race faces—that is, they zig-zagged somewhat less as they moved their mice and made their decisions. The second experiment suggests having difficulty categorizing a face, as measured by mouse movements, led people to find mixed-race faces less trustworthy.

Interestingly, there were no overall differences in how participants categorized the faces, only in how they got to those decisions, suggesting that low-level cognitive processes like categorization difficulties likely underlie higher-level prejudices, the authors write. This, in turn, points the way to a new, "under the hood" approach to fighting prejudice.


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