Passage to identity is still a struggle

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2011-01-06 02:19Z by Steven

Passage to identity is still a struggle

Kansas City Star

Commentary by: Jeneé Osterheldt

I’ve always known I wasn’t white like my mama. Even as a little girl, I could feel adults stare as we passed by.

I was different. But was I black like my daddy? It took me much of my young life to figure that out.

Earlier this year, we took the census. The hardest of the 10 questions revolved around racial identity.

President Barack Obama, born to a white mother and a black father from Africa, checked one box: Black, African Am. or Negro.

I checked it, too. But I also marked the ones next to white and Native American. The president and I are both mixed.

So, who chose the right answer?

More and more black-and-white mixed Americans are “passing” for black, according to a recent study in the current issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, titled “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans.” That’s a reverse form of what biracial and fair-skinned blacks did in the Jim Crow era, when they denied their race altogether.

It’s claptrap. Yes, Obama is mixed, but he’s also black. It’s possible to be both. How can people “pass” for something they already are?..

Read the rest of the commentary here.

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University of Vermont study examines biracial identity

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2010-12-30 17:36Z by Steven

University of Vermont study examines biracial identity

Burlington Free Press

Tim Johnson, Free Press Staff Writer

Even though he was born of a white mother and an African father, Barack Obama is commonly referred to as the first black president. That’s a sign, sociologists say, that America’s “one-drop rule”—a vestige of the United States’ segregationist past—is still with us.

Under the one-drop rule, a person with even minimal African ancestry (one drop of black blood) was considered black. In the Jim Crow South, such people were denied the rights and opportunities accorded to—unless they had sufficiently light skin and Caucasian features to conceal their African ancestry and “pass” themselves off as white.

Racial “passing” still takes place today, University of Vermont sociologist Nikki Khanna reports in a new study, but in different ways. Light-skinned people with African ancestry might pass themselves off as white or as black, depending on the situation. And biracial people with one white parent and one black parent are more likely for various reasons to identify themselves as black and even to conceal their white ancestry, Khanna said…

A person’s racial identity is determined not just by society; it also can be self-defined. Even people who regard themselves as biracial often are inclined to pass themselves off as monoracial, Khanna reports in an article, co-written with Cathryn Johnson of Emory University, published recently in Social Psychology Quarterly

..The fact that “biracial” and “multiracial” have entered common American parlance suggests that the “one-drop rule” might be weakening, Khanna said. The U.S. census, beginning in 2000, allowed respondents to choose more than one race.

Still, the widespread perception that people with one black parent are black has its roots in a historically racist attitude that “one drop of black blood made one black, but one drop of white blood did not make one white,” as Khanna and Johnson put it.

Khanna, daughter of an Indian father and a white mother, grew interested in interracial studies in graduate school. She said she noticed that research was lacking on the offspring of interracial couples…

Read the entire article here.

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Recent Studies on Biracial Identity and Hypodescent to be Discussed on Mixed Chicks Chat (Pre-recorded)

Posted in Audio, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-12-28 22:00Z by Steven

Recent Studies on Biracial Identity and Hypodescent to be Discussed on Mixed Chicks Chat (Pre-recorded)

Mixed Chicks Chat (The only live weekly show about being racially and culturally mixed. Also, founders of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival) Hosted by Fanshen Cox, Heidi W. Durrow and Jennifer Frappier
Website: TalkShoe™ (Keywords: Mixed Chicks)
Episode: #186 – Discussion on Recent Studies on Biracial Identity and Hypodescent
When: Tuesday, 2010-12-28, 22:00Z (17:00 EDT, 16:00 CDT, 14:00 PDT)

In this pre-recorded episode recent studies by Harvard Ph.D. student, Arnold K. Ho (“Evidence for hypodescent and racial hierarchy in the categorization and perception of biracial individuals”) and University of Vermont Assistant Professor Nikki Khanna (“Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among Biracial Americans”) will be discussed.

Listen to the episode here.  Download the episode here.

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Many Biracial Students Game Racial-Classification Systems, Study Suggests

Posted in Articles, Campus Life, Media Archive, Social Work, United States on 2010-12-20 02:30Z by Steven

Many Biracial Students Game Racial-Classification Systems, Study Suggests

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Peter Schmidt

A study of biracial people with black and white ancestry has found that many identify themselves solely as black when filling out college applications and financial-aid forms, raising new questions about the accuracy of educational statistics and research based on racial and ethnic data derived from students.

The study of 40 biracial people—all of whom reported having one black parent and one white one—found that 29, or nearly three-fourths, reported concealing their white ancestry in applying for college, scholarships, financial aid, or jobs.

“Frequently unaware that being biracial is often sufficient for affirmative-action purposes, they presented themselves exclusively as black,” says a summary of the study’s findings being published this month in Social Psychology Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Sociological Association…

…The new study suggests that many researchers start out with bad data that conflate information on students with two black parents with information on students with one white parent and one black one, even though those biracial students are less likely, on average, to have grown up with the same disadvantages.

The researcher behind the study—Nikki Khanna, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, and Cathryn Johnson, a professor of sociology at Emory University— recruited their 40 research subjects by distributing fliers in an unnamed Southern urban city, asking “Do you have one black parent and one white parent?” They base their analyses on extensive interviews of the respondents conducted by Ms. Khanna in 2005 and 2006…

…Susan Graham, executive director of Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), an advocacy group for multiracial Americans, said she believes the article overstates how much people base their racial identification on self-interest. She also argued that, given how much racial-classification systems have changed in recent years, it is inappropriate to draw conclusions based on interviews conducted four or five years ago…

Read or purchase the article here.

Note by Steven F. Riley: See: Lawrence Wright, “One Drop of Blood”, The New Yorker, July 24, 1994…

Those who are charged with enforcing civil-rights laws see the Multiracial box as a wrecking ball aimed at affirmative action, and they hold those in the mixed-race movement responsible. “There’s no concern on any of these people’s part about the effect on policy it’s just a subjective feeling that their identity needs to be stroked,” one government analyst said. “What they don’t understand is that it’s going to cost their own groups”—by losing the advantages that accrue to minorities by way of affirmative-action programs, for instance. [Susan] Graham contends that the object of her movement is not to create another protected category. In any case, she said, multiracial people know “to check the right box to get the goodies.”

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Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among Biracial Americans

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2010-12-20 02:07Z by Steven

Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among Biracial Americans

Social Psychology Quarterly
Volume 73, Number 4 (Published online 2010-12-13)
pages 380-397
DOI: 10.1177/0190272510389014

Nikki Khanna, Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Vermont

Cathryn Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies
Emory University

Drawing on interview data with black-white biracial adults, we examine the considerable agency most have in asserting their racial identities to others. Extending research on “identity work” (Snow and Anderson 1987), we explore the strategies biracial people use to conceal (i.e., pass), cover, and/or accent aspects of their racial ancestries, and the individual and structural-level factors that limit the accessibility and/or effectiveness of some strategies. We further find that how these biracial respondents identify is often contextual—most identify as biracial, but in some contexts, they pass as monoracial. Scholars argue that passing may be a relic of the past, yet we find that passing still occurs today. Most notably, we find a striking reverse pattern of passing today—while passing during the Jim Crow era involved passing as white, these respondents more often report passing as black today. Motivations for identity work are explored, with an emphasis on passing as black.

…Characteristics of Respondents

Our data collection efforts resulted in a sample of 40 black-white biracial individuals. The ages ranged from 18 to 45, with the average age a little over 24 years of age. More than half of the respondents, 57.5 percent, fell between the ages of 18 and 22, which is typical college age; this is not surprising considering that our recruitment efforts began at local colleges and universities. Of the remaining respondents, 27.5 percent fell between the ages of 23 and 30, and 15 percent were over the age of 30. Regarding gender, 22.5 percent are men and 77.5 percent are women…


Given the nature of the study and the characteristics of the sample, there are several limitations to be discussed. First, this study examines the phenomenon of passing (among other forms of identity work), yet if biracial people are passing for one race on a day-today basis, they likely would not have answered the advertisements to participate in this study. Hence, we examine those who pass as white or black on an intermittent basis, but not those who may be passing on a continuous basis.

Second, this sample is heavily female, and Storrs (1999) suggests that racial identity may be more salient for women than men; men’s self-concepts may be more tied to other identities, such as those based on occupation rather than race. If racial identity is indeed less salient for men (more work is needed here), then racial identity work and passing may be less frequent for men than women.

Third, these respondents were, for the most part, middle- to upper-middle class and often embedded in predominantly white settings. They were more likely to pass as black rather than white, but it is plausible that working-class biracials may be more motivated to pass as white (if their physical appearance allows it) or, at the very least, they may be more motivated to highlight their white ancestry than their middle-class counterparts; disadvantaged by social class, they may draw on white privilege (if they can) to access opportunities for upward social mobility. Conversely, because of their lower social class status, they may be even more likely than these respondents to present themselves as black. As will be discussed, these middle-class respondents passed as black to fit in with black peers, to avoid what they perceived as a stigmatized white identity, and to benefit from affirmative action programs. It is plausible that working-class biracials are more likely to live and work in minority/black settings and hence pass as black to fit in with black peers and neighbors; in minority/black settings, whiteness may be even more stigmatized as compared to white settings, and hence working-class biracials may feel more pressure to conceal their white ancestry; finally, because they are more disadvantaged financially than their middle class counterparts, affirmative action opportunities may be more crucial to moving up the socioeconomic ladder and so biracial people may be more likely to present themselves as black on admissions, employment, and scholarship application forms…

Strategies of Identity Work

…Factors limiting the accessibility/usefulness of identity strategies. Respondents draw on various identity strategies, and clearly these findings indicate that biracial people have considerable agency with regard to how they identify themselves. We find, however, that these options are not without limits. Extending previous research on identity work (Snow and Anderson 1987; see also Killian and Johnson 2006; McCall 2003; Storrs 1999), we discover several factors that limit the accessibility and/or effectiveness of these strategies—one’s phenotype, social class background, and racial networks. For instance, race in American society is intertwined with phenotype (i.e., we are often raced by how we look); depending upon which identity one is presenting, manipulation of one’s phenotype may or may not be an option. The majority of respondents cannot modify their phenotypes to pass as white, and some respondents have difficulty in altering their physical characteristics to pass as black. However, given the phenotypic variation among blacks (due to centuries of mixing with whites), passing as black is arguably less complicated than passing as white. Having light skin or straight hair, for instance, is not unique to those defined as biracial today; many individuals classified as black also share these traits. In contrast, those wanting to pass as white may face more challenges (e.g., hair cannot always be styled straight, skin tones are not easily lightened)…


…Most interesting, however, are not the few respondents who passed as white, but the many that passed as black. Scholars understand the motivations of passing as white in a society dominated by whites, but less is known about motivations for passing as black. We find that biracial people pass as black for several reasons. Most notably, we argue, because they can. While passing as white is difficult for most, passing as black is less difficult given the wide range of phenotypes in the black community regarding skin color and other physical features. With generations of interracial mixing between blacks and whites and the broad definition of blackness as defined by the one-drop rule, Khanna (2010) argues that most Americans cannot tell the difference between biracial and black. Hence, there is little difficulty when many biracial people conceal their biracial background; this is because many ‘‘blacks’’ also have white phenotypic characteristics (because they, too, often have white ancestry). Further, we find that biracial respondents pass as black for additional reasons—to fit in with black peers in adolescence (especially since many claim that whites reject them), to avoid a white stigmatized identity, and, in the post–civil rights era of affirmative action, to obtain advantages and opportunities sometimes available to them if they are black (e.g., educational and employment opportunities, college financial aid/scholarships)…

Read or purchase the article here.
Read a free summary here.

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Passing as Black: How Biracial Americans Choose Identity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2010-12-19 03:45Z by Steven

Passing as Black: How Biracial Americans Choose Identity

Time Magazine: Healthland
Friday, 2010-12-16

Meredith Melnick, Reporter and Producer

The practice of passing—identifying with and presenting oneself as one race while denying ancestry of another—reached its peak during the Jim Crow era. Needless to say, the notion of having to “pass” as white is outdated and offensive, but as sociologists Nikki Khanna and Cathryn Johnson report in a new study, passing is still alive and well today. It just happens in the other direction.

For their study, Khanna and Johnson interviewed 40 biracial American adults about their racial identity, and were surprised by what they found: most people tended to suppress or reject their white ancestry altogether and claim to be entirely African American. It wasn’t simply about calling oneself black, but also aggressively changing one’s behavior, looks and tastes to appear more “black.”…

…The question is whether strongly identifying with a racial minority really qualifies as passing. The researchers argue that it does, because it involves a concerted effort to reveal one portion of ancestry while concealing and rejecting another. The volunteers in the study also behaved strategically to project their race—something that sociologists call “identity work.” The authors of the current study prefer to call it “performing race”: they characterize the racial identities of their subjects as a strategically constructed, outwardly projected performance, and in this sense they liken it to the behavior of those who passed during the Jim Crow era…

Read the entire article here.

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Why Biracial Means Black: The History of Race in America Means Most Blacks Are Biracial to Some Degree

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-12-14 20:35Z by Steven

Why Biracial Means Black: The History of Race in America Means Most Blacks Are Biracial to Some Degree

The Root

Lauren Williams, Associate Editor

Checking a census box that says “black” doesn’t mean you’re denying your white ancestry. It’s just how we roll in America.

When Halle Berry scored her milestone Oscar win in 2002, nobody was screaming from the mountaintops that the first biracial woman had won the Academy Award for best actress. It’s not too often that you hear someone calling Barack Obama the country’s first biracial president. And although I know people who are biracial and multiracial who primarily refer to themselves as such, I’ve also heard most of them refer to themselves as black.

My own mother, who is Creole and fair skinned—to the point where some people assume she is white—will tell you that she is black if you ask, although her answer could be a lot more complicated if she wanted it to be. But isn’t it the same for many black people in this country? It’s generally safe to assume that most black Americans are multiracial. As The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., has pointed out, statistics demonstrate that 58.5 percent of black Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry.

That’s why a new study about how biracial Americans of black-and-white ancestry often self-identify as black comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that the researchers refer to this decision as “passing for black.” As if not mentioning your white ancestry when asked to identify yourself is somehow akin to light-skinned blacks of the past having to completely reject—sometimes forever—their heritage and families in order to blend in to white society.

No, it’s not the same, and for a lot of reasons: A biracial person can check “black” on a census form and 10 seconds later start talking fondly and proudly about his or her white mother or father (anyone who’s heard Obama talk about his family knows this). For biracial or multiracial people to call themselves black is not a wholesale denial of their past and family. It’s not a lie. It’s not, heaven forbid, a ploy to get minority-based benefits, as was suggested by researchers behind the study. It is, for better or worse, a by-product of living in a country that is only a few generations removed from Jim Crow and the one-drop rule

Read the entire article here.

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Social Comparisons, Social Networks, and Racial Identity: The Case of Black-White Biracial Americans

Posted in Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Social Science, United States on 2010-08-17 01:34Z by Steven

Social Comparisons, Social Networks, and Racial Identity: The Case of Black-White Biracial Americans

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting
Hilton San Francisco
San Francisco, California
47 pages

Nikki Khanna Sherwin, Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Vermont

Cathryn Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies
Emory University

A growing body of work examining biracial identity points to the importance of social networks in shaping racial identity, yet few studies explore how social networks shape identity. Adding to previous work, we discover a key process mediating between social networks and racial identity – social comparisons (Festinger 1954). Drawing on interview data with 40 black-white biracial Americans, we find that they compare themselves to others on several dimensions to shape their racial identities, and that they invoke both “realistic” comparisons (comparisons with real others) and “constructive” comparisons (comparisons with imagined others). We argue that the types of comparisons they use (whether “realistic” or “constructive”) are largely influenced by the racial composition of their networks and have implications for their racial identities. We conclude with a discussion of the theoretical implications of these findings and offer two propositions regarding the relationships between social networks, social comparisons, and identity more generally.

Read the entire paper here.

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