At some point in your life, you've probably checked off a box on a form that asks you to specify your ethnicity. But educational and governmental organizations are under increasing pressure to include a multiracial option rather than forcing individuals with complex racial heritages to choose just one category.
For Kevin Binning, Miguel Unzueta, Yuen Huo, and Ludwin Molina, this raised a provocative question: Does identifying themselves as multiracial help or hinder the psychological well-being of individuals of diverse ethnicity?
Previous studies had assumed that if an individual had a multiracial heritage that he or she automatically identified with that heritage. Yet Binning and his fellow researchers hypothesized that simply belonging to multiple racial groups did not guarantee that a person would psychologically identify with all of those groups. "We thought that digging deeper into the multiracial category to examine how such individuals interpreted their racial identity would help our understanding of multiracial psychology," said Binning, a post-doctoral scholar at Stanford GSB and coauthor of "The Interpretation of Multiracial Status and Its Relation to Social Engagement and Psychological Well-Being," published recently in the Journal of Social Issues.
In the study, high school students who belonged to multiple racial groups were asked to indicate their ethnic heritage by checking as many boxes as necessary on a form. They were also asked an open-ended question about which groups they primarily identified with. They were then classified as identifying with a group the researchers had designated as having a relatively low social status (black or Latino), a relatively high social status, (Asian or white), or multiple groups (for example, black and white or "multiracial "). Those who identified with multiple groups reported either equal or higher psychological well-being and social engagement than those who identified primarily with a single group.
Interestingly, it didn't matter whether the groups the students identified with were characterized as low or high-status. "We were surprised to find virtually no differences between individuals who identified with either low- or high-status groups," said Binning. "What mattered was whether they acknowledged their multiracial identity." In the past, research suggested that members of high- and low-status groups differed psychologically.
Binning and his associates have some theories about why there might be some psychological benefits associated with having a multiracial identity. "For one, perhaps being able to 'stand one's ground' and reject social pressure to identify with a single racial group indicates resiliency," said Binning. Additionally, instead of falling between the cracks of two separate cultures, individuals who identify with multiple groups might be better equipped to assimilate into both racially homogenous and racially mixed environments. In this way, multiracial individuals in diverse environments might have a broader sense of "fitting in," which can boost both their psychological and social well-being.
Alternatively, being forced to identify with one race over another can be disconcerting. "If I'm a member of multiple groups and forced to identify with only one group, I'm — by necessity — rejecting part of my identity," said Binning. "Typically, this means taking on the race or ethnicity of one parent over another. This can put people on the defensive, emotionally."
The authors also felt that individuals who feel comfortable in several different cultures might be able to better "frame switch" between different cultural mind sets.
"Such individuals might be able to seamlessly switch between their different cultures' ways of perceiving the world, which could help them navigate through racially diverse environments," said Binning.
Given that this research highlights the benefits of possessing a multiracial identity, should society encourage individuals to adopt this attitude? "Much more research is needed to determine an answer to this," said Binning. A major question, for example, is whether adopting a multiracial identity causes psychological and social well-being, or if the reverse is true. "It could simply be that better-adjusted individuals tend to accept their multiracial identity," said Binning. "We're not sure at this point what the causal relationship is."
The data reported in this article is part of a larger data set collected with a UCLA Center for Community Partnership Grant awarded to Yuen J. Huo, an associate professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Coauthor Unzueta is an assistant professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Molina is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas.
One of the reasons that this research study is getting a lot of attention is President Barack Obama's own mixed-race heritage. "In his books he stresses his own mixed ethnicity, and how he struggled with that during his teenage years," said Binning. And as the U.S. population becomes increasingly heterogeneous, "this issue is only going to become more important in coming years."