Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 16, 2019

Asian Americans are Skeptical of Biracial People’s Racial Loyalties

by Jacqueline M. Chen
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Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

A college friend of mine is Asian-White biracial: her dad is White, and her mom is Asian. Remarking on her high school experience, she once said to me, “The White kids would tell me that I’m not White, while the Asian kids would tell me that I’m not Asian.” Fast forward several years, and I am a social psychologist who studies how people think about mixed-race individuals. This growing research area has already validated one part of my friend’s experience: White Americans tend to see biracial people according to their racial minority background, including seeing Asian-White biracial people as Asian and as not White.

But what about the other side of my friend’s experience? In general, do Asian Americans view Asian-White biracials as White? My collaborators, Nour Kteily of Northwestern University and Arnold Ho of the University of Michigan, and I set out to answer this question.

On the one hand, we thought that Asian Americans might assume that biracials are not really Asian, just like White Americans think that biracials are not White. But we knew from our earlier research that Black Americans actually include biracials as members of their own group, seeing Black-White biracial people as Black. For example, Barack Obama was largely accepted by Black Americans as one of them. So we wondered whether Asian Americans would act more like White Americans (and exclude Asian-White biracial people from their group) or more like Black Americans (and include Asian-White biracial people into their group).

Our four studies suggested that my friend’s experience was typical: Asian Americans consider Asian-White biracials to be more White than Asian. But why did Asian Americans act differently than Black Americans, who include Black-White biracials in their group? The reasons have to do with Asian Americans’ ideas about racial inequality, passing, and identity.

Racial minorities in the U.S. are diverse: many minority individuals are aware that they are disadvantaged relative to White people, but some see these disadvantages as more severe than others do. Seeing racial discrimination as severe tends to lead Black Americans to become more inclusive of Black-White biracial individuals, acknowledging others’ shared experiences with discrimination. In contrast, we found that Asian Americans who saw racial discrimination as severe were less likely to see Asian-White biracials as one of them, compared to Asian Americans who saw discrimination as less severe.

Why? Because Asian Americans who believed that their group was severely disadvantaged were skeptical that Asian-White biracials would want to identify as Asian. In many cases, Asian-White biracial people can pass physically and/or culturally as White, and Asian Americans seem to believe that Asian-White biracials will choose to be White.  

To follow up on these findings, we wanted to see whether Asian Americans’ beliefs about discrimination that made them believe that biracials want to identify as White. To do this, we conducted an experiment in which we led Asian Americans to think about discrimination in one of two ways. We randomly assigned Asian Americans to read an article indicating that discrimination against them was either frequent or rare. After reading the article, we asked participants how they thought biracials would want to identify: as relatively Asian or relatively White? When Asian-Americans were led to think that prejudice against Asian Americans was frequent, they assumed that Asian-White biracials would choose to be White.

Finally, we wanted to see whether Asian Americans’ assumptions about biracials’ identities lead them to view Asian-White biracial people as White. We ran another experiment in which we led Asian Americans to think about Asian-White biracials’ identity choices in one of two ways. We randomly assigned participants to read about an article stating that biracials tend to identify more as Asian or another article stating that biracials tend to identify more as White. Then we asked participants which racial group biracials are more loyal to and whether biracials are more Asian or more White. Asian Americans who read that biracials wanted to identify as White assumed that they would be more loyal to the White racial group, such as advancing White people’s political interests, and indicated that biracials were more White than Asian.

Thus, Asian Americans tend to see Asian-White people as wanting to be White, more loyal to White people, and more White than Asian. And this perception is most likely among Asian Americans who believe that they are really disadvantaged relative to White people. Although Black Americans generally include biracial people in their group, our research suggests that they might actually act like Asian Americans towards Black-White biracial people who can pass as White. In other words, when biracial people can pass as White, racial minorities might doubt their allegiances to their minority group and exclude them.

In any case, my friend was right. Asian-White biracials are likely to face racial exclusion from both sides: White people see them as Asian, but Asian people see them as White. This tension in how others see biracials can be uncomfortable at best or very painful at worst. Biracial people often report feeling pressured to “choose a side.” As a person with biracial friends, family members, or coworkers, you can turn these assumptions on their head. Take note that biracial people often have many identities that can ebb and flow over time and different situations. By being aware of the dynamic nature of biracial identity, you can avoid putting pressure on biracial people to choose sides and accept them for whoever they choose to be.


For Further Reading

Chen, J.M., Kteily, N.S., & Ho, A.K. (2019). Whose side are you on? Mistrust of Asian-White biracials’ allegiances leads Asian Americans to deny them group membership. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(6), 827-841.

Chen, J.M. (2019). An integrative review of impression formation processes for multiracial individuals. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(1), e12430.

Ho, A.K., Kteily, N.S., & Chen, J.M. (2017). “You’re one of us”: Black Americans’ use of hypodescent and its association with egalitarianism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(5), 753-768.

 

Jacqueline Chen is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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