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How the Brain Processes Mixed-Race Faces

A look at the stereotypes that inform our expectations

“U“Usually very physically attractive,” said one survey respondent. “They’re always beautiful people,” said another. “Most often a gorgeous mix.” The comments continued. “Biracial babies are pretty.” Mixed-race people are “glamorous and exotic.”

These were just some of the comments from a July 2019 study in which 1,100 mostly White respondents were asked what stereotypes they thought society had about multiracial people. Researchers found that one nearly universal stereotype was common to all biracial groups: attractiveness.

The study is important, says Sylvia Perry, co-lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, because “stereotypes inform our expectations. They help us decide whether or not we choose to form friendships or relationships” with those we meet.

Survey respondents also agreed that multiracial people “don’t belong,” are “generally confused,” and “lack a cultural identity.”

Perry’s study, which was completed together with co-authors Allison Skinner and Sarah Gaither, is just one in a growing field of expanding research on multiracial identity. More and more psychologists, social scientists, and other health professionals are seeking a better understanding of how society perceives multiracial people and how they perceive themselves.

“Prior to 1980, the multiracial population received limited attention from educators, researchers, social scientists, and mental health professionals,” writes Reginald Daniel, editor of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies. What little research existed was “outdated, contradictory, or based on small-scale studies of children who were experiencing ‘problems’.”

That thinking is changing.

Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has shown that biracial babies as young as three months are able to recognize faces more quickly than monoracial babies. In an interview for the New York Times, Pauker likened this ability to bilingualism, arguing that the facial perception skills of biracial babies are more developed because they’ve had more variation in the process of learning to recognize family members.

How we see, and how we understand what we’re seeing, are both crucial questions when it comes to these emerging fields of study.

“We’re experiencing a little bit of a watershed moment,” says Debbie S. Ma, an associate professor of psychology at California State University Northridge and the co-principal investigator of a study of multiracial morphs and facial recognition. “There’s this idea that people can be more individualized on a number of levels: gender identity, sexual identity, racial identity. It’s easier than it’s ever been to talk about multiracial identities, and for people to actually acknowledge them.”

What’s most interesting about the data is that it’s possible that we’re not getting it wrong, so much as we are deciding not to get it right.

Ma thought about race a lot as the child of two Chinese immigrants living in a primarily Latino, low-income community in Denver, Colorado. Now that she has two biracial (Asian and White) children of her own, like so many members of this growing wave of researchers, her work is driven by “both theoretical questions and personal motives.”

So how do we see multiracial people?

Whereas people who describe themselves as being one race are correctly categorized about 90% of the time, for multiracial people that number plummets to only about 13%, says Justin Kantner, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University Northridge, and co-principal investigator together with Debbie Ma of the study. They found that biracial morphs were correctly identified as multiracial at a higher rate than real multiracial people.

What’s most interesting about the data, says Kantner, is that it’s possible that we’re not getting it wrong, so much as we are deciding not to get it right.

“Evidence shows that our perceptual systems are in fact able to spot multiracial people quite well,” he says, but when asked about it, for some reason, respondents don’t give the correct response. In other words, says Kantner, we may be “much better at making these classifications than we seem to be.”

Then why not just call a multiracial person, mixed race?

Kantner seemed as stumped by the discrepancy as I was. “We have these very hard-wired binary notions of race,” he concludes.

“People love to categorize and put people in boxes,” agrees Ma. Once you allow for the possibility of multiraciality “there can be infinite categories and that makes people anxious. There are Asian Whites, and Asian Blacks, and what about Asian Latinos?” Oftentimes the response from the dominant White culture, Ma continues, is “Do you really expect me to individualize and coordinate all of my thoughts and conversations for all of these groups of people?”

“Now they have to keep different math on all their different friends and the people they work with,” Ma adds. “That requires work and effort. There are people who genuinely want to be inclusive and fair, but just don’t know how.”

Research also shows that those who claim to not “see color” at all actually see it quite well.

Looking at the brain patterns of 226 college students, a University of Nebraska study examined the neurological responses to those who claimed that they were fine with interracial relationships, but whose brain activity told a different story. When shown wedding photos of Black-White couples, the insula — a part of the brain that registers disgust—was triggered.

How the larger society sees them, can also determine — at times, deeply and painfully — how multiracial people choose to see themselves.

Research shows that young women are more likely to identify as mixed-race than are young men. A corresponding finding is that there are mental health benefits to openly acknowledging all aspects of one’s heritage. We know, too, that both bullying and depression are higher among multiracial populations. In terms of relationships, there is evidence that multiracial people are more willing to date outside their own race, and that there are slightly higher rates of bisexuality within the multiracial population.

Socially and politically, it seems that multiracial people vote differently; that they are more likely to place themselves outside of existing political parties and structures. Still another study that could have major political and social implications shows that multiracial adults in the United States view race as less important, overall, to their identities and sense of self, than those who claim only one race.

Overall, there’s “more fluidity,” says Sarah Gaither, “both politically and in terms of identity.” Some would argue “that this has caused them to be more inclusive and open-minded,” says Gaither, and therefore “better able to see perspectives from multiple angles.”

Karen Tabb Dina, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that we’re lacking research on multiracial people and public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has only started to include multiracial people as a separate category. Because we now have more “specific data pools,” Dina adds, we now know that multiracial women “have the highest birth rate of all races” and are “the least likely of all groups to initiate breast-feeding.”

The number of multiracial people is growing at a pace that “can’t be ignored,” said Dina. But healthcare staff and policy makers still don’t know what to do with this group. Hospitals don’t have a consistent format to categorize race. “It could be that whoever checks you in at the counter is deciding.” Dina found one regional hospital in Central Illinois that categorized 7% of pregnant women in a sample as other, an unlikely number. “That’s the person at the front desk saying, ‘I don’t have any idea what they are.’”

Dina is currently researching depressive disorders among multiracial women using eleven possible racial combinations in order to get a more expansive view. So far, she’s found “significant differences across racial combinations.”

Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, is founder of the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab, one of the largest labs of its kind in the country, with some 28 undergraduate and graduate student researchers. Some of her recent research looked at cortisol stress responses for multiracial individuals mixed with White.

“We told them they have to be White,” says Gaither. “That they no longer have the option to identify as multiracial.” After measuring saliva samples Gaither’s team found that the cortisol spiked among those forced to choose one race, as expected, but also that they took longer to recover than the monoracial sample group.

One area of research that still needs to be explored, says Gaither, is socialization. “There’s very little work on how parents talk to their child.”

“I don’t think that multiracial people differ in all ways,” she adds.

Certainly, the mostly White survey respondents have an incomplete picture if they think all biracial people are beautiful and confused. They’re not.

“But I do think there are distinct life experiences that we don’t fully understand yet,” says Gaither. “Mainly because our society is still so focused on thinking about one race at a time.”

Award-winning journalist. Women, social justice, race, health, spirit. @HofstraU

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