Revisiting decades of research, scholars find a theory of psychological strength emerges
Meghan Markle, the actress now world-famous as the Duchess of Sussex, was asked in 7th grade to fill out a census form and check one box for her race.
Forced to choose between the races of her Caucasian father and African American mother, Markle left the section blank. When her teacher told her to check Caucasian because “that’s how you look,” Markle refused, she later explained in a column for Elle magazine. “Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion … I left my identity blank — a question mark, an absolute incomplete — much like how I felt.”
Were it to end there, Markle’s story would fit into the long history that portrays multiracial people as being troubled, both by those around them and from within.
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Scores of academic papers have focused on multiracial people as neither this nor that, and have posited that this causes them to suffer psychological damage. “Theories of identity development propose that multiracial individuals need to integrate their multiple identities in order to develop a stable self.” That’s the take of one 2009 paper, paraphrased by the authors of a new review of research on the topic.
This thread of multiracial woe has continued even as being multiracial went from a relatively rare thing (1% of U.S. babies in 1970) to quite common (10% of babies in 2013), according to the Pew Research Center. In Hawaii, 44% of babies are multiracial, 20% in California are. Even in Vermont, the least multiracial state, 4% of babies are of two or more races, Pew found. That would be a lot of selves to be unstable.
But the authors of the research review, published in Social and Psychology Personality Compass, find reason to believe that multiracial people, though often the target of bias directed at those of a single racial minority, might possess notable and unusual powers of resilience: the ability to switch between racial identities to adapt to circumstances; and “reduced essentializing of race,” meaning, those who are multiracial might feel less defined by race than others do.
The authors also note a fundamental problem with some of the past research. Early studies of multiracial individuals relied heavily on clinical samples, or people who were self-selected for dealing with challenges. They might not be representative of the general multiracial population, of course. And upon closer examination, the limited research that used nonclinical samples showed multiracial individuals did not report lower self-esteem than people with a single racial background.
This review was undertaken by UCLA Anderson’s Margaret Shih and Serena Does, Skidmore College’s Leigh S. Wilton, Brianna M. Goodale of Cairn Labs and Rutgers University’s Diana T. Sanchez.
In their view, it’s possible that people like Meghan Markle, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris and Tiger Woods have benefited from their mixed-race heritage in ways that have made it easier to cope with an increasingly diverse, complicated world.
One explanation for this, the authors theorize, is that by seeking out the benefits of belonging to multiple racial groups, these individuals build “psychological resilience” to cope with negative situations.
Their analysis offers an alternative to the traditional “coping models” in which individuals take defensive measures to avoid negative consequences. Instead, they suggest individuals may gain strength and skills through navigating the different racial identities that enrich their lives and empower them.
They identified two coping strategies used by multiracial individuals that appear to build confidence and result in a more positive self-image. The first is identity switching, in which the person assumes different racial identities, depending on the situation or place. They cite instances in which this “racial fluidity” can make it easier for multiracial individuals to avoid conflict or be accepted by the people they are with.
It can also help these individuals gain confidence and avoid being labeled in ways that trigger negative stereotypes. Different situations benefit from different labeling of oneself. In one study, Shih found Asian American women scored worse on math tests when their gender was emphasized (women aren’t good at math) and better when their Asian identity was highlighted (Asians are good at math).
The second coping strategy is to challenge the idea that race is a rigid biological state in which people belonging to a racial group share “deep-seated, unchangeable and inborn similarities.” These views, known as “racial essentialism,” have been cited throughout history by nativists arguing that immigrants from Asia or Africa can never become assimilated Americans or Europeans. They also remain a core belief of white supremacist movements throughout the world.
The authors do not argue that racial differences are nonexistent. They also caution that deemphasizing race has potentially negative outcomes, including the undermining of genuine racial and cultural distinctions.
However, they cite research that shows that, in any given characteristic, there may be wider variation within a racial group than between racial groups. And modern developments in genetic testing have shown that gene variations do not cluster neatly into racial or ethnic categories.
Instead, the authors advocate treating race as a “flexible construct” that changes based on social factors such as politics, economics or history. They refer to research that showed multiracial individuals could increase their psychological health and reduce the impact of racial stereotypes by challenging racial essentialism.
Previous research by Shih and others found that multiracial individuals were likelier to view race as social rather than biological in origin. Raising awareness of race as a social construct reduced the impact of race-based stereotypes on people with single race or multiple racial backgrounds.
These findings build on prior research suggesting that multiracial individuals with a “lowered belief in racial essentialism” exhibited increased psychological health and greater creativity.
A 2015 study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science presented a series of tests to see whether individuals who were asked to think about their multiple identities were more creative afterward. In one test, a group was asked to write about their racial identities and then take a creativity test. The multiracial individuals performed better on the test than people of a single ethnic background.
Markle’s career took off, she writes in Elle, in part as she embraced being multiracial but let go of how others might regard that: “Just as black and white, when mixed, make grey, in many ways that’s what it did to my self-identity: it created a murky area of who I was, a haze around how people connected with me. I was grey. And who wants to be this indifferent colour, devoid of depth and stuck in the middle? I certainly didn’t. So you make a choice: continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it.”
Back in 7th grade, Markle went home and told her father about the name-your-race-box incident. His response? “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”
Associate Vice Chancellor, BruinX, UCLA Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Neil Jacoby Chair in Management; Professor of Management and Organizations
About the Research
Shih, M., Wilton, L.S., Does, S., Goodale, B.M., & Sanchez, D.T. (2019). Multiple racial identities as sources of psychological resilience. Social and Psychology Personality Compass, 13(6). doi: 10.1111/spc3.12469