Gaither: Multiracial identity presents benefits and challenges

The Duke University professor visited Elon to share her research as part of the university’s Multiracial Awareness Week. 

By Leila Jackson '22

Even though mixed-race people are an increasingly large portion of the U.S. population, there is little research that focuses on multiracial people. Sarah Gaither, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is working to change that.

Gaither spoke on Monday, Feb. 4, in Moseley Center as part of the first Multiracial Awareness Week at Elon hosted by the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education. This week includes events that recognize multiracial identity at Elon. Studying multiracial populations, Gaither explains, can also be a way to understand the flexibilities of different identities in general.

Gaither, who is biracial herself, explained that multiracial people are not a new phenomenon. She showed a photograph of the 1860 U.S. Census form that had only three racial categories: white, black and mulatto. Even though this form excluded other racial and ethnic groups in the United States at the time, the mulatto category was a recognition of people who were not just white or black. Ironically, people have only been allowed to mark more than one race since the 2000 Census, Gaither said.

Even though official forms that ask for racial identity tend to be more inclusive now, there are still instances where people are asked to rank their racial identities or to “pick the best one.” This can be a problem for multiracial people who feel uncomfortable checking only one box.

“This particular form with the ‘check one’ option tends to create a lot of denial and negative consequences for people who are multiracial, but this is really reflective I think, of the constant struggle that multiracial people often face, in having to choose one of their identities over the other,” Gaither said.

In her first study, Gaither worked in the infant cognition lab at UCLA and was interested in biracial face perception. Gaither wanted to see how being biracial would affect the ability of infants in distinguishing faces from different racial backgrounds, as people generally have an easier time differentiating faces from their own race. Her study included Asian, white and biracial white and Asian one-month-old infants. The biracial infants were from two-parent households, so they regularly saw both white and Asian faces.

She found that the biracial babies were able to distinguish faces of both white and Asian individuals faster than monoracial infants, at least until they were three months old.

“Biracial infants are actually able to distinguish those faces faster than monoracial infants, so the first three months of their life, their exposure to both types of parents faces in their home environment boosts their face processing abilities temporarily,” Gaither said.

Looking to study the flexibility of mixed-race identity, Gaither conducted a study where multiracial and monoracial students were randomly tasked to write about their day or their racial identity and after were asked to solve remote associates test problems. These problems challenged participants to find a word that equally associated with the three words they were presented. Gaither showed an example set which included the words cat, paint and doll and the word that connected them was “house”: (housecat, dollhouse).

“Only multiracial people who were reminded of their flexible identities showed a boost in their ability to solve that very difficult type of word problem. Not reminding multiracials of this, they look exactly the same as monoracial individuals in both conditions,” Gaither said. “It's not to say that multiracial people are walking around the world more flexible or more creative, but they seem to harness a specific approach, a specific process that perhaps monoracial people can't think about quite as easily.”

Touching on some of the hardships multiracial people face, Gaither said that this population faces the highest rates of exclusion due to the feeling that they are “not enough” for their racial or ethnic groups. Racially ambiguous faces take longer for people to process and categorize, adding to feelings of confusion and exclusion.

One of the limitations that Gaither has faced is that she has only been able to study mixed-race individuals that are part white, which leaves out those whose ethnic backgrounds are all in the minority, for example, someone who is black and Asian. Gaither said she does not have a definitive answer to if multiracial people can “turn on” or “turn off” their racial identities but is hoping to find a way to measure this.

By 2050, at least 21 percent of the U.S. population is projected to be multiracial, a significant increase from the 2011 census in which 2.9 percent of the population identified as mixed-race, Gaither said.

“We are in a very changing United States,” Gaither said. “I think it's time for all of our studies and classrooms and research across disciplines to really start counting us in the right way.”