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Race And Ethnicity Confusion

August 2009 - Psychological research on racial prejudice tends to give the impression that 'colour' and ethnic groupings are clearly defined. But research published earlier this year in Population and Development Review points to confusion in the way people identify themselves and in official classifications, at least in the United States.

An analysis of 2000 census data by University of Washington demographers and sociologists Anthony Perez and Charles Hirschman has led them to contend that the way in which the census was structured lumped many Hispanics or Latinos into a category called "some other race." In fact, so many were classified in that way that it formed the third-largest category afted whites and blacks in the census. As a result there were erroneous reports in the media last year that whites, as opposed to non-Hispanic whites, would be a minority in the United States by 2050. In reality, whites - including Hispanic whites - are likely to form at least 70% of the population in 2050.

Anthony Perez said:

"The truth is many people probably can't accurately report the origins of their ancestors. We have a fair degree of knowledge about where our parents and grandparents came from, but with every generation the number of our ancestors doubles and it is difficult to know the ethnic and racial details of all of them. Many people might have more ethnic or racial groups in their backgrounds than they imagine."

The researchers argue that most Americans, with the exception of recent immigrants, are probably descended from multiple geographic, ethnic and racial origins. In fact, the US was multi-ethnic and multi-racial from its very beginning. According to Anthony Perez said:

"With the exception of indigenous people, everyone came from somewhere else. They were immigrants. Frontier societies absorbed many indigenous people and we also have a long history of interracial unions between Americans of European and African descent. It is not just Barack Obama, but most of us are a bunch of 'mutts' from different cultures and backgrounds."

The researchers point to 'Americanization' - the blending away of specific ancestries. First generation immigrants to the United States tended to settle in neighbourhoods with people from similar origins. But the second generation and their children learned English and intermarried with people from different backgrounds. Ancestral ties began to fade and with several more generations, most Americans began to lose track of increasingly complex family trees.

However, while many Native Americans and Hawaiian-Pacific Islanders acknowledge a multiracial heritage, few whites and blacks acknowledge their common ancestry on censuses and surveys. Anthony Perez said:

"The low levels of racial mixture reported by whites and blacks represent an astounding loss of memory or a reluctance to acknowledge such mixing. One-fifth of African-Americans identified multiracial origins in the 1910 census and researchers think that number probably is low. Yet in Census 2000, just 2 percent of blacks and 0.4 percent of white acknowledge shared ancestry. The blurring of memories over many generations, the stigma of race mixing and a long history of segregation and political polarization have probably contributed to the amnesia of shared ancestry among many white and black Americans.

"Whites are notoriously inconsistent about the specifics of ethnic identity. We don't put a lot of stock in their answers because they often change their minds on follow-up questions. There also is inconsistency between parents and their children. The majority of whites have multiple ancestries and some will pick theirs on the basis of cuisine, a favorite relative or trends. And who isn't Irish on St. Patrick's Day?" he said.

But Perez is not sure what Americans will look like in another 50 years:

"The future face of America is uncertain. It's like predicting the weather 50 years from now. If current rates of intermarriage continue, there is likely to be continued blurring of race and ethnic divisions. Even the race and ethnic categories used in the census may change, as they have in the past. For Asians and Hispanics, there is likely to be continued blending, as with previous generations of immigrants.If intermarriage between blacks and whites continues to increase in the coming year, perhaps there will be greater acknowledgement of their shared ancestry. But this will likely depend also on how well we bridge the social and economic gaps between groups."

Colorblindness Can Backfire

Studies reported in Psychological Science in 2006 indicated that whites often avoid using race to describe other people, particularly when communicating with blacks. Researchers found that these efforts to appear colorblind and unprejudiced are counterproductive and can be associated with negative nonverbal behaviors.

Samuel R. Sommers, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University said:

"Many whites seem to think that appearing colorblind - avoiding race during social interaction - is a good way to appear unbiased. Despite that perception that colorblindness may make a positive impression on others, our data suggests that it often backfires."

Samuel R. Sommers, Evan P. Apfelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts, and Michael I. Norton from Harvard Business School together with additional researchers at Tufts and Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigated reluctance to acknowledge ability to categorize other people by race. A total of 57 white participants were asked either to complete a sorting exercise or to estimate their response to the task. Researchers analysed how quickly 24 photographs of black and white volunteers were characterized by race, gender, age, background color, hair color, facial expression, and facial hair.

Results showed that participants were quickest to categorize by background color, followed by gender and race. Conversely, when asked to estimate their responses, participants identified race, followed by age as likely to take the longest to determine.

Further research suggested that blacks and whites demonstrated comparable speed when categorizing photos by race but black participants' estimates of their ability to do so were more accurate.

Samuel Sommers commented:

"Whites sometimes deny the ease with which they can categorize others by race and they'll even avoid using race as a simple descriptor of someone else."

Researchers went on to examine the consequences of this reluctance to identify other people according to their race. Thirty white participants were randomly paired with a white or black partner who was part of the research team. Participants asked questions of their partner, using as few yes/no examples as possible, to identify a single face from a set of 32 photos using the same variables as the first study. Researchers found that race was less likely to be referred to when partners were black (64 per cent of the time) than when they were white (93 per cent of the time). The target photograph took longer to identify as a result and this also was associated with negative nonverbal behaviors.

Samuel Sommers added:

"When we showed independent coders video clips of questioners in the study without audio, they noted that the white participants who avoided talking about race with a black partner made less eye contact with their partners and appeared to be less friendly. By their nonverbal behavior alone, the whites who are trying to appear colorblind to impress their black partners ironically come across as distant and unfriendly."

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