Lynn VanderWielen, PhD, MPH
The Consequences of Racial Misidentification
We have probably already experienced it - our multiracial kids are navigating the world when they find themselves being seen as monoracial and/or racially misidentified completely. Their truth of being multiracial isn’t seen or believed, and they are questioned or challenged to explain their racial identity.
What is the impact of one’s appearance on multiracial identity formation?
This dissertation study (which is 179 total pages not including the appendices or citations, and yes, I read it entirely - twice in fact!) first interviewed 10 multiracial college students about their racial identity formation and experiences. The researcher then shared the photos of the 10 multiracial study participants with 26 photo reviewers who were asked to categorize the racial identity of the individual in the image. The researcher then shared these findings with the 10 original participants to understand how the results impacted their feelings and emotions.
All of the 10 study participants expressed curiosity about what others thought of their racial identity and felt like they were going to be misidentified based on their previous experiences.
When they were not misidentified, they expressed feelings of affirmation, validation, and generally positive emotions.
When they were misidentified they felt guilt, anger, confusion, disappointment, rejection, and misunderstood.
There were two specific ways that the multiracial individuals were frequently misidentified - as a monoracial element of their racial identity or as a racial identity that they didn’t subscribe to. When a multiracial individual was seen as monoracial within a category that was a part of their identity, they felt misunderstood and hurt that an important part of their identity was not understood. When multiracial individuals were seen as another race entirely, they often felt guilty as if they were letting another race and culture down or felt they somehow misrepresented themselves.
The researcher concluded that while all participants were confident in their multiracial identities, frequent misidentification can pose challenges for individuals desiring to claim a multiracial whole.
What does this mean for my multiracial kid?
Our experiences and this research suggests our children are likely to be misidentified throughout their lives. We need to support their resilience such that these experiences do not shake their confidence and self-esteem. Study participants all shared a desire to connect with other multiracial individuals - so be intentional about your child’s peers and friends. We can normalize the multiracial experience for our children so that they are surrounded by others who personally understand the strengths and complexity of a multiracial identity.
Do I trust this study?
This is the first study that I am aware of that creates an environment where others are asked to categorize a multiracial individual’s race based on a picture and these results are shared with the multiracial individual. This study in its current form is not technically peer-reviewed, though it was conducted under the guidance and supervision of five professors. This is not a red-flag, just something to consider.
While only 10 multiracial students participated in this study, it is likely not an anomaly that all participants were curious about the opinions of others and experienced a range of emotions in response to the categorizations. I trust that this array of emotions is real and that as a parent I want to support my kids to embrace their multiracial identity with positivity and joy - especially when they are racially misidentified.
Citation: Hentz, A. N. (2019). Using grounded theory to explain the impact of appearance on multiracial identity development (Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park).
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash