What Are You? How Racial Ambiguity Impacts Social Interactions

Have you ever seen someone walking down the street and you just can’t quite figure out what race that person is? You may look at their hairstyle, their facial features, how they talk, their clothing, or even what store they might be walking into.

Once one of these cues takes a strong enough hold of our social perceptions, that’s what tends to guide us to our ultimate decision in racially categorizing someone who may physically blur our more fixed ideas surrounding race. 

We search for these social clues when meeting someone new for the first time because, on average, humans have a strong need for closure and a strong need to categorize others. We have this either/or thinking approach when looking at people around us in our social worlds. Thus, a racially ambiguous individual not only presents a problem for categorization — they take more time and effort to categorize — but racial ambiguity also provides a unique context in which there might not ever be a known answer to resolve that ambiguity. 

In my recently published work, I sought out to test this exact situation. How does resolving racial ambiguity impact interracial interaction outcomes? Most psychology research to date would argue that interactions between White and Black individuals are often the most stressful and anxiety prone due to the distance that is highlighted between these two racial groups. However, I was wondering how this same interracial interaction context might proceed if instead of interacting with an unambiguous Black individual, a White person was sitting across the table discussing campus diversity issues with a racially ambiguous biracial Black/White individual. Would this person still be seen as a racial outgroup member? Would they be seen also as a racial ingroup member? Would they simply be an ambiguous group member that would strain the interaction outcome?  

Across a one-year period, we recruited 200 White participants who were randomly assigned to interact with a racially ambiguous interaction partner who was actually a trained member of our lab team (note: in psychology research we call these partners confederates). After exchanging brief demographic forms with their partner, one third of participants thought their interaction partner was Black, one third of participants thought their interaction partner was biracial Black/White, and the last third of participants received no racial information at all meaning they were assigned to a racial ambiguous condition where their partner’s racial background was not resolved.

The White participants were interviewed about their views concerning diversity on their college campus and we measured how draining the interaction was using a Stroop task, coding their nonverbal behavior for levels of eye contact and smiling, and how well participants remembered their interaction partner through a drawing task. For that task, after the confederate left the room, the White participants were given a box of multicultural Crayola crayons and were simply asked to draw their interaction partner from memory. Past research has shown how difficult racially ambiguous faces are to remember, but we wanted to know if resolving that ambiguity influenced one’s memory for their ambiguous interaction partner. 

Our results showed that White participants in the biracial-known condition were significantly less cognitively depleted (their brains were less tired based on the Stroop task), less essentialist or fixed in their thoughts about race, and they showed more accurate face memory for their interaction partner through a drawing tasks compared to when White participants thought their interaction partner was Black or when race was left unspecified. Moreover, both confederate ratings and nonverbal ratings of the White participants’ physical behavior all showed that a biracial label positively improved the social interaction. 


Drawing examples from a participant in the Biracial- and Race-Unspecified condition. Left: Biracial-Specified Condition. Center: Confederate. Right: Race-Unspecified Condition. Republished with permission from Elsevier from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.03.003.

But what was causing this biracial label to drastically improve these interracial interactions? It simply isn’t resolving ambiguity, since a monoracial Black label led to just as of poor interaction outcomes as a completely racially ambiguous interaction context. So in a second study, we recruited an additional 115 White participants for an online imagined interaction scenario where they saw photos of some of the same racially ambiguous confederates that were used in the first study.

Here, we replicated our other results but also showed that White participants thought they had much more in common and higher overall levels of similarity with a biracial Black/White individual compared to Black-specified or a purely race-unspecified partner. These data support past theories that highlight a common identity with someone else (in this case both you and the biracial person share a White identity) may be a strong pathway for improving social interaction outcomes. This common-ingroup identity model has been established in psychology research for quite some time, but these findings are among the first to test it with the biracial demographic while also considering how racial ambiguity is dealt with during a face-to-face encounter. 

In sum, the next time you find yourself struggling to racially categorize someone else, you might want to take a step back and simply highlight a common identity to help resolve the ambiguity — as long as your goal is for that social interaction to end on a positive note that is. Since the biracial demographic reflects the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. it is time for research to pinpoint how we deal with racial ambiguity and how being racially ambiguous may affect different life outcomes ranging from personal friendships to hiring. We instantly try and categorize others, and this work shows how little we still know about what happens when that categorization process is just a little more difficult. 

These findings are described in the article entitled Resolving racial ambiguity in social interactions, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This work was conducted by Sarah E. Gaither from Duke University, and Laura G. Babbitt and Samuel R. Sommers from Tufts University.