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Political Scientist Lauren Davenport reveals the importance of gender in understanding multiracialism

Jul 23 2014

Since 2000, the year the U.S. census first allowed respondents to identify as multiracial or multiethnic, the number of Americans who identify with multiple races has increased dramatically. Given that respondents are now allowed to check multiple boxes on the census, that’s not surprising. However, what is surprising is that gender appears to be the biggest predictor of mixed-race identification.

So says Professor Lauren Davenport, assistant professor of Political Science at Stanford. In her new book project, Politics Between Black and White, which examines how social and political processes shape the outlook of multiracial Americans, she finds that women identify as multiracial at higher rates than men. Professor Davenport also finds that gender-specific factors like physical appearance and feminist politics can influence mixed-race identification.

Redefining race in American society

Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the Census Bureau, declared that the 2000 census would “go down in history as the event that began to redefine race in American society.” Statistically, it’s hard to argue with Prewitt’s assessment. In 2012, over nine million Americans identified as multiracial, reflecting significant increases in the statistical awareness of mixed-raced identification. For example, from 2000 to 2012, the number of Americans who identified on the census as “White and Asian” increased by 99.6% and those who identified as “White and Black or African American” increased by 190%. Pew Research statistics from 2010 reported that 15.1% of new marriages were interracial.

Political scientists have begun to analyze these shifts in racial identification. Some researchers point to the changing meaning of race in society at large as one explanation. Others emphasize the role of institutions, including the census, in shaping public awareness of how Americans identify themselves. Professor Davenport, on the other hand, looks to social identity – the confluence of factors such as gender, religion, family, and environment – to understand the significant increase in the number of Americans who identify themselves as being of mixed race.

Identification beyond black and white

Professor Davenport’s research examines racial identification using both qualitative and quantitative data. She examines the three largest biracial groups – Latino-White, Asian-White, and Black-White – to determine factors that potentially influence multiracial identification. First, she uses data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey (a national survey used by colleges to collect data on incoming undergraduates) to assess changing patterns at the national and aggregate levels. Next, Professor Davenport conducted 40 in-depth interviews of San Francisco Bay Area college students to assess mechanisms of racial identity, and to understand better how those students think of themselves racially. Together, these two data sets on young men and women aged 17-19 give a more holistic picture of how Americans think about racial identification today. 

After controlling for other variables including household income, religion, and language, Davenport finds, surprisingly, that gender is the primary predictor of whether a student in the survey will identify as mixed-raced or not. The interviews with Bay Area college students confirmed these results. For example, when she interviewed siblings in the same family and age group, with the same mixed-race parents, she found that the young women were more likely to identify as mixed race, while the young men were more likely to identify with their minority race. 

New directions for research on race and identification

Professor Davenport’s preliminary research points to several reasons for the difference in racial identification along gendered lines. One possible explanation is the parentage of the students in the survey and interviews. For example, men who have a Latino father and White mother tended to identify as Latino. Women of the same parentage more often identified as mixed race. This may suggest that the race of the same-gendered parent influenced the male respondents’ racial identification.

Professor Davenport also considers the possibility that external or physical markers of race differ based on gender. For example, she notes that according to her interview findings as well as recent studies in social science and psychology, biracial men are most often identified by their minority race. In contrast, women whose physical features signal their multiracial heritage are often seen as “exotic” or “beautiful,” encouraging them to embrace a multiracial identification. How pronounced the physical markers of race are could account for the differences between men’s and women’s racial self-identification.

The responses of the Bay Area college students point to a third possible explanation for the difference. Professor Davenport’s respondents sometimes referred to their minority racial heritage as “male dominated.” Of this group, respondents who identified as feminists, for example, did not embrace their minority identity to the same extent as their male counterparts. This negative perception, reports Davenport, could also account for why bi-racial men and women identify differently.

Professor Davenport’s research shows that gender is inextricably linked to understanding the changing nature of race and racial identification in America today. In her forthcoming book, she will address how this important shift in multiracial identification affects current American political attitudes.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.