Diversity and Inclusion
Unconscious Bias

Social status can change the way we ‘see’ a person's race, according to research by Aliya Saperstein

Could moving from the inner city to the suburbs change a person's race? Most people would say no, but new research finds that as someone’s social status changes, others actually “see” the person's race differently.

Americans are more likely to be considered black and less likely to be viewed as white after experiencing decreases in social standing such as becoming unemployed, impoverished, or living in the inner city, according to Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein. If someone's status increases, the opposite is true —that person is more likely to be seen as white. It turns out these changes in racial categorization occur somewhat differently for men than women.

“Race is not just an ascribed-at-birth, fixed characteristic," Saperstein said. Instead, “race implies a set of gendered expectations for behavior against which people are continually judged.” 

Saperstein and her co-author Andrew Penner, a sociologist at UC Irvine, draw on a survey of 12,686 young men and women tracked throughout their adult lives, beginning in 1979. Every year, survey interviewers met with each person. At the end of the interview, they racially classified the respondent as black, white, or other. Surprisingly, the interviewer's racial classification didn’t always match the way the person self-identified. What's more, it didn't always match the way the same interviewer had classified that same person in a previous year.

While the interviewer originally saw a respondent as white, for example, a change in circumstance could lead the interviewer to now perceive the person as black. Over a 19-year period, from 1979 to 1998, 20 percent of the respondents experienced at least one change in their racial classification.

Saperstein wondered what explained the changes. She and her coauthor hypothesized that interviewers were drawing on racial stereotypes to make their classifications. The key, explained Saperstein, is that the classifications occurred at the end of the interview, not the beginning.

“(We) do not have their first impression of the respondent’s race,” said Saperstein. Instead, she explained, “we have a classification shaped by the respondent’s answers during the survey interview.” This matters because “the interviewer heard a range of information about the respondent, from their income and education to their employment and marital history, prior to recording the person’s race.”

In other words, interviewers had information about people's status — and the study’s results suggest they used that information to determine race.

According to Saperstein's theory, then, if people are told someone is a doctor, they might categorize her as white. Alternatively, upon receiving information that this same person is a hotel housekeeper, they might categorize her race differently. 

Racial stereotypes vary by gender

Saperstein and Penner also wanted to know if the effects of social status cues on racial classification were stronger for women or men, or if different sets of factors mattered depending on the gender of the person being racially classified.

“American racial stereotypes, from Ronald Reagan’s ‘Welfare Queen’ [for women] to Willie Horton on a prison furlough [for men], have never been only about race,” Saperstein said. “These ostensibly racial cues have both social class and gender dimensions as well."

According to Saperstein and Penner's analysis, some status cues work similarly for both men and women. For example, regardless of gender, people are more likely to be seen as white if married or living in the suburbs, and are less likely to be seen as white if living in the inner city.

Other status cues are stronger for one gender or the other. For example, poor women are more likely to be seen as non-white, but poverty has an even stronger effect for men. In other words, poverty decreases men’s odds of being classified as white more than it decreases women’s odds of being classified as white. This finding matches traditional expectations that white men will be breadwinners, according to Saperstein and Penner. 

Other stereotypes are deeply rooted in both race and gender. "Pervasive stereotypes of black men in the United States portray them as… prone to violence and criminal behavior,” Saperstein said. “Black women, on the other hand, are widely perceived as single mothers… undeserving of government benefits.” 

Accordingly, receiving welfare reduces the odds of a woman being classified as white, but doesn't matter for men. Prison time reduces the odds of a man being classified as white, but doesn't matter for women.

In other words, racial stereotypes vary by gender. Men and women in the same racial group are viewed differently.

Racial stereotypes become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Saperstein’s and Penner’s findings don’t simply shed light on stereotypes. They also show how stereotypes are recreated and help to reinforce inequality.

In other words, stereotypes based on race and gender are self-fulfilling prophecies. Because race can be “read” onto people, when we witness behavior that has stereotypical associations with a particular race, it literally colors how we view them. If we see a single mother, we are less likely to see her as white.

Saperstein hopes that her research will raise awareness of the ways that racial stereotypes are perpetuated. If people recognize that they are basing their judgments on stereotypes, then they can work consciously to rethink their assumptions about race.  

“It’s a form of confirmation bias,” Saperstein said. “We perceive white people as more successful and higher status and so we are more likely to categorize successful people as white. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, but we need to make it one. We need to acknowledge what we are really seeing when we think we see race.”