If you’re white in 1979, can you be black decades later?
Yes, and it happens quite often, according to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Approximately one in five of those surveyed in 1979 had changed their self-identified race by 2002.
That report isn’t new. But a recent analysis of the study by Stanford professor Aliya Saperstein and her colleagues sheds light on why people would rebrand themselves with a different race.
People tend to change their racial categorization if they feel like they have the stereotypical characteristics of that race, Saperstein told Fusion.
“The more you fit the stereotype of a particular racial group, in terms of your life experiences, the more you are likely you are to be seen by others, and identify yourself, as a member of that group,” she said.
That means that if you have done time in jail, or have recently entered the welfare system, you are likely to switch your self-identification to black or Latino, following the mainstream stereotype. If you have become a suburban mom, you might be more likely to identify as white.
“We can learn a lot about racial discrimination and racial inequality by studying when and for whom racial categorizations [vary],” Saperstein said. “People often think Latinos or people who identify as multiracial are more likely to experience these changes… But [our findings] suggest that results hold more broadly across the population. In some sense, there is more racial ‘ambiguity’ out there than most people realize.”
The findings bring up the question: is race a real thing, or is it a concept purely dependent on societal context? Many Dominican Americans, for example, have navigated these murky waters in the past — thinking themselves non-black in their home country, only to arrive in the United States and be told they are black.
While filming the PBS series Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates wrote on The Root about how race plays out on the Dominican side of island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti. “It seems that anyone who isn’t white — whether the person is lightly tan, medium brown or dark black — self identifies as indio (native),” Gates writes. “It is more about being Dominican… than being African or indigenous. Who is black? Who is ‘negro’? Why, the Haitians!”
Haitian-ness, of course, is a touchy subject on the island due to a tumultuous history, and Dominicans are known to distance themselves from Haitians, both culturally and racially. Even if a stranger couldn’t tell the difference between the two, on the island, the way you self describe your race (black or indio) speaks volumes about your political worldview, and less about your skin tone.
Yet upon arrival to the states, the data suggests that Dominicans might come to self-identify as black, due to high poverty rates within the Dominican-American community, among other factors.
On the flipside, when Irish immigrants began arriving on our shores, white Americans looked to distance themselves from them on a racial basis — something that barely makes sense from today’s perspective. Nevertheless, the Irish worked hard to become white, so to speak, within the context of American society.
“Racial perceptions and categories are absolutely dependent on social context,” Saperstein explained. “From the neighborhood you are in, to the country you live in, to the particular decade in question.”
“Our results simply add a new wrinkle to the story by showing that your opportunities and outcomes also shape how people think about your race,” Saperstein said. “All of which means race is still an important lens through which Americans see and interpret the world.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.