I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me, “What are you?”
To clarify: No, I’m not an extraterrestrial creature. I’m just mixed-race.
As the child of a German father and a Filipina mother, I am always surprised to hear those seemingly annual reports proclaiming that the United States is at a historical high of accepting mixed-race people.
Nearly a half-century after Loving vs. Virginia, a landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned laws prohibiting interracial marriage, about 6 percent of marriages in the U.S. are between people of different races and 37 percent of Americans agreed that “having more people of different races marrying each other was a good thing for society,” according to numbers released by the Pew Research Center in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
While it’s heartening to see that social “norms” surrounding interracial marriage are changing, that’s not the whole story, says Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. Skinner and her team released a new study in July, which examined subjects’ implicit biases towards interracial couples. Although some test subjects stated that they were supportive of mixed-race couples, some of Skinner’s experiments hinted at hidden feelings of disgust.
In one experiment, Skinner and her team measured respondents’ neural activity while they were shown photos of interracial couples’ wedding and engagement photos. The neural tests detected higher levels of activation in the insula, a part of the brain connected to disgust and other emotions.
The research team also gave their test subjects an implicit association test, based on a model created at Harvard University. One test group was shown photos of disgusting images such as a dirty toilet or a person vomiting while the other group was shown pleasant images such as cityscapes and nature.
After viewing the images, test-takers were then asked to categorize photo silhouettes of interracial couples, same-race couples, and animals to measure their levels of bias. Researchers found that mixed-race couples were more often associated with animals, while same-race couples were more often associated with humans. The implication of this test is that mixed-race couples were more likely to be dehumanized than same-race couples. This dehumanization can lead to violence or to interracial couples not being taken seriously, Skinner says.
Ultimately, the study reveals that despite historic high rates of purported acceptance of mixed-race couples in the United States, biases against these couples are still alive and well, says Skinner.
The study feels especially relevant during a time when incidences of police violence against black and brown people dominate the news cycle, she says. “It’s relevant to acknowledge that there's more bias than we think there is [and that] there is a role for science in social justice.”
As a mixed-race child of an interracial marriage, the findings were eye-opening. Did other people really find families like mine disgusting?
According to Sharon H. Chang, author of Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World, the UW study’s findings completely go against “the ‘telling polls’ trotted out by mainstream media saying that ‘levels of acceptance are so high.'"
In the process of writing her book, Chang extensively studied the history of racial doctrine, which dictates that populations of differing races must stay siloed away from each other.
“Society ingrained that we shouldn’t mix. Our nation is founded on that kind of ideology and it’s still woven into our culture today,” says Chang, who is mixed-race Asian and white.
Chang recalls a shopping trip with her son where a Filipino store clerk approached them to ask if they were mixed-race. “I said ‘yes’ and she said something like, ‘Oh, there’s no pure blood anymore,’” says Chang.
We see that ideology in frustratingly popular racial stereotypes, which often pigeonhole people of color. Because these expectations have been pushed onto American society for so long, racial inequity remains rampant and fosters a culture of “othering,” she says.
That cultural mentality has taught people that asking questions such as “What are you?” in reference to someone’s heritage is acceptable or, worse, funny.
"The intention is often not meant negatively ... but it’s incredibly objectifying. Why would that be the first step into getting to know someone? It reduces you to what your flesh looks like as opposed to who you are," says Chang.