The multiracial enigma
Over the weekend, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff titled “What Biracial People Know.” Velasquez-Manoff, who, like me, is multiracial, makes many of the same points that I once did in a previous post on the subject, as when he writes: “I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent…You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole.” He also highlights a lot of research of which I wasn’t previously aware, the most interesting being a study of facial recognition in multiracial babies:
By three months of age, biracial infants recognize faces more quickly than their monoracial peers, suggesting that their facial perception abilities are more developed. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the researchers who performed this study, likens this flexibility to bilingualism. Early on, infants who hear only Japanese, say, will lose the ability to distinguish L’s from R’s. But if they also hear English, they’ll continue to hear the sounds as separate. So it is with recognizing faces, Dr. Pauker says. Kids naturally learn to recognize kin from non-kin, in-group from out-group. But because they’re exposed to more human variation, the in-group for multiracial children seems to be larger.
As it happens, I’m terrible at remembering faces, so any advantage I once gained along those lines has long since faded away. But such findings are still intriguing, and they hint temptingly at broader conclusions. As Velasquez-Manoff says of our first biracial president: “His multitudinous self was, I like to think, part of what made him great.”
For obvious reasons, I’m wary of applying generalizations to any ethnic or racial group, including my own. But there’s something intuitively appealing about the notion that multiracial individuals are forced to develop certain advantageous forms of thinking in order to adapt. They don’t have a monopoly on the problem of forging an identity and figuring out the world around them, which, as Velasquez-Manoff notes, is “a defining experience of modernity.” But isn’t hard to believe that they might have a slight head start. If you’re exposed to greater facial variety as an infant, the reasoning goes, you’ll acquire the skills that allow you to distinguish between individuals just a little bit earlier, and you can easily imagine how that small advantage might grow over time. (Although, by the same logic, babies surrounded by faces with similar racial characteristics might become better at distinguishing between slight variations. I’d be curious to know if this has ever been tested.) If there’s a theme here, it’s that multiracial people are shaped by a more intensive version of an experience common to all human beings. Velasquez-Manoff writes:
In a 2015 study, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke, found that when she reminded multiracial participants of their mixed heritage, they scored higher in a series of word association games and other tests that measure creative problem solving. When she reminded monoracial people about their heritage, however, their performance didn’t improve…[But] when Dr. Gaither reminded participants of a single racial background that they, too, had multiple selves, by asking about their various identities in life, their scores also improved. “For biracial people, these racial identities are very salient,” she told me. “That said, we all have multiple social identities.”
In other words, we’re all living with these issues, and multiracial just people have to exercise those skills earlier and more often.
Yet I also need to tread carefully here, precisely because these conclusions are just the ones that somebody like me would like to believe. (When you extend these arguments to social patterns, which is a big leap in itself, you also get tripped up by problems of cause and effect. When Velasquez-Manoff writes that “cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogeneous ones,” he doesn’t point out that the causal arrow might well run the other way.) Last week, in my post about the replication crisis in psychology, I noted that experiments that confirm what feels like common sense—or that allow us to score easy points against the Trump administration—are less likely to be scrutinized than others, and many of the studies that Velasquez-Manoff mentions here sound a lot like the kind that have proven hard to duplicate. At Harvard and Tel Aviv University, for instance, subjects “read essays that made an essentialist argument about race, and then [were asked] to solve word-association games and other puzzles.” The study found that participants who were “primed” with stereotypes performed less well on such tests than those who weren’t, and it concluded: “An essentialist mindset is indeed hazardous for creativity.” That seems all too reasonable. But the insidious ways in which race pervades our lives bear little resemblance to reading an essay and solving a word puzzle. Maybe multiracial people do, in fact, score higher on such tests when reminded of their mixed heritage, at least when it takes the form, as it did at Duke, of writing essays about their identities. But on an everyday basis, that “reminder” is more likely to take the form of being miscategorized and mispronounced, filling out forms that only allow one racial box to be checked, feeling defined by otherness, and being asked by well-meaning strangers: “So where are you from?” For all I know, these social cues may be equally conductive to creativity. But I doubt that there’s ever been a study about it.
I’m not trying to criticize any specific study, and I’d love to embrace these findings—which is exactly why they need to be replicated. The problem of race is so pervasive and resistant to definition that it makes the average psychological experiment, with its clinical settings and word tests, seem all the more removed from reality. And multiracial people need to be conscious of the slippery slope involved in making any kind of claim about the uniqueness of their experience. (There’s also the huge, unstated point that what it means to be multiracial differs dramatically from one combination of races to another. If you look a certain way, that’s how you’re going to be treated, no matter how diverse your genetic background might be.) Velasquez-Manoff sees these studies as an argument in favor of diversity, which is certainly a case worth making. But creativity is just one factor in human life, and you don’t need to look far to sense the equally great advantages in being a member of a homogenous racial, ethnic, or cultural group, particularly one that has been historically empowered. Tradition is a convenient crystallization of the experiences of the past, and most of us spend our lives falling back on the solutions that people who look like us have provided, whether it’s in politics, society, or religion. Such attitudes wouldn’t persist if they weren’t more than adequate in the vast majority of situations. Creativity is a last resort, a survival mechanism adopted by those who feel excluded from the larger community, unable to rely on the rules that others follow unquestioningly, and forced to improvise tactics in real time. It doesn’t always go well. Creative types are often miserable and frustrated, particularly in a world that runs the most smoothly on monolithic categories. There are times when all your cleverness can’t help you. And that’s what biracial people really know.