Roth 2016

From Projecting Power

Multiple Dimensions of Race[edit]

Wendy D. Roth[edit]


Race is complex, and people experience racial identity along multiple, often conflicting dimensions. The word "race" is often used as an umbrella term for these dimensions, which are correlated but distinct from one another. The dimensions include racial identity, self-classification, observed race, reflected race, phenotype, and racial ancestry. The many aspects of race make it difficult for someone to identify with just one. Race is socially constructed; it is a cognitive structure that organizes people into a hierarchical order based on characteristics that are believed to be inherent (1311).

Mapping the Multiple Dimensions[edit]

(See figure 1) Graph depicting typology of race dimensions with terminology used to describe said terminology. Non-exhaustive and more descriptive of scholars' race components they have studied. All of the components are fluid and may change across time as well as be influenced by contextual factors within society. The fluidity within racial identity is conceptually different from the others in the graph. The first dimension is racial identity, which is how one identifies themself, unrestricted by pre-set options. It is typically measured with open-ended self identification questions. This dimension can be used to study political mobilization or social networks. Racial self-classification is the race one identifies as on official documents and it is limited to a set of pre-set options. This includes the national census or federal financial aid documents. While it fails at capturing the nuances of one's race and forces people who don't feel adequately represented by the pre-set options to adopt a "census race," it is helpful for data analysis purposes. It aids in studying demographic change, disease and illness rates, etc. (1314). Observed race is the race that others think you are. The context of the observation impacts what race others think you are. For example, one's attire can influence what race others believe them to be. Observed race can be both appearance-based, meaning people form beliefs about one's race based on readily-observable characteristics, and interaction-based, meaning people form beliefs about one's race based on interactions (for example, one's language, accent, family name, etc.). Observed skin color is influenced by the person doing the perceiving. Black and white interviewers saw more color variation within their own race than in others. Observed race is a useful tool to study discrimination, residential segregation, criminal justice indicators, healthcare/service provisions, etc. Reflected race is the race that you believe others think that you are. It can be used to examine self-identification processes and perceived discrimination. Phenotype is one's physical appearance. Contextual cues influence how one observes phenotype. For example, the inclusion of racially-coded names influenced how people rated one's skin color. Racial ancestry is the last dimension. Known ancestry is what one believes their ancestry to be based off of known family history. Genetic ancestry is given by genetic testing that provides more information about the racial groups of one's ancestors. In the United States, it is considered taboo to assume a racial identity for which you have no ancestry, but in other societies, merely living the life of a group member is sufficient for inclusion in the racial group. Racial ancestry was used for determining who was Black for much of United States history (1319).

Major Themes in the Literature: Inconsistencies Across Dimensions[edit]

There are major inconsistencies between race and its associated factors, self-classification and observed race (external observations). We see this manifest in various forms, such as medical records, interviewer classifications, and death certificates (1320). It is hard to know if the interviewer or health administrator is recording observed race based on appearance or on interaction as well. In addition, observers also rely on contextual cues, racial stereotypes, and racial classification norms when guessing the race of others (1322). For example, medical examiners were more likely to identify someone as Native American who had died from cirrhosis and were more likely to identify someone as Black who had died from homicide. Studies have shown that greater interaction leads to greater consistency between self-reported race and observed race. Consequences of inconsistencies: Being perceived differently from one's self-classification increases stress and leads to negative mental health outcomes by invalidating a person's self-image and identity, threatening social status, or de-legitimizing claims for membership in one's community. Campbell and Troyer (2007) examine psychological distress among those who classify themselves as Native American but are perceived as another race by an observer. Stepanikova (2010) shows that people who believe they are perceived as a lower status race than the one they identify as are more likely to report physical or emotional symptoms of how they were treated as a result of their race (1322).

The Relationship Between Dimensions[edit]

The different dimensions of race influence each other, such as how reflected race influences racial identity (1323). Those who observe race through skin, mainly skin color, tend to view race as White, Black, and Latino as an in-between but its own distinct category. Despite the common belief that people see scientific or genetic information as unbiased and factual, Genetic Ancestry is only observed to have a moderate impact on racial identity below other dimensions (1324).

Different Dimensions, Different Outcomes[edit]

Different measures of different dimensions of race influence findings on inequality, although it is not always clear which measures reveal the greatest racial disparities in outcomes. Health outcomes: There are different outcomes from using observed race vs self-identification. Also, there are limitations for multicultural/multiracial patients who are forced to choose one race. We might expect observed race to more closely mirror experiences of discrimination in service provision. Yet what little evidence exists is mixed (1325). Using observed race instead of the race one classifies themself as can decrease the rates at which health problems are reported for Native Americans because many health providers classify them as white. Criminal Justice: Outcomes and potential discrimination are skewed towards observed race as more influential than self-classification. Being observed as Black led to more arrests even if they did not self-identify as Black. Socio-economic: Self-classification revealed greater race gaps in family income than observed race. Being seen as White by others was associated with higher family income than self-identifying as White. In Brazil, using observed race, Whites earned 26 per cent more than Browns, but only 17 per cent more than Browns using self-classification (1325). Showing that observed race yielded more inequality.

Other Literatures that Capture Multidimensionality[edit]

Literature on colorism or phenotype inequalities and discrimination can serve as an example. It looks at the variation of experience within categories as well as between them. Like colorism, race is very complex, hard to identify sources of racialized outcomes, and requires more than just one monolithic label (1327).

Genetic admixture studies in population genetics and health research is also a good example of multidimensionality. This is done by testing geographically isolated populations and then using computer estimation to identify genetic variants that differ across populations being analysed. This type of analysis relies on existing social understandings of what these populations are to identify the genetic markers that differ most between them. Genetic measures of ancestry, are not objectively natural but rather are affected by other dimensions of race. For health implications the vast majority of racial health disparities are explained by environmental rather than genetic causes (1328).

Situating and Advancing the Multidimensionality of Race[edit]

Racial fluidity is the fluctuation in one dimension of race as opposed to inconsistency across different dimensions. Used to understand temporal fluidity: changes over time within the same context, and contextual fluidity: changes across contexts within a fairly limited period of time. Temporal Fluidity ex. how people view their race as they age. Contextual Fluidity ex. A child being asked what race they are at school versus being asked at home.


Race is inconsistent, the multiple dimensions of race and on racial fluidity both point to micro-level social processes. Changes to the Racial boundary within the circle happen at both the mirco and macro scales. The micro-level is where we observe when we measure racial fluidity or an inconsistency between racial identity and observed race.

Macro-level boundary change is arguably most related to observed race – how people are classified by others, and particularly by the most privileged groups. Ex. the White racial boundary as having expanded for the Irish or Italians.

Key Terms[edit]

Racial Identity: refers to a person’s subjective self identification, it is not limited by predetermined options, and it is not represented by a person's efforts to fit themselves into any given set of boxes. (1313)

Racial Self-Classification: refers to the race that is checked on an official form or survey such as a census or federal financial aid forms. It is typically measured with a close-ended self identification question.

Observed Race: the race that others believe you to be. Outside perspective of an individual. In lived experience, observed race is repeatedly assessed in daily life. There are two subtypes

Appearance-Based Observed Race: based on solely readily observable characteristics. Ie. person’s phenotype, visible status markers, clothing, hairstyle, etc…

Interaction-Based Observed Race: shaped by information revealed through interaction, including a person's accent or language ability, name, knowledge, etc… (1315)

Phenotype: refers to aspects of a person's physical appearance that are socially understood as relevant to racial classification ie, skin color, nose shape, lip shape, eye color, etc…

Racial Ancestry: a dimension of race that influences other dimensions, such as racial identity and observed race.

Known Ancestry: what a person believes her racial ancestry to be based on family history.