Blurring racial boundaries

Is the woman in the picture “white,” “black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Hispanic” or “Other?” A click of the mouse suggests that the answer may not be so clear.

Aliya Saperstein, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, recently published a study on how individuals perceive the racial identities of others based on the type of clothing they are wearing. (Courtesy of Aliya Saperstein)

Assistant professor of sociology Aliya Saperstein recently published research on the effect of an individual’s socioeconomic status on his or her perception of race. In this study, recently featured in The New York Times, participants were asked to play a computer game in which they were shown pictures of morphed faces of different races. According to Saperstein’s research, people wearing suits were more likely to be considered “white” as opposed to people who were wearing janitorial clothing. Her research suggests that race is not as objective or discrete as one may think, and factors such as what type of clothing someone is wearing can influence one’s perception of race.

Saperstein’s interest in studying race has roots in her undergraduate and graduate-level education. She received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from UC-Berkeley.

“I’ve always been interested in the social construction of race,” Saperstein said. “It’s an idea that has been floating around in a lot of disciplines for a long time but doesn’t seem to filter into the way people do their research or the way they think about race in their everyday lives.”

“A lot of what I’ve been interested in is finding ways to empirically test some of the ideas about how race is socially constructed,” she added.

Her research is largely focused on racial fluidity, boundaries, stereotypes and hierarchies as well as the measurement of race in surveys and studies.

According to Saperstein, as interracial families have become more common, it has grown progressively harder to identify someone’s racial identity.

Saperstein collaborated with Jonathan Freeman and Matthias Scheutz, both from Tufts University, Andrew Penner from UC-Irvine and psychology professor Nalini Ambady on this research. The technology used in the study was first employed by Ambady’s lab in a similar project created to assess how individuals categorize gender.

“When people categorize others, it’s a dynamic process,” Ambady said. “It’s not a static process. We’re always updating information.”

By challenging the assumption that a person’s race is definitive, Saperstein sheds a different light on the problem of discrimination.

“Most of the evils of racism and discrimination [exist] precisely because we think it’s easy to define it and therefore attach behavior to those people,” she said. “If it’s less easy to define, in some ways that may actually make it better.”

By viewing race as a gradient rather than separating different races into distinct categories, Saperstein and her colleagues found a basis for studying how people’s perception of race can be skewed by certain factors, in this case, clothing. She hopes that this new understanding of race will make it more difficult for racial stereotypes and boundaries to exist in society, even in that of her daily life as a Stanford professor.

When asked for a photo to accompany this article, Saperstein asked, “Should I be wearing a suit or janitorial clothing?”

Does it matter? Her research suggests that it might.

About Stephanie Wang