The New York Times reported a few weeks ago on recent research into Michelle Obama’s ancestry, which revealed (like many Americans) a complex past of interracial mixing. The research into the First Lady’s past found not only Native American ancestry but also a great-great-great grandmother who was a slave and a great-great-great grandfather who was a white man. One of the most interesting things about this story is how other news sources picked it up and seemed to focus in particular on the white slave-owner ancestor in Michelle’s history. Many people questioned why this story generated such wide-spread interest in the media and was deemed so “news worthy” given that, if you know anything about US history, it isn’t particularly surprising that her history contains either slavery or a white man.
Perhaps one reason that so much focus has been paid to Michelle’s white ancestor is that racial categories are still seen in such an essentialist way. Essentialism has been linked to prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. This “revelation” about Michelle’s past exemplifies that although race undeniably still influences many aspects of our society, racial categories have little to do with ethnic makeup. However, when the essentialist view of black and white is challenged, this can still be surprising. Maybe this kind of news can have a potential positive impact on the way people see race, by forcing them to rethink their clear-cut view of racial categories.
On the other hand, some research has found that because multi-racial examples oppose the prominent view of race, mixed-race people are seen more negatively than people in either racial category. Sanchez and Bonam (2009) found that people perceived biracial scholarship applicants as colder and less competent than mono-racial applicants (whether black or white). When Barack Obama was campaigning for his presidency there was some criticism that maybe he wasn’t “black enough” to represent the African American population as president. In line with this, Sanchez and Bonam’s research also found that multi-racial applicants were seen as less worthy of a minority scholarship than people only belonging to the minority racial group.
Read More: Sanchez, D. T., & Bonam, C.M. (2009). To disclose or not to disclose biracial identity: The effect of biracial disclosure on perceiver evaluations and target responses. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 129-149.