Andrew Penner
Andrew Penner studies how perception of race can change, depending on one's social status. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Losing your job or doing jail time can affect how people perceive your racial background, according to a recent study co-authored by Andrew Penner, UC Irvine sociology assistant professor. His research shows people who were identified by others as white were significantly less likely to be seen in the same way over time if they had fallen below the poverty line or spent time in prison. Participants who self-identified as white also were less likely to see themselves the same way if they encountered those hardships. The study suggests that racial identity is fluid and changes with one’s position in society. Penner discussed the impact of his research and why race still matters.

Q: Can you talk about how you came up with the idea for this study and how you went about investigating it?
A: There is a lot of work showing that race has important implications for inequality, so we were interested in looking at whether the opposite also could be true. That is, can social status influence how people racially identify and are racially perceived? We looked at survey data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that followed more than 12,000 Americans over time to track changes in how they described themselves racially and how others saw them as they went through various life experiences.

Q: Based on your research, can you explain how a person’s race changes over time?
A: We looked specifically at incarceration, unemployment and poverty, and we found that these factors play a role in how people racially categorize themselves and others. For example, if we look at people who were viewed by the interviewer as white last year, 10 percent are no longer viewed as white if they are in prison, while only 4 percent are no longer white if they aren’t in prison.

Q: What surprised you most about your findings?
A: The widespread pattern of our results was surprising. Many people assume that our findings apply only to people who don’t fit readily into racial categories, such as those who are multiracial. But we found that roughly 20 percent of the population experiences at least one change in how they are seen by others, which is much higher than you would expect if this were true only for multiracial people. What we actually found is that once we removed all of the multiracial people from the sample, we still got the same pattern of results. The same thing is true for Hispanics; many people assume that we got this pattern of results because people are not sure how to classify Hispanics, but when we looked only at non-Hispanics, the same pattern emerged. This suggests our results say something more general about definitions and perceptions of race in the U.S.

Q: It is fascinating to see that people change opinions about their own racial status over time. Did study participants get a chance to explain why they changed their racial identification?
A: No, unfortunately people did not have a chance to do this, so we don’t really know what was going on inside their heads. I suspect that the patterns we found for how the respondents were viewed by others were largely unconscious. And it seems reasonable to expect that if everyone else views you a certain way, over time that influences how you see yourself too.

Q: What implications do these findings have for how we might think about race?
A: I think that the big implication of our research is that race is not a characteristic fixed at birth. That is, socially speaking, no one is black, white, Asian or Latino. We are perceived by others and identify ourselves based on life experiences and widely held stereotypes about how people should or do behave.