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Blending Into the Background?: The Influence of Situation Cues on Perceptions of Racially Ambiguous Individuals
AuthorKleyman, Kerry S.
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With an increased growth in interracial relations in the United States, more and more people have mixed racial heritage or background. The large and increasing number of biracial or multiracial individuals blurs racial boundaries and challenges longstanding racial classifications, which are based on the assumption of distinct, non-overlapping categories. Currently, there are many individuals who are racially ambiguous to observers, that is, they cannot be easily categorized as a member of a specific racial group. Based on the notion that people have implicit expectations that certain situations are more likely to be characteristic for some racial groups rather than others, I hypothesized that observers rely on situational cues to disambiguate the targets. Further, individual differences in belief and attitude structures, especially social dominance orientation, implicit theories and need for structure, should play a role in the process of disambiguating the target. I predicted that situation cues would lead to an overall assimilation effect across three levels of face version; 75% Black (asymmetrical Black), 50% Black (symmetrically biracial) and 25% Black (asymmetrical White). Across two studies, this assimilation effect was found; ambiguous targets were perceived as darker when paired with a Black situational cue, and perceived as lighter when paired with a White situational cue. In Study One, implicit theories moderated the influence of participant gender and face version on the perception of the target, such that male entity theorists showed an assimilation effect when the target was asymmetrically White. Further, results from Study One found that SDO moderated the perception of the target. In particular, high SDO men showed strong contrast effects for the asymmetrical White target, such that in the White context, the target was perceived as darker, indicating that these men emphasized any potential non-White feature, thus subscribing to the perceptual one-drop rule. This effect was not found for women. Study Two sought to test the cross-race effect, predicting the ambiguous targets categorized as ingroup would be more accurately recognized. However, the results did not support previous research. Interestingly, individual difference effects occurred primarily in the within groups design (Study One), but not in the between groups design (Study Two). Overall, categorization of racially ambiguous faces appears to be influenced by the situation, as well as the level or symmetry of ambiguity, and belief and attitude structures of the perceiver. Implications for eyewitness testimony and other identification tasks are discussed.