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The multiple dimensions of race

Wendy D. Roth

Sociology Department, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Ethnic and Racial

Studies in March 2016, available online:

The citation is:

Roth, Wendy D. 2016. “The Multiple Dimensions of Race.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39(8):



Increasing numbers of people in the United States and beyond experience “race” not as a

single, consistent identity but as a number of conflicting dimensions. This article

distinguishes the multiple dimensions of the concept of race, including racial identity, self-

classification, observed race, reflected race, phenotype, and racial ancestry. With the word

“race” used as a proxy for each of these dimensions, much of our scholarship and public

discourse is actually comparing across several distinct, albeit correlated, variables. Yet

which dimension of race is used can significantly influence findings of racial inequality. I

synthesize scholarship on the multiple dimensions of race, and situate in this framework

distinctive literatures on colorism and genetic ancestry inference. I also map the

relationship between the multidimensionality of race and processes of racial fluidity and

racial boundary change.

KEYWORDS Self-classification; interviewer-classification; skin color; phenotype; ancestry;

race components

This article synthesizes a growing body of scholarship that distinguishes and analyzes the

multiple dimensions of the concept of race as experienced by individuals and as measured in

research. Increasing numbers of people in the United States and beyond experience “race” not as

a single, consistent identity but as a number of conflicting dimensions. These may include, for

instance, how an individual self-identifies her race, how she is perceived by others, how she

believes she is perceived by others, what she checks among the limited options on the census or

other surveys, her skin color and other aspects of her racial appearance, and her racial ancestry.

These dimensions influence one another, but are not necessarily the same. For example, Salvador,

a restaurant worker in New York, identifies his race as Puerto Rican. Phenotypically, he is dark-

CONTACT Wendy D. Roth, [email protected]


skinned with indigenous features, leading some Americans to view him as Black. He believes that

Americans view him as Hispanic, based on his accent and name. Yet on the census, Salvador

checks White for his race because no listed option fits his identity and in Puerto Rico his mixed

racial ancestry allowed him to consider himself closer to White than to Black (Roth 2010). The

word “race” tends to be used as a proxy for each of these dimensions, with the result that much of

our scholarship, as well as public discourse, is actually comparing across several distinct, albeit

correlated, variables.

An important contribution of this scholarship is to emphasize that no single dimension is a

person’s “true” or “correct” race. For instance, observers’ classifications may not match the

individuals’ self-identification, yet each of these dimensions measures something different about

the way that individuals experience race in their daily lives. When it comes to housing or

employment discrimination, Salvador’s perception and treatment as Black is the meaningful

reality, regardless of the fact that those observers are not correctly guessing the way he views

himself. We can understand race as a cognitive structure that divides people into hierarchically

ordered categories on the basis of certain physical or biological characteristics that are believed to

be inherent (Roth 2012). An individual’s race is shaped by both her own identification and the

attributions and reactions of others (Cooley 1902; Jenkins 2008). By deconstructing race into its

diverse dimensions, this scholarship illustrates precisely how race is socially constructed, by

highlighting the micro-level processes and interactions that build, maintain, and occasionally shift

a cognitive structure of race.

Much of the literature that explicitly addresses the multiple dimensions of race focuses on

the United States, where demographic changes such as immigration and interracial marriage have

led to increasing numbers of people experiencing conflicting dimensions of race. This is

particularly true for groups such as Latinos and the multiracial population (Golash-Boza and Darity

2008; Harris and Sim 2000; Hitlin, Brown, and Elder 2007; Rockquemore and Brunsma 2002;

Roth 2010). Native Americans are another group where dimensions of race are frequently

inconsistent (Bratter and Gorman 2011; Campbell and Troyer 2007). Some also find

inconsistencies for Asians and Middle Easterners (Boehmer et al. 2002; Vargas and Stainback In

press), and even some White and Black Americans – two groups for whom racial classification is

assumed to be fairly static (Kressin et al. 2003; Noymer, Penner, and Saperstein 2011; Saperstein

2006). Distinct dimensions of race have also been examined in Latin America, where there has

long been awareness of discrepancies between color, ancestry, and racial classification, for

example (Bailey, Fialho, and Penner In press; Cabella and Porzecanski 2015; Telles 2014; Telles

and Lim 1998). Yet theoretically, the same processes are relevant to Europe, Asia and other regions

of the world, even if those countries focus less explicitly on the concept of race (Ahmed, Feliciano,

and Emigh 2007; Nagaraj et al. 2015; Perrin, Dal, and Poulain 2015; Song and Aspinall 2012).

Which dimension of race researchers use can significantly influence findings of racial

inequality (Bratter and Gorman 2011; Noymer et al. 2011; Saperstein and Penner 2010, 2012;


Telles 2014). Social surveys typically measure only one dimension of race, most frequently a

circumscribed form of self-identification, leaving it to serve as a proxy for all of the others. Yet

other dimensions of race may be theoretically more appropriate for studying specific social

outcomes. At the same time, analyses of the ways that different dimensions of race influence the

same outcomes can push scholars to rethink theoretical mechanisms that are taken largely for


I begin by discussing the multiple dimensions of race and which ones may be more

theoretically appropriate for examining which social outcomes. Next, I review literature that

identifies inconsistencies between different dimensions and factors associated with those

inconsistencies. This includes both statistical studies that include different race measures and the

growing literature on multiracial people, which has advanced our theoretical understanding of how

individuals can experience different dimensions of race. I also discuss studies showing that

different dimensions of race produce different inequality estimates. Here, in addition to scholarship

that explicitly addresses multiple dimensions of race, I argue that what have been treated as

distinctive literatures focusing on specific dimensions should be understood within this broader

framework. For example, I situate the substantial literature on colorism, or phenotype inequalities

and discrimination, within a broader understanding of phenotype as one of several dimensions of

race that influences the others but also produces its own axes of stratification. I also discuss the

literature on genetic admixture inference, and while I challenge the view that current techniques

for measuring genetic ancestry capture a particular dimension of race, I argue that this scholarship

is enhanced by the inclusion of other race dimensions. Finally, I map the relationship between this

body of scholarship and related literatures of racial fluidity and racial boundary change, and

identify additional avenues that would advance this scholarship further.

Mapping the Multiple Dimensions

Figure 1 presents a typology of race dimensions reported in the literature, with some terms

used to describe them, and outcomes they may be more appropriate for studying. This typology is

not meant to be exhaustive but to provide a roadmap to the different components of race that

scholars have been studying. One challenge for this scholarship is the variety of terms used for the

same dimensions. In some cases, the same terms are used by different scholars to reference distinct

dimensions (e.g. “racial identification”), prompting the need for greater theoretical clarity. All of

these dimensions are fluid; they may vary over time and be influenced by a variety of contextual

factors. However, fluidity within one dimension needs to be distinguished conceptually from

differences across dimensions. To aid scholars conducting research in this area, the Multiple

Components of Race Data Library (Bratter, Campbell, and Roth 2014) profiles social science

surveys that include measures of multiple dimensions of race.

[Figure 1 about here]


Racial Identity refers to a person’s subjective self-identification. Importantly, it is not

limited by a set of pre-determined options and does not represent a person’s efforts to fit

themselves into any given set of boxes. It is typically measured with an open-ended self-

identification question, and while it has more frequently been the focus of qualitative research, it

could be captured through an open-ended question in survey research. This dimension might be

most suited for studying outcomes that depend on an individual’s internal self-identification

process, such as political mobilization or voting patterns, residential decision-making, social

network formation, or attitudes.

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 closed-ended self-

identification question. Both racial self-classification and racial identity are forms of self-

identification, so it is a valid question whether these are actually theoretically distinct dimensions

of the lived experience of race. On one hand, closed-ended questions are merely trying to measure

racial identity and necessarily fail to capture all of its complexity due to their need to simplify

response options for data analysis. However, the experience of having to fit oneself into boxes that

do not represent how one identifies racially has become an important part of how many people

experience the complexity of race. Several studies and artistic works highlight precisely this

experience for groups such as Latinos and multiracial populations (Dowling 2014; Rockquemore

and Brunsma 2002; Rodríguez 2000; Roth 2010; Scholler 2013). Race questions on national

censuses are a particular case of racial self-classification, leading Bailey (2008) to refer to the

answer people give specifically as their “Census race.” Such questions, reflecting federal standards

for data collection, represent a particular racial schema, a set of categories and way of thinking

about race that reflects the nation’s official classification system (Roth 2012). For example, in

filling out the U.S. census, many people view themselves as providing the response that best fits

the way they believe they are supposed to fit into America’s official classifications, regardless of

whether it matches their racial identity (Dowling 2014; Rodríguez 2000; Roth 2010). Other forms

and surveys may have different variants of response options, but are similar in that individuals

who see themselves falling between the boxes provided are forced to make a less-than-ideal choice.

Racial self-classification, as a proxy for racial identity, is frequently used to study a wide

range of outcome measures, and when these two dimensions correspond (e.g. in the case of

someone whose self-concept fits neatly within a society’s official classification schema) this use

is appropriate. When it is an inadequate proxy of racial identity, racial self-classification can

provide some sense of how these groups see themselves fitting into official classifications

(Rodríguez 2000). The distinction between racial self-classification and racial identity highlights

that even in terms of self-identification, people may think about or express that identification

differently in different contexts, and the nature of the question and options provided are aspects of

that context.


Observed Race is the race that others believe you to be. In social research, it is typically

measured by the interviewer’s classification of the individual. In a person’s lived experience, it is

assessed repeatedly and often silently in numerous, daily interactions and encounters. For

individuals whose race is unambiguous, it may be assessed instantly and subconsciously; observers

may not even be aware that they are silently cataloguing a person’s race together with other pieces

of information about them. For those whose race is more ambiguous, the process may take longer

(Freeman et al. 2010) and be more conscious. A large literature in psychology examines how

observers perceive the race of others (e.g., Pauker and Ambady 2009; Willadsen-Jensen and Ito

2006; see Roth 2015). These assessments influence how people are treated and form the basis of

racial discrimination, including non-deliberate actions that nonetheless lead to socioeconomic


An important question for understanding how to interpret observed race is who is doing

the observing. Characteristics of the observer influence how they perceive another individual’s

race (Feliciano In press; Harris 2002). An observer’s knowledge of an individual with regard to

some of the other dimensions of race may also influence their assessments. In one study,

individuals who were previously surveyed about their ancestry but died before a follow-up study

were identified by both a proxy – next of kin or nonrelatives who knew the individual – and by

funeral directors. Only 20% of those who self-classified as Native American were classified as

such by proxies, but none of them were classified as such by funeral directors (Hahn, Truman, and

Barker 1996). Although even the proxies’ assessments had low consistency with the individuals’

self-classification, some likely had greater knowledge than the funeral directors of the individuals’

racial identity or ancestry.

Similarly, the context of the observation matters for how a person’s race is observed.

Freeman and his co-authors (2011) find, in a series of images morphing photographs of Black and

White individuals, low-status attire is associated with the person being perceived as Black and

high-status attire is associated with being perceived as White. Furthermore, the influence of the

attire grew as the race of the individual became more ambiguous, suggesting that people rely on

non-physical features more when a person’s race is not clear.

We can also think of two subtypes of the Observed Race dimension. Appearance-Based

Observed Race is based solely on readily observable characteristics. This includes not only a

person’s phenotype but also visible status markers, clothing, hairstyle, and the context of the

observation. Interaction-Based Observed Race is additionally shaped by information revealed

through interaction, including a person’s accent or language ability, name, knowledge of their

family members, or comments about their background, status, or racial identity (Roth 2010).

Observers may initially make an assessment of appearance-based observed race only to alter that

assessment after interacting with them. Many Latinos describe being perceived as White or as

Black until they open their mouths to speak, at which point their accent or use of Spanish leads an

observer to reclassify them as Latino (Roth 2012). A person’s name can also be used as a racial


cue, with research showing that the same Asian-European multiracial faces are seen as looking

significantly more European when associated with European names than with Asian names (Hilliar

and Kemp 2008). Observers in different social roles rely on different sorts of information in their

assessment of a person’s race. Those most likely to engage in racial profiling or provide services,

such as police officers, security guards, waiters, or salespeople, tend to rely on appearance-based

observed race from their initial observations. But those with greater access to the resources

associated with social mobility, such as employers, teachers, landlords, or lending agents, typically

have greater interaction (Roth 2010). As a result, each type of observed race may be more suited

to studying specific social outcomes.

The distinction between these subtypes remains greatly understudied. Studies of the

classification of photographs or morphed images rely only on appearance, unlike most real

interactions. A significant challenge for scholarship is that many surveys, as well as some

qualitative studies, do not provide enough information to reveal whether the observed race measure

reflects interviewers’ assessments based on appearance or interactions. When and how the

dimension is measured within a study can determine which one is captured. Observed race may be

appearance-based when interviewers record a classification on their first observation of a

respondent, but is interaction-based when recorded at the end of an interview. When the latter

occurs in interviews that ask for racial self-identification, the interviewer’s interaction-based

assessment is likely to also be influenced by the individual’s response.

A person can have many observed races – as many as there are observers and contexts in

which they are observed. Although we typically capture this dimension of race once, from one

interviewer, if we capture it at all, it can also be thought of as something specific to each moment

and each act of observing.

Reflected Race refers to an individual’s belief of how others classify them. It draws on the

concept of reflected appraisals and the idea of the “looking-glass self” (Cooley 1902), which

focuses on how an individual’s racial identity is influenced by the perceptions of others. However,

within the emerging literature, scholars consider reflected race a distinctive dimension of people’s

lived experience of race, one that may or may not influence their racial identity. In this way, it is

useful for understanding the process of self-identification as well as other outcomes such as

perceived discrimination.

However, most often reflected race – measured by questions such as “What race do most

people think you are?” – is used as a proxy for observed race in self-administered or telephone

surveys where interviewers cannot observe the person. The effectiveness of this proxy has never

been studied. As noted above, one’s observed race may differ based on the observers’

characteristics. To the extent that the observed individual is aware of this, specifying the reference

group doing the classifying may result in different responses. A mixed-race person with Black and

White parents may believe that Whites usually view her as Black, but Blacks usually view her as


mixed-race. The CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Measures of

Racism Module asks respondents “How do other people in this country typically classify you?”,

which may be intended to capture how the mainstream society classifies the person, but how

respondents interpret it could vary based on the extent of interactions they have with the

mainstream society. Ideally, these questions would specify the reference group, whether it is

mainstream society, the individual’s own racial group, or specific minority groups (e.g. Blacks or


Phenotype refers to aspects of a person’s physical appearance that are socially understood

as relevant to racial classification. This includes skin color as well as other features such as hair

texture or color, nose shape, lip shape, and eye color. This is a dimension of race that varies,

sometimes considerably, within racial categories. It affects most other dimensions of races but is

not synonymous with any of them.

Much of the research on phenotype focuses on skin color, usually measured by interviewer

classification with either a categorical question asking the interviewer to rate the person’s skin

color from light to dark or a color palette that interviewers memorize and apply to the respondent.

Although more common in the past, few studies today use a spectrophotometer, an instrument that

measures light reflectance off the skin,1 and measures of self-perceived skin color are fairly rare

(Monk 2015). Thus the bulk of scholarship on skin color reflects someone else’s perception of an

individual’s color. This may be appropriate for studies of color-based discrimination based on

other people’s perceptions. However, Monk (2015) shows that, compared to interviewer-rated skin

color, self-reported skin color is actually a better predictor of internalized measures such as

perceived discrimination, which predict key health outcomes among African-Americans. Future

typologies of race dimensions may find it useful to distinguish self-reported and observed

dimensions of phenotype, both skin color and other features, as data become available to explore

these distinctions in greater depth.

Observed skin color, much like observed race, is influenced by the person doing the

perceiving. Hill (2002) found that Black and White interviewers saw more color variation within

their own race than in the other, such that White interviewers rated Black subjects’ color as darker

than did Black interviewers, and Black interviewers rated White subjects as lighter. Contextual

cues also matter, and indeed the same kinds of social and interactional cues that distinguish

interaction-based from appearance-based observed race – name, accent, language ability – may

also influence an interviewer’s rating of a person’s skin color. An experimental study found that

the inclusion of racially-coded names influenced how observers rated an image’s skin color.

Specifically, people rated the same face as darker when it was associated with a distinctively

Hispanic name rather than a non-Hispanic name (Garcia and Abascal In press).

Phenotype is more complex than skin color alone, yet few surveys include measures of

other features, and those that do typically only ask interviewers to record the respondent’s hair


color and eye color. Studies have found that nose, lips, and hair texture influence individuals’

classifications, although skin color is the primary characteristic used to classify a person’s race

(Feliciano In press). Few studies consider how these other phenotypic features influence

perceptions of skin color, observed race, or socioeconomic outcomes (cf Gravlee 2005). One study

found that some Latinos rated their own skin color darker than a White American observer rated

their color because they had African or Indigenous facial features; they viewed their non-European

nose, lips or hair texture as darkening their overall color, while the American observed focused

only on skin tone (Roth 2012).

Racial Ancestry is a dimension of race that influences other dimensions, such as racial

identity and observed race. This is particularly true in the United States, where racial ancestry was

used as the basis for determining who was Black for much of the nation’s history (Davis 1991), as

well as what fraction of Indigenous ancestry was needed to be considered Native American (Snipp

1989). In assessing what another person is (or making a judgment about appearance-based

observed race), observers often rely on phenotype, but do so because such physical differences are

thought to reveal an ancestral lineage (Smedley and Smedley 2012). In fact, because racial

classification depends not just on phenotype but also on ancestry in North America, many view

race as “a supra-individual, social-relational phenomenon, not as a subjective individual property”

(Brubaker 2015:22), where someone cannot take on a race from which they have no ancestry. The

widespread public rejection of the Black identity claimed by Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP chapter

president who was revealed to be of European descent, is a case in point. In other societies, racial

ancestry is less important and simply living the life of a group member is sufficient for inclusion

(Wimmer 2008).

Although we can think of racial ancestry as the compiled racial groups of one’s ancestors,

most people are unaware of all of the racial ancestry they have. Knowledge of family trees may

only go back a few generations, and in some cases, racial ancestries were buried when relatives

passed as members of different races to pursue greater opportuni Plagiarism Free Papers

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