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October 03, 2007

New Sociological Research Shows Mistaken Racial
Identification Causes Emotional Strain


IOWA CITY, IA — New research from the University of Iowa suggest that people who are routinely misidentified as members of a racial group to which they do not belong experience high levels of emotional distress and are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. "The Implications of Racial Misclassification by Observers," by sociologists Lisa Troyer and Mary Campbell, appears in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.

Troyer and Campbell analyzed data collected between 1994 and 2002 for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included both the self-reported racial identification of the young adults in the study and the racial identity assigned by an observer.

They found that more than a third of the American Indian youth in the nationally representative sample were mis-labeled by an observer as members of another racial group, while less than 5 percent of white, Black, and Asian participants in the study were identified incorrectly.

Among the American Indians in the study who were misidentified, 13 percent reported thinking about suicide, compared to only 6 percent of those who were identified correctly. Three percent of the misidentified young people had attempted suicide, while 1 percent who were identified correctly had done so. The misidentified young people were also more likely to be seeing a counselor or therapist (8 percent to 5 percent). They also found that mis-classified American Indians were more likely to participate in organizations that emphasize racial and ethnic identity, perhaps creating connections that help deal with the stress.

"Previous studies of multi-racial Americans have given us anecdotal evidence that constantly having to explain your racial background is stressful for people," Campbell said. "People say, 'I'm constantly being asked what I am, and I don't fit any of the boxes.' They talk about it as if it is stressful, but until now we didn't have data to support these observations."

This study is the first to document empirical evidence of the stress associated with not being recognized as a member of the racial group with which one identifies.

"According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young American Indians, age 25-34 years, and the third leading cause of death among young American Indians age 10-24 years," Troyer said. "Standard explanations of suicide do not fully explain the racial gap. Our study offers a new window to understanding this disturbing disparity.

"Adolescence is a critical time in human development, a time when identity becomes crystallized," she continued. "Race is important to identity and when your race is not recognized by others it is stressful."

While the current study is focused on American Indians, Campbell and Troyer note that the increasing multiracial diversity in the United States makes the study potentially applicable to other populations.

For a copy of the study or to request an interview, please contact Sujata Sinha, at (202) 247-9871 or at ssinha@asanet.org.

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