Social Status and Gender Influence How Others See Your Race

Social Status and Gender Influence How Others See Your Race

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner (University of California-Irvine) and Aliya Saperstein (Stanford University) discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Drawing on nearly 20 years of longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), the researchers found changes in racial classification occurred for six percent of people each year; over the course of the study, 20 percent of those interviewed switched racial classifications at least once. Importantly, these changes did not occur at random. The fluidity was related to both social status and gender.

Penner explained:  “We often talk about racial stereotypes as affecting people’s attitudes in the sense that knowing a woman’s race can change what you think about whether she is on welfare. Our study shows the opposite also happens–knowing whether a woman has ever received welfare benefits affects what you think about her race.”

How did the study work? NLSY interviewers spent time interviewing subjects about a range of issues like their job, their living circumstances, and their relationships. At the end of their meeting, interviewers wrote down whether the person they had just interviewed was white, black, or other. In most cases, the interviewer did not know specific details of the subjects’ ancestry or how they would have racially identified themselves. Each racial classification provided a window into how that person was likely to be perceived and treated by other people. The changes the researchers detected allowed them to look in on those perceptions.

“Instead of adjusting our stereotypes to fit the world around us,” Saperstein said, “people are more likely to adjust their view of the world to fit our shared stereotypes.”

How did being a man or a woman make a difference? The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”   

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

“Not all of our stereotypes about social status are related to race or gender, or a combination of the two, and our results reflect that complexity” Saperstein said. “But, overall, it is striking how consistent the patterns of racial fluidity are with societal expectations about what white people or black people do, and even what we expect of white women compared to white men.”

What to make of this? People often wonder why inequality is so persistent despite many societal changes. The study found that gender and social class play a part in racial perceptions, but the key to the findings is that, when it comes to creating a mental picture of a person, these factors are not separate from one another. Penner and Saperstein found that racial stereotypes are reinforced through combinations—or intersections—of positive or negative statuses. The intersection of race, gender, and social class plays a key role in why these stereotypes—and the inequality that stereotypes support—are so challenging to erase.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, comments, “What is brilliant about Penner and Saperstein’s study is how it shows us that race is malleable – how we see other people as white or black is affected by what else we know about them. Yet even how we racialize someone draws on stereotypes that reflect both gender and race.”

The study is based on analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national longitudinal survey collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data covers years from 1979 through 1998, the most recent years in which interviewers recorded their racial classification of respondents.

Article: Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein, “An Intersectional Analysis of How Social Status Shapes Race.” Gender & Society, June 2013,vol 27 no 3, 319-344. 

Andrew Penner is an assistant professor of sociology at University of California Irvine. His research focuses on gender and race inequality in the labor market and educational system. He is currently involved in projects examining gender inequality in transition economies, racial fluidity in the United States, and international gender differences in education. He can be reached at

Aliya Saperstein is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University. Her work explores the construction of social difference and how the operationalization of concepts like race and ethnicity affects studies of social inequality. Her current research examines trends in the measurement of both sex and gender, and race and ethnicity, in national surveys. She can be reached at


Gender & Society is a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the study of gender. It is the official journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, and was founded in 1987 as an outlet for feminist social science. Currently, it is a top-ranked journal in both sociology and women’s studies. Gender & Society, a journal of Sage Publications, publishes less than 10 percent of all papers submitted to it. For more information, contact Gender & Society editor Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. Misra is also affiliated with Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Labor Studies. Her research and teaching focus primarily on inequality. She can be reached at

Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), currently headquartered at Southern Connecticut State University, works to improve women’s lives through advancing and supporting feminist sociological research, activism and scholars. Founded in 1969, SWS is a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization with more than 1,000 members in the United States and overseas. For more information, contact Dr. Shirley A. Jackson, Professor of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and SWS Executive Officer, at

The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of family researchers, mental health and social practitioners, and clinicians dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best practice findings about American families. For more information on CCF researchers, contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education,

For additional information and perspectives

On issues with Latino families, contact Irene Browne, Emory University. Her research areas include labor market inequality, intersections of race, gender and class, discrimination and immigration. One of her current research projects, funded by the NSF, examines how race and gender influence class mobility strategies among middle-class Dominican and Mexican immigrant families in Atlanta. She is also collaborating on a study of how immigration laws are racializing Latinos in the U.S. Southeast. She is at

For research on rising class inequality among women in the United States, contact Leslie McCall, Northwestern University. She studies how racial, educational, and gender inequality overlap and conflict with one another and has been published in a number of journals as well as in her book, Complex Inequality: Gender, Class, and Race in the New Economy(Routledge, 2001). She is at

For an examination of legal policies that relate to gender, race, and class, contact Rachel Kahn Best, University of Michigan and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. One of her ongoing lines of research investigates inequalities in employment discrimination litigation. Another explores the consequences of the emergence of a new form of advocacy: interest groups targeting specific diseases. She is at

For an examination of how “intersections” can influence gay and lesbian interracial relationships, contact Amy Steinbugler at Dickinson College. She is coauthor of “Gender, Race, and Affirmative Action: Operationalizing Intersectionality in Survey Research” by Amy C. Steinbugler, Julie E. Press, and Janice Johnson Dias (Gender & Society, December 2006; vol. 20, 6: pp. 805-825)She can be reached at

Related studies:
Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity” by Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries (Gender & Society, April 2012; vol. 26, 2: pp. 290-322)Catherine Riegle-Crumb (University of Texas at Austin) can be reached at

Gender Discrimination at Work: Connecting Gender Stereotypes, Institutional Policies, and Gender Composition of Workplace” by Donna Bobbitt-Zeher (Gender & Society, December 2011; vol. 25, 6: pp. 764-786). Donna Bobbitt-Zeher (Ohio State University at Marion) can be reached at
Intersecting Cultural Beliefs in Social Relations: Gender, Race, and Class Binds and Freedoms” by Cecilia L. Ridgeway and Tamar Kricheli-Katz (Gender & Society, June 2013; vol. 27, 3: pp. 294-318)Cecilia Ridgeway (Stanford University and President, American Sociological Association) can be reached at