What happens when someone’s skin color and racial identity don’t align?

Sociology doctoral student Haley Pilgrim is trying to understand a group often left out of these conversations: second-generation multi-racial people.

Haley Pilgrim is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Sociology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences. She studies racial identity.

Racial identity is complex, especially if someone’s skin color doesn’t match how that person might internally identify. For those with racially mixed grandparents, what sociology doctoral student Haley Pilgrim has termed “second-generation multi-racial” populations, it can get even more complicated. 

Pilgrim, now in her fourth year of Ph.D. work in the School of Arts and Sciences, is trying to understand what racial identity means for this group. In particular, she studies those who have one set of white grandparents and another composed of an African-American and a Caucasian grandparent, what the academic literature describes as “black-white multi-racials.”   

“Since race was invented, members of this racial category were considered black, and often considered themselves black,” Pilgrim says. “Most of the research to this point has said that black-white multi-racials are particularly constrained from having a white identity, that they’re different from other multi-racial groups.” In other words, they’re most frequently viewed as members of the black community and are treated accordingly. But Pilgrim wondered how they viewed themselves and whether such identities were situation-specific. 

Current research also focuses on children with parents of different races, but Pilgrim felt few academics had looked at their children, representing a gap in the literature she wanted to fill. “When multi-racial couples have a child,” she says, “how does that child identify, and how does that experience potentially differ from the first generation?” 

It’s one in a string of questions Pilgrim has been trying to answer since she started studying sociology as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. The field captivated her because she saw the experiences of multi-racial populations represented through its data, allowing for a better understanding of people about which she wanted to know more. As a Penn graduate student, Pilgrim has done a deep dive into this arm of research. But it hasn’t always been straightforward.  

Ethnographic research in sociologist David Grazian’s “Field Methods” course opened Pilgrim’s eyes to the fact that different people view ancestry differently. Interviews she conducted included one with a European student whose family originated in several countries who identified as having mixed ancestry. Repeatedly, Pilgrim heard that same narrative thread from other international students.

“That was salient to their identity,” she says. “They had many social interactions that proved just how relevant it was that they had this ancestry from multiple European nations. However, in the U.S., we likely wouldn’t consider that person multi-racial.” 

The experience got Pilgrim thinking about self-identification versus societal labels. “We know that race is fluid,” she says. “I’m really curious about the factors that influence people’s racial identities. Someone may feel and identify closely with a certain racial group in one instance, and walk into another setting and feel her other identity is much more relevant.” 

One qualitative study of Pilgrim’s included 30 18-to-30-year-olds, all of whom were second-generation black-white multi-racials. Three identified exclusively as black and three exclusively as white. Her findings on the 24 who identify as multi-racial show just how charged racial identity can be. 

“I have respondents who will be in situations where identifying as white may be advantageous, like one phenotypically white interviewee who got into legal trouble. At the court, he was asked to select a race, but he said he couldn’t because he’s multi-racial,” Pilgrim explains. “We know that in our legal system, it’s more beneficial to say you’re white, yet we don’t see him opting into and out of his white-passing privilege, a concern that is often hypothetically brought up in the literature.”

There’s also the study participant who looked Caucasian—blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin— and who told Pilgrim she wished she had darker skin so her exterior would align with how she identified internally. “She associated whiteness with the oppressor and a legacy of racism, and she didn’t want to be associated with that,” Pilgrim says. 

Pilgrim presented some of these findings at the 2017 Grad BEN Talks, a TED Talk–style competition for graduate students put on by Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. She won first place in the “Audience Vote” and “Social Science” division. She also presented on the topic at the American Sociological Association conference in Philadelphia in August. 

Pilgrim continues striving to answer tough questions because she sees this as the right time to be asking them. “In addition to immigration and population growth, people shifting racial identity could affect the actual demography of the United States,” she says. “Moreover, multi-racial populations are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S., and it’s a population that will continue to grow.” 

Pilgrim plans to expand her research to sub-groups such as multi-racial grandchildren who have one set of white grandparents and the other that includes one white and one Asian-American grandparent. She’s aiming to finish her doctoral work in 2021.

Funding for the work came from a Fontaine Society Research Grant. 

Haley Pilgrim is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Sociology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences

David Grazian is an associate professor of sociology and communication in the Sociology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences.