Mapping Racial Boundaries: For Whom Do Varying Racial Identities Decrease Happiness?

  • Amy L. PettsEmail author


Racial boundaries are hard to measure but consequential for understanding larger processes of racial inequality. Some argue that the racial hierarchy is expanding to include a third category for non-black minority identities while others believe that a binary racial hierarchy will persist as many non-black minorities will come to be seen as white. I use the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 to investigate how racial identities that vary (either because racial identities changed across survey waves or because racial identities are incongruent with interviewer perceptions) speak to each of these theories. I assess the frequency of different racial variations and how different patterns of racial variations are associated with individuals’ perceived level of happiness. When racial identities vary across time, context, or the perception of others, the work required to negotiate a racial identity can take a psychological toll and may decrease happiness. I find support for the whitening hypothesis; the most common type of racial variation includes respondents classified as non-black minorities by a household member later claiming a white identity. And, for those individuals, claiming a white identity is congruent with how they are perceived by interviewers. In addition, only for individuals who crossed black boundaries is racial variability consequential to perceived happiness, evidencing a strong racial boundary between black and anything else and more permeability in the boundary between non-black minorities and whites.


Racial identity Demographic transition Contested racial identities Fluid racial identities Racial hierarchy 



I would like to thank Dr. Linda Renzulli, Dr. Kenneth Ferraro, Dr. Trenton Mize, and Dr. Richard Petts for their research assistance.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA

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