She’s Biracial, And It’s Not A Secret: Meet Duke Psychologist Sarah Gaither

Feb 19, 2018

 Multiracial people are the fastest growing demographic group in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the nation’s multiracial population will triple by 2060, but not much research has been done on this group. Sarah Gaither is hoping to change that. She’s an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and she is also a biracial woman.

Gaither has a white mother and a black father. She presents as white, and as a child her identity was constantly questioned by strangers. Gaither shares stories with host Frank Stasio about her childhood, such as how people would sometimes approach her and her father to question whether she was being kidnapped. Despite these interrogations, Gaither’s upbringing and socialization helped her develop a keen awareness of how skin tone determines how people will be treated.

She turned this awareness into academic inquiry and designed her first study on the biracial demographic after college. Through her research, she quickly discovered that very little research exists on biracial people, and she was determined to change that. Gaither is the principal investigator of Duke’s Identity and Diversity Lab, and she hopes to become a voice for the biracial population.

Interview Highlights

Gaither on her childhood:
I grew up in such a supportive household where I knew I was all these different racial and ethnic backgrounds. To be proud of that fact was really how I got through my various identity transitions across childhood and adolescence.

Growing up I always wish I looked a little more like my brother. I always wished I looked a little more like how I actually identify. - Sarah Gaither

On her work and thinking about race as a binary:
For me I try to use this work as a way to push our understanding about identity more broadly – that we actually all have multiple identities … So pushing people beyond this binary is something that I'm hoping this work will do.

On her work showing identity flexibility:
What a lot of our work is trying to argue is that if you are biracial or have these multiple identities, this actually leads to what we call "identity flexibility." You're able to cross diverse spaces more easily compared to people from monoracial backgrounds … It really highlights this malleability of biracial individuals and the fact that they might have an extra tool to help navigate different types of spaces.

On answering questions from the parents of biracial children:
The biggest piece of advice I always give parents is to just let your kid identify how they want to identify. I think exposure to both backgrounds is key.

On if she’s too close to her work:
I worry a lot, and there's a stigma against people who are called “me-searchers.” And I'm definitely considered a “me-searcher,” because I'm studying my own experiences and people similar to me. And I worry sometimes that I want certain outcomes to happen in my research, and what if I find out something horrible about the biracial group. As a good scientist I should still release that data no matter what happens. There are certain types of studies that I think I'm more and less hesitant about running just for fear of finding out something bad about my group.

On the fact that race is a social construct:
Knowing people who are biracial or transgender or anyone who is transitioning or confused about their identities – we're usually confused because of how society is treating us. And so if we weren't so fixed in what groups we think we have to belong to or don't want to belong to, I think we'd all get along a little better.