Physical Appearance and Ancestry as Predictors of Racial Passing: A Research Note on Racial (Non-)Fluidity in the U.S.

52 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2021

Date Written: November 16, 2021


Although the idea that individuals’ race is fluid and can change over time is increasingly accepted, racial identities have a structural component involving the presence of immutable and typically easily observable individual traits. This research note considers physical appearance (hair and eye color) and ancestry as stable and innate personal traits that may hinder or foster changes in individuals’ ascribed or externally-assigned race. Focusing on the likelihood of non-Whites in the U.S. to pass as White, empirical results for the period 1980-1998 indicate that such racial lightening mostly occurred among individuals with European ancestry. Hair and eye color are far less important predictors of intra-individual racial identity change, but still more important than time-varying and likely endogenous factors such as personal income are. We obtain similar longitudinal evidence when considering physical appearance and ancestry as predictors of racial darkening instead of racial lightening. We conclude that between 1980 and 1998 for most Americans racial boundaries remained largely impermeable, although the constraining influence of ancestry on racial lightening seems to have declined in the second half of this period.

Keywords: Racial ascription; Identity; Racial classification; Intra-individual racial identity change; racial rigidity

JEL Classification: J10, J11, J15

Suggested Citation

Rademakers, Robbert and van Hoorn, André, Physical Appearance and Ancestry as Predictors of Racial Passing: A Research Note on Racial (Non-)Fluidity in the U.S. (November 16, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Robbert Rademakers (Contact Author)

Radboud University ( email )


André Van Hoorn

Radboud University ( email )

Thomas van Aquinostraat 5
PO Box 9108
Nijmegen, 6500 HK

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