Analía Albuja

Where are you really from? An incoming assistant professor explores the psychology of being biracial

“But where are you really from?” Analia Albuja gets this question a lot, especially when people hear her speak Spanish with her native Ecuadorian accent and a hint of her mother’s Argentinian slang.

“St. Joseph, Missouri” is usually not the answer people are looking for, even though she grew up there after emigrating from Ecuador at age 6.

Albuja, who began working at Northeastern as a Science Fellow in the psychology and applied psychology departments this semester, has dedicated her research career to understanding how racial and cultural labeling affects people who do not fall neatly into the categories society has created for race and nationality. She will begin her tenure track as an assistant professor at Northeastern next fall.

“As a kid, I was very attuned to the cultural differences in my family. I didn’t quite feel like I was from Missouri, didn’t feel Argentinian enough to be Argentinian, and every time I went back to Ecuador, I could tell that I’d changed,” she said.

“Growing up this way made me interested in how biracial or bicultural people navigate their identities,” said Albuja, who will direct the Belonging and Social Identities Lab at Northeastern beginning this fall.

The lab will explore how racial and cultural identities are experienced by people who subscribe to multiple labels, and how these labels are perceived by others. She and a postdoctoral student will begin research this month, and Albuja hopes to hire a co-op student to work in the lab this spring.

In her previous research, Albuja has demonstrated the physiological stress responses biracial and bicultural people have when their identities are questioned.

“We found that biracial people’s cortisol levels returned to baseline more slowly when their identities were being denied compared to when their identities were not denied,” said Albuja, who recently finished her postdoctoral studies at Duke University. This paper, titled “Psychological Stress Responses to Bicultural and Biracial Identity Denial,” was published in the Journal of Psychological Issues in 2019.

Albuja plans to continue in this line of research at the Belonging and Social Identities Lab at Northeastern, though now she plans to also focus on children’s reactions to race and national identity.

“We want to know at what age do biracial kids understand that questions like ‘Where are you from?’ could have malicious intentions,” she said. “And in that same vein, how do parents socialize their children to one or multiple identities?” Oftentimes, the parents of biracial children are not biracial themselves, Albuja explained, which could inform how ideas of race are passed down generationally.

In her research, Albuja has found that the question of where one is from is interpreted differently depending on the race of the person to whom the question is directed. White participants in her experiment understood this question to be a positive expression of curiosity, while Asian-American participants found that the question implied they were not American or that they didn’t belong in the United States, Albuja said.

One perception of race that Albuja finds particularly interesting is the hypothetical idea that everyone will be biracial eventually, and that once that happens, racism will end. “This is something we’ll be looking at closer in the lab,” she said. “Where does that idea come from, and how do biracial people react in scenarios when this attitude is present?”

Though Albuja’s work is mostly theoretical, she believes the findings laid out in her research could be applied to clinical work to inform therapists about the potentially overlooked stressors of biracial experiences.

“The kind of research I do could also be used to help parents of biracial children teach their kids about identity,” she said.

As an undergraduate student, Albuja worked as a research assistant in a psychology lab where she studied how cultural differences and gender norms played out between international students and Ghanaian students during a study abroad program in Ghana.

“Doing this made me realize I could scientifically and quantitatively study these specific experiences I’d had with my own identity,” biracial experiences she believes are largely absent from the current research on race, she said. During her schooling as a psychology student, she said the examples of race often did not resonate with her as a biracial person of multiple nationalities.

“It’s important to me to have biracial representation in psychology because usually when we think about race, we think about it as a dichotomy of Black or white,” she said. “There’s a lot less that we know about everyone in between.”

This article originally appeared on News@Northeastern.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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