Doctoral Student Crystal Bedley, who is biracial, wants to know how depictions shape identity

Rutgers sociologist Crystal Bedley
Rutgers sociologist Crystal Bedley has been scanning hundreds of ads featuring multi-racial actors and models as part of her study.  
Courtesy of Kyle Sweet

A few years ago, Crystal Bedley began noticing more commercials and TV shows featuring multi-racial actors and models.

Their ethnicity rarely came up in the storyline or was underscored in commercials, but there was a certain “racial ambiguity’’ that Bedley, who is pursuing a postdoctoral degree in sociology from the Graduate School-New Brunswick, spotted repeatedly.

“I was trying to figure out how images like this are reshaping race relations,’’ says Bedley. “Do the ads hold a color-blind mentality or are there underlying racist assumptions? How do these ads shape people’s identities? 

 To find answers, Bedley started her dissertation on multi-racial images, scouring brand websites, company social media pages and analyzing hundreds of TV and online images, with help from students from the Aresty Research Program, which gives undergraduates a chance to do research. Soon, she’ll interview ad executives and casting agents. 

Her project was inspired by personal experience. Bedley grew up in Aurora, Colorado, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and white father.  “Most sociologists tend to study something they can relate to,’’ she explains. “I was aware of a blend, but also felt like I could shift in and out of these different identities. As a media junkie and someone who is biracial, this was a way to explore multiculturalism.’’

“There are a lot of ways we’re socialized to think about race,’’ she adds. "Social interaction, peer groups, families. Not a lot of people talk about the way the media is socializing people.’’

Although Bedley’s study is still in its early stages, she’s already discovered one thing: Students who are helping her with the project are able to identify white actors and models, but pinpointing other ethnicities is more difficult.

“We’re finding a lot of disagreement,’’ she says. "There’s a racial boundary that seems to be stronger among white and non-white than among blacks, Latinos and Asians.’’ 

According to Bedley, multi-racial people in ads operate as a kind of blank slate, boosting the chance that a wider range of people can identify with them. 

“Part of the reason is because they have a mass appeal. It’s a subtle message of inclusion . . . The companies want consumers to be able to see a lot of different groups within one person,’’ she says. 

The ads and programs are also a way to appeal to youth, Bedley says. Multi-racials are among the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., according to the 2010 census. “I was speaking to an ad executive, and she said they’re using multicultural models as a way of targeting millennials.”

At Rutgers, Bedley has also found real-life ways of examining how racial identity, and perceptions of racial identity, can impact minority women in academia. “I’m interested in finding strategies and techniques that will help women of color thrive,’’ she says.  “Ultimately, I’m interested in promoting racial diversity.’’

Since 2007 Bedley has been a mentor and academic advisor in the McNair program, which helps women and men from underrepresented backgrounds attain their Ph.D.s. Bedley has also conducted research on the challenges and rewards of teaching at Rutgers as a woman of color, interviewing a dozen junior faculty members for the Rutgers Office of Promotion for Women in the Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics.

“It helps to have a mentor who is genuinely empathetic and gives the necessary time to help them to the next phase in their career,’’ Bedley says. “It’s also important to build a community no matter where you are. How do you create that support and awareness that helps you recognize you’re not alone in the struggle?  A lot of times, in my experience, you’re one in a department, or one of a few students, and you can feel isolated. It helps to realize that there are others, often in close proximity.’’