Universities Are Still Struggling to Provide for Mixed-Race Students
Coming from a multiracial background can leave some students feeling isolated
“As a person of color…” Phoebe Vlahoplus, 20, a history major at Wesleyan University pauses.
“Or… half a person of color.”
“It depends,” she says carefully when I ask if she’s uncomfortable using the phrase. She is East Indian and Greek, but her parents were born in the United States. “I can’t speak for immigrants.” She weighs the considerations, then adds, “But my skin color is Brown.”
Meiko Flynn-Do is Japanese, Vietnamese, and White but before attending Stanford University, where mixed-race students made up 11% of undergraduates in 2012, she never saw herself as a “person of color. That wasn’t on my radar.” It wasn’t until college that she started “wrestling with those things. Ethnic studies classes kind of opened up those questions for me.”
Mariko Rooks attended Yale University’s Cultural Connections, a pre-orientation program for minorities, prior to starting her first year on campus. “It was so unapologetically Black and Brown,” she recalls. “So overwhelming and enlightening.” The experience “revolutionized her thinking,” says Rooks. Her friend Adia Klein, a junior at Yale agrees. “Going to college opened me up. I saw that being multiracial was a global thing… It was eye-opening.”
Like many college students, Vlahoplus, Flynn-Do, Rooks, and Klein all found that in college, questions of racial identity moved to the front and center of their consciousness for the first time.
But multiracial students have only recently begun to be counted as a separate category by most universities, and as they begin to grapple more openly with their mixed-race identities, they’re often isolated in college settings—without the support of university administrators and without specific structures to guide them through these murky waters. Most institutions of higher education still lack frameworks and systems to categorize their increasingly mixed-race student populations accurately, much less to support them.
For example, there is almost no research on what it means to have parents from two different minority groups, says Willie Banks Jr., PhD, vice president of Student Affairs at Indiana State University and the author of a study on “Biracial Student Voices.” Meanwhile, “old ideas about race are shifting quickly on campuses,” says Banks. “Just because someone has Brown skin doesn’t mean you can assume they’re African American. We have to prepare students to think about what diversity really means in a global society.”
Multiracial students have only recently begun to be counted as a separate category by most universities, and as they begin to grapple more openly with their mixed-race identities, they’re often isolated in college settings.
“It’s really hard for administrations to catch up,” says G. Reginald Daniel, PhD, professor and vice chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. One of the key areas lagging behind in universities is student counseling. “There are special kinds of microaggressions that come with multiracial identity,” says Daniel. “Our society is racially illiterate in general, and the greatest illiteracy is to be in the presence of a multiracial person.”
A few years ago, I interviewed Amanda Mozea, then a junior at Harvard University. Her mother was a White American who grew up bailing hay and milking cows in the Amish country of East Waterford, Pennsylvania. Her father, the eldest of eight children, emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, to attend Indiana University.
I imagined that she would call herself Black or biracial, but when I asked how she identified she hesitated as I waited on the other end of a silent phone line.
“The more I think about it and the more I try to answer that question, the less clear my answer is,” she said. “I’ve become more frustrated the older I get. I’ve become more conflicted.”
To her White high school friends, she had become “more Black” since going to college, especially since she had unfriended them on Facebook after some heated exchanges about police brutality. Also, she had stopped chemically straightening her hair during her sophomore year making her more visible as a Black woman.
As a girl, there had been no question of her Blackness. At Sunderland Elementary School in Massachusetts, she’d been one of five or six children of color in a class of 100. Her Nigerian grandfather and aunt lived with the family, and Amanda had grown up eating traditional Ibo dishes: plantains, oatmeal with beans, ofe stew. Her father was an independent business owner who operated a Nigerian food cart.
But at college, she found her Blackness challenged by other African American students. “I guess she’s got a little Black in her face,” one said to another as they rode together on a campus shuttle bus.
To combat her feelings of isolation, Mozea organized “OTHER: A Multiracial Student Photo Gallery.” Like so many young activists across the country, it was a way for mixed-race students to claim their stories via visual media. At Emory University, in Atlanta, 30 multiracial students posed for a similar photoshoot, while at Cornell University, multiracial students made an award-winning digital Facebook page that asked: “What does being mixed mean to you?” More recently, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles hosted a photo exhibit for multiracial Asian students. And perhaps most famously, Walter Thompson-Hernandez created what is now a world-renowned photo exhibit called Duality: Blaxicans of LA, which emerged from an Instagram account he launched while pursuing his master’s degree at Stanford University’s Center for Latin American Studies.
A 2000 study at a predominately-White university found that 60% of biracial African American students reported feeling “significant alienation” from single-race Blacks on campus.
Fifty students posed for Amanda’s “OTHER” exhibit. Beside each image were three questions: “How does the government define your race?” “How do others define your race?” “How do you define yourself?”
“The exhibit saved me,” said Mozea, when we talked again a year or so later. It lifted her spirits during her “darkest days,” she said. But it wasn’t enough.
“I think I’m depressed,” she confessed during one of our conversations. “And I think Harvard exacerbates that. I wasn’t depressed before college.”
Mozea wasn’t alone. A 2000 study at a predominately-White university found that 60% of biracial African American students reported feeling “significant alienation” from single-race Blacks on campus. “I think it’s because I’m not as connected to a Black community as I want to be,” she said. “Making Black women friends has been a real struggle. I definitely think it’s a contributing factor to my feeling a little lost.”
During her junior year, she decided to take a leave of absence from the university.
She moved in with an uncle and his partner near Hollywood, Florida and went to work for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Assigned to canvass Caribbean and African American and Latino voters in Broward County, she set up voter registration tables at strip malls and churches in the Black and Brown communities of West Park and Miramar. The work was grueling and the hours long, but there was a bonus: her new friendships with fellow organizers.
“It’s the first time I’ve spent so much time with Black people outside my family,” she told me when we met at her uncle’s house. Amanda was exuberant. Happy. Glowing even.
After Clinton’s defeat, she traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March where she and her new friends bonded, binging on Netflix and crying together over their popcorn. By the time she returned to Harvard, Amanda discovered that she now felt comfortable claiming her identity in a way that she never had before.
She no longer questioned her right to speak as a Black woman.
This shifting sense of self is common among multiracial people of all ages. Research shows that a majority will change the way they see themselves throughout their lifetime, and often times from situation to situation. Among college students, however, the shift is perhaps even more dramatic.
During college “students rethink their identity,” says Daniel, who teaches one of the first and longest-standing undergraduate course on the topic of multiracial identity in the country. “I don’t go into the course trying to change anyone’s mind, but by the end of the class there is often a shift. Some might even be seen as White to the larger society… and they realize they have a part of themselves they’ve even been hiding.”
The shift can happen both inside and outside the classroom.
In 2005, Casandra E. Harper Morris, was a mixed-race doctoral student at UCLA who decided to study multiracial college students. Using survey data from a national sample of first-year students and seniors at four-year institutions, she tracked what they checked for race at the beginning and end of their college years. Morris, who is now an associate professor of higher education at the University of Missouri, found that some campuses experiences can make an enormous difference in a student’s decision to shift from one identity to another.
For those who marked only one race as freshman but marked more than one as seniors, the biggest influence was living on campus, which made them more than twice as likely to claim a multiracial identity. It might be that students had more exposure to more diversity in the dormitories. Or perhaps the on-campus social programming might have changed their perspective. Whatever the reason, living on campus had an impact.
Similarly, taking an ethnic studies course or participating in a racial or cultural awareness workshop also made seniors more likely to check multiracial.
In contrast, participating in a race-oriented student organization made them less likely to mark multiracial, which makes sense given that, as Morris notes, “the number of mixed-race student groups are few and far between.”
In 1998, Matt Kelley, then a 19-year-old freshman at Wesleyan, announced the launch of MAVIN, a magazine about “the mixed-race experience” created in his dorm room. The MAVIN Foundation, which he later ran from his hometown of Seattle, Washington after graduation, went on to become one of the most prominent national advocacy groups for multiracial people and was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Department of Education to allow students to check more than one race on official forms.
In 2013, Chandler Gregoire was an African American, White, Korean, and Japanese student athlete at Yale University. Like Amanda Mozea, she, too, felt isolated and alone on campus.
As a member of the varsity sailing team, Gregoire kept her insecurities to herself until it all became too much. She took matters into her own hands, publishing an explosive essay in the student newspaper, confessing that she was afraid to talk about race and class with her teammates.
“I didn’t address financial aid, or why I couldn’t afford to go to Sushi on Chapel every week,” she wrote. “I didn’t address the poor neighborhood in Queens in which I grew up… I didn’t address my race, and how it shapes my existence at Yale, and how different I feel from my team because of it…”
Mixed-race students have long had to carve out support structures for themselves.
The response to Gregoire’s article was overwhelming.
Yale University’s athletic director suggested she work with the soccer coach to find solutions, and together, they created Yale United to help bridge the gap between the university’s cultural “houses” and athletic teams. It was a successful initiative, said Gregoire, citing as an example an event where the hockey team offered to teach members of the Afro-American Cultural Center how to ice skate. Thirty Black students showed up and got on the ice. “There was pizza and a T-shirt giveaway,” said Gregoire. She also created a student group called Racial and Ethnic Openness, which remains the only campus group for all mixed-race students. (Last year, Asian-ish also launched for mixed-race Asians.) Most ambitiously, Gregoire proposed a multiracial peer-liaison program — one that would have its very own building and dean. Essentially, a fifth cultural center for multiracial students.
But that last idea fizzled after university administrators cited a lack of funds for such a major investment.
Brittany Hunt-Woods, an academic advisor in the School of Art at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, wrote her 2014 master’s thesis on how multiracial students handle microaggressions at a predominantly White institution. In one case study, she interviewed a Black and Hispanic student who tried to attend a Mexican American Student Association event but was shut down when other students told her she didn’t belong there. They spoke in Spanish, assuming that she wouldn’t understand. But she did.
Unfortunately, said Hunt-Woods, “there isn’t a support structure on most campuses” to help students address such incidents. “It’s about having people who understand where they’re coming from… and not shaming them for wanting to embrace their multiracial identity.”
Meanwhile, mixed-race students continue to work on their own, or with each other, to create a place where they can explore who they are, where they come from, and who they want to be.
In November of 2018, less than a year after Amanda Mozea graduated, they founded the Harvard Undergraduate Union of Mixed Students, the university’s first club for multiracial students. More than 100 members joined within the first three weeks.