Several years ago, when I was a graduate student and staff member at the University of Washington, I attended a Black Lives Matter rally and march on campus.
When it was time for the march to begin, the organizers asked the crowd to split into two groups. The Black students were called to the front to lead the march, while the remaining students were asked to fall to the back of the procession in a display of support and solidarity. As the crowd began to split, I felt a sense of panic at having to choose where to go and immediately moved toward the back of the crowd.
The feeling of having to publicly commit to a racial identity was familiar. As a biracial student with one Black and one White parent, my experience with what it means to be Black in America is markedly different from my monoracial peers. Moving to the back of the march helped me reconcile with this and give space to those who needed it the most.
I’ve spent my life navigating the nuances that come with being mixed-race. On one hand, I am aware of the privilege that comes with having one White parent and European features, making it easier for me to navigate academic and social spaces. Colorism is real. On the other hand, I learned early on that I am not White-passing, given the number of people who mistake me for other races or ethnicities. This means I’ve spent my life feeling stuck somewhere in the middle; a common experience among biracial and multiracial students.
I learned about racism and discrimination at an early age. My parents were married in the late 1970s, without the support or blessing of my paternal grandparents, who told my father that he could marry anyone he wanted except a Black woman. Unsurprisingly, no one from my dad’s side of the family attended their wedding and my grandparents had no interest in having a relationship with my sister and me. I identify as mixed-race to honor their resilience and the sacrifices they made just to be a couple. I know that what my parents endured was shared by many other interracial couples.
In a recent New York Times article, Anna Holmes wrote about the increase in interracial marriages following the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which made laws that banned interracial marriages unconstitutional. While Holmes dives into the nuances of growing up mixed-race, she also discusses the way Americans position notable mixed-race Black people and the way they relate to whiteness differently given their racial identities. These issues are complex but shed light on how some mixed-race people move through the world differently.
Following the Loving case, interracial marriages increased from 3 percent in 1967 to 17 percent in 2015, reflecting a shift in the way Americans view interracial unions. With these marriages have come an increase in the births of mixed-race and multiracial children.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the number of mixed and multiracial students in the U.S. is steadily increasing and comprises a more visible segment of the population on college and university campuses across the country. The growing, visible presence of mixed-raced and multiracial students in postsecondary education has compelled higher education scholars and administrators to better understand the unique needs of this group.
Since the early 1990s, scholars have studied mixed-race and multiracial identity development among college students. While more work needs to be done in this area, researchers continue to grapple with how mixed-race and multiracial students experience higher education. Some have sought to understand mixed and multiracial students’ level of engagement across and within different institutional types.
This work is important because navigating higher education as a mixed or multiracial student comes with unique challenges in areas such as the admissions process, campus life and co-curricular involvement. Some mixed and multiracial students struggle with answering questions about race during the college admissions process and express concerns about the implications for identifying or not identifying with certain racial backgrounds.
Once admitted, some students might feel discomfort as they are questioned about their racial backgrounds by peers, or as they participate in identity-based student organizations and other co-curricular activities. In turn, mixed and multiracial students have taken it upon themselves to create spaces and organizations on campus where they feel comfortable exploring their racial identities.
From the University of Maryland to UC Berkeley and institutions such as Harvard, mixed-race and multiracial student groups and organizations are on the rise. Mixed and multiracial student organizations in higher education have increased in recent years in an effort to create a sense of belonging for students who do not feel that they fit neatly into one racial category. These student organizations serve to create spaces where mixed-race and multiracial students can create a sense of community around their shared experiences.
These spaces also offer a place where mixed-race students to exist as whole persons, have the right to self-definition and can embrace multiple identities. In these groups, mixed and multiracial students don’t need to answer the much anticipated “What are you?” question or experience the feeling of having someone categorize them according to different racial stereotypes. In short, mixed-race student organizations are necessary for the social and emotional well-being of college students.
As this population increases and gains visibility on campuses, higher education faculty and administrators should support students in creating student organizations and spaces for mixed and multiracial students to explore and celebrate their racial identities. This support might come in the form of resources, spaces and guidance afforded to other identity-based groups. Faculty and administrators should familiarize themselves with issues specific to mixed race students if they are to adequately understand and support this growing student population.
Mixed-race students aren’t going away, and like many other shifts that impact higher education, faculty and administrators will need to respond accordingly.
Nicole Barone is a Ph.D. student at Boston College.