Volume 77 | Issue 6
November 2009

Biracial Student Voices: Experiences at predominatly white institutions

Willie L. Banks Jr.

Race is a complex issue for campuses to address. Often, universities tout their diversity by sharing statistics about the respective racial populations present within their study body, all boxes that can be neatly checked: African-American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. While “other” may be used as a catchall, rarely is a category for biracial or multiracial students included in this list. In the January 2002 issue of American Demographics, Alison Stein Wellner reported that 2.4 percent (approximately 6.8 million people) of the total U.S. population were living in households that included two or more races. In the Aug. 8, 2006 issue of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik indicated the biracial population was increasingly growing and attending institutions of higher education, requiring the need for research reflecting the experiences of these students on college campuses. Biracial students have been on campus for a number of years; however, their voice has not been adequately represented within the literature as Donna M. Talbot described in the 2008 book, “Biracial and Multiracial Students.”

April Jourdan commented in the 2006 Journal of Counseling and Development that the majority of research on minority populations on college campuses focused on monoracial ethnic categories (i.e., Asian, African American, or Hispanic) and not on the lives of biracial or multiracial individuals in higher education.

For many campuses, biracial individuals provide an interesting challenge and pose more questions than answers. Who comprises this population? What are this population’s needs? How can institutions provide resources and services to address those needs? Unfortunately, there is not one answer to these critical questions. Just as biracial individuals are complex and multilayered, so are their needs and experiences.

Earlier this year, a new study was conducted to examine the experiences of biracial students with one parent of African American heritage attending predominantly white institutions in the southern United States. The findings demonstrate some practical strategies that campus professionals can employ to improve the educational environment in which biracial students develop their identities.

About the study
This study utilized a basic qualitative research design and was comprised of three phases: semi-structured individual interviews, responses to written prompts, and a photo elicitation project. Twelve students from two institutions participated.

The five patterns of multiracial identity published in Kristen A. Renn’s 2004 book, “Mixed-Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity and Community on Campus,” served as the framework for this study. Based on her study of 56 multiracial college students attending six institutions, Renn described five patterns of multiracial identity:

1.    Monoracial identity
2.    Multiple monoracial identity
3.    Multiracial identity
4.    Extraracial identity
5.    Situational identity

Renn categorized multiracial students by the monoracial identity (e.g., black, white, or Asian) with which they identified. Students who identified with more than one monoracial identity (e.g., black and white, Hispanic and Asian) were categorized as having a multiple monoracial identity. Students who chose to not specifically identify their ethnicity but referred to themselves as “mixed” or “biracial” were identified as having a multiracial identity. Multiracial students who chose not to identify themselves based on U.S. racial categories or by any race were identified as having an extraracial identity. Students who chose their identity based on situational context were identified as having a situational identity.

Parts of Renn’s work—specifically, the interview protocol and written prompts—were replicated for the 2009 study of students at one public university and one private university in the southern United States. In this most recent study, the multicultural programs and services offices at each institution sent an e-mail to 10 students on each campus, who identified as multiracial or biracial. The e-mail asked for volunteers to participate in this study. From the 20 e-mails sent to students on the two different campuses, six students from each campus agreed to participate in the study, for a total sample of 12. Additionally, this study used only biracial students with one parent of African American heritage, whereas Renn’s study used biracial and multiracial students of varying ethnicities and heritages.

Literature review
The literature on biracial and multiracial students has increased over the years; however, there is still a need for research to be conducted on this student population. In fact, most of the current research indicated that biracial individuals often identified in multiple patterns, borders, quadrants, or phases. The 1999 Journal of College Student Development article “Validation of a Bicultural Orientation Model for Hispanic College Students” and the books “Relative/Outsider: The Art and Politics of Identity Among Mixed Heritage Students” and “Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America” all provided research outlining four to five patterns or phases that biracial individuals used when discussing their identity development. Additionally, the research affirmed that biracial individuals’ development is continuous and highly personal. Many times, biracial individuals will identify with more than one pattern or phase, and at times the social context of the situation dictates their placement. In 2004, the Journal of Language, Identity and Education reported that physical characteristics, geographic location, socioeconomic status, and family makeup and dynamics all play a role in biracial students’ identity development and ultimately their experiences on college campuses.

Once on campus, some biracial students have been found to have poor or negative experiences with black students. Sandra Smith and Mignon Moore’s study in the American Journal of Sociology articulated the closeness of black students at a predominantly white liberal arts institution. Data analysis “indicated that closeness to other black students was significantly correlated with race and ethnic identification and racial composition of friendship networks on campus.” The study found that biracial students had 80 percent lower odds of feeling closer to black students when compared to monoracial students in the study. The data also showed that biracial students had a higher percentage of extreme alienation from other black students on campus. Additionally, 60 percent of biracial students in the study reported that they had little or no connection to the black community versus 26 percent for monoracial students on campus. The same percentage (60 percent) reported that their friend network was composed of non-black students. No biracial participants in the study reported having a majority of black students as their friends.

The researchers concluded that biracial students felt higher levels of alienation from the black community based on two factors: a) the need to acknowledge and embrace all aspects of their ethnicity; and b) that they did not fit into the black community on campus. The in-depth interviews revealed that the biracial student participants embraced their multiple identities and that their family support structure played an important role in their self-identification. Many of the participants noted that they would be uncomfortable only acknowledging one parent and that not acknowledging their full ethnic heritage was disrespectful to their other parent.

The key findings from Smith and Moore as well as the aforementioned literature highlight the complex nature of biracial identity development. Family composition, support systems, and safe spaces were shown to affect the biracial students’ identity development. The literature also concluded that additional investigation is needed on various racial combinations of biracial students as well as the experiences and alienation of minority students attending predominantly white institutions.

The participants in the 2009 study were similar to the participants in Renn’s study in the way they identified with the five patterns of multiracial identity. Renn found that students identified with one or more of the five patterns and in many cases the situation or context dictated their identification. Additionally, eight of Renn’s participants identified with the extraracial identity category, where one deconstructs racial categories and chooses not to identify by any category.

Through the use of individual interviews, written responses, and photographs, the students in this study shared their experiences as biracial students attending a predominantly white institution. The students within this study entered college with a fairly strong sense of self and of their identity; however, much like biracial identity, their identity shifted based on the positive and negative experiences at their respective institutions. Through data analysis, four themes emerged that encapsulated the experiences of the students in this study: The Search, Finding a Voice, Breaking Free, and Here’s Where I Am for Now.

The first theme, The Search, focused on participants’ precollegiate experiences and how family, friends, and their environment shaped their identity prior to arrival on campus. In essence, students were searching for familiarity and validation of their ethnicities. Many study participants reiterated the importance of the unconditional support their families provided. Participants who also had unconditional support from friends were able to make meaning of their experiences and how they fit into society.

Finding a Voice was the second theme explored within this study, and it focused on participants’ collegiate experiences. The participants noted that their friends on campus played an important role in their identity development. One student said: “I joined a step team. It first started out for mostly black kids, but there are lots of other races in it. And I guess I have had a good experience with having a nice set of friends all around; the majority of them are black, and that’s just how that goes.” Another student, who was half white and had just discovered she was also half black, said she was motivated to join a historically black sorority as a tribute to her newly discovered ethnicity. Though many of the participants entered college with a strong sense of self, entering a new environment posed many challenges for them. To help ease their transition into a collegiate setting—that for many was away from the comfort and understanding of their family—participants sought safe spaces on campus that encouraged their identity development.

Many of the spaces on campus where participants felt safe were spaces that had traditionally been used by other students of color on campus. Other safe spaces on campus were within student organizations geared toward students of color. For many of the participants, these student organizations provided an outlet to explore their identity at greater lengths, make connections with other students, and reaffirm their identity as biracial students.

One student said she affiliated with organizations that helped her express both the black and Latina aspects of her heritage. “I’m in a Latin sorority. I do hang out; I’ve been introduced and immersed into that side of my culture [Latin]. As well as the greek life, I’ve immersed myself in the African American greeks and those outside of the greek world that are African Americans. Coming to the university, I was immersed in both of the cultures that I never really cared to look, because I never got the chance, people [African Americans] never gave me the chance to talk to them or hang out with them. And now I’m at a university, even though it’s a majority white school, I now have the chance to see both sides of who I am.”

While some participants found safety within student organizations geared toward biracial/multiracial students, others felt those organizations did not speak to their needs or wants as a biracial student attending a predominantly white institution. In many cases, the students spoke of not wanting to be labeled and felt that being affiliated with a certain student organization promoted the differences within students rather than their commonalities.

Study participants also discussed their personal experiences with other students, faculty, and staff on campus. Some participants did not encounter any racial bias or problems. In fact, one senior in the study said he never thought about his ethnicity or faced any problems. However, some participants were often asked about their ethnicity, and many were questioned about their level of “blackness” or “whiteness.” Even though these participants had positive and negative experiences on campus, they used their circle of friends and safe spaces on campus to help them make meaning of their experiences.

The third theme, Breaking Free, addressed the participants’ notion of breaking free from labels, society’s rules, and the boxes that seemed to confine study participants. One student stated: “I still don’t like to classify stuff like that, because I figure there’s no way to. I think everybody’s mixed; I think if you went down everyone’s lineage you’d find another race, along most people.” Study participants desired the same options as other students. They did not want other individuals or their institution to stereotype or categorize them. The students reported having been labeled their entire life and felt the decision of self-identifying should now be left to them.

The final theme, Here’s Where I Am for Now, examined participants’ evolving identity and how they viewed themselves as preparing the next generation of biracial students to be successful on college campuses. Many of the participants described their identity as evolving and not static. They felt a sense of obligation to let the next generation of biracial and multiracial students know what it truly means to attend a predominantly white institution as a biracial student. For many, their identity was not an issue, and even those who had issues still felt that their experiences on their campus as a whole had been extremely positive and reaffirming.

The study participants provided rich, detailed descriptions of their experiences prior to attending their institution and also described through the use of pictures and written responses what those experiences meant to them as biracial individuals. These data revealed that biracial students’ development is a continuous process, which evolves over time, is a personal matter, and is influenced by friends, family, and societal context.

Implications for practice
Student affairs professionals working on college campuses have an opportunity to educate the university community on the lives of biracial students and their unique and personal experiences. While society may say that these biracial students should be considered black, the data from this study suggest that this is not the case for all biracial students with one parent of black heritage. Some feel alienated from black students on campus. Some students identified with a monoracial identity, other participants identified with a multiple monoracial identity, extraracial identity, multiracial identity, or a combination of the identities.

As Nancy Nishimura expressed in a 1998 Journal of College Counseling, it is important for student affairs professionals to be able to understand that biracial identity is complex and at times, situational. Because a student looks like a certain ethnic group does not mean that he or she will identify this way. Professionals on college campuses will need to understand the differences among individuals and not automatically assume and stereotype people based on appearance.

As the data showed, programs and services for students of color are needed and can be beneficial for biracial students. Organizations geared toward biracial and multiracial students provided an outlet for students to explore and find comfort with their identity. For instance, one student said of participation in a program sponsored by the multicultural and services office on campus: “I went to the program before I came to school, it was like a preorientation event for multicultural students. So I met a ton of people there. Like, very few white people, but a lot of blacks and Indian, well mostly blacks, like a few East Indian, Asians. I got to meet a lot of people there, but then when I came to school it was good that I had those friends, but then, I had to branch out and meet everyone, so it’s nice because I can always go back to those friends.”

As Alissa R. King explained in the 2008 book, “Biracial and Multiracial Students,” student organizations for biracial and multicultural students are “exciting additions to the college campus” and bring “students of color together to talk about issues of race and ethnicity.” However, as some study participants noted, even organizations geared toward biracial students will not necessarily meet such students’ needs.

For study participants, finding safe spaces on campus was another contributing factor in their adjustment to college. The participants shared stories of not only joining student organizations but also of finding spaces where students of color could congregate and on-campus facilities that helped them feel safe on campus (e.g., the couches in the multicultural student services office). Additionally, unstructured spaces can be just as important as students of color claim them as their own. Union professionals will need to make sure that there are open, unrestricted spaces as well as spaces throughout the union where students can congregate and feel safe.

However, even with the best intentions, it is likely not all students of color or biracial students will feel a connection to that space. For example, one study participant described the college union dining area as a place where black students came to connect with friends and reinforce their identity. The participant went on to say that because there were not a large number of black students on campus, this space made him “feel comfortable.” Conversely, other study participants described this same “safe space” in the union as “daunting and unwelcome.” One such participant stated: “because there’s a table and that’s where are all the students of color sit and it’s for the freshmen and it’s like your automatic friends now. And I never felt like I could sit there. That bothered me. I mean I had my own friends to sit with, but it’s the principle.”

Student affairs professionals will need to be cognizant of the different experiences of biracial students and other students of color. While it would be easy to assume that because a student with dark skin identifies as an African American, it would be detrimental to that student, and ultimately the university community, to group students without consideration for their individual stories and differences. Jourdan documented how these students have been historically overlooked on campus. With changing U.S. demographics, it will be imperative for student affairs professionals to take the lead in advocating and being a voice for this group of students.

Student affairs professionals will need to ensure that biracial students are provided with the options and choices provided to all students. For example, one student said his work as a resident assistant helped him expand his network on campus. He stated: “I’m friends with all different types of people. And being an RA you meet so many different types of people that it’s hard to be friends with just one type of person.” His experience also helped him in connecting more with the black part of his ethnicity. The participant said: “One year, I had a whole lot of black residents … [and] the way you relate is different. When I was with my black residents, we would be joking and teasing each other all the time, and it was a lot of fun. I had a blast; I think they enjoyed it too. It was just a different way of relating. I think. If you were trying to relate with a white person like that, it’s hard to verbalize. It seemed that there’s more openness in that relationship, we joked about race all the time because they would be able to say stuff and I would be able to say stuff.”

Some study participants were automatically labeled as “black” and said that often others assumed they only wanted to affiliate with other black students or be involved in organizations geared specifically toward students of color. Many participants found that once they stepped onto their respective campuses, their skin color dictated where or with whom they should affiliate—whether the groups were greek organizations, student organizations, or friends. While some of the participants identified by society’s standards, others felt that society’s views were antiquated and they established their own identity and rules. These students wanted a normal college experience, and for many, that is exactly what they have experienced. From their views on dating to affiliating with student groups, the participants in this study made their own rules and shaped their experiences to suit their needs. As one student stated, “I’m very much a normal college student.”
Biracial students, like all people, have various layers to their identity. Renn’s five categories are a way of understanding this population’s ethnic self-portraits. Through the 2009 study’s data analysis, four themes emerged that encapsulated the experiences of biracial students: 1) The Search – Precollegiate experience, 2) Finding a Voice – The collegiate experience, 3) Breaking Free – Dealing with labels from society, and 4) Here’s Where I Am for Now – Biracial students’ evolving identity. These themes illustrated how complex and personal biracial student development can be. The biracial students in this study used their experiences with family and friends to define their identity. Once they reached college, their circle of friends, involvement in student organizations, and safe spaces on campus all contributed to students defining and redefining their biracial identity. These experiences all contributed to a generally positive experience for students in this study. Additionally, participants were able to define their place in society as a biracial individual and what role society should or should not play in their identity choices. Results showed that biracial identity is more than skin color; it is a complex process that starts before college and continues
through college.

College union and student activities professionals have an opportunity to enhance the educational environment in which biracial students develop their identities. With the understanding that biracial identity is complex and situational, professionals can create programs and services for students of color that also can be beneficial for biracial students. Among these, of course, are those clubs and organizations geared toward students of color that biracial students may not immediately see as involvement and leadership development opportunities. Facilities professionals can ensure that spaces on campus are welcoming to all students and that the policies for use of those buildings support students in formally and informally gathering. Finally, while it would stand to reason that “campus community builders” would not intentionally exclude biracial students from the options and choices provided to all students, it is important to assess the unique campus culture to ensure students feel included and to eliminate any inadvertent barriers to biracial students. This study is one example that there is still room for improvement.