Which Box to Check?

June 3, 2005

Multiracial people on college campuses are often forced to identify with only one race, according to those who attended a discussion Thursday at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.

About 30 students, faculty members and administrators attended the session, held in a Manhattan hotel. Many had stories to share about feeling pressured to claim the identity of a particular race by people who judge them based on appearance. At the moderators’ request, no direct quotations were to be used from the session itself, but some participants agreed to offer insight outside the session.

Several students said they had a desire to participate in racial groups on campus, such as a black student union, but they worried that doing so would leavs out the heritage of one of their parents. “Some students would go to welcoming receptions for a particular racial group,” said Marc Johnston, academic specialist in the Office of Support Services at Michigan State University. “But they didn’t fully identify, so they never went back to that group.”

“What happens is, for example, if a student goes to a black student organization,” said Jaray Harvey, director of residence life at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, “they have to identify as black, not with their Puerto Rican side.”

In response, multiracial groups are appearing at some institutions. A small group of students at Michigan State are starting M.I.X. — multiracial identity experience — in the fall. “Some of them are already in monoracial groups,” Johnston said, “but they feel it’s important to have this too.”

But multiracial groups are not always an answer, attendees agreed. Some such groups become just another collection of people with mixed backgrounds forced to focus only on what they have in common. Or, “some multiracial organizations just don’t deal with race at all,” Harvey said. “That might not be what some students are looking for either.”

Mid-session, the moderators began a novel exercise. One of them put down a strip of duct tape in the middle of the room. One side of the tape was designated “disagree,” and the other “agree.” Participants' distance from the tape indicated the strength of their answers.

The first question asked whether multiracial students should be forced to identify as “people of color.” A bit of milling around and several light collisions later, 6 of the 26 people in the room at the time stepped to the “agree” side. One reason offered by one of the six was that multiracial students should realize that they will be categorized by others according to their skin, like it or not. Among those disagreeing some thought it unfair that students have to deny part of their racial identity, and said that such a choice could force them into uncomfortable political allegiances.

The second question asked whether participants thought monoracial groups on their campuses encouraged multiracial students to participate. The room split evenly on whether multiracial students are encouraged, with some who agreed saying that they did so only in cases where part of a student’s background matched the monoracial group. Like all of the questions, people generally clustered near the neutral line, but on this one several representatives from California institutions were all the way against the “agree” wall.

The room split exactly evenly on whether “it is easier for white people to deal with” people who identify with only one race. Much discussion ensued about the meaning of “deal with.” In the final question, participants were asked if they think multiracial groups on campus are unintentionally divisive. A small majority disagreed, but the louder voice came from those who agreed. Several people who agreed said that monoracial groups often view multiracial groups as diffusing a community that “needs allies.”

All participants agreed that the proliferation of multiracial groups would generally be a good thing. But some said that group organizers must be given training to deal with multiracial issues, which could be difficult given the financial situations of many institutions. “Organizers are expected to know everything, but they need training too,” said Toni Hankins, a student on the diversity board at Rutgers. “And I would like anger management to deal with some of my experience. Organizers have needs too.”

Some institutions have practically no community at all within which to foster discussion on multiracial issues. “We are the whitest state in the Union,” said Phyllis Brazee, associate professor of education at the University of Maine at Orono. “I wish we had more dialogue, but it’s not always easy in our circumstance.”

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