When the Boxes No Longer Fit

Many more multiracial students are coming to colleges, and institutions must reconstruct their landscapes to foster a sense of belonging for them, write Kate Hermsmeyer, George Dou and Kelsey Oberbroeckling.

November 23, 2021
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What are you? What racial box do you check on forms? Are you more Black or white?

These questions are only a few of the microaggressions ever so familiar to people who hold multiracial identities. We as a society subconsciously put individuals into categories based on our preconceived notions of appearance. Those who feel they do not fit into just one racial category often have a sense of isolation and lack of belonging, especially when joining an academic community.

How do we shift away from this antiquated way of thinking? We need to challenge ourselves to rethink the constructs of race and ask ourselves what we can do to help increasing numbers of students from multiracial backgrounds feel included in our communities.

What does the current landscape look like for multiracial students? In higher education, students who identify as multiracial have been simultaneously oppressed and neglected as a result of societal and institutional practices that construct a monoracial-only view of race. Such practices on college campuses leave multiracial students in a vulnerable position, as they reflect a lack of recognition, infrastructure and comprehensive understanding of how oppression and microaggressions manifest in those students’ day-to-day experiences.

The fact is, however, that multiracial Americans are one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, growing at a rate approximately three times the national average. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the population of white and Black biracial Americans more than doubled, and the population of white and Asian biracial adults grew by 87 percent.

And as the multiracial population in the country has increased, it has also grown significantly on college campuses. For example, in 2010, a majority—56 percent—of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders identified as multiracial, as did 15 percent of the Asian American population.

As graduate students beginning our studies in the field of higher education administration last year during a pandemic and fight for racial justice, we’ve had the distinct opportunity to witness this scenario firsthand. The students we serve are more diverse than ever, and they are demanding an environment in which their diverse identities are celebrated. But we have also seen a lack of acknowledgment of those students’ multiracial identities in institutional practices. As future student affairs professionals, we are tasked with encouraging students to explore both their diverse communities and identities, but we often find ourselves thinking, “How can we help multiracial students when few, if any, campus initiatives offer support to those who hold these multiple identities as the sum of who they are?”

For multiracial students, feeling a connection to their campus does not come as easily as it does for their monoracial counterparts. “It was excruciating, because I had to decide which part of my identity to leave out,” Callie Folke, a student who identifies as multiracial, told Insight into Diversity. “I don’t like picking ‘other,’ because that makes me feel as though I’m some kind of alien.”

We already know that students from minoritized populations—including Black, Hispanic, Native American and first-generation college students—report a lower sense of belonging compared to their more privileged peers. Simply put, students who identify with more than one racial identity do not fit into neat, monoracial categories like “Black” or “white.” The monoracial college campus is often confusing and not structured in a way that supports the intersection of more than one identity. Identity-based spaces and organizations, like a Black Student Union, for example, may not feel accommodating to students with multiracial identities. Often, by being forced to choose one identity, students “feel as though they are ignoring part of themselves.”

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A concerning outcome of the societal expectation to fit into one racial category is the impact on students’ psychological and emotional well-being and, ultimately, academic performance. For students of color, racial identity development is a critical aspect of psychological development. Ambiguous racial appearance is one of the main factors that prevents students from feeling a sense of belonging on college campuses. Those students often grapple with experiences of isolation, rejection and low self-concept.

Creating a New Normal

Moving forward, colleges and universities must re-evaluate their monoracial structures and undertake greater efforts to wholly understand the racial diversity and experiences of students on their campuses. Specifically, they must affirm the realities and identities of their multiracial students. Only then can those students feel a sense of belonging and comfort on college campuses.

As students ourselves, we know personally what it takes to be successful and feel supported. To best support multiracial students on campuses, we recommend several areas in which colleges and universities can improve their practices.

First, we recommend the introduction of trainings and workshops for faculty and staff to enhance their understanding of the growing numbers of college students who identify as multiracial and how they can best support their success. Faculty and staff members need to be aware of best practices in supporting students’ exploration of their racial identities. Students should feel comfortable expressing and exploring all parts of their racial and ethnic heritage.

Institutions should also encourage their faculty and staff members to explore their own racial and ethnic identities. We need to evaluate our own potential biases and engage in introspection. Having faculty and staff members fully express and embrace their own identities is extremely beneficial to multiracial students who might be apprehensive or unsure of how to embrace their identities. In addition, colleges and universities should work to recruit multicultural faculty members so as to foster diverse perspectives and a greater sense of belonging among students.

Our next recommendation is for colleges and universities to examine how harmful structures such as monoracism and colorism are embedded on an institutional level in order to understand how those structures adversely impact multiracial students in practice. Initial steps to take could include disaggregating data for multiracial students, staff and faculty, as well as allowing them to identify how they choose on university surveys and other means of institutional data collection. Practitioners should also evaluate what current institutional structures and practices uphold or perpetuate monoracism and render the multiracial population of students invisible—and what new ones might serve instead to validate their identities and existence.

Most campuses have identity spaces as part of their student center portfolio, with names like “Black Student Union” or “Asian Student Association,” for example. Such spaces are meant to bring people of the same racial identity together and build community and a sense of belonging. But those spaces rarely consider the distinct needs of multiracial students. Thus, our final recommendation is for institutions to create identity spaces and programs that specifically acknowledge multiracial students separate from traditional monoracial identity spaces and initiatives so that multiracial students will feel a stronger sense of community. At the same time, existing racial identity spaces should have a stronger focus on intersectionality. The directors of those spaces should weave lessons about intersectionality into the services that they provide and offer programming that encourages learning, acceptance and understanding of the multiracial experience.

Now that students have returned to campuses, we urge faculty and staff members to advocate for a new normal: one in which the fight for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts extends to people with multiracial identities. As higher education leaders take steps to better support multiracial students, we must be vigilant and proactive in understanding their needs and experiences as they navigate a new landscape that is being reconstructed and reimagined to include their growing presence in it.


Kate Hermsmeyer, George Dou and Kelsey Oberbroeckling are master’s degree students in higher education administration at North Carolina State University.

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