Biracial individuals are those people who have racial heritage from more than one socially or legally recognized category (the U.S. government considers Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and five races: African American or Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, White). Also called, among other terms, multiracial, mixed race, hapa, or mixed heritage, individuals reporting more than one race comprised 2.4 percent of the total population estimate of the 2000 U.S. Census, and 6.3 percent of the Hispanic/Latino population. Four percent of the population under age 18, and 7.7 percent of those under age 18 with Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, reported more than race. A substantial number of these multiracial youth are school age, and the percentage of primary, secondary, and postsecondary students who are multiracial is expected to continue to grow throughout the twenty-first century. Because changes in the collection and reporting of data on race and ethnicity in education mandated by the federal government in 1997 are still in process, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of multiracial students in K–12 and postsecondary education.
Multiracial individuals may identify themselves in a number of ways, and research suggests that there is no one most healthy or more correct identification. Biracial youth and college students may identify with just one of their heritage groups, with both or all of their heritage groups, as part of a biracial or multiracial group, outside of racial categorization, or in some other way, according to the context. Gender, social class, religious, and sexual orientation identities may interact with biracial identity by contributing to the contextual cues. Physical appearance is also a major factor in multiracial identity, possibly more so for women than for men.
Biracial students of any identity find that educational settings may provide challenges and supports. In primary and secondary schools, biracial children may be unclear how to respond to “choose one race only” demographic questions on standardized tests, or may feel forced to choose an identity that they do not personally hold. Other children may ask, “What are you?” in their efforts to sort people into monoracial categories. Teachers and other adults in the school setting (e.g., classroom aides, administrators) may not recognize a person as a child’s parent when that person does not appear to be of the same race as the child. These everyday occurrences reinforce the dominant societal view that monoracial identity is “normal” and bior multiracial identity is not. Potentially positive outcomes of school life for biracial youth include an awareness that identity is not fixed, that there are other people who do not fit into one category, and that they are unique and special.
Multiracial college students report experiences on campus that similarly reinforce the predominance of monoraciality, but these students also express a more complex understanding of their identities in relation to those messages. On some campuses, biracial students experience pressure from members of organizations based on monoracial identity (e.g., Black Student Alliance, Asian Caucus) to conform to social norms of the group or risk ostracism. A lack of cultural knowledge or language may keep some biracial students from associating with peers from one of their heritage groups, and the perceived availability of support services for underrepresented students may depend on how or whether a biracial student identifies strongly with a particular heritage.
Colleges and universities are also sites for identity exploration and support. Courses related to a heritage or to multiracial issues support identity exploration, and the growing number of campus organizations and intercollegiate conferences for bior multiracial students provide opportunities to gather with others who may have similar experiences. Academic, social, and political experiences related to having more than one racial heritage seem to support development of confidence and comfort in a range of racial identification among multiracial college students.
The Use Of Data
Public schools represent one of the largest sectors required to collect and tabulate data on race and ethnicity. The data are used to allocate resources, to fund educational programs to promote success of underrepresented students, to assist in enforcement of school desegregation plans, and to examine trends in student ability grouping, promotion, and graduation. Before 1997 schools were stipulated by the federal government to assign only one race per person. The 1997 revisions in federal policy have resulted in changes to state and local practices in data collection in the K–12 schools; changes in postsecondary education data collection are expected to begin in 2009. The implications of the policy shift are not yet clear, but educational researchers and leaders are cautioned to be aware of how the changes impact the appearance of trend data.
As important as the shift in policy regarding collecting, aggregating, and reporting data on student race and ethnicity is the possibility for biracial individuals to change their self-identification over time.
Although it is unlikely for such shifts in identification to have a widespread impact in national or state level data, it is possible that local and institutional data will show some variance based on individual choices in self-identification. Self-identification is the federal government’s preferred method for assigning categories of race and ethnicity, and it is recommended that whenever possible, students (or their parents, in the case of younger children) be permitted to self-identify.
- Jones, N. A., & Smith, A. S. (2001). The two or more races population: 2000.
- Census 2000 Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Available from http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01–6.pdf
- Lopez, A. M. (2003). Mixed-race school-age children: A summary of Census 2000 data. Educational Researcher, 32, 25–37.
- Office of Management and Budget. (1997, October 30).
- Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. Federal Register Notice. Retrieved August 25, 2006, from http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/fedreg/1997standards.html
- Renn, K. A. (2004). Mixed race students in college: The ecology of race, identity, and community. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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