Mixed-Race Studies: Misstep or the next step for Ethnic Studies in a blending nation?

Mixed-Race Studies: Misstep or the next step for Ethnic Studies in a blending nation?

Portland State University McNair Research Journal
Volume 7, 2013
25 pages

Jennifer E. Robe
Portland State University

In January of 2011, The New York Times reported that 2010 U.S. Census data shows that younger generations are self-reporting their racial identity as multiracial or mixed-race in higher numbers than ever before1. Classes in higher education that engage with race and ethnicity, often but not always as part of Ethnic Studies programs in universities, discuss and critique the categorizations of race and ethnicity. However, there is a social, political and economic power and privilege that groups have in being recognized as part of a categorized racial and/or ethnic group that mixed-race or multiracial identified individuals do not have when their identity is underrepresented or unrepresented. There is a very small number (under ten) universities in the U.S. that offer courses or programs that focus their study on a mixed-race identity. The potential problem in this change is a growing mixed-race identified population is the possibility that a growing number of students in classes that will not find a curriculum that centers on their racial experiences. That is the question I will address – are the racial experiences and understandings of mixed-race identified people being addressed in classes that engage with and critique race? I survey a small sample of students currently enrolled in classes which engage with race and ethnicity at Oregon universities about their racial experiences to find out if they see mixed-race studies as having a place in the future of “Ethnic Studies” classes in higher education.


Race is not as simple as checking a box or a category on a form. Race is an identity, a lifetime of experiences; it is complex, fluid and a piece of one‘s self that holds many contradictions. I am writing from the standpoint that racism is real, and I will not be constructing an argument which seeks to support nor challenge the existence of institutional racism in the United States and globally. However, in the pursuit of knowledge, which is ideally a fundamental piece of higher education, it is my intention to analyze the examination of race in university classrooms where the curriculum centers upon the discussion and critique of race and ethnicity. In this essay I will first explain how racial categorizations came into use, the history that surrounds those parameters of race, the institutional inequity that has accompanied racial categorizations and the fluctuation of those categories up until the present time. I argue that racial categorizations do not accurately document racial identities and experiences and also that higher education is the platform by which we can effectively critique ongoing racial and ethnic categorization. Ideally it is also a place where space is created for students to learn and explain their own racial experiences and histories.

Despite the ambiguity of racial and ethnic identifications (which I discuss in detail later on) many academic programs have been set up to teach the experiences and histories of groups of people, such as Black and African-American Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Native and Indigenous Nations Studies, Asian Studies etc. Currently there are some (very few) universities that are beginning to include classes on Mixed-Race Studies as well. My field research is a survey with 49 students in Oregon universities currently enrolled in classes that critically engage with the subject of race and ethnicity.

What I explore in my research is if students view these classes (where curriculum centers on a mixed-race or multiracial identity) as having a place in higher education and whether or not the study would be helpful or counterproductive in the debate around the usefulness of racial and ethnic categorizations. Radical political, racially-based movements of the 1950s through the 1970s fought to create visibility of racial groups in efforts to discuss the very real oppression and racial inequality they were experiencing because of their race. One of the things they shared was a demand for the right to an education that taught their own racial histories and experiences. In her book Ethnic Options, Mary Waters argues that ethnic categories do not encompass the experience of ethnicity and ethnic identity for all people. From her own research into census data on self-reported ancestry, she writes:

One thing that became clear from the data was that there was an awful lot of flux going on among these later-generation Americans—intermarriage was high, parents were not giving the same ancestry for their children as for themselves, and re-interview studies indicated that some people were changing their minds about their ancestry from survey to survey.

I agree with Waters assertions although my research examines those who are not necessarily able to categorize their identity and experiences in a nation where we are still required to categorize ourselves. In looking at the experiences of mixed-race and multiracial identified people and the experience of occupying that middle-place between categorizations. I will argue later on that people do experience privilege by having a place in the categorization of race. If we were to agree with Waters‘ argument that categorizations of ancestry do not work, then we are ignoring the experience of gaining privilege and access to communities and resources through “passing” and/or being able to choose a category to fit into. As Margaret Hunter writes in “The Beauty Queue: Advantages of Light Skin” [in Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone], “In the United States, color, more than any other physical characteristic, signifies race. But  “color” is also an attribute of individuals—human skin tone varies within and across ‘race’ categories.” What Hunter is arguing is that beauty, privilege and power are associated with light skin even within communities of color, and color creates a rift within communities based on a narrative which effectively oppresses all people of color. Skin color has the ability to determine if an individual experiences empowerment and/or ostracism within their own community as well as within the narrative of the dominant (in this case White) group. The issue of race difference and color difference are inextricably linked to systemic inequality. Although being able to “pass” as part of a marginalized community may allow for a person to have visibility, “passing” as part of the dominant community associates one with the position of the oppressor. This position of negotiating ones identity in order to gain or lose visibility and access to resources is an experience that some mixed-race people encounter; which are unique experiences that differ from being part of a recognized racial group.

The question I asked in my field research is—do mixed-race students feel that their experiences are being adequately engaged with in their education—I explore their responses for an answer to whether or not mixed-race studies, a study based on a new racial category can and whether or not they should have a place in the future of higher education…

…The criminalization of interracial sex was in place to prevent racial mixing that ultimately, as [Paul] Finkelman describes, “stemmed from the creation of slavery.” But miscegenation laws were not ruled unconstitutional until over one hundred years after legal slavery ended in the United States. A mixed-race person in the context of this history was viewed as a product of sexual transgression rooted in the fear of Black and White interracial sexual relationships. But as Rainier Spencer argues in Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix some view a mixed-race identity as a bridge of multiculturalism to deconstruct the Black/White dichotomy. However, as he writes,

As is the case with so much of multiracial ideology, the claim of racial bridging is merely stated without the least bit of critical backing, while no one inside the movement, and precious few outside it, care to point out the inconsistency. It is no more than an unproven desire, a case of wishful thinking, based on a supposed alterity of multiracial people that harks back to the marginal man.

The “marginal man” that Spencer refers to was a fictional archetype character created by Sociologist Robert Ezra Parks that was meant to embody a person whose occupied two opposing racial or ethnic groups. So Rainier [Spencer] critiques the viability of this ideology of mixed-race people being a “bridge” or a carrier of racial understanding. By adding another category of race, we are unable to break down the current constructions of race as we are still lacking the objectivity or neutrality to do so in our discourse on race.

Read the entire article here.

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