Patterns of Situational Identity Among Biracial and Multiracial College Students

Patterns of Situational Identity Among Biracial and Multiracial College Students

The Review of Higher Education
Volume 23, Number 4 (Summer 2000)
pages 399–420
E-ISSN: 1090-7009, Print ISSN: 0162-5748
DOI: 10.1353/rhe.2000.0019

Kristen A. Renn, Associate Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education
Michigan State University

Using qualitative grounded theory framed by postmodern racial identity theory, the author explored the experience of 24 bi- and multiracial students at three postsecondary institutions. Five patterns of racial identification emerged, with peer culture and campus demographics as the major determinants of students’ identity. These findings, with insights into multiracial students’s experiences, can model how to explore other areas of socially constructed identity. It also introduces a conditional model for how students create new identity-based space on campus.

Despite significant and increasing numbers of biracial and multiracial students, almost nothing is known about their development and interactions in the college environment. This topic has special relevance to higher education at a time when multiraciality has become a matter of political and popular interest. A political movement of mixed-race people emerged in the last decade, demanding attention to mixed-race students in K-12 education and changes in data collection by racial group membership on the U.S. 2000 census (Schnaiberg, 1997; Yemma, 1997). For the first time, census respondents will be offered the option of selecting one or more racial categories (Baron, 1998; U.S. Office, 1997).

Prior to the October 1997 change in the census guidelines, studies showed that less than 2% of the population claimed to belong to more than one of the government’s existing racial categories (Schmidt, 1997). While this number is not very large compared to the general population, a change in how these individuals indicated their racial group categorization on the census could significantly influence racial group statistics used to enforce various civil rights laws (Baron, 1998). In the ongoing battle over access, equity, and affirmative action policy in higher education, racial statistics matter. At present there is no accurate count of multiracial students and no systems in place to deal with the new check-as-many-as-apply option.

This study does not attempt to develop such a system, but it begins to explore how multiracial students might see themselves in the context of higher education. While raising larger questions about the use of racial categories in higher education, this study focused on how campus peer culture influenced the ways in which multiracial students made meaning of their racial identity in college. Using qualitative grounded theory framed by postmodern racial identity theory, I explored how multiracial students’ interactions with peers, involvement in activities, and academic work influenced the kinds of identity-based spaces they chose to occupy and what caused them to create new, multiracial spaces on the monoracially defined campus landscape. Among 24 students at three institutions who identified themselves as biracial or multiracial, five patterns emerged in how students occupied existing identity-based spaces on campus or created new, multiracial spaces. The major determinants of students’ identity choices were campus racial demographics and peer culture. I developed a conditional model to explain the construction of public multiracial space on campus and ask how it might be applied in other situations.

The results of this study provide insight into the experience of multiracial students and can be used as a model to explore multiracial students’ lives at other institutions, as well as to explore other areas of socially constructed identity (gender, sexuality, class) on campus. The study builds on the multiracial identity development literature and fills a gap in college student development literature. It does not claim to represent the lives of all multiracial students, but it raises issues and questions that transcend institutional boundaries: How do students choose, create, and occupy public space on campus? How does peer culture mediate these choices? How might higher education address the needs of a growing population of multiracial people through programs, services, and policies?…

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