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This Just Published: Biracial students

by Brittany Ota-Malloy | Dec 14, 2017

This Just Published logo, 480 pixelsBrittany Ota-Malloy is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a student support specialist in the Dean of Students Office and an ELPA teaching assistant. Her research interest includes the study of multiracial college students, their experiences, and contributions. She is also interested in the experiences of Black women in college and student activism in higher education.

Ota-Malloy, Brittany Wilton, L. S., Rattan, A., & Sanchez, D. T. (2017). White’s perceptions of biracial individual’s race shift when biracials speak out against bias. Social Psychological & Personality Science, 1-9.

View the journal article.

Acts of prejudice and bias persist in people’s daily lives in both overt and covert ways. For example, in our current political landscape, national leaders endorse comments and beliefs that uphold racial stereotypes, disregard women’s rights, and belittle minoritized religious groups. Those who speak out against these acts of prejudice often face punishment​, as did Jemele Hill, a television host who was suspended from the air for comments made about Donald Trump on her social media profile. Under these conditions, it is important to consider the impacts, particularly at the personal level, of speaking out against bias. The Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science published an article based on Wilton, Rattan, and Sanchez’s two-experiment quantitative study of how White’s perceptions of biracial individuals’ race shift when biracials speak out against bias.

The authors described the act of speaking out against bias as a necessary mechanism for reducing prejudice. In their literature review, the authors noted that when people do speak out against prejudice, the messages are better received when they come from majority group members, and the consequences are greater for racial minorities that disrupt bias. In this study, the authors introduce a new consequence of speaking out against prejudice: shifting perceptions of racial identity. These perceptions have a lasting impact, as individuals viewed as “more minority” may experience more racial discrimination than their peers. Therefore, this study asserts that Black/White biracials who confront bias are observed as more Black than White, and those biracials who choose silence are viewed as more White than Black.

The authors employed two experiments to test their predictions, that (1) White perceivers would view a Black/White biracial person who confronted bias as more Black than White, and that (2) White perceivers would view a Black/White biracial person who confronted bias as more physiologically and biologically Black. Both experiments asked White participants to make inferences about subjects based on two conditions: race (Black v. biracial) and confrontation (no confront v. confront) using photos, background information, and personal essays from the subjects. The authors’ findings support their initial hypotheses that White perceivers viewed biracial subjects as more Black identifying, more stigmatized, and more stereotypically Black when they confronted prejudice. Biracials who confronted bias were also viewed as having more Black features, and a greater percent of Black ancestry.

This study’s strength is in its novel approach to understanding shifting perceptions of race as a consequence of speaking out against bias. This is especially important for biracials, as Whites’ perceptions of monoracial Black subjects did not shift whether they had confronted bias or remained silent in this study. The authors named many of the study’s limitations (i.e. focus on only Black/White biracials, Black stereotype choices, lack of present context or participant experiences) and set a strong foundation for future research. However, I was unclear about the representation of the monoracial Black subject. Because the study used skin shade as a measure of Blackness, and not all Black people are dark skinned, inferences about the Black subject are likely most true for dark-skinned Black people. Also, the participants were shown a photo of the biracial person and Black person before reading their background information. The photos were also shown among a full array of photos where the skin color and features of the individual changed in percentage increments from more White to more Black. By labeling the photo of the biracial subject as 50 percent Black to White, the researchers may influence participants’ visualizations of biracials as only having mid-range skin shades and may uphold notions about racial purity or quantification.

All in all, Wilton, Rattan, and Sanchez’s remarkable approach to understanding how White students perceive of biracial students who confront bias is a necessary addition to previous research on the consequences of perception. They lay the groundwork for deeper understanding about shifting perceptions of race for biracial people.

Matsumura, J. L. (2017). Hakujin: A narrative of multiraciality and student development theory in the US. The Vermont Connection, 38(1), 14.

View the journal article.

Theory is important in defining how the world operates. Student development theory frames our understanding about how students develop, both interpersonally and cognitively, through their college-based experiences. While the population of multiracial students on college campuses continues to increase, there has been little theoretical growth regarding the unique development experiences of these students. The Vermont Connection recently published an article written by Jenna Matsumura, a biracial “Japanese-American-Woman-of-Color.” The article focuses on two theories specific to multiracial students: Renn’s ecology theory and Harris’ multicrit. Matsumura applies Renn’s ecological theory of identity development to her own life, providing a vivid snapshot of the theory at work. She also highlights recent development of critical race theory, making the theory even more applicable to multiracial individuals and groups, and provides direction for further development of multiracial identity theory.

Using a critical-constructivist paradigm, which combines aspects of critical theory and co-constructivism, Matsumura applies Renn’s ecological model of mixed-race identity development to her own life, illustrating seamlessly each sphere of influence therein. She described the term hakujin as the experience of living on the border, being an outsider. Renn’s model is useful in understanding how specific interactions in a given context influence identity growth, particularly for people on the borders. Ecological contexts include the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem of the subject. Matsumura explored her development in each of these contexts.

In her ecological system, the author discusses the concept of monoracism, the intolerance of multiracial people by monoracial people, as a present feature in her macrosystem, the larger social context of the United States. She recalled her mother’s strategic decision to choose one race or another on school surveys growing up. Mesosystems, the interactions between and among groups, inform students about where they belong on campus. The author’s mesosystem consists of peer groups and affinity centers that safely nurture learning about her own racial identities. Most closely, the microsystem consists of friends, family, and media that directly shape multiracial students’ understandings of how permeable their identities are given the context. In full view, ecological theory provides a snapshot of multiracial identity in a set time and place.

Matsumura is also interested in the theoretical future of multiracial identity development. She understands the element of time to be a limitation in Renn’s ecological model, as it does not allow one to consider long-term or systematic forms of oppression as relevant in present identity claims. The author noted that multicrit, a new expansion of critical race theory (CRT), provides the most flexibility and power for mixed-race people to dig deep into the systemic structures of race and racism. Multicrit expands the original tenets of CRT from ​four to eight. Pushing away from a monoracist Black/White binary, the multicrit approach should reveal structural determinism and address racism, monoracism, and colorism, among other goals.

A major strength of this work is Matsumura’s use of her personal background, which served as a clarifying tool to better understand Renn’s ecological model of identity development. The author advocates for more identity development theories that get at multiple and sometimes contending identities. By expanding what we know about systemic and theoretical barriers to mixed-race students, faculty, and staff on college campuses will be better equipped to support this growing student population.

Harris, J. C. & BrckaLorenz, A. (2017). Black, White, and Biracial students’ engagement at differing institutional types. Journal of College Student Development, 58(5), 783-789.

View the journal article.

Student engagement includes participation in educational experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. In college, student engagement is bidirectional, including efforts of both the student and their institution. Research has shown that student engagement is different for students of varying racial identities at different institutional types. Findings of this research support the notion that Black students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) may be more engaged than their peers at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). The Journal of College Student Development recently published an article based on Harris and BrckaLorenz’s study about Black, White, and biracial students’ engagement across differing institutional types. It is the first study to compare the engagement of Black, White, and mixed-race students at HBCUs and non-HBCUs.

The study is rooted in the premise that (1) increased diversity is better for everyone, (2) racial identity and instructional type matter in determining students’ engagement practices, and (3) that mixed-race students may experience race differently than their single-race peers. The authors specifically sought to unveil differences in engagement between Black, White, and biracial students at HBCUs and at non-HBCUs. They also wanted to understand if engagement of mixed-race students was different across institutional type. Utilizing data from the 2013 and 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the authors measured 10 engagement indicators (e.g. higher order learning, discussions with diverse others, etc.), as well as students’ perceived gains. Among their many interesting results, Harris and BrckaLorenz found that within HBCUs and non-HBCUs biracial students engaged in more meaningful conversations with diverse others than Black students. They also found that at non-HBCUs, biracial students are less academically challenged, work less with peers, and seem less satisfied than their Black peers. Overall, biracial students at non-HBCUs are better engaged than at HBCUs.

This study supports previous research on student engagement and further distinguishes engagement between Black, White, and biracial students in college. The amount and proportion of survey responses represents both the strength and limitation of the study. While the study utilizes survey responses of over 340,000 students, and the proportions of Black and White students are typical for institution type, less than 1 percent represents mixed-race student responses. As the population of mixed-race college students increases, more voices are needed to clarify what is known about their engagement in college. In their rich discussion section, the authors raise several relevant questions that challenge researchers to interrogate their understandings of student engagement. They suggest further study with specific focus on the quality of biracial students’ interactions at both HBCUs and non-HBCUs, and evaluation of how the racial makeup and intersecting identities of biracial students influence their engagement. Harris and BrckaLorenz pave the way for future research on engagement practices and quality of engagement for students at both HBCUs and non-HBCUs.

Contributor's note: I feel strongly that in my writing the “B” in Black should be capitalized. For me, and for many other American Black people who lack knowledge about their African ethnic roots, capitalizing the “B” in Black signifies that​ Blackness is my ethnic identity and culture, not only my race. I use it as a proper noun, similar to American, Asian, Ghanaian, Chippewa, or Pasadena.

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