Equity & Diversity

Mixed Heritage Said to Present Complex Issues

By Debra Viadero — January 21, 2009 8 min read

With Barack Obama making history by becoming the United States’ first mixed-race president, his inauguration is calling attention to the nation’s growing multiracial population, whose youngest members are showing up with increasing frequency at schoolhouse doors.

Yet while the growth of the U.S. population of children with mixed-race backgrounds has been long in coming, little is known about how such children are doing in the classroom. Few studies have examined the distinctive challenges they may face growing up—challenges like those Mr. Obama chronicled in his own best-selling memoir. And even fewer have tracked the educational progress of mixed-race children.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, which was the first in which people could check off more than one racial category on their census forms, 6.8 million people were identified as multiracial, and a majority of them were under 18. In at least 10 states, in fact, more than a quarter of the school-age children were listed as multiracial.

"What Are You?"

Teenagers from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington state created what the Seattle-based Mavin Foundation calls “identi-doodles” on sticky notes during a workshop exercise that asked them to answer the question “What are you?”

BRIC ARCHIVE

BRIC ARCHIVE

BRIC ARCHIVE

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Louie Gong/the Mavin Foundation

While precise statistics on such students are hard to find, some indications suggest their numbers have expanded significantly in recent decades. The 1960 U.S. Census, for example, counted 157,000 couples composed of people from different races.

By 1970, that number had doubled. The corresponding figure for 1980, in turn, was triple the 1970 count. By 1992, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the number had pushed past 1 million.

It stands to reason, writes Maria P.P. Root, a clinical psychologist from Seattle who has studied students from multiracial backgrounds, that the offspring of those unions have been entering classrooms at a similar rate of increase.

“The academic community and the political community are way behind the reality,” said Francis Wardle, a Seattle educator who maintains an online information clearinghouse called the Center for the Study of Biracial Children.

‘Forever an Outsider’

Early studies on multiracial children and young adults suggested that, despite the very visible successes of mixed-race celebrities such as the actress Halle Berry and the golfer Tiger Woods, there may be cause for concern about the difficulties that multiracial children can undergo.

Some show, for example, that multiracial students face struggles with their racial identities and with fitting into their communities, and that they may be more prone to depression and substance abuse than children from single-race families.

More-recent studies, however, draw a picture that is more complicated and contradictory.

Mr. Obama, in his 1995 book Dreams From My Father, wrote that with a white mother from the United States and a black father from Kenya, he felt a “constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t, I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.”

That description resonates with Tracy Rector, a 37-year-old filmmaker and educator of mixed-race heritage who lives in Seattle.

“I was so alone and withdrawn that the principal called in my parents to talk about my so-called ‘drug problem,’ ” Ms. Rector, who is of Native American, African-American, white, and Mexican-American ancestry, recalled of an incident when she was in 6th grade. She said her depression lifted and her grades improved later on in middle school, when she was befriended by a group of Asian-American students, the racial group for which she was most often mistaken.

A 2003 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that mixed-race middle and high-school students were more likely than their single-race peers to experience trouble in school, such as repeating a grade, skipping school, or being suspended, or to smoke, drink, engage in sexual activity, or suffer depression. (“Mixed-Race Youths Found More Prone To School Troubles,” Nov. 12, 2003.)

But when another group of researchers looked at the same data and focused only on multiracial and single-race children living in two-parent families—to compare “apples to apples"—the results differed. The authors did find multiracial students more likely than their white counterparts to be held back a grade in school, suspended, or expelled. Their self-reported grades were not much different, though.

Likewise, rates of substance abuse, smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug-taking—were similar for boys in both multiracial and white groups and for girls in each of those groups.

Writing in 2002 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, the study’s authors said their findings suggested that “some of the clinical impressions dominating the literature may be overstatements of the extent and range of problematic outcomes for multiracial offspring.”

Testing Theories

Melissa R. Herman, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., suggested that a more negative picture may have emerged from studies in the 1990s and earlier, in part because they were “based on clinical samples” that drew from a population that may have been more troubled from the start.

“Most of the modern stuff is showing some of [a] happier side,” she said.

A forthcoming study by Ms. Herman illustrates some of the difficulty of getting a statistical handle on the multiracial-student population. For her study, she analyzed survey data from seven high schools in northern California and Wisconsin in an effort to see whether theories commonly used to explain differences in achievement gaps between single-race groups would apply to a sample of multiracial students. None fit neatly, Ms. Herman found.

What did seem to matter was whether students had already established records of solid academic performance, students’ beliefs about whether doing well in school would help them personally get ahead in life, and the racial contexts of the schools they attended, among other factors.

Ms. Herman’s data also suggested that multiracial students in “whiter” neighborhoods and academic tracks tended to get better grades than those in settings with larger concentrations of minority students.

The study, due to be published this month in the journal Sociology of Education, also found that the way in which students identified their own race had a bigger impact on their grades than their actual ancestry, with students’ academic achievement tending to mirror that of the racial group to which they felt closest.

“I think teachers need to be more aware of multiracial kids, that they exist, and to notice them, and treat them as individuals,” Ms. Herman said.

Troubles at School

Often, though, biracial children complain that teachers and classmates tend to pigeonhole them by their appearance, noted Ms. Root, the Seattle psychologist.

“When schools have ‘black history’ month in February, there’s been a lot of discrimination of multiracial kids trying to interject certain things into the class discussion and having fellow students or teachers shutting them down,” she said.

“One of the things educators can do,” she said, “is become more educated about the monoracial bias of the system.”

Ms. Root said the students she has interviewed also describe having to pass “authenticity tests” to gain acceptance from a group of single-race peers, often by publicly rejecting friends who are of the same race as one of their parents.

“Mixed-race isn’t post-race, it’s more race,” said Louie Gong, the president of the board of the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit group that promotes awareness of multiracial issues.

“You have to resist pointing to the growing population and saying it’s an indication that we can begin to forget about race issues,” he said.

Some case studies by Ms. Root and others also suggest that children’s self-described racial identifications can shift. In one such study, Ms. Root even identified siblings who asserted different racial identities, despite sharing an identical lineage.

Data Dilemmas

One reason researchers know so little about multiracial children is that most large federal surveys, up until recently, failed to account for such students.

To expand the range of racial and ethnic choices available to survey respondents, the White House Office of Management and Budget in 1997 issued new guidelines for federal data collection.

But, more than a decade later, the U.S. Department of Education, which manages many of the large surveys that education researchers use for their analyses, has yet to implement the guidelines.

In final rules issued on the topic in 2007, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the department postponed the changes until the 2010-11 school year to give schools and other agencies more time to get ready. (Ed. Dept. Requires Changes in Race, Ethnicity Reporting,” Oct. 23, 2007.)

When the new rules take effect, schools will be expected to collect data on students’ racial and ethnic identities using a two-question format. First, families will be asked whether the students are “Hispanic/Latino.” Then they will be able to choose one or more of the following five categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; black or African-American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; or white.

The importance of having more-precise racial identifications on surveys goes beyond their utility for research, said Mr. Gong of the Mavin Foundation; it also prevents multiracial people from having to choose “sides” and acknowledges the complexity of their existence.

The OMB guidelines were spurred in part by growing advocacy efforts on the part of multiracial families. “It used to be that people would identify themselves the way they were expected to identify,” Ms. Root said. “Now, depending on what part of the country they live in, and depending on whether they live in communities where there are other multiracial kids, they’ll say, ‘I’m multiracial’ and will refuse to put racial markers on it.

“That’s very different from a generation ago,” Ms. Root said.

Ms. Rector, the filmmaker and educator, sees her own sons as more secure about who they are than she was at their ages.

Still, her younger son, 7-year-old Solomon Calvert-Adera, found Mr. Obama’s presidential victory to be a bit of a revelation. He asked his mother, “Does this mean that I can be president, too, someday?”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Mixed Heritage Said to Present Complex Issues

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