Equity & Diversity

Mixed-Race Youths Found More Prone To School Troubles

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 12, 2003 5 min read
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Students from more than one racial background are more likely than their single-race peers to experience trouble in school, such as repeating a grade, skipping school, and being suspended, a new study shows.

The study of 90,000 middle and high school students found that mixed-race youths also have a higher risk of health or behavior problems than teenagers of a single race. The study, which combined surveys and follow-up interviews with some students, found that all mixed-race students were more likely to report smoking, drinking, feeling depressed, having access to guns, and engaging in sexual activity.

“Overall, the pattern is overwhelming,” said J. Richard Udry, the lead author of the study, “Health and Behavior Risks of Adolescents with Mixed-Race Identity,” which will be published in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

But Mr. Udry, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina’s school of public health, cautioned that the study does not examine the causes of mixed-race students’ problems. One possible reason, he said, could be stress.

The needs of mixed-race students are more likely to be ignored than those of their single-race classmates, said Pedro A. Noguera, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Especially in schools that have strong racially defined groups, multiracial students can find themselves in “borderland,” he said, without feeling that they belong.

“In a lot of school districts, these kids are invisible,” Mr. Noguera said, noting that many schools don’t yet collect data about multiracial students.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 2.86 million children under the age of 18 were identified as multiracial, out of a total of 6.8 million people of mixed race. More than 281 million people live in the United States.

Self-Reports

The data collected for the study were drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as Add Health, a nationally representative, school- based probability sample of American students in grades 7-12 during 1994 and 1995. Mr. Udry is the principal investigator for that study at the Carolina Population Center, located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What makes the study of multiracial students unique was that students reported their races without referring to their parents’ races, Mr. Udry said. Students responded to surveys at school; some of those same students were later interviewed at home.

How students perceive themselves racially at school can differ greatly from how they view their own racial identities at home with their parents, Mr. Udry said. Some students, in fact, changed their racial identities during the course of the study.

The study found that multiracial students who identified themselves as black, along with another race, were more likely to skip school for 10 days and to be suspended, than their black classmates. Mixed-raced students with Asian heritage were more likely to skip school, be suspended, and repeat a grade than their Asian-only peers.

No one racial-identity combination in the study—which included black, Asian, white, and American Indian—seemed to place adolescents at greater risk, Mr. Udry said.

Because “Hispanic” refers to ethnicity, not race, that classification was not included.

In academic performance, multiracial students generally fell between the students who shared part of their racial identity.

About 24 percent of students who identified themselves as black and white, for example, reported that they earned a “high GPA,” compared with 32 percent of white students and 15 percent of black students.

Educators should consider the study’s findings as more people identify themselves as mixed-race, said Matt Kelley, the founder and president of the MAVIN Foundation, a Seattle-based national advocacy and resource organization for multiracial people. In California, Oregon, and Washington state, he said, more multiracial babies are being born than babies of any race other than white.

Society’s Role

Ed Taylor, an associate professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle whose research focuses on racial-identity development, said one of the greatest challenges that teachers face is providing children “with an accurate representation of the multiracial society that we truly are.”

Researchers and educators should be cautious when interpreting the causes of struggles experienced by multiracial children, said Francis Wardle, the co-author of Meeting the Needs of Multiethnic and Multiracial Children in Schools, published last month by Allyn & Bacon/Longman.

“It has nothing to do with [multiracial children’s] sense of who they are, but society’s sense of who they are,” said Mr. Wardle, who is the father of four biracial children.

Multiracial students often are harassed by single-race peers who pressure them to choose one identity, Mr. Wardle said. He added that some counselors and psychologists falsely assume, however, that any problem that a multiracial child experiences is linked to his or her self-identity.

Mr. Kelley, who is Korean and white, said he could personally relate to the stress inferred from the findings of the study of mixed-race students.

“It’s the reality of living in a society that still tries to pigeonhole people, and particularly children, into one specific category,” he said.

Although the 2000 Census allowed respondents to choose more than one race, many schools and districts still don’t collect data in a way that allows mixed-race students to identify themselves, Mr. Kelley said.

Maria P.P. Root, a Seattle-based psychologist and a noted author of books and studies about multiracial people, said mixed-race students may experience more stress, but how that translates into harmful behavior such as criminal activity or dropping out of school is unclear.

“Being mixed-race, in and of itself, is not a stressful experience,” she said. “It’s people’s reactions that are stressful. It’s society that’s creating the stress.”

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