Orkideh Mohajeri, Ph.D.
March 4, 2019
“Mixed kids are gonna save the world!” This is a statement that is oft heard and part of larger discourse about the future of racism in the United States. Statements such as this imply that mixed race children and youth are going to resolve the racial strife and difficulties that exist in the U.S. simply by their very existence! This sentiment also effectively places responsibility for such healing labor at the feet of mixed individuals, thereby absolving others of involvement. In my study of 20 undergraduate and graduate students who self-identified as having a mixed race or multiracial experience (Mohajeri, 2018), concepts of racial healing such as those described above were explored and complicated by participants in valuable ways. In this post, I share some of the questioning, pushback, and creativity with which mixed race participants responded to society’s injunction to “heal the world” and “solve racism,” and offer some questions for further reflection.
“Mixed kids are gonna save the world!” “Mixed kids can see both sides.” “Mixed kids can heal racism.” These are some of the messages extant in larger society, and missives which mixed and multiracial participants in my study reported hearing with regularity. Of course, there’s an allure to this discourse, both for those who identify as mixed and those who don’t. For mixed and multiracial individuals, this discourse conveys a rare sense of empowerment and importance. Individuals reported feeling valuable, powerful, and recognized – to an extent – by such futuristic statements. Maybe all the suffering, the sense of invisibility and ambivalence that mixed and multiracial students experience on a daily basis can be used for good in the end? For example, in a focus group conversation that was part of this study, Damien, a mixed race, cis-male graduate student, exclaimed:
I don't know enough about mixed people in general, our shared power, what that means? We're definitely redefining race ... kind of like, breaking some of the boundaries, and breaking some of those things down. So, yes, I think the potential is there.
Damien started to wonder about the potential for changing norms, severing boundaries, and the power of mixed race individuals to change larger society. These ideas and possibilities are inspiring.
Other multiracial students explained how they could serve as a “bridge” between various racial groups. For instance, several participants explained how their own white family members were politically conservative, with strong aversion towards people of color and immigrants. Students claimed that, in these instances, they could serve as a bridge because they “see both sides,” they could “humanize” political conservatives and “humanize racist white people.”
On the other hand, study participants pushed back and asked valuable questions in response to this injunction to heal the world. In fact, the overwhelming data in this study revealed that many mixed race individuals felt a deep sense of ambivalence about larger racial dynamics and individual racial identity. Participants from a wide range of racial mixtures, across gender, class, age, and other factors, conveyed a deep sense of confusion, and even shame, about how larger society and everyday interactions positioned them racially as incomprehensible and unwelcome. Jenelle, a mixed race, cis-female undergraduate student, explained:
[T]here's [some] basic questions [that everyone must be able to answer]: How old are you? What’s your race? What's your ethnicity? Your gender? If you can't [answer] any of those basic questions, it gives you a lot of self-identifying turmoil and I think that ... if we don't grow up with any kind of understanding, of being able to figure that out, and having the freedom to figure it out for ourselves, then, no, we're not going to change the world!
In other words, Jenelle asserted that mixed and multiracial people who are in “turmoil” cannot save others and end racism, when they, themselves, are deeply grappling with the constructions of racial discourses and white supremacy. Many mixed and multiracial individuals already feel embattled by larger racial discourses. They are laboring to make sense of oppressive racial dynamics in U.S. society and their material and psychosocial effects. How are they going to save the world?
Powerblindness Rears its Ugly Head
This discourse of racial healing by multiracials, while having an idealistic appeal, actually serves to absolve individuals and groups of responsibility. In other words, the subtext behind messages that “mixed kids are gonna save the world” is that those who don’t identify as mixed can quickly forget all about the vestiges of racial strife because others are on the job. Namely, the “experts” are going to address the issue!
It is important to acknowledge that it is not only white monoracials (Johnston & Nadal, 2010) who take up the discourse of racial healing by multiracials. Individuals and communities of other monoracial backgrounds, as well as mixed race individuals and communities, take up this discourse as well. White supremacy and its various racial discourses shape all of us. In this instance, white supremacy uses powerblindness to place responsibility for racial healing labor at the feet of those who are caught up in these selfsame systems of marginalization and racial formation (Omi & Winant, 2015).
Powerblindness (Castagno, 2014; Frankenberg, 1993), an offshoot of colorblindness (Bonilla-Silva, 2014), bars critical examination of larger, unequal and unjust societal dynamics. It allows avoidance of the critical examination of power dynamics of systematic advantage and disadvantage, and our individual roles and responsibilities in these systems. In fact, powerblindness produces an innocent subject position: If someone else is going to clean up this mess and solve the problem, then we simply need to step out of the way and applaud the effort. Thus, we evade “acknowledgement of individual complicity” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 189) and the very difficult work of self-interrogation, and intentional change at both systemic and individual levels.
It’s not that mixed race individuals are not powerful and unique. This group of 20 mixed and multiracial undergraduate and graduate students were certainly impressive: smart, thoughtful, diverse, pursuing a wide range of disciplines, involved and active in organizations, learning, growing, discussing, bringing theory to practice, creating new knowledge, and connecting and contributing to both local community and larger society. Furthermore, I argue that participants did have new ways of thinking, new questions they were asking, and new forms of community that they were creating, with great sensitivity and a type of awareness about diversity that is valuable.
Data from the study revealed that mixed race individuals were already doing a lot of work, and healing work at that, but that it was often more tightly focused on healing self, healing other multiracials, and healing local contexts. For example, at the individual level, mixed and multiracial students reported pursuing their own mental health through counselling, meditation, art, service, and other practices. In fact, one participant reported that “pursuing mental health was my part-time gig” during the undergraduate years. Furthermore, multiple mixed race students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, reported creating or supporting research on self and other multiracials. This included research papers for specific classes, internship opportunities, senior capstone projects, and cooperative research projects with various faculty across disciplines. Students also reported applying this research and new knowledge to curriculum redesign for their academic departments, to the publication and dissemination of research for wider audiences, and to creating student support initiatives and programs. One of the most impactful labors described by student participants was the creation of a new student group on campus focused on multiracial and mixed race identity. This group held meetings throughout the academic year, organized workshops, dinners, and social activities, and became a haven for many mixed and multiracial students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Mixed race students are indeed healing themselves, their communities, and one another. However, simply getting caught up in romantic notions of “healing the world” without awareness of larger dynamics of racial formation, white supremacy, and powerblindness actually limits the labor that any of us do. I argue that it is important to deepen our understanding of racial projects (Omi & Winant, 2015), the enactments of whiteness in our institutions (Cabrera, Franklin & Watson, 2016; Mohajeri, 2018), communities, and psyches, and keep in conversation with one another as we move forward. Below are a few questions for further consultation and learning.
Questions for Reflection
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (4th ed.). NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analysis. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(6), 7-125.
Castagno, A. E. (2014). Educated in whiteness: Good intentions and diversity in schools. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Johnston, M. P. & Nadal, K. L. (2010). Multiracial microaggressions: Exposing monoracism in everyday life and clinical practice. In Sue, D. W. (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics and impact. (pp. 123-144). NY: Wiley & Sons.
Mohajeri, O. (2018). Constructions at the borders of whiteness: The discursive framing of contested white students at the predominantly white institution of higher education (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Omi, M. & Winant, H. (2015). Racial formation in the United States (3rd ed.). NY: Routledge.
Orkideh Mohajeri is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Ph.D. in 2018 from the University of Minnesota.
 This study was conducted over the 2017-2018 academic year. Participants included 20 mixed, multiracial, or transracial undergraduate and graduate students attending a predominantly white institution of higher education. In-depth qualitative interviews, focus groups, and observation of a multiracial student group constituted the forms of data collection.
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