Who are you? Multiracial Students and Microaggressions on College Campuses

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Brittany Hunt

August 1, 2014

Have you ever been in a situation where you were having a conversation with someone and then all of the sudden you feel them looking at you with a puzzled look on their face? Then here comes the question: “So…what exactly are you mixed with? What are you?” This is the subtle, intentional (or unintentional) form of racism known as a microaggressions (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, 2007). This is an all too familiar experience for those who are multiracial. This article is influenced by my research study on how multiracial students manage microaggressions. In this research I looked at how microaggressions affected the student experience, and how that impacted their experience on campus. This led me to realize that each student has a different experience and we should recognize and embrace each of those experiences. This article will mainly focus on the effect of microaggressions on the experience of multiracial students using my research and other relevant literature. I will also take some time to talk about how we can create inclusive environments for multiracial students.

 To give a little context to my research, I had two research questions: 1. What are the experiences of multiracial students with specific regards to microaggressions, and 2. How do multiracial students manage those microaggressions? The research was broken into two sections one focusing on multiracial students experience on campus, and the second part focusing on how they managed the microaggressions they faced. The most common experience was feeling like their voice was not being heard on campus. They also felt that administrators, faculty, staff and students did not care about understanding the unique challenges they face, and quickly categorized them into specific groups they did not identify with. Their experiences with microaggressions occurred so often that they began to normalize the experience.

 As a participant from my recent research study said, often times it becomes so engrained in your everyday life that you begin to create an automatic answer for it (Hunt, 2014). You no longer have to think about it because you know that someone somewhere is going to ask you that dreaded question as if you aren’t enough to be part of one particular race.

 These types of microaggressions occur on a daily basis for multiracial students, and because of microaggressions, students on college campuses feel frustrated, burnt out and isolated (Hunt, 2014; McCabe, 2009; Solorzano et al., 2000). It can also lead to self-doubt, or not having the confidence in themselves that they can succeed. Solorzano et al. (2000) reported, “several students commented that racial microaggressions had affected their academic performance in overt ways such as pushing them to drop a class, changing their major and even leaving the university to attend school elsewhere” (p. 69). In my research study Tiana summed up the experience beautifully:

 As much as I can want for it not to be about microaggressions the fact that I don’t feel comfortable in this city, at my job, in my classes, in the studio when I’m doing my homework; the fact that I’m uncomfortable in my own skin not like I don’t like it or I don’t like myself but I know that because I walk into a room and I’m already perceived a certain way based on how I look, but then the way that I act doesn’t match that and what I am made up of also doesn’t match any of those other things, like that’s stressful, it’s exhausting, it causes anxiety, it weighs on you, it gets old.  Like none of that is good.  The only positive from that is I have the experience now and I know how to deal with it in the future should it arise.  But that’s not fun, that’s not exciting, this hasn’t been the time of my life (Hunt, 2014 p. 92).

 Other participants in my study talked about their in class experience and how they were approached for information about specific populations based on their perceived identity even if they did not identify that way themselves. This left them feeling frustrated because they felt obligated to stick up for that population, or have all the answers, even though inside they were angry about someone making an assumption about their identity. If this is how our students are experiencing campus how do we expect them to feel like they are welcomed onto our college campuses. When multiracial students’ needs are not being met they feel isolated on campus (Loud, 2011). Often times “students endorsed experiencing discomfort when in the presence of traditional student groups” (Nishimura, 1998 p. 50).

 Suggestions for Supporting Multiracial Students

             In my research I make some suggestions on how to work with, and support, multiracial students. This includes understanding your own biases, creating inclusive spaces for multiracial students, and providing resources targeted for multiracial students. It is important to keep these things in mind as you work with multiracial students because how they identify themselves depends on many different factors. This can include how they were raised, what their communities said about being mixed race, and how they view themselves.

I make the first suggestion of understanding your own biases because when we think about what biases we might hold against particular groups, or how we think a certain group might act, it is important that we do not cast these biases onto our multiracial students.  As I discussed earlier many of my study participants talked about how their professors, or friends, would associate their racial appearance to certain knowledge, or even behaviors. In the classroom they were expected to know everything about their perceived race even though they may know nothing about the experience of people within that race. Our assumption of their knowledge, or their perceived racial category, makes them feel as if they don’t belong in that space. In some cases it made them feel as if they could not create connections within that space due to the lack of understanding about who they are as an individual student.

 My second suggestion is creating inclusive spaces for multiracial students on campus. I make this suggestion because many times multiracial students don’t feel that they can share their opinion when it comes to discussions about race. A lot of times this makes them feel as if they have to hide part of who they are in fear of being further marginalized because no one understands the experiences they are having. Creating inclusive spaces for multiracial students can be beneficial to the success of the students (Hunt, 2014; Renn, 2000). Many of my students talked about how some type of multiracial student organization, or student group, would be very beneficial for them just to be able to talk about their experiences openly without being judged by those around them. We can do this in any space (not just within a group) by ensuring that each person feels empowered to say what they want to say about themselves, and creating an environment where they don’t feel chastised about their feelings or experiences. In many cases they feel like they have to fight to create these spaces and they are advocating for themselves. From my research Tiana states, “[Creating] a place for us to talk about it safely, providing a place where it is important, or at least I feel like it is important where I feel like my voice is heard. Simply recognition. Like hey I recognize that you are different from everybody else or different from a lot of people but not making me feel like my difference is bad.” (Hunt, 2014 p. 52).

 This moves us into my third recommendation of providing resources specifically for multiracial students. Part of providing inclusive spaces for these students is also making sure they have the resources available to them that make them feel supported on campus. This can include creating student groups, or having a focus group, that specifically targets the population. Multiracial students experience microaggressions on a day-to-day basis but they feel there is nowhere for them to go and talk about it. We have groups on campus targeted for black students, Hispanic students, Native American students etcetera, but there is no place for these students to talk about what is affecting them. Meriwether & Hunt (2014) looks at what information we are not collecting about multiracial students. Do we know what the persistence rates are for these students? Do we know what resources are or aren’t available for this group of students on our campuses? What are we going to do about getting resources for these students? It is up to us as the staff and administrators to be an advocate for this population and understand what resources, if any, need to exist for this population of students. This process starts by collecting the necessary data that will help us find out where to begin.

 So what, you might ask? If our multiracial students are reporting that they are experiencing some form of microaggression on a daily basis we can ultimately end up losing these students. They may choose to go to another institution or drop out completely. If they don’t feel supported on college campuses then they are more likely to slip through the cracks and leave the institution, or not perform as well in their courses. In my study Karissa reported that she could have possibly done better in some classes had she not experienced a microaggression with that particular professor. We need to be aware of the unique challenges that multiracial students are bringing to our college campuses and not ignore that they exist. 

 (Certain parts of this appear in Brittany Hunt’s master’s thesis research)

 Meriwether, J.L. & Hunt, B.L. (2014). Supporting Identity Development among Multiracial Students to Increase Institutional Connectedness. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Knowledge Community Publication, Spring 2014.

 Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G.C., Bucceri, J.M., Holder, A.M., Nadal, K.L., &

Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86, pp. 330-338.

 Renn, K.A. (2000). Patterns of situational identity among biracial and multiracial college students. The review of higher education, 23(4) pp. 399-420. DOI:10.1353/rhe.2000.0019.

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