Race Unknown

Bryan Lee, a senior at the University of California, Irvine, has noticed that some of his classmates adamantly declare their multiracial heritage while others choose not to identify themselves as being any particular ethnicity.

The half-Korean, half-White biomedical engineering major is co-president of the university’s Mixed Students Organization and says many of the group’s members “absolutely refuse to check any box when they’re filling out forms that ask you to describe your race.” Lee himself has occasionally checked the “other” box in the list of racial identifiers.

It’s an exercise in choice that is driving a gradual but steady uptick in the “race unknown” category of enrollment stats at some colleges and universities. The shift results, in part, from a continuing rise in the number of interracial couples and the children born to those unions. But observers say it also hints at efforts by some current college students to be less fixated on skin color.

“They are the change,” says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Spelman College in Atlanta. “They have a very different way of looking at themselves and a much more global perspective of who they are. Many students of mixed races do not want to be pigeon-holed.”

Spelman, for example, listed 16 students of unspecified race in its 2009-2010 freshman class of 567 students. The number of incoming freshmen was roughly identical to the numbers in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, yet only five incoming students in those previous years did not specify a race. Nationwide, however, the total of “race unknown” students rose from roughly 1.2 million in fall 2004 to roughly 1.6 million in fall 2008, the latest year for which such statistics are available from the National Center for Education Statistics. College administrators say it is too early to draw conclusions about the long-term impact of the trend, calling the changes small and incremental. However, in time observers suspect the trend may begin to alter how schools measure the achievement gap among students who have conventionally been classified strictly as a single race.

Category Confusion

At Long Island University’s Brooklyn, New York, campus, about a quarter of the nearly 11,000 students in fall 2009, and a fifth of them in fall 2010, did not disclose their race. “The question in my mind, as a researcher, is why they do or don’t respond,” says Richard Sunday, the university’s senior associate dean of admissions. “Is it a matter of how we’re collecting the data?”

The university launched a new data collection system three years ago. Sunday says the U.S. Department of Education has been urging colleges to get as much specific information as possible on race and other data, though students are still allowed to opt against answering the race question. That question, students and administrators say, tends to be more complicated for multiracial students — the group presumed most likely not to choose any race — than others.

Adding to this complexity is the increasing popularity of the common admissions application, which, unlike applications previously designed and administered by individual campuses, this year began allowing students to select more than one racial category.

Although public funding of college programs is not determined on the basis of race, the racial makeup of a student body is commonly used to track achievement gaps among races. Entities such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board use the data to measure how well the student population at public universities mirrors the state’s overall racial diversity.

“The ‘race unknown’ factor puts us at a disadvantage in terms of determining what is going on academically with students of color, whom we are quite interested in tracking,” says Todd Schmitz, executive director of university institutional research and reporting for the seven-campus University of Indiana system.

“We’re probably a microcosm of what’s happening nationally; some institutions have gone to great lengths to develop nuance, asking students what is their primary race, having students enter percentages of what they are. ‘If you say you’re Asian, choose from this list of possible places of origin: Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander …’ That is an incredible amount of granularity and layering.”

‘Another Layer of Diversity’

Husband and wife researchers Adriana and Jeremy Jones have concluded that students’ willingness — or refusal — to identify themselves racially is a subject colleges should tackle more openly. Ways to do so could include creating organizations and forums for multiracial students. In their article, “Breaking Barriers for Multi-racial Students,” published in the April 2010 National Forum of Multicultural Issues Journal, the couple contend that multiracial students often face social pressure to pick a single race and are frequently asked the uncomfortable question: “What are you?”

“Multiracial students face the challenge of feeling pulled between various student-of-color organizations, which indicate a lack of cultural knowledge on campus. The lack of cultural knowledge affects multiracial students’ ability to be accepted by other students in social spaces,” wrote the Joneses, who both hold master’s degrees in counseling from Prairie View A&M University.

Their research was prompted, partly, by the fact that they are an interracial couple raising a biracial son, and by their own personal experiences.

“For several years I lived in New York, where people would constantly ask what I was, especially whether I was Dominican, though I consider myself African-American,” says Jeremy Jones, an adjunct professor at Houston Community College and a high school guidance counselor. “As a student, I would make a game out of it, which really was my way of protecting myself. Houston has become a melting pot in many of the same ways that New York is a melting pot.”

But the melting pot imagery goes only so far, says Adriana Jones, who is Latina and a counselor at Houston’s San Jacinto College. “The colleges here generally are not at a point where they let folks self-select their identity. There’s the Hispanic club and the African-American club, but not a biracial club or non-racial club. More should be done to meet these students where they are,” she says.

At UC-Irvine, the number of students opting not to disclose their race has hovered between 5.5 percent and 8.5 percent.

“This nation is not just Black or White, this or that,” says Lee, who now prefers to check off the “Asian” and “White” boxes if he has the choice to check multiple boxes. “The members of our student group are everything: half-Asian and half-Caucasian, half-Asian and half-Black, half-Lebanese and half-Pakistani. … In an entire social context, what we are doing, by deciding who and what we are, is a very trailblazing initiative.”

 That some students choose no race label stems, perhaps, from a desire to inhabit a post-racial world, suggests Cash, at Spelman. “Most students do say what they are. But there are some that won’t. They’ve an awareness that they don’t have to,” she says. “It’s easy to mark off one race or the other. It’s harder to say ‘I prefer not to.’ That’s a whole different level of consciousness. And on the plus side of it, this adds another layer of diversity to our population.”