CSWAC Blog

Multiracial Microaggressions

Microaggressions have received a lot of study in recent years. Racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative” messages toward people of color.1 While the occurrence of a single microaggression may be a small thing, they have a cumulative impact. Over time racial microaggressions can damage the psychological and physical well-being of those who experience them.

Now one researcher, Jessica C. Harris, has looked at “multiracial microaggressions,” which impact people of multiracial heritage. Harris focused on multiracial students in higher education, noting that microaggressions had not been studied in this group. Prior studies focused exclusively on monoracial students of color. In particular, both African American and Latinx students are impacted by racial microaggressions from white peers and from the institution, leading to feelings of self-doubt, isolation, invisibility and the perception of a negative campus climate. Looking closer, the specific nature of microaggressions may differ depending on which population is the target. Latinx students often experience microaggressions rooted in nativist sentiments, for instance.

Other studies have looked at multiracial persons who are not students. One pair of researchers found five types of multiracial microaggression: 1) exclusion and isolation, 2) exoticization and objectification, 3) assumption of a monoracial identity, 4) denial of a multiracial reality, and 5) pathologizing of multiracial identity and experiences.

Prior research has also found that multiracial students “report significantly more bias than white or Latino/a students.” Compared to their monoracial peers, they find the campus climate less supportive. Multiracial students also “perceive racism from white peers and resistance from monoracial peers of color.”

Harris developed a theoretical approach to her research based on critical race theory (CRT). CRT has several tenets, such as the understanding that race and racism are central features of US society, and that there is a need to challenge the dominant ideology of white society that maintains race-based power and dominance. CRT tenets work well to describe black/white relations, but fall short when applied to other racial groups. Consequently, scholars have developed more focused versions, such as “LatCrit” and “TribalCrit” which address the experiences of Latinx and Native Americans, respectively.

Harris offers the example of MultiCrit, which “focuses on the complexities of multiraciality.” Two tenets of MultiCrit are 1) the social construction of a monoracial paradigm of race, and 2) monoracism. Harris points out that multiracial students experience the intersection of racism and monoracism similar to how Latinx students experience the intersection of racism and nativism.

As CRT and other theoretical perspectives acknowledge, race is socially constructed. The particular way race is constructed in the US uses discrete and non-overlapping categories. Thus, we have the familiar categories of black, white, Asian, Latinx and Native American. Some might add Middle Eastern. Some might quibble over names for the categories. But the categories themselves are seen as singular and non-overlapping. One is expected to fall into one or another, but not two or more at the same time. Although this expectation has changed in some sectors in recent times (the US Census being one example), the monoracial paradigm still operates in much of society, both in individual expectations and institutional practices.

Monoracism is the means by which a monoracial-only paradigm is held in place. Individuals are expected to fit within the monoracial scheme and the practice of holding them to that expectation constitutes monoracism. This expectation may be conveyed both by individual actions and by institutional practices.  Ultimately, the researcher believes, the monoracial paradigm and monoracism are creations of the same system that produced white supremacy, and they serve to keep white supremacy in power. The impact is that multiracial constructions, whether as a matter of personal identity or institutional practice, are often not acknowledged, considered, or even envisioned as alternatives.

Given her theoretical approach, Harris studied the lived experiences of multiracial students in a large, predominantly white, midwestern university. She interviewed ten female students, all of whom identified as mixed-race or multiracial. Several combinations of multiraciality were represented among participants (e.g. black/white; Latinx/black; white/Asian, etc.). She found three types of multiracial microaggressions experienced by the students. Although Harris notes that the women experienced plain old racial microaggressions as well, her findings specifically report upon multiracial microaggressions.

Denial of a multiracial reality

Monoracial individuals often ignored the multiracial identities of the women interviewed. This limited them to the social option of only identifying with one race.

Georgia, a woman of Asian and Native American heritage, recounted,

My friend was like, “You will just be known as that Asian girl, like everyone knows you’re the Asian girl like in there.” Like, I don’t know why she calls me Asian. I think it’s just easier for her, well, like instead of saying Asian-Native American.

And also,

He [my boyfriend] was just like, “Obviously, my type is Asian.” I think he identifies me … I never thought about this until now, but, like my boyfriend identifies me more as Asian, not even Native American ….

Institutions also enacted policies and practices that rendered multiracial identity invisible, reducing it to fit a monoracial point of view. The university allowed students to mark all races that apply when compiling their student record but made little use of this data to recognize multiracial students and target resources to them. Forms and surveys by campus groups, faculty, and administration did not always give multiracial people a chance to indicate their multiracial identity.

Assumption of a Monoracial Identity

Often the multiracial women encountered situations when people did not know their racial identity. People readily made the assumption that the women were monoracial, with the assumptions playing out on appearances or other visible criteria such as last names. Gabriel explains,

People don’t really know what I am. So, they assume what I am, and they tell me what I am, what I actually am. They say, “You’re this, because you don’t look that way” … Depending on how [my hair] is, it tells people, it decides. If I have my hair straight, people think that I’m Latina. If I have my hair curly, people think I’m Latina or Indian … just like depending on the way I have my hair, that’s like a signifier of what people assume I am.

The researcher describes a story from Elizabeth, a Mexican and white woman,

Prior to meeting, Elizabeth’s first-year roommate assumed that she was only Mexican. Elizabeth described, “She [my roommate] told me when she met me, she was confused because my name was Elizabeth Ramos, but when she looked me up on Facebook, I looked white. So, she wasn’t sure if it was the same person.” Elizabeth’s roommate first assumed her to be Mexican because of her last name. However, after looking at her physical features on Facebook, she concluded that Elizabeth was white.

The roommate could switch between seeing one monoracial identity for Elizabeth (Mexican), and then seeing another (white). But it’s unclear if she was able to hold both in mind and view Elizabeth as multiracial.

Not (Monoracial) Enough to ‘Fit In’

The participants found themselves coming up short in monoracial settings that expected them to be fully proficient in the prevailing culture. One participant, Vanessa, Mexican and black, neither knew Spanish nor could she sing, or step, or dance. Black and Mexican, each found her to not be enough. She felt comfortable with her circle of multiracial friends. As graduation loomed, however, she wondered if she should attend the Black Graduation or the Latino Graduation, or just go to the at-large graduation event.

Monica, biracial, felt a little out of the loop in the Multicultural Recruitment Office, even as she acknowledged both Black and Latino communities were accepting of her. Georgia, Asian and Native American, told of how her Asian peers were slow to accept her when they more readily accepted monoracial Asian students. And Gabrielle, mixed-race, felt “left out of the black community” and began questioning if she was black enough.

Implications

Those who aspire to build inclusive social communities need to take heed of the situation multiracial individuals face. Harris points out that multiracial microaggressions are simply a symptom of a larger phenomenon, monoracism, which itself is an expression of a larger monoracial paradigm held in place by the same racialized structure that upholds white supremacy. No one is immune or beyond the reach of this structure. So, for instance, Harris asks “what it means that people of color perpetrate racial microaggressions against one another, a phenomenon that occurred throughout this current study.”

Often matters of multiracial identity are overlooked, ignored or trivialized by those who identify with a single racial group. Developing inclusive structures is an end of itself, but there are larger implications. Multiracial students had no place to congregate, unlike monoracial students of color who had organizations, and even special graduation ceremonies, that acknowledged their racial identity. Even the Multicultural Recruitment Office, seemingly a space where people of different races came together, appeared to lack the vision of building multiracial community. The vision of multiracial community is more than just creating space for multiracial individuals. It can and should include monoracial students as well. But the prevailing monoracial paradigm makes envisioning any multiracial space difficult. See, for instance, the example of a multicultural sorority discussed previously in this blog.

In the absence of a designated space for multiracial students, and given a lack of vision in the one space on campus that intentionally served people of multiple races, there is no space to serve as an incubator or nucleus for building multiracial community. Despite the many professed efforts by predominantly white institutions to build inclusion, it is unlikely that a white-centered process rooted in a monoracial paradigm is going to foster the development of multiracial community.

The absence of supportive structures for multiracial students parallels an absence of structures fostering multiracial gatherings per se. Not just multiracial students, but students of monoracial heritage would benefit from having intentional multiracial structures.

Harris, J. C. (2017). Multiracial college students’ experiences with multiracial microaggressions. Race Ethnicity and Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1248836


1. From Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions, Marginality, and Oppression, as cited by Jessica C. Harris.