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The Schooling of Multiracial Students
Author: Wendy Schwartz
The number of multiracial children in the U.S. is increasing: more than 100,000 have born annually over the last decade, and most interracial families reside in urban areas (Okun, 1996; U.S. Bureau of the Census, cited in Root, 1996). Therefore, it is necessary for educators and counselors to understand and meet the special needs of students of mixed heritage and to support their families' efforts to nurture them.
Children of mixed racial and ethnic heritage have unique advantages. They also experience particular challenges. Individuals who are socialized as multiracial frequently have an enhanced sense of self and identity, and greater intergroup tolerance, language facility, appreciation of minority group cultures, and ties to single-heritage groups than do monoracial people (Thornton, 1996).
On the other hand, developing a positive identity may be more difficult for multiracial children than for others, the result of a combination of personal feelings about their identity choices, the way they are socialized within their family, and the attitudes and pressures they encounter when they begin to function in society (Morrissey, 1996). Further, the racism visited upon people of color generally in the U.S. may be exacerbated by a corollary, and possibly even stronger, prejudice of some people against mixing races through marriage and procreation (Miller & Rotheram-Borus, 1994; Pinderhughes, 1995) and "blurring the physical categories upon which white status and power depend" (Wilson, 1987, p. 7). While black-white marriages comprise the lowest rate of intermarriage, the families they create elicit the strongest negative reactions (Okun, 1996), possibly because they are more noticeable than other interracial families or because racism against African Americans has historically been stronger than racism against other groups.
To help educators develop a curriculum for multiracial students that fosters their ability to develop a positive identity and achieve academically, establish a supportive environment for them, and promote an overall understanding of multiracialism, this digest briefly reviews identity formation in multiracial children. It also presents schoolwide and classroom strategies that have been shown to be particularly effective with multiracial students and that also promote all children's understanding of racial issues.
The Multiracial Population
Ethnic group differences have a significant impact on children's social development, although the impact varies with age and specific ethnicity. How multiracial children are labeled by themselves, their families, and society in general, is an important factor in their lives, for labels are powerful comments on how an individual's existence is viewed.
The term "multiracial" is now favored to designate an individual's mixed heritage. It covers people not only of mixed race, but monoracial people of mixed ethnicity, language, and culture. Further, monoracial children who were adopted by parents of a different race often consider themselves multiracial as their lives incorporate the cultures of both their biological and adoptive parents. "Multiracial" is used here to indicate individuals of mixed racial, ethnic, or cultural ancestry whose lives reflect multiple heritages. It should be noted, though, that great variations exist among members of the multicultural population, both in the way they perceive themselves and in the way they are treated by society, despite the common classification.
Stages of Identity Development
Attitudes Towards Classification
Multiracial children need to be exposed to models of all the ethnicities they comprise and to multiracial models. They also need to live and learn in a supportive community that affirms multiracialism, to understand what it means to be multiracial, and to acquire culturally-linked coping skills.
The existence of multiracial children challenges prevailing assumptions about natural divisions between people, and assignment of traits based on race. Optimally, in school, these children "will serve as creative resources for developing new forms of polyglot cultural creativity" (Chiong, 1998. p. 109). This is not to say that they should be treated as one more race to be identified, assigned specific personal traits and learning expectations, and segregated. Rather, multicultural children, with their particular contributions to discourse in the classroom, should encourage educators to consider the needs and strengths of individuals rather than groups, and to reject all race-based stereotypes (Glass & Wallace, 1996). The presence of multiracial children can enhance all children's understanding of racial differences, demonstrating that people of all ethnicities have more commonalities than differences, and that differences among individuals and groups, including those represented by diverse family configurations, are normal.
It is important for schools to foster universal respect for students, to be clear that intolerance by either staff or students is not acceptable, and to provide their staffs with accurate information on multiculturalism so they can correct misconceptions when they hear them from other adults or children (Morrison & Rodgers, 1996). School people need to be vigilant to ensure that no children are victimized by others, however subtly, and that the identity chosen by students is accepted and respected by their peers. Finally, they need to be sensitive to the facts that racism can be manifested differently according to the targeted group and that different groups and individuals perceive and respond to racism differently.
The Role of Educators
Considering Personal Views on Race and Multiracialism. In order to develop empathy for multiracial children in general, educators should understand how people from other cultures view their world; to do so for a specific multiracial child, they should learn how that child views the world. Further, educators need to examine their personal values with regard to interracial marriage and families, and consider whether society's historical court-supported disapproval of race mixing has influenced them. They should ask themselves if they automatically categorize a multiracial child as a member of a generic or specific minority group, and if doing so shortchanges the student in terms of respect and expectations.
Educators need to identify the unique characteristics of each child, instead of assuming that all children who share a heritage share the same complement of characteristics. Learning about different ethnicities will help educators understand that there are vast differences within groups, including physical, religious, economic, political, and educational. There are also differences in the appearance of members of the same ethnic group as well as similarities in appearance across groups, so it is not useful to assume a child's ethnicity can be determined by physical characteristics. It is important, too, for educators to recognize that cultural factors, in both historical and current contexts, influence children's development and can serve to explain certain attitudes and behavior (Wardle, 1989).
Eliciting Information from Multiracial Families. It is important for educators to know about the heritage, in all of its possible complexity, of their students. Such information can further help teachers transcend any negative attitudes about multiracialism they may have absorbed from living in a largely race-based society (Glass & Wallace, 1996). Parent-teacher conferences, preferably held at the start of a child's schooling, can be a forum for learning about students' backgrounds. To alleviate any discomfort with questions about ethnic background, educators can employ a questionnaire created by the anti-bias task force of the National Association for the Education of Young Children which facilitates supportive querying (cited in Morrison & Rodgers, 1996). In particular, parents can be asked about how they identify their children, and how the children see themselves, so educators can use the appropriate term and respect the family's attitude toward classification (Morrison & Rodgers, 1996). Parents can also be asked what they consider their cultural and ethnic heritage to be, how they support it at home (i.e., rituals and celebrations), and how they would like to see it supported in school. Finally, parents should be consulted about how they tell their children to handle derogatory comments (Wardle, 1987).
This information helps educators more effectively and sensitively communicate with their students. Knowing a child's heritage will prevent educators from making wrong assumptions based on the child's appearance or on the appearance of only one parent. It will also enable them to encourage multiracial children to show pride in all their ethnicities. In addition, teachers should know in advance that some children, when doing a project on their heritage, will quite correctly present material on several cultures.
Meeting the Developmental Needs of Multiracial Students. How well multiracial children form a cohesive identity within a society that favors racial purity is largely determined by family and community support which enables them to reflect and take pride in all their heritages (Chiong, 1998). Thus, it is important for educators to support and accept them; to help children develop the skills and confidence to protect themselves from verbal and physical abuse; and to explore with the children who abuse the reasons why they do so, and to make it clear that such behavior cannot be tolerated in school (Wardle, 1987, ). They can also help students feel a sense of community, especially important if their parents' interracial marriage, or their own interracial adoption, has caused rifts in their extended family (Miller & Rotheram-Borus, 1994).
School Activities and Curriculum
One educational and engaging project, which can be schoolwide or involve only a single class, is developing and sharing family trees. Students can go back as far as possible to develop their own tree, questioning their families, and seeking out illustrative artifacts. Teachers can help adopted students research aspects of their heritage not shared by their current family. Parents or other relatives can be invited to talk to the class or participate in a group activity (Wardle, 1987).
In addition, schools can do the following (Morrison & Rodgers, 1996; Wardle, 1987, ):
Curriculum can include study units on art, music, and literature, which transcend ethnic boundaries, instead of units on specific groups, such as "Indians" (Wardle, 1987). Curriculum can diminish differences between cultures by refraining from breaking groups into specific categories defined by color and physical attributes. Specifically, at the appropriate grade level, curriculum can do the following (Morrison & Rodgers, 1996; Wardle, 1996):
To provide services most usefully, counselors must reconsider race-based preconceptions resulting from erroneous assumptions. Traditionally, for example, it has been thought that multiracial children have problems, identity conflicts in particular, because they "must choose" a race (Wilson, 1987, p. 7). It has also been believed that the problems they do have, which seem to have no bearing on their racial composition, are nevertheless race-related. Both these beliefs can result in overlooking the real causes of a student's problems and, thus, can sharply limit the benefits of the counseling. Conversely, exploration of clients' attitudes about their identity and heritage can reveal that a problem (such as depression or family difficulties), which on the surface is not race-related, actually is (Adler, 1987).
Multiracial teenage clients may need special supports. While all adolescents experience conflicts in identity development, those of multiracial youth may be exacerbated by a desire to find a dating partner who matches, or simply respects, their heritage; or by their peer groups' newly-manifested ostracism, resulting from a heightened emphasis on conformity. To work effectively with adolescents, counselors need to be aware of their own attitudes toward interracial mixing and the way that personal negative feelings can interfere with their efforts to help clients accept themselves and assimilate into society (Morrissey, 1996)
To best work with young multiracial clients, counselors should do the following (Adler, 1987; Poston, 1990; Morrissey, 1996; Okun, 1996):
Educators can help multiracial students develop a positive self-concept and racial identity, and succeed in school, by affirming their right to be treated on an individual basis and in the same way as monoracial students. They can help monoracial students develop an appreciation of an individual's multiracialism. They can help all students by infusing the curriculum with positive images of multiracial individuals and families to indicate that multiracialism is normal and even commonplace, and that throughout history multiracial people have made substantial contributions to all areas of life. Educators can foster the best in all children by helping them appreciate the uniqueness of each individual and by supporting their efforts to overcome racism and to make race and racial differences insignificant (Glass & Wallace, 1996).
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A companion digest, The Identity Development of Multiracial Children, covers various issues related to the ways multiracial children and their families view themselves and are viewed by society.
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