Ecological Factors and Interventions for Fostering College-Age Multiracial Identity

By Castro-Atwater, Sheri; Huynh-Hohnbaum, Anh-Luu | Education, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Ecological Factors and Interventions for Fostering College-Age Multiracial Identity


Castro-Atwater, Sheri, Huynh-Hohnbaum, Anh-Luu, Education


In the wake of what Root (1992; 1996) deems the "multiracial baby boom," the multiracial child population is the fastest growing population in America. A 'multiracial' individual is defined as one with socially and phenotypically distinct racial heritages. The term multiracial includes individuals who are biracial (those of two races in their heritage), as well as more individuals with more than two distinct racial heritages.

Multiracial Individuals

Ever since the 2000 Census, which marked the first time individuals were able to mark off more than one race, individuals identifying as multiracial has steadily increased to a total of 9 million people, approximately 3 percent of the population. In fact, the percentage of people identifying as multiracial grew three times faster during the last decade than the number of Americans reporting a single race (U.S. Census, 2012), and estimations state that by the year 2050, approximately I in 5 individuals will identify as multiracial (Smith & Edmonston, 1997); however, even this may be a gross underestimation given the tendency of individuals to report only one race, even when aware of multiple racial heritages (Perez & Hirschmann, 2009).

Of course, it is crucial to begin any discussion of race and identity of multiracial or multiethnic individuals with the acknowledgement that race is an artifice that can be viewed from a sociopolitical historical paradigm rather than a biological one (Milan & Keiley, 2000; Root, 1990; Spickard, 1992). Consequently, it is the social and cultural implications of race and how they impact the multiracial adolescent that is of particular interest here, specifically the developmental processes of identity formation.

The majority of research on ethnic identity focuses on monoracial adolescents. When studying ethnic identity in multiracial individuals, historically, the small number of studies have only Black/White individuals are represented (Brown, 1995; Field, 1996; Gibbs, 1987; Gibbs & Hines, 1992; Gillem, Cohn, & Throne, 2001; Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, & Harris, 1993; Poston, 1990). As a result of historical factors, such as repealing of anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 and the corresponding increase in interracial dating and marriages, research with the multiracial population is an increasingly growing field (Bracey, Bamaca, & Umana-Taylor, 2004; Gibbs, 1998). Simply having parents of multiple racial groups does not automatically mean an individual will identify as multiracial. Psychologically interpreting multiracial status is related to how individuals relate to their multiracial heritage (Binning et al., 2009). Given the change in the racial composition of the United States and the complexities of multiracial identity, it is important to extend the discussion on ethnic identity formation to multiracial individuals and families.

The Relationship Between Ethnic Identity and Psychological Well-Being

The concept of ethnic identity measures how much an individual identifies with his or her own ascribed ethnic group and the extent to which that identification is salient and significant to them (Phinney, 1996). Building off of the ego identity literature, ethnic identity formation focuses on the developmental phase of adolescence and young adulthood (Phinney, 1996). The importance of this construct and its relationship to various mental health related outcomes has been recognized; these outcomes include self-esteem (Binning, Unzueta, Huo, & Molina, 2009; Greig, 2003; Phinney & Chavira, 1992; Roberts, Phinney, Masse, Chen, Roberts, & Romero, 1999), self-efficacy Smith, Walker, Fields, Brookins, & Seay, 1999), depression (Lee, 2005; Roberts et al., 1999), and (lack of) effective psychological coping skills (McMahon & Watts, 2002; Mossakowski, 2003).

Earlier studies of multiracial children were based on the premise that this population was particularly susceptible to social stigma and marginality by family and peers (Gibbs, 1998; Stonequist, 1937). …

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