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Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity, and Community on Campus

reviewed by Leanne Taylor - 2005

coverTitle: Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity, and Community on Campus
Author(s): Kristen A. Renn
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791461645, Pages: 292, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Kristen A. Renn’s Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity, and Community on Campus emerges at a time when multiracial individuals and groups are calling for a stronger voice and representation within public and private spaces and alongside broader racial and ethnic debates. They are, as mixed-race scholar Naomi Zack (1995) contends, “writing themselves into existence” in the academy. It is with such a commitment to mixed racial voices that Renn writes this book. Thus, following the experiences of 56 mixed-race undergraduate students at six universities and colleges in various regions of the United States, and using ethnographic methods and grounded theory analysis rooted in a developmental ecology framework, Renn explores how mixed-race college students, which she operationalizes as “students from more than one federally defined racial or ethnic background” (p. 53), have constructed their racial identities and “experienced the developmental influences of campus life” (p. 53). The study is decidedly ambitious, as Renn moves through the book with “the goal of learning more about how they identified, what those identities meant to them, and what they might mean for higher education policy and practice” (p. 2).

By blending mixed-race voices within the spaces of postsecondary education, Renn uniquely describes and unpacks her findings while accounting for the complex effects and influences of peer culture, individual experiences, and personal traits on students’ racial and ethnic experiences inside and outside of college. Renn’s overall focus and purpose in the book is clear: She has set out to address how mixed-race experiences in college reveal “the futility of insisting on the permanence and stability of artificial racial constructions” (p. xii). As such, she guides us through her study with a series of early questions (p. 2): What are the experiences of multiracial people on campus in the United States and how are they different from those of monoracial White students or monoracial students of color? What might such differences suggest for the development of curricula, services, and policy design and for the personal-identity development of mixed-race students? And how do mixed-race identifications affect and, correspondingly, how are they affected by campus peer cultures and groups? This exploration of mixed-race experiences on campus is important, Renn asserts, because “little is known about how [mixed-race students] negotiate the racialized landscape of higher education and how that landscape will be altered by the imminent influx of students who do not identify in only one racial category” (p. 2).

Each chapter is carefully laid out with clearly stated goals and objectives for each section. In Chapter 1, “The Context of Mixed Race Students in American Higher Education,” Renn introduces us to her study by very briefly situating it within the existing literature on race, mixed race, and racial-identity development and the social and historical context of miscegenation in America. In doing so, she appropriately reminds readers that although race must be conceptualized as a social construction, it is situated within a very real and historical experience and structured by broader power relations, as is manifested in the continued prevalence of categorizations limited by the “one-drop rule.” Formulated so as to require “claiming the lowest racial status of one’s ancestors” (p. 4), the one-drop rule has continued to limit identity options such that “one or more black ancestors classifies an individual as black” (p. 4). Renn touches on how this has ensured the continuing boundary between Black and White in the United States and has persisted through the requirement of rigid “either-or” categorizations within educational institutions and practices, social groups on campus, census forms, and broader policy. However, she moves quickly here, seemingly more interested in reserving the bulk of the book for her discussion of her developmental-identity model and research findings.

Nevertheless, before she moves on, she takes some time to discuss her postmodern interpretations in the context of mixed race, which reemerge throughout the book. Although she does not argue that postmodernism is the only lens through which one should approach racial identity, and although it is clear that her main purpose is not to unpack postmodern theory, she incorporates into her work a postmodern interrogation of race and racial identity. In doing so she is stressing the theory’s ability to expose and sustain dialogue on the socially constructed nature of race and is asserting its relevance and applicability through its potential to counter modernity’s propensity for rigid monoracial categories.

Renn also moves through some of the different perspectives on and “approaches” to understanding mixed race, arguing that “each approach casts mixed race people differently in relation to self, family, and society” (p. 9). She attempts to show that while some of the existing theories on racial identity formation (such as those offered by Kich, 1992; Poston, 1990; and Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995) may provide some useful insights, they are insufficient to allow us to fully understand multiracial identity development, particularly within the context of the college environment. Rather, Renn maintains that the existing literature (on both racial-identity formation and college student development) does not take into account “the richness and complexity of the college student’s developmental experience” (p. 27), let alone how the college environment might look for a mixed-race college student. Thus, what Renn’s exploration reveals is an emergent “paradox” wherein mixed-race students experience a contradiction. On the one hand, they are aware of and acknowledge race as a social construction (which many students claim to actively struggle to dismantle). On the other hand, the students she studied found themselves “acknowledging the need to create and maintain a self-identified multiracial community on campus” (p. 25). In this sense, these students were “armed with postmodern theory, but living in a modernist, racialized society, [as] they simultaneously rejected race as a valid construction and valorized it through their campus involvement, academic work, and personal identification” (p. 25).

This positions us for her application and discussion of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecology theory, which she proposes as “an alternative to stage-based theories of identity development” (p. 28), such as the work of Erik Erikson (1968), William Perry (1968), Arthur Chickering (1969), and Linda Reisser (1995). Although Renn concedes that these theories were foundational and influential models of identity development in their time, she argues that they have assumed a more fixed notion of identity that is unidirectional and stagnant. For Renn, an ecology model, “by calling attention to how individual differences and histories interact with dynamic environments to create unique patterns of developmental opportunities and outcomes . . . provides for the possibility of ongoing identity construction and deconstruction in complex environments” (p. 49), while also taking into consideration the “possibility that individuals shape environments just as environments shape people” (p. 49). Ultimately, Renn suggests that “developmental models that can account for fluidity, complexity, and context will become essential resources in the toolkits of higher education educators and policy makers” (p. 50).

At first glance, those familiar with the history of multiracial people in North America might recoil with concern over Renn’s insistence on using a model and framework grounded in psychology, largely because of its potential to individualize and psychologize multiracial-identity formation. In fact, research has well documented how discussions of racial mixture have problematically adopted terms like maladjustment, insecurity, or poor mental state, often manifesting in such constructions as the Tragic Mulatto (see Furedi, 2001; Stonequist, 1961). However, Renn seems cognizant of these tensions and moves cautiously but deliberately in her choice of framework, an ecology theory, in order to understand mixed-racial-identity development among mixed-race college students in a way that can account for “the influence of college peer cultures on individual identity” (p. 28). Thus, although Renn recognizes that there are different ways in which her study could be taken up and that there are certainly different approaches to examining the experiences of mixed-race students in college, she stands committed to the ecology model and to its effectiveness in revealing the socially constructed nature of race and identity (p. 65). Therefore, using the key elements of the model, she discusses identity development through the influences of PPCT: person (individual characteristics), process and context (namely, interactions within one’s environment), and changes over time. Accordingly, Renn unpacks in detail the contextual elements of the ecology model of college student development, denoting (with useful and instructive diagrams) the four structural levels of the model as levels of analysis: microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems. These levels, which address all levels of contextual influence on identity, ground her data analysis throughout the book.

Many of the book’s chapters are packed—to the point of nearly being overwhelming—with information and detail, including (as in chapter 2) diagrams and charts complementing Renn’s theoretical framework and data analysis. Seemingly aware of the fact that readers may find themselves weighed down by some of her discussion, particularly her research and data collection methodology, Renn not surprisingly suggests at this point that “readers more interested in the findings of the study rather than the methods may want to go on to chapters 3 to 9 and come back to this section later” (p. 53).

After considerable discussion of theory and method that “sets us up,” it is really in the later sections that we find the book’s strength and appeal. Chapter 3, “Patterns of Multiracial Identity Among College Students,” creatively melds a cross-section of various individuals’ stories and experiences into categorized fictional portfolios to more clearly illustrate and introduce the characteristics of what Renn has identified as five identity patterns for multiracial college students, each of which is discussed in detail within its own chapter: Chapter 4, “ I’m Black—Monoracial Identity”; Chapter 5, “I’m Asian and Latina—Multiple Monoracial Identities”; Chapter 6, “I’m Mixed—Multiracial Identity”; Chapter 7, “I Don’t Check Any Boxes—Extraracial Identity”; and Chapter 8, “It Depends—Situational Identity.” Renn reserves Chapters 4–8 for a detailed discussion of mixed-race students’ identities, experiences, and perceptions of mixture on campus, all presented through the lens of the ecology model and unpacked against the influences of PPCT. Each chapter uniquely and effectively presents variations in identity through the colorful articulations and voices of students. Her organization allows for a structured but captivating look at the different and complex experiences of multiracial individuals on campus and in society. Her discussion is detailed, focused, and refreshingly committed to mixed-race students’ articulation of their own experiences. In keeping with her respect for students’ voices, Renn is also careful to allow for and include contradiction and difference in experience, noting that the identity categories through which she has organized her discussion do not represent a mutually exclusive typology but are more fluid—like mixed-race identities themselves—such that “it is possible that a multiracial person may have one or more of a number of racial and ethnic identifications over his or her lifetime and be considered psychologically healthy” (p. 68).

Renn reserves Chapter 9, “From Patterns to Practice—What Mixed Race Identity Patterns Mean for Educational Practice,” to conclude that “perhaps the most important finding of this study is that, for mixed race students, achieving a singular racial identity outcome is not necessarily reasonable or desirable” (p. 243). This finding notwithstanding, she insists that what is even more important is its application for educational policy and practice. Accordingly, Renn calls for institutions to adopt “a two-step question about racial identity” that would allow for less restrictive descriptions of one’s racial background (p. 246). She suggests that her findings “support the creation and maintenance of public venues for claiming Multiracial Identity and for questioning racial categories” (p. 247). Thus, she asserts the importance of creating “identity-based spaces” on campus, the presence of which would contribute to “individuals’ identity development and for community building across differences” (p. 247). Claiming that “it is time for a national study of mixed race students, their experiences, identities and college outcomes” (p. 254), she makes a plea for three main types of future research on mixed-race students: (a) “conducting large-scale quantitative studies of identity and identification”; (b) “examining existing theories for bias toward unilateral identity outcomes”; and (c) “using an ecology model to study peer culture influences and effects” (p. 257). Though this is not a significantly new call, her findings urge (as do those who are engaging in antiracism education and critical pedagogy) educators to “ground teaching and learning in students’ experiences and lives” (p. 250). Thus, she encourages the inclusion of curricula (texts, workshops, lectures, courses, and other informal learning experiences) that address mixed racial histories and experiences. Doing so, she argues, would expose “the myth of ‘racial purity’ on which social, economic, and political systems have operated in the United States” (p. 250).

Overall, Renn offers a devoted and respectful analysis of mixed-race experiences in college in the United States. If we take seriously the importance of Zack’s claim that mixed-race people must write themselves into existence, which I do, and which Renn asserts on several occasions, then Mixed Race Students in College could be an important reference and resource for those hoping to explore more deeply the complex experiences of people whose heritage crosses multiple racial lines. It also allows for some deeper thought about what multiracial awareness might mean for how we “do” education and engage with a variety of racially and ethnically located students.

However, the book falls short in some respects, two of which I’ll discuss here. First, the lengthy and detailed analysis of the ecology model actually becomes a source of distraction from the power of the stories told by the students Renn studies, which I would argue are the overwhelming strength of her book because of their richness, contextual significance, and wider readability. Second, a closer look at Renn’s discussion of multiracial experiences reveals something of a limited application of many of the already existing mixed-race stories, perspectives, and research conducted in this emerging field. It is surprising to find that not only are some key authors in the field of mixed race referenced only in passing, or not at all, but the majority of the authors to whom Renn refers and who seemingly guided her interrogation of this topic are all contained within four main collections of mixed-race writings: two each edited by Naomi Zack and Maria Root, all of which were written in the 1990s. Although I am not contesting the significance of these collections, and although I certainly recognize their pioneering work and contribution to the evolution of mixed-race thought, theory, and understanding of experience, there are many other authors who have stepped solidly into this arena of mixed-race identity and who are increasingly gaining recognition through their insertion of a range of voices both on and off campuses (see, for example, Daniel, 2002; Ifekwunigwe, 1999; O’Hearn, 1998; Olumide, 2002; Parker & Song, 2001). In a field in which I believe (as it seems Renn does as well) that so much still needs to be said with respect to the complexity of mixed racial experience, we cannot neglect interrogation of that which already has been said by those who have already attempted to write and succeeded in writing “themselves into existence.” To omit them from this sort of work only risks silencing them.


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Daniel, R. (2002). More than Black: Multiracial identity and the new racial order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York:  W.W. Norton.

Furedi, F. (2001). How sociology imagined “mixed race.” In D. Parker & M. Song (Eds.), Rethinking “mixed race” (pp. 23–41). London: Pluto Press.

Ifekwunigwe, J. (1999). Scattered belongings: Cultural paradoxes of “race,” nation and gender. London: Routledge.

Kerwin, C., & Ponterotto, J. G. (1995). Biracial identity development: Theory and research. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 199–217). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kich, G. K. (1992). The developmental process of asserting a biracial, bicultural identity. In M. P. P. Root (Ed.), Racially mixed people in America (pp. 263–276). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

O’Hearn, C. C. (Ed). (1998). Half and half: Writers on growing up biracial and bicultural. New York: Pantheon.

Olumide, J. (2002). Raiding the gene pool: The social construction of mixed race. London: Pluto Press.

Parker, D., & Song, M. (2001). Introduction: Rethinking “mixed race.” In D. Parker and M. Song (Eds.), Rethinking “mixed race” (pp. 1–22). London: Pluto Press.

Perry, W. G. , Jr. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme.  New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Poston, W. S. C. (1990). The biracial identity development model: A needed addition. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 152–155.

Reisser, L. (1995). Revisiting the seven vectors. Journal of College Student Development, 36 (6), 505-11.

Stonequist, E. V. (1961). The marginal man: A study in personality and culture (2nd ed.). New York: Russell and Russell.

Zack, Naomi. (1995). Life after race. In N. Zack (Ed.), American mixed race: The culture of microdiversity. (pp. 297-307). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1467-1474
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11771, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:37:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Leanne Taylor
    York University in Toronto
    E-mail Author
    LEANNE TAYLOR is completing her doctorate in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto. Her work explores questions of mixed racial identity and racial and ethnic representation and experience in higher education.
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