UC Berkeley must redesign data practices to give visibility to mixed-race students

Every mixed-race person is familiar with this moment — you fill out some sort of form, and it asks for your race. You check one of them, and then when you attempt to check another, it either unchecks the first or tells you you are unable to select more than one. So you begrudgingly either choose just one or click “Other.”

This dilemma relates to a common complaint of multiracial individuals — being forced to “choose a side,” as if one of our races should automatically carry more weight than others. And in data collection and aggregation, choosing a side becomes ever more important, as it could determine resource allocation for diversity and inclusion work.

Diversity and inclusion is trending in higher education at the moment. But it is difficult to envision being inclusive of a group as diverse as multiracial students when race data collection hardly recognizes our existence.

The U.S. Census did not allow for checking more than one box until 2000. Neither the UC Office of the President’s website nor the UC Berkeley Office of Planning and Analysis data site lists a category for multiracial folks. The UC application did not even allow for the checking of more than one box until 2010.

As there is no unique category for students who check more than one race, the UC system reports multiracial individuals by their “primary race/ethnicity,” which is determined by a ranking order of “African American/Black,” “Hispanic/Latino(a),” “American Indian/Alaskan Native, “Asian” and “White.” For example, a Black and Asian individual would only be reported as Black, while a white and Asian student would only be reported as Asian. 

The idea of assigning a “primary race/ethnicity” to a mixed-race person is problematic in and of itself. The way mixed-race folks identify with our different racial and ethnic groups is fluid and ever-evolving, and to assign every one of us our most “underrepresented” race in the UC’s eyes is a disservice to our own ideas of identity. This insidious statistical model is biased towards bolstering the numbers of underrepresented minorities. Lumping mixed students who may have more privilege than their monoracial peers can ignore the structural inequity that monoracial people of color in those categories face.

For example, to the UC system I am only Chinese, as “White” comes after “Asian” on the list of racial groups. But the struggles that I face with my person-of-color identity are vastly different from those of a monoracial Chinese womxn. To the outside world, I am rarely ever read as Chinese, and I do not face the perpetual foreigner stereotype in the workplace or academic environments that Asian Americans often struggle with. As a result, I don’t feel justified in claiming resources geared towards dismantling oppression that Asian Americans face. While my experiences are not the same as a white person either, I would not consider myself the same as an Asian American for diversity and inclusion purposes.

This issue is further complicated at the federal government level. To the U.S. Department of Education, mixed-race individuals are our own category entirely: “two or more races.” 

But lumping all mixed-race individuals into “two or more races” doesn’t quite cover it either. The experience and resource needs of a Black and Latinx individual, compared to mine — as a white and Asian individual — are entirely different. We may share common concerns due to our multiracial backgrounds, but the interlocked oppressions of being a part of two underrepresented groups is something I will never know. Not to mention that this separate box could lead to the undercounting of mixed-race individuals who belong to underrepresented minorities and fully deserve to receive diversity-driven funding.

For decades, multiraciality was entirely erased on race/ethnicity data collection forms. But once we had the autonomy to check as many boxes as we identified with, the system found different ways to classify us that doesn’t do justice to our complex, multitudinous identities. The UC system, and UC Berkeley specifically, must address the needs of its multiracial population and, at the very least, start to consistently display a “two or more races” category in its public statistics. 

The UC system needs to allow mixed students to be fully seen through their statistics. It might be hard for the UC system to find a way to record the specific ethnicities that mixed-race students identify with. But it’s a complicated issue worth tackling because as an institution that prides itself on diversity, the UC system must ensure each of its students is validated for all of their identities. UC Berkeley can, and should, take initiative to pioneer this change.

Gen Slosberg is a former columnist for The Daily Californian and the current executive director of Mixed @ Berkeley Recruitment and Retention Center.