How I fell in Love with Researching Multiraciality

Each month we’ve featured guest strips from members or former members of ACPA’s Multiracial Network. This month, Dr. Marc Johnston shares his journey with blending his identity with his career interests and not letting fear hold you back. We hope you enjoy this inspiring story. 

When I first signed up to write this guest blogpost knowing it would be published in the month of February, I thought I would tailor my thoughts around Valentine’s day, interracial relationships, and what I am seeing as a potential return of eugenic thinking around reproduction (see for instance, this Gawker article) and what that meant for how people thought about mixed babies. But I realized that type of article may not have that much interest and application to the field of student affairs and decided to share some thoughts on how I fell in love with one of my passion research interests: Multiraciality in higher education. That still relates to Valentine’s Day, right? Or maybe it’s more closely related to Loving Day? In any case, I hope you’ll continue reading and share your reactions and own experiences in the comments section below.

It is often said that research is autobiographical, and this statement is definitely true in my case. I began developing an interest in multiracial scholarship as an undergraduate student when I first learned of Dr. Kris Renn’s research on mixed race college students. As a founder of a new Hapa student organization at my undergraduate institution, I found it fascinating that people actually studied Image[my] identity and [my] involvement in college (like this was part of their jobs!). As a human biology major on the pre-med track, this new found area of research opened my eyes to the possibilities of being able to study things that interested me outside of the biological sciences. And as I failed out of Organic Chemistry, I started noticing that my passions (and time dedication) grew steadily toward my leadership responsibilities broadly, and the Hapa student organization in particular. Yet, something was still holding me back from incorporating multiraciality into my academics. I couldn’t recognize the positive messages about researching multiraciality because I had so many other messages saying stick to the status quo (or at least, feeling the responsibility to keep moving forward toward becoming a doctor so that I could make my family proud).

It wasn’t until I had the amazing opportunity of becoming a “Scholar” with the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program and Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) that I realized that I could still become a “doctor” and make my family proud, but with a PhD instead of a MD. McNair/SROP also helped me move my budding research interests from the biological to the social sciences. But the program opened my eyes to the realities that with research came politics. Although I wanted to study mixed race college students, the implicit, yet strong messages I received about the pitfalls of getting pigeonholed with your research agenda prevented me from making multiraciality more central to my research interests. It became a side project, a passion topic that I focused on only when my other more broadly focused research was completed.

What was holding me back from fully embracing multiraciality as a focus of study? Fear. This fear of being pigeonholed¾or becoming known as someone who could only study one topic, and that topic happened to be very autobiographical¾stayed with me throughout my master’s and doctoral programs in student affairs and higher education. And although I have published some coauthored pieces related to multiraciality, they are all non-empirical and more scholarly pieces. I love thinking about the complexities and sometimes contradictions associated with multiraciality in higher education and mixedness more generally, filling my bookshelves with multiracially focused works (I actually won an award for this “book collection” from my library during my doctoral studies), presenting regularly at student affairs conference on multiracial topics, and using concepts from mixed race studies to move my thinking forward around racial dynamics in higher education. Image

As a first year faculty member on the tenure track, I’m slowly letting go of that fear of being pigeonholed. Well, maybe it is less about “letting go” of these fears and more about using the fears of not meeting the expectations of publishing at a research-intensive university to my advantage! In any case, I’ve come to realize how this passion for multiraciality as a research interest is what will keep me up late at night thinking and writing, but as some of my story alludes to, I did not get here by chance. Three lessons learned along the way include:

Letting go of fears: Although I have not seen the movie “Frozen” there’s something about the lyrics of the song “Let it go” and the specific line “I don’t care what they’re going to say…” that can illustrate the importance of letting go of fears. In my case, I wasn’t able to embrace and fall in love with multiraciality until I decided to let go of fears of what others might say about my research abilities. I needed to realize that I really didn’t have much control of others’ perceptions and judgments in the long run, so why limit myself? I needed to do what felt right for me, allowing my passion for researching multiraciality to become more central to my work, and ultimately invigorating my overall research agenda. And it seems to be paying off as I just received a small research grant (that actually feels pretty big!) from my department to start a new project on multiracial college students’ experiences with racialized privilege.

Building a network of support: I don’t think I would have been able to let go of my fears had it not been for the network of support I was able to build around multiracial research and practice. Getting involved with ACPA’s Multiracial Network, meeting people at conferences like the biannual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference and the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity (NCORE), or even seeing the breadth of scholarship taking place through Steven Riley’s blog, made me realize that I wasn’t alone in having this passion, and that building a network of support was integral for allowing passions to flourish.

Rethinking our messaging: I think exposing students and new professionals to the potential of being pigeonholed is a good idea, but not at the expense of limiting one’s passions. For me it was about research, but I’ve also seen this among practitioners, especially when trying to make a change in functional areas. I’ve heard individuals express fears of being pigeonholed into only being able to work in multicultural affairs, or new master’s graduates not wanting to do housing/reslife for fear of getting stuck and becoming a “lifer” (for life!). They aren’t getting these ideas out of nowhere, so our field might need to rethink the messages we’re sending, whether explicit or implicit, to students and new professionals, by balancing the exposure to potential negative consequences with positive ones. If I had received similar messaging about how becoming known as an expert in one topic might actually help my career in the long run, I might have felt less fears about multiraciality pigeonholing me, and more realities about how multiraciality could allow me an outlet to demonstrate my expertise.

What do you think? Whether multiraciality or another topic, have you set aside your passions because of fears or being told not to pursue them? I think this happens more often than we think, whether it’s about a new initiative or program we want to plan in our offices, or about a new research idea that seems to go against the canonical works in student affairs. How can we move forward in building communities of support that allow these passions to flourish? One way seems to be letting go of our own fears, but also recognizing how the messages we send to up-and-coming scholars and practitioners in our field can be so important for their futures.

Marc Johnston is an assistant professor in the Higher Education & Student Affairs (HESA) program at The Ohio State University.  He is also a former co-chair of MRN.