large group of diverse people with their hands out in front together

Scholars to examine demographic changes, better honor racial identities 

The United States population is witnessing remarkable changes in demographics. The shifts are accompanied by increased debate about how best to capture and describe those demographics.

2020 Census race question
The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau Race Question form illustrates the limitations of racial categories.

Notably, racially minoritized groups will soon constitute a numerical majority — some estimates suggest by 2040. One in five individuals will be considered foreign born. At the same time, populations such as Asian Americans and Latinos will have doubled.

Adding to this diversity is the fact that recent U.S. Census data show substantial growth of the multiracial population. Between 2010 and 2020, it changed from nine million people to 33.8 million people, representing a 276% increase.

In August 2021, the government released racial and ethnic data from the 2020 U.S. Census. A flurry of news stories accompanied the data. Many outlets proclaimed how much more multiracial America is. The news stoked fear among some of a declining, white-only population. 

The Census has a rich and complicated history to consider when contemplating these demographic changes. Equally important is the relation of these changes to research methods for identifying racial inequities.

These rapid demographic changes have major implications. They especially influence our understanding of how to measure disparities in educational access and outcomes. 

screen shot of Brooks website with article about race in the US
Report from Brookings Institute, March 14, 2018, states that the United States will become ‘minority white’ in 2045. 

Yet, the categories we depend on to understand our country’s demographics are limited. They need further investigation to understand those who do not see themselves as fitting into such groupings. 

This sense of not fitting may cause people of color who occupy liminal — or a sense of being in between — spaces to feel marginalized or erased. They do not feel fully captured or humanized by the categories that measure and track racial equity outcomes (Harris and Nicolazzo, 2020; Johnston et al., 2014).

screen shot of an online story titled "Coming Out as Bi-Racial"
Coming out as biracial, a post by Stephanie Georgopulos, October 21, 2013. 
screen shot of an article titled "The Blue Eyes of a Black Nationalist"
The blue eyes of a Black Nationalist, a post by Maliq Hunsberger, May 6, 2015, on 

Symposium to discuss racial categories in higher education

The Spencer Foundation funded our symposium titled “Against Racial Essentialism in Education Research: Innovating Methodologies through Contestation.” In March 2023, we will bring together scholars who write about and study in the contested borderlands of racial categories.

Our aim is to learn from one another about how the types of questions asked and methodologies used push against racial essentialism — or the persisting belief that members of a racial group all share a common, underlying essence often perceived to be genetic, biological, or cultural. 

We want to further broaden efforts toward achieving racial equity through racial contestation, or when individuals challenge their externally assigned racial categorization.

This work builds upon our previous independent scholarship, e.g., Johnston-Guerrero and Wijeyesinghe, 2021; Mohajeri, 2021.

For instance, co-author Mohajeri conducted a study with “contested white” undergraduate and graduate students. She explored how they make sense of their liminal and contested racial identities as part of their educational journeys.

Graphics from Mohajeri’s dissertation study constitute some of the arts-based engagements produced by students. They emphasize the concepts of “learning race” over time, racial liminality and multiraciality.


Drawings and notes from a children's study
Student graphics about racial categories from Orkideh Mohajeri’s dissertation study, 2017-2018. ©Mohajeri 2022.

The three-day research symposium in Philadelphia will assemble approximately 20 scholars from across the United States. Drawn from different disciplines, their work critically examines the contested landscapes of racial and ethnic categories. Together, we will develop innovative methodological approaches to apply to higher education research. 

The different communities assembled will seek to put contested and racially liminal groups in conversation with one another. We will imagine new questions, new insights and new possibilities for higher education researchers to advance racial justice. We want to humanize students more fully, as well as faculty and staff, too often erased or marginalized. 

We will disrupt racial essentialism, which undergirds much of the deficit framing around racial disparities that upholds institutional racism. We want to explode assumptions made about the categories themselves.

Guiding postsecondary researchers working with complicated data

To achieve these objectives, the symposium centers three guiding questions:

  1. How can we learn from racial contestations to nuance our understanding of data/measurement and improve the experiences of students within the data?
  2. What can we learn about the processes and outcomes associated with racial essentialism through the operations of contestation, liminality, anti-Blackness and shifting racial hierarchies?
  3. How can our cross-community conversations better inform future research and practice to support students as they navigate the contested racial landscape of higher education?

This grant aligns with priorities of both the Spencer Foundation and the college because the symposium focuses on racial equity in postsecondary education. We want to give students increased freedom to make choices about their racial self-identification. 

Postsecondary scholars, institutional researchers and administrators interpret those identification choices in different ways. These include dis/aggregating or erasing and making decisions about how to represent or serve various populations (e.g., Ford et al., 2021).

The symposium will result in guidance for postsecondary researchers working with complicated data who wish to better honor communities and identities, especially those made liminal by current standards.

Additionally, we expect to establish the groundwork for supporting postsecondary scholars on decision-making around various methodological issues related to racial contestation (e.g., selecting and applying methodologies, interpreting racial fluidity, comparing trend data). 

Such guidance and support could take the form of a report, white paper and/or an interactive website or digital tool, along with a newly established network of interdisciplinary scholars.

Overall, we are excited about the development of an emerging network of scholars interested in issues of measurement, racial contestation and learning from race liminality.

Further readings and references

Ford, K. S., Patterson, A. N., & Johnston-Guerrero, M. P. (2021). Monoracial normativity in university websites: Systematic erasure and selective reclassification of multiracial students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 14(2), 252–263.

Gogue, D. T. L., Poon, O. A., Maramba, D. C., & Kanagala, V. (2022). Inclusions and exclusions: racial categorizations and panethnicities in higher education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 35(1), 71-89. 

Harris, J. C., & Nicolazzo, Z. (2020) Navigating the academic borderlands as multiracial and trans* faculty members. Critical Studies in Education, 61:2, 229-244. DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2017.1356340

Johnston, M. P., Ozaki, C. C., Pizzolato, J. E., & Chaudhari, P. (2014). Which box(es) do I check? Investigating college students’ meanings behind racial identification. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51:1, 56-68. DOI: 10.1515/ jsarp-2014-0005

Johnston-Guerrero, M.P., Malaney-Brown, V., & Combs, L.D. (Eds.) (2022). Preparing for Higher Education’s Mixed Race Future: Why Multiraciality Matters. Palgrave McMillan.

Johnston-Guerrero, M. P., and Mohajeri, O. (Eds.) Special Issue of Genealogy on: Who Are We Really? Genealogical Deconstructions of Monoracialism through Mixed and Contested Racial Identities. 

Johnston-Guerrero, M.P., and Wijeyesinghe, C.L. (Eds.) (2021). Multiracial Experiences in Higher Education: Contesting Knowledge, Honoring Voice, and Innovating Practice. Stylus. 

Malaney-Brown, V., Combs, L.D., and Johnston-Guerrero, M.P. (Eds.) (2021). Beyond the box: Connecting multiracial identities, oppressions, and environments. Special Issue of New Directions for Student Services, 174.

Mohajeri, O. (2018). Constructions at the borders of whiteness: The discursive framing of contested white students at a predominantly white institution of higher education. Doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. 

Mohajeri, O. (2022). Contested whiteness: Useful heuristic or reinscribing dominance? Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, 8(2). DOI: 10.15763/issn.2642-2387.2022.8.2.1-39

Mohajeri, O. (2021). “Fly on the wall” moments reveal whiteness-at-work for contested white graduate students. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 35(4), 393-409. DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2021.2003897

Principal Investigator Marc Johnston Guerrero is associate professor of higher education and student affairs in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State. He also serves as associate chair of the Department of Educational Studies, where his program resides. 

Marc Guerrero headshot

Co-principal Investigator Orkideh Mohajeri is associate professor of educational leadership and higher education administration, College of Education and Social Work, at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Orkideh Mohajeri

Suggested Stories