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By 2050, one in five Americans is likely to be multiracial

Rutgers student Joan Gan, who is both Greek and Chinese
Rutgers student Joan Gan, who is both Greek and Chinese, finds friendship and explores her biracial identity as president of Fusion: The Rutgers Union of Mixed People.  
Courtesy of Joan Gan
It’s a question Joan Gan hears a lot: “What are you?” She instantly knows what it means.

Her father is Chinese and her mother is Greek, so when people meet her for the first time, they often have trouble identifying her ethnicity.

Gan, a Rutgers junior who grew up in Parsippany, understands their curiosity, and the questions don’t really bother her. But other aspects of growing up biracial were harder to negotiate.

“In high school I saw lots of ethnic clubs, and at colleges, too, and I didn’t really know which one to join,” says Gan, an environmental science major. “Even though I’m technically Asian, people don’t consider me one of them and technically I’m white, but people don’t always consider me that, either.’’

During her first year at Rutgers, Gan discovered Fusion: Rutgers Union of Mixed People, which gives her and other students an opportunity to come together and explore the challenges and complexities of being multiracial.

“From the first meeting, people have been extremely friendly and inclusive, and they’re so diverse, not just in their ethnic backgrounds but in other ways. They come from all over New Jersey. They all have something different to offer,’’ says Gan, who is now president of the group.

Fusion began seven years ago when Rutgers psychology professor Diana Sanchez, who is now the club’s adviser, started researching biracial and multiracial identity.

“As a way of connection multiracial students and getting participants for my research, I asked a student I knew to start an organization and he did,’’ says Sanchez, an an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, in the School of Arts and Sciences.. “Multiracial people hold a unique view of race; they’ve questioned it in a very different way. If you feel ‘in between’ communities,  there is another identity you form that has to do with the merging of both those identities.’’

Phillip Handy co-founded Fusion in 2005
Phillip Handy co-founded Fusion in 2005 to so that multiracial students could join the campus conversation about race. His mom is European and his father is African-American.  

Phillip Handy, who graduated in 2009, was one of the co-founders of Fusion. He is half European and half African American. “Racial conversations at Rutgers ... often viewed race in a very categorical way,’’ says Handy, who grew up in Howell and now lives in California.“I thought the discussions would be enhanced by a multiracial student group.’’

Fusion members attend an annual Harvard conference on multiracial identity and politics. But monthly Fusion meetings are also just a chance to hang out, play video games and form new friendships.

According to Sanchez, the population of multiracial Americans has grown to more than 9 million, up 32 percent since the year 2000, the first time the U.S. Census counted multi-racial residents. By the year 2050, it is estimated that one in five people will be multiracial.

Although earlier psychological research focused on those who are biracial or multiracial experiencing a “fractured sense of self,’’ Sanchez believes the stereotype is unfounded. The multiracial people she has studied are comfortable with who they are.  “They seem to be just as well-adjusted as their monoracial peers,’’ says Sanchez, who is half Puerto Rican and half Czechoslovakian (“I called myself “Czecha Rican,’’ she jokes.)

But for people who are multiracial, the way they are perceived versus the way they see themselves can be at odds, especially in college when they meet new people who ask about their ethnicity.

Dan Torres, a senior who joined Fusion his sophomore year, is black and Puerto Rican. He says he felt isolated at his previous school, the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, where most of the students were white.

“The population was really mixed where I came from, but at this school it seemed like I was the first person like me they’d ever met,’’ says Torres, who grew up in Pennsauken. “There were assumptions made about me. ‘You don’t act black. Why aren’t you acting black? Why aren’t you acting ghetto?’ They never really said anything about me being part Puerto Rican. It became an issue for me because I was seen as this ‘black guy’ and I was getting frustrated.’’

Torres transferred to Rutgers and started attending Fusion meetings. “Fusion helped me learn that if you’re comfortable with who you are and how you identify yourself, that’s what counts. If someone is going to stereotype you and they’re not comfortable with the way you are, they’re not worth your time.”

According to Sanchez’s research, when multiracial people are around others who share their more “stigmatized ethnicity” they have a greater sense of well-being. For example, those who are half-black and half-Caucasian tend to feel more at ease when they are around black people.

Sanchez believes that’s one of the benefits of being multi-racial is having the ability to view race in a more nuanced way.

“Multiracials see race as a much more fluid construct that shifts from moment to moment. Some don’t identify with any group at all. They feel transcendent to race,’’ she says.

Gan, Fusion’s president, sees it this way: “We’re changing what race means  and it opens the horizons –and people’s minds – to how we’re all connected.’’