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  December 4, 2000

Rockquemore's Research
Examines Biracial Identity

As a college student, Kerry Ann Rockquemore never fell victim to the "what-shall-I-do" career woes that plague many young people. She began her college career with firm plans of becoming a kindergarten teacher and started taking the necessary classes to make her lifelong dream a reality.

Then she stepped into a classroom full of rambunctious five-year-old students during a stint as a student teacher. And she found herself frustrated by constraints that allowed her to work with the students in the classroom but not address outside issues that might affect their performance, she recalls.

Disheartened, Rockquemore returned to Michigan State University for a fifth year of college and changed her major to educational sociology. She went on to the University of Notre Dame for a master's degree in the subject. It was while she was working on her doctorate in sociology at the Indiana institution that she turned to the study of race.

"There was no one at Notre Dame who studied that, so I was on my own," says Rockquemore, an assistant professor of family studies, who joined the UConn faculty this fall. "I realized how much there was to contribute in that field."

Rockquemore wasted no time carving out her own niche in the understudied field of multiracial identity. Since the mid-1990s, she has written a handful of publications and presented a number of papers on the topic. Rockquemore conducted her research while she completed her doctorate and taught, first at the University of Notre Dame and then at a Detroit-area community college and a California university.

In her most ambitious project, Rockquemore and co-author David Brunsma surveyed 250 Detroit-area college students who have one black parent and one white parent. The questionnaire explored the subjects' feelings about race and identity.

According to Rockquemore, most of the other literature on biracial identity comes from studies with very small samples or includes biracial subjects other than those with one black and one white parent.

"The combination of the big sample, and the fact that it's all black-white biracials makes it interesting," says Rockquemore.

According to Rockquemore and Brunsma's data, 61 percent of the respondents defined themselves as biracial. Another 13 percent identified themselves exclusively as black, and 4 percent identified themselves exclusively as white. An additional five percent of those surveyed said the way they identify themselves varies, depending on the situation, while 13 percent of the respondents said they don't categorize themselves by race.

The respondents' appearance didn't play a directly intuitive role in what racial identity they chose, Rockquemore notes. She and Brunsma had expected people with darker skin would be more likely to identify exclusively as black, while those with lighter skin would choose to identify as biracial.

"In fact, what was even more important than physical appearance was the idea that people had strong experiences of rejection and/or acceptance from different groups," Rockquemore says. "It was the way that they socially experienced race that directed their choices over and above, and even in spite of, their appearance."

Some respondents who said they appear white identified themselves as exclusively black because they felt whites had rejected and discriminated against them, she says. Other respondents who appeared black identified themselves as biracial and reported being rejected by blacks and accepted by whites.

Positive and negative experiences with blacks and whites exerted "push" and "pull" forces on identity choice, Rockquemore says. Negative experiences with blacks "pushed" individuals away from an exclusively black identity, while positive experiences with blacks "pulled" them towards a singular black identity, she adds.

Beyond Black: Biracial Identity and the Black Middle Class, a book based on Rockquemore and Brunsma's research, will be published in the spring. The co-authors, who met at Notre Dame, previously studied the effects of school uniforms on academic performance. They are now studying biracial people in Connecticut, Alabama (where Brunsma teaches at the University of Alabama-Huntsville), and California. Rockquemore taught at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., before coming to UConn.

"It will be fascinating to see if there are differences geographically," Rockquemore says.

She is also starting to do research on interracial families with Tracey Laszloffy, another assistant professor of family studies. The two want to explore how parents talk about race.

"So much of that socialization is embedded in the family," Rockquemore says.

Allison Thompson