Building a Case for Cross Racial Intergroup Dialogues for Multiracial Students in American Higher Education Institutions–Victoria K. Malaney Brown

Victoria K. Malaney Brown
Director of Academic Integrity
Columbia College, Columbia Engineering

In its most formal definition “intergroup dialogue (IGD) can be broadly defined as a face-to-face facilitated learning experience that brings together students from different social identity groups over a sustained period of time to understand their commonalities, differences, examine the nature and impact of social inequalities, and explore ways of working together toward greater equality and justice” (Zúñiga, Nagda, Chesler, & Cytron-Walker, 2007, p. 2) Anecdotally, intergroup dialogue is a powerful educational mechanism that allows students to come together in a small group setting (six to eight participants) for a significant period of time (10-12 weeks) to dialogue across differences such as social identities and social inequalities.

Moreover, intergroup dialogue facilitation has a particular pedagogical method with two co-facilitators or co-participants that are not experts, but learners who also study group dynamic and group processes. While participating in an intergroup dialogue, the dialogue has several goals to achieve consciousness raising, building relationships across differences and conflicts, and strengthening individual and collective capacities to promote social justice (Zúñiga et al., 2007). The two co-facilitators encourage students to realize the goals of intergroup dialogue with the hopes of raising students’ consciousness to take action on a social justice issue and build ally ship with their peers who have different social identities from them. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the multiracial student experience. I draw on Guillermo-Wann and Johnston’s (2012) definition of multiracial as “as an adjective referencing, pertaining to, or ascribing to the combination of two or more monoracially-constructed groups” (p. 9). I examine why we need intergroup dialogue in higher education institutions, what we know about intergroup dialogue and its benefits, and review the challenges that multiracial participants face in college with regards to their racial identity. I argue how we can use intergroup dialogue as an opportunity to better understand the monoracial challenges (i.e., monoracism) that multiracial students’ encounter at higher education institutions. Monoracism is defined as “a social system of psychological inequality where individuals who do not fit monoracial categories may be oppressed on systemic and interpersonal levels because of underlying assumptions and beliefs in singular discrete racial categories” (Johnston & Nadal, 2010, p. 125). Although there are several types of intergroup dialogues being practiced in higher education, (e.g., gender, religion, sexual orientation) I consider cross-racial intergroup dialogues as one of the most powerful dialogues that the intergroup dialogue program offers.

In the U.S., we are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and multiracial. Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, demographers forecast that by the year 2050 1 in 5 Americans will be multiracial (Jones & Bullock, 2012). These numbers are likely to be even higher once the forthcoming 2020 U.S. Census is complete. Due to the increase in students who self-identify as multiracial, colleges and universities need to prepare to meet the needs of the evolving multiracial student population (Hyman, 2010). Empirical studies and research have demonstrated that higher education institutions who offer intergroup dialogue courses help undergraduates to effectively prepare to challenge themselves to live in a strong democracy in which they speak up about social injustices (Schoem, 2003). Additionally, intergroup dialogue has become a common social justice education practice that encourages students to engage across differences in college environments (Adams et al., 2010). Because talking directly about race and racism in racially mixed groups does not occur often in society (Miller & Garren, 2008) intergroup dialogue is one technique that can help facilitate meaningful conversations on race. For instance, a cross-racial dialogue could bring together college students who self-identify as either multiracial or monoracial students of Color.

Furthermore, higher education institutions should invest in intergroup dialogue programs because dialogue helps make sense of “one’s race, ethnicity, cultural background, religion, and gender” (Maher & Thompson Tetreault, 2007, p. 1). There are significant benefits in having diversity and IGD at a higher education institution because students enter college typically in late adolescence or early adulthood when they tend to shift their point of view from the perspective of their parents, peers, and educators as they begin try to fit into society and find a voice in political conversations (Sorenson et al., 2009). Challenging students while enrolled in a higher education institution is an opportune time to have difficult dialogues on social justice and cross-racial issues including Black Lives Matter.

Considering the benefits of IGD outlined above and why higher education institutions should offer IGD, it is important to remember that colleges and universities are preparing students to become professionals as they enter an increasingly diverse and complex world. Intergroup dialogue is needed in higher education and also has valuable implications particularly for multiracial college students whose racialized experiences are invalidated by monoracial peers (Ford & Malaney, 2012) and because these students with multiple racial backgrounds are often not acknowledged in conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity.

The Benefits of IGD for Multiracial College Students

As part of the intergroup dialogue model, several benefits of intergroup dialogue have been studied and researched. Some of the overall IGD benefits/outcomes were voicing, sharing experiences, listening to others and being listened to (Zúñiga et al., 2007). Following the critical dialogic model we know that intergroup dialogue in the context of higher education has four stages: 1) Develop guidelines and relationship building, 2) Develop a common language while exploring social identities, 3) Explore issues of conflict and social justice/group dynamics, 4) Plan action and build alliances (Zúñiga & Nagda, 2001). Intergroup Dialogue promotes inquiry, active listening, perspective taking, which are beneficial life skills students learn. Another reason why dialogue is so effective is because dialogue is “not like other forms of communication (chatting, arguing, negotiating, and so on). Dialogue is an action directed toward discovery and new understanding, which stands to improve the knowledge, insight or sensitivity of its participants” (Burbules, 1993, p. 8).

The growing saliency of identity and the multiplicities of identity (e.g., biracial/multiracial people) need to be examined (Smith, 2005). Therefore, IGD can help students to resolve conflict and understand difference. However, what is the most promising in intergroup dialogue research regarding college students is that those students who take an IGD course during their college career report that dialogue changes their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs towards peers who have different social identities (Ford, 2018; Yeakley, 1998). While the practice of intergroup dialogue and its educational benefits have been researched a great deal, currently there are not many IGD studies that assess the benefits of IGD for multiracial students participating in a cross racial dialogue at a college or university.

One qualitative research study completed by Ford and Malaney (2012) attempted to answer how multiracial students and students of Color educationally benefitted from IGD at a Predominately White Institution in the Northeast. Overall, conclusions from their pre- and post-test study revealed that multiracial students who participated in an intragroup dialogue (all students in the dialogue shared the same racial identity), experienced a shift in their racial attitudes from viewing their racial identity as divided to feeling whole and proud of their multiracial identity post-IGD (Ford & Malaney, 2012). The researchers’ findings are promising, but not surprising based on what we know about the challenges of multiracial college students in relation to their identity development.

For instance, racial identity research conducted by Jones and Jones (2010) highlight the specific challenges multiracial students’ grapple with in understanding their identity: 1) the need to define one’s own racial identity, 2) the need to fit into peer groups, 3) the pressure to choose one racial identity over another, and 4) the constant reminders about ambiguous physical appearance (Jones & Jones, 2010). Given that we know multiracial college students struggle to understand their fluid racial identity Ford and Malaney’s (2012) research confirms the fact IGD can be helpful for multiracial identity development to shift from students’ being uncertain about their racial identity to being proud of their multiple racial identities. The framework that the IGD pedagogy innately creates is welcoming and is a space for students to voice their opinions, share personal stories, actively listen to their peers, and ask questions or inquire about what they are hearing around them in the intergroup dialogue. Chesler (2001) contends “intergroup dialogue programs on college campuses focus only on education of the self (student), but the best programs in the country extend their education to include how oneself and relationships with others play a role in organized power and privilege” (p. 297).

Another connection and advantage for the student and the higher education institution is that IGD gets the student to understand themselves and how their actions affect power and privilege not only on their campus, but also in relation to the larger world. Although there are many IGD programs offered at colleges and universities across the country, it is important to consider that when designing an IGD program the possible challenges that multiracial participants and IGD practitioners may encounter. In the next section, I discuss these ideas as well as where to situate and fund an IGD program at a higher education institution.

IGD Design and Challenges for IGD Multiracial Participants

In order for a cross-racial intergroup dialogue on multiracial identity to be successful there are several specific considerations that are critical to for higher education institutions to consider. One of the main considerations to begin with is where will the intergroup dialogue program be situated in the context of the university or college? There are four main structures in which intergroup dialogue programs can be implemented. For instance, the program can be       1) Stand-alone offered for academic credit and take students from the entire student body (e.g. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Syracuse University, and University of Michigan), 2) Dialogues can be part of a larger course/discussion sections, 3) Dialogues can be a field experience for the social sciences such as Social Work, and 4) Co-curricular dialogues sponsored by Student Affairs or student organizations (e.g., Study Circles, and Residence communities) (Zúñiga et al., 2007).

Developing a Co-Curricular IGD Program

Developing an IGD program as a co-curricular program would open up the dialogue opportunity for all students to participate. Although IGD can be situated within Student Affairs it could also be offered to students for academic credit through a partnership with the Education department to fulfill your university’s diversity requirement every semester. Students should meet weekly for 90 minutes. The facilitators must be trained and learn how to co-facilitate as the IGD program can help model a new collaboration standard between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. Each of the facilitators should either self-identify as a person of Color or a multiracial individual and must be coached by an IGD staff member, this could be a faculty or multicultural affairs staff member who is trained in the IGD pedagogical methods. Ideally, it would be great to have a team of coaches after the program is running for a few years to allow for new faculty or staff members to be trained while other members step back into their traditional academic or administrative roles.

Funding Considerations for IGD Programs

Another vital aspect to consider is how the new IGD program will get funding to operate. Potential sources of funding could come from a Dean of Student Affairs or Vice President of Student Affairs Programming Fund. Since this case proposes that IGD program should operate from the Division of Student Affairs senior leadership such as a Dean must support this effort. Backing from the Strategic Plan is also important to have the buy-in from stakeholders such as President, cabinet members, faculty, staff, and students who completely understand that the IGD program promotes cross-race learning which helps with engaging students to celebrate diversity and difference (Judkins, 2012). On the other hand, an alternative source of funding could come from a faculty appointment, Office of Multicultural Affairs, or even from an external educational foundation whose mission focuses on diversity and inclusion (Zúñiga et. al, 2007).

Evaluation and Design Considerations for an IGD Program

As the IGD program is designed and implemented it is crucial to think about how to develop an evaluation system to collect data on student learning and development. Having the data to support the educational benefits of intergroup dialogue will help when writing grants to secure funding or even advocating for the program’s budget each year in the Division of Student Affairs. It would be important to develop both quantitative and qualitative studies (Dessel & Rogge, 2008). A qualitative study would help to understand multiracial participants’ experience with perspective taking, cross cultural relationships, and stereotypes (Dessel & Rogge, 2008).  Quantitative studies could be developed to understand educational benefits and quantify student learning in IGD in another way to appease important stakeholders.

Additionally, another factor in the designing of the multiracial IGD program would be to intentionally develop both the process and content considerations for the dialogue pedagogy so it represents the complexity of multiracial student identities. Beale and Schoem (2001) suggest that a successful intergroup dialogue is one that balances both content and process: allows for “legitimizing the experiences of participants as more than just one’s person’s experience and worthy of research” (Beale & Schoem, 2001, p. 267; Nagda, Zúñiga, & Sevig, 1995). Racial identity theory research tells us that multiracial individuals need their multiple racial identities to be legitimized in order to feel “whole” (Ford & Malaney, 2012). Given this information, IGD will aid in multiracial students having honest, sustaining conversations about the oppression surrounding their multiple social identity groups. The IGD process can “shed light on the complex dynamics of connection and disconnection that result from estranged or hostile relationships between members of social groups in the larger society” (Zúñiga et. al, 2007, p. 15). For multiracial students participating in IGD program it could allow them to resolve their feeling of disconnection on campus from monoracial students and perhaps also understand how they could disengage from confronting racial justice in their personal lives (Malaney Brown, 2020).

Having the space to talk about race and identity on a college campus is crucial for multiracial students to feel comfortable exploring their racial identity. Renn (2000) examined how multiracial students engaged with identity-based spaces on campus.  The main themes that emerged from Renn’s (2000) study were that multiracial students felt influenced by the way identity-based spaces on campus made them feel about fitting in, and particularly how they perceived interactions from their monoracial peers when trying to engage with social and club events related to race.  Renn (2000) concluded that having an inclusive space for multiracial students on campus demonstrated the institution’s commitment to being inclusive of all social identities.  Renn (2000) concluded that having an inclusive space for multiracial students on campus demonstrated the institution’s commitment to being inclusive of all social identities.  Intergroup dialogue can help create the space that multiracial college students need to feel inclusive and safe.

Moreover, facilitators play a fundamental role in the IGD process. Some of the common challenges that facilitators experience are a lack of knowledge around a social identity, managing their emotions and conflict (Yeakley, 2011). The self-development and growth in being a facilitator in an IGD is summarized in this quote, “Facilitating yourself is about going on a life journey–a scary and exciting journey that will take you to places within yourself that will surprise, delight, inspire, as well as disturb, disgust and horrify you” (Hunter et al., 2007, p. 46). Facilitators learn a lot about themselves in the dialogue process, but also help set the tone for their multiracial participants. By receiving the proper training and support, facilitators trained in IGD pedagogy will be able to 1) create a safe place, 2) recognize signs of negative processes, 3) encourage and support depth of personal sharing, 4) engaging conflicts as teachable moments, and 5) attending to identity differences in awareness and experience (Yeakley, 2011). If facilitators are able to follow through with these five recommendations during training, it will help increase the intergroup connection and understanding while lessening the challenges they will face in the dialogue experience. Facilitators in the IGD multiracial program will need to work closely together to create the best learning space for participants to encourage the educational benefits and outcomes such as voicing, inquiry, perspective taking, empathy and active listening that IGD strives to attain (Yeakley, 2011).

Final Thoughts

Intergroup dialogues are an effective way to understand issues of difference in higher education.  Higher education institutions have to accept responsibility to prepare students to enter a diverse, globalized, multiracial democracy. Intergroup dialogue is one proven educational mechanism that institutions can use to help challenge college students to critically think about themselves and the world around them (Zúñiga et al., 2007). Although intergroup dialogue programs have traditionally had an exclusive Black-White interracial focus it is important to offer multiple and varied dialogues (Schoem et al., 2001) that include multiracial voices.

Overall, “Intergroup dialogue presents an important opportunity for students and others to practice the skills needed to cultivate diverse democratic culture in higher education and the broader society” (Lopez & Zúñiga, 2010, p. 38). We cannot forget that college students enter higher education at a crossroads when they gain the skills needed to prepare for their future lives. Meaningful dialogue and IGD programs offered at higher education institutions can challenge and shape the multiracial students’ experiences with social justice. Multiracial individuals—are fast becoming the new majority in the United States (Jones & Bullock, 2012) and IGD is a great way to begin the conversation to challenge monoraciality and race in an environment that is supportive and engaging for all participants. In the words of Beverly Tatum, “I have seen that meaningful dialogue can lead to effective action. Change is possible. I remain hopeful” (Tatum, 1997, p. 206). Like Tatum, I, too am hopeful that innovative intergroup dialogues can be utilized in higher education institutions to build and create space for multiracial college students to explore and understand their mixed race and multiracial identity.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does your higher education institution recognize multiracial students in programming (monthly events, educational conversations, etc.)?
  2. What can you do as a student affairs practitioner in your functional area (i.e., Residence Education, Career Education, Multicultural Affairs among others) to provide space for multiracial students on your campus in the form of an inter or intragroup dialogue?
  3. How might you incorporate the intergroup dialogue pedagogy and practices that emphasize the values of perspective taking, voicing, listening, and developing empathy across difference at your higher education institution?
  4. When creating an intergroup dialogue program who are your institution’s stakeholders? How will you consider designing and evaluating the program?


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Victoria K. Malaney Brown currently serves as the inaugural Director of Academic Integrity for undergraduates at Columbia University and she also earned her B.A. in English-Spanish and minors in Dance and Latin American Studies from Skidmore College. Dr. Malaney Brown received her Higher Education Ph.D. from the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her qualitative dissertation explored critical consciousness in the narratives of multiracial collegians at a predominantly White institution. A scholar-practitioner, Dr. Malaney Brown’s research interests focuses on the racialized experiences of multiracial undergraduate students in higher education, intergroup dialogue, and college student activism.

Dr. Malaney Brown is a research affiliate at the Center for Student Success Research at UMass Amherst and is a former past Chair of the Multiracial Network (MRN) and is the Assembly Coordinator-Elect for Coalitions & Networks with the American College Personnel Association’s (ACPA) Governing Board.