No matter what their ancestry or their skin color, many members of UCLA's Mixed Student Union say they have repeatedly been asked the same question by classmates and strangers curious about an ambiguous racial appearance: "What are you?"
And that shared experience, they say, helps to bond the otherwise extremely diverse group, which is devoted to the rising numbers of students who are biracial and from mixed ethnic heritages.
Jenifer Logia, 20, a UCLA sophomore who is one of the Mixed Student Union's directors, said much of campus life is defined by distinct ethnic, religious or social groupings. But none comfortably fits someone like her — from a family that blends Nicaraguan, Filipino and Guamanian heritages.
In contrast, she recalled her first Mixed Student Union meeting: "I looked around the room, and every person was different, every person had a unique background. Yet I felt we all face similar experiences. We all know what it's like."
Faced with questions about their backgrounds, "mixed" students are aware that they "don't quite fit into people's perceptions of race," said Logia, who is from Redwood City.
The UCLA group, which started three years ago and has about 50 members, is part of an increasing trend at colleges across the nation to give a social and political voice to these students. The movement began in the 1990s, inspired in part by early activism of Hapa organizations for people with part Asian ancestry. Campus clubs, including those at several UCs, are growing in response to demographics and increases in transracial adoptions.
Beyond social events, the UCLA group has been active in pressing the UC system to change its application forms to include a self-identification category as "mixed." The form currently allows applicants to check several boxes for race or ethnicity but does not include specific "mixed" or "biracial" ones. The club also has been involved in health issues, by volunteering for genetic tests in case a multiethnic person needs a bone marrow donation that is difficult to match.
The growth of such campus organizations "reflects the kind of world we live in," said Benjamin D. Reese Jr., a Duke University administrator who is president of the National Assn. for Diversity Officers in Higher Education. "It is the result not only of intermarriage but also reflects the broader, more complex way people, especially young people, think about things like this."
Biracial college students increasingly refuse to identify themselves as belonging to just one category, even if they feel pressure to do so, he said. For example, his own daughter, with a white mother and an African American father, identifies herself as multiracial and multicultural.
UCLA sophomore Farhan Mithani is the son of immigrants from Burmese Buddhist and Pakistani Muslim families. Raised as a Muslim in a mainly white, Christian town in Texas, he said he did not focus much on his ethnic identity until he enrolled last year at UCLA and was stunned by the diversity.
He attended meetings of the Islamic and Pakistani student clubs, which welcomed him, but he became a leader at the Mixed Student Union. "It was a great way to meet different kinds of people who are passionate about their own cultural aspects and are willing to learn more," said Mithani, 20.
Such explorations of self-identity often are sparked during college years "when you've left the nest and left your hometown and meet people from very different backgrounds,'" said Kendra Danowski, a recent Smith College graduate who co-founded the National Assn. of Mixed Student Organizations in 2010.
Another influence, she and others noted, was the 2008 election of President Obama, who is the child of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. Obama's personal narrative has encouraged young people to emphasize their biracial backgrounds more, they said.
Off campus, groups such as the Assn. of MultiEthnic Americans and Multiracial Americans of Southern California have been active for decades. The "mixed" movement won a breakthrough in 2000 when the U.S. census allowed people to self-identify with more than one race.
By the 2010 census, the percentage of people who reported more than one grew to nearly 3% of the overall population. However, since the census methodology did not include a separate category for Latino or Hispanic, critics say, the true level of "mixed" Americans was greatly undercounted. The census also experimented in 2010 on a limited basis with questions that listed Latino or Hispanic "origin" alongside white, black, Asian and other designations and allowed more than one to be chosen; in those tests, the mixed-race population rose to as high 6.8%, officials said.
At recent meetings of the UCLA Mixed Student Union, leaders put posters on the walls around the room with handwritten statements that generated lively discussion.
"Sometimes I feel like an outcast in my family," one placard said. Others stated: "I sometimes feel I can pass for white, but I don't feel like I really fit it in." "I feel like a minority no matter where I go." "Sometimes I think it's weird my parents got together."
Students talked about happy blends of family customs and food as well as painful racial rifts between family factions and pressures to choose one side. They told childhood stories, blending humor and sadness, of strangers in supermarkets assuming that their mothers, with a different skin color than the youngsters, must be a baby sitter or, worse, a kidnapper.
Others, some wearing club T-shirts proclaiming "Mixed Love," spoke about exhilarating and difficult overseas trips to investigate complicated family trees.
"There's always some conflict, and there's always some triumphs," said Matthew Sanchez, 18, a UCLA freshman from Moreno Valley, referring to the life stories recounted by fellow members of the group. Sanchez, whose family combines Mexican, Ivory Coast, African American and Native American roots, said it is a relief to join with other students "who try to embrace all that they are all the time."