Just three days before flying to California to present her research, Brittany Ota-Malloy and I sat down to discuss blackness, multiracial/ biracial identity and developing a cultural identity. Ota, the 28-year-old PhD student and a supervisor at the Center for Cultural Enrichment (CCE) had a lot to say.
Malik Anderson (LA): Tell me a little bit about your background.
Brittany Ota-Malloy (BO): I am 28, from Pasadena, CA, the youngest in my family and a twin – born just one minute after my “big” brother… he likes to remind me that he is older. I am newly married… Today actually makes 6 months for me and my partner. We are both Posse Alumni and are currently working on graduate degrees.
LA: How did you come to develop a sense of identity?
BO: I am from southern CA where it is quite diverse. I am Black and Japanese American. Biracial. I always knew that I was different but I always knew that I was Black too. Nobody ever challenged my Blackness. It wasn’t until I came to Madison that I ever thought critically about my racial identities. Almost immediately I was challenged about my Blackness, I was participating in a fishbowl activity about language, particularly the use of the N word and other choice words like bitch and hoe. I was making the argument that where I come from people use those words in endearing ways with people they love too. In doing so, I used an example… that I had referred to my friends before as “my nigga” or started a sentence with “Aye bitch” which understandably ruffled some audience feathers. One of whom, a Black woman, stood to say ” I really can’t with people who are not Black using that word. We can but you can’t.” That was the first time I was othered by another Black woman. The first time I stopped to think about my how people see me, how I see myself, and what is at stake in that learning. Since then I have done a lot of self-work and a lot of learning and unlearning to position myself solidly in my identity today.
LA: How long have you been in Madison? What brought you here?
BO: I first came to Madison as a Posse Scholar in 2007 – I graduated in 2012 and have returned in 2015 to pursue a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis. This program is among the best… this was the only program that I applied to!
LA: What makes you feel connected to the campus community?
BO: My connections to this community is leveled and fueled in different ways. Campus is home to my professional endeavors as well, I will be a Dean of Students one day, so having good relationships with students (and staff) helps me feel connected to campus and those goals. I get to work closely with amazing students, many students of color, through my work on campus. From which I learn and grow every day. I mentor a small set of students that literally feed my soul! As a student I feel connected to this community through my academic department. I also work there which makes me highly visible to others. The Black students in my school are quite close. This is a stark change from my masters program. The community of support in my school is felt in so many ways.
LA: Describe some of your best moments being apart of this campus community. What about the not-so-great ones?
BO: I lived in both Seattle and Chicago which were both TIMES OF MY LIFE and I learned about my identity in every context. More than that I was able to live. I saw young professionals of color every day. I felt supported and loved. Being away from Madison was freeing. I went to China and Jamaica, I lost weight (100 pounds), I did things I never did before, got engaged, and it was all amazing. Coming back during a time of protest was triggering for me. When I left campus the same issues were prominent which is both alarming and saddening for me. Coming back as a staff person and student challenges me to think differently about everything!
Ota-Malloy has multiple positions on campus. Not only is she a graduate student and a supervisor at the CCE, but an Office Associate at the UW-Madison Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) in addition to serving as a teaching assistant/ instructor.
LA: What made you decide to work at the CCE?
BO: First, I need money. Second, I need the fulfillment and connection I get through this work. Doctoral study is lonely!
LA: Let’s talk about your research- What is it about? Why are you interested in doing this research?
BO: I study the experiences of multiracial college students. My interest is rooted in that first experience I spoke about before with the fishbowl… college is the first time I interfaced critically with my racial identities. It made me think about other folks who may be out there like me. I asked is college a place where this type of inquiry is common? That plus both my undergraduate and graduate experiences being marked by student protest and activism (Blacklivesmatter –> UW Blackout) leads me to my primary focus: The study of multiracial college student experiences with racialized activism on college campuses.
LA: How long have you been working in your program?
BO: I am in my second year. Finishing coursework, tackling my qualifying exam, and beginning prelim!
LA: When do you expect to be finished? What do you hope the outcome will be?
BO: May 2019! My goal is to be employed upon graduation!
LA: What has been the most inspiring thing or interesting thing about your research?
BO: FINDING MORE AND MORE STORIES LIKE MINE! and finding out that Black/Japanese biracials have been leading contributors to this research. The most interesting thing I have learned… hmmm, I am doing lots of reading about racial formation and categorizations now and seeing evidence that links the stories of mixed race people… I recently learned that the mixed race population is disproportionately young… because interracial marriage was illegal for so much of our nation’s history.
LA: How does your research relate to the students/ staff/ faculty you work with?
BO: More and more I am working with mixed race students. They tell me all the time how much it matters to them that I am here and that I see them. Everything I learn… about mixed race identity development, about colleges, about blackness, about everything goes into how I work with students. I hope they feel it!
LA: You are presenting your research soon.- Tell me a bit more about this event.
BO: I am presenting my first research on mixed race college students… see abstract!
“The importance of exploring multiracial student experiences in college rises proportionately with the percentage of U.S. citizens that identify as multiracial. Research on multiracial college students explores processes of identity development, campus experiences, and, more recently, the role of multiracial identity in student affairs praxis and higher education policy. This research has led to the documentation of negative experiences of multiracial students on college campuses such as critical incidents, micro-aggressions, labeling (personal and social), and exoticization. This paper is a meta-analysis of independent research on multiracial college students 1990 – Present, including a citation network constructed from social network analysis. The objectives were to: (1) summarize the recent trajectory of this work and integrate the results of recent studies on multiracial college students, (2) analyze differences among methodological approaches and findings, and (3) identify interactional citation patterns among sub-categories in the field. The existing research is mostly qualitative in nature but for a few studies. Two themes emerge in this research: studying the experiences of mixed race college students (reshaping racial dialogue, collecting race data, and intersectionality of identities) and studying the identities of mixed race college students (development and patterns). Both academic and practical recommendations are made.”
… BO: I plan to edit this paper and submit it for publication soon! My hope is that when people ask about mixed race students in college my article is the first to come up as a resource and gateway to this history.
LA: How do you feel- nervous, prepared, excited? How do you imagine the presentation?
BO: I feel nervous because it is my first step in making myself a known scholar of multiracial research. Prepared because this is months in the making, and excited because my partner surprised me and registered for the conference to come see me!
LA: What are you looking forward to in the future?
BO: In terms of grad school… getting to the finish line… and finding myself there as an established leader and scholar.
This transcript of our original interview has been edited to read more conversationally. The original interview and conversation took place Feb 20.