We can’t stop here! This is MULTIRACIAL country!

It was bound to happen: thanks to the Obama campaign, the rest of America has discovered that multiracial people exist. There’s a feature about it in today’s New York Times called “Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race”. It starts off with the usual depiction of the Tragic Mulatto, torn between two lovers and caught between two worlds:

Jenifer Bratter once wore a T-shirt in college that read “100 percent black woman.” Her African-American friends would not have it.

“I remember getting a lot of flak because of the fact I wasn’t 100 percent black,” said Ms. Bratter, 34, recalling her years at Penn State.

“I was very hurt by that,” said Ms. Bratter, whose mother is black and whose father is white. “I remember feeling like, Isn’t this what everybody expects me to think?”

The article goes on to a slightly more nuanced examination of the issues, though its tone stays pretty much “Look! They exist!!” throughout. And it does at least acknowledge that the dialogue outside the mainstream media has been more complete, citing fellow anti-racist blogger racialicious. She rightly notes that the times they are a-changin’:

Carmen Van Kerckhove, a diversity consultant who runs a blog on race and popular culture, racialicious.com, said she doubted that the uproar that greeted Tiger Woods when he described himself as “Cablinasian” (for heritage that includes Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian) in 1997 would be as strong today.

“When you’re multiracial, you can be several things at the same time,” said Ms. Van Kerckhove, 30, who is white and Asian and has endorsed Mr. Obama on her blog for moving the race debate away from “who’s black and who’s white, or who’s a victim and who’s an oppressor.”

I’m glad to see articles like this whenever I do, because the times they are a-changin’, and the days when multiracial people had to pick a race, any race, should end. I’m fully in support of multiracial people’s right to choose and identify with any or all the facets of their heritage. But the historical context does need to be acknowledged when this happens, because despite the Times’ gosh-wow reaction, multiracial people aren’t some new hot thing. We’ve been around since “race” existed as a social construct, and even ::gasp:: before, go figure. And yes, I said “we”. Like probably the majority of black Americans, I’m multiracial: black, white, and Creek. Might be some other bits in there, but I’ve lost a few, because also like the majority of black Americans who are multiracial, I’ve identified as black all my life. My parents identify as black. My grandparents and great-grands on both sides, several of whom look far less black than me, identified as black. Many of them were fully aware of and acknowledge their mixed heritage, I should note. My mother’s family has 1001 recipes for corned beef and cabbage, and makes a weird fusion of cornbread and Irish soda bread for the holidays. My paternal great-grandmother took full advantage of her joint African and Native American ancestry to make a living as a healer, using herbal remedies from two continents to help her neighbors in a time when no one could afford health care (and even if they could, not at white hospitals). Nobody pretended that the non-black component wasn’t there. But the kind of society they lived in was one in which the lines between races were pretty sharply drawn, and it was far safer to pick a side, any side, than it was to try and straddle.

What the Times doesn’t seem to get is that this sharp line hasn’t dulled very much in the intervening years. The article implied that people identifying as multiracial have increased in number in the past few decades — but does that really mean there are more? Or simply that the number who are identifying as multiracial has grown? Not to invalidate Ms. Brattner’s claims here, but context matters in a situation like this, and we don’t know the context. Did she ever consider herself as “100% black” before she wore that t-shirt? If so, then what did it matter what her fellow black people thought? And were her companions really protesting her claim of blackness — or were they pointing out the disconnect between idealism and reality in today’s America? In that reality, Ms. Brattner could either identify as black, or identify as multiracial… but not both. If she described herself as 50% black at other times, she didn’t get to be 100% black when it was cool.

I’m not saying I agree with this thinking, note. It’s a common error of logic, and an understandable one, if you’ve been inculcated with either-or thinking — which, sadly, most Americans have been. Either you’re good, or you’re evil. Either you’re a Christian, or you’re a scientist. Either you’re a racist, or you’re good and kind and pure as the driven snow. Along these lines of logic (and yeah, I’m referencing symbolic logic here), union is possible — a person can be black and white, but only by proportions. Part black and part white. But you cannot be completely both at the same time. In mathematical terms, that’s intersection — what a coincidence of terms, huh? — and it’s perfectly possible, even backed up by quantum mechanics. But it’s not the way we Americans are configured to think (possibly because most of us are bad at math). We reject it instinctively and vehemently. You can’t be 100% black and 100% white, duh. And come on, some people want to be 100% black, 100% white, and 100% multiracial??? That’s 300%!!! What’s wrong with these people? Can’t they do the math??

Meanwhile, black women are repeatedly exhorted by white feminists to choose between their gender and their race, because of course we can’t be both black and female, or antiracist and antisexist, at the same time.

Let’s be clear. What Barack Obama is bringing to the table isn’t multiracialism. Good grief, that’s been around for fricking ever. What he might, just might, bring to the table is a mainstream awareness of intersectionality. Maybe, now that the media has swung from declaring him “not black enough” to worrying that he’s “too black”, and ultimately realizing that he’s both and neither at once, Americans will begin to realize that the old “pick a color” rules just don’t make sense anymore. They never did, really — our society undertook a herculean effort of utter illogic to make those rules work. This effort was, and is, called racism. And the counter for it is not the equally illogical “colorblindness”. Nor is it the sci-fi solution, in which we all pick mates of differing races and try our best to boink racism out of existence, on the cockamamie notion that once we’re all uniformly coffee-colored, racism will go away. (Hasn’t worked too well for Barack yet, but maybe in 1000 years.)

One of the key solutions to racism lies in accepting and understanding the plain hard practical reality of intersectionality. Differences exist. They matter. They often overlap. When they do, they all still matter. Deal with it.

Or, of course, people can also just continue to scream that the differences are scary and fight for our right to think in either-or terms ’til the cows come home. That’s how I read these parts of Maureen Dowd’s commentary on the campaign today:

Many voters decided last week to stick with Obama despite his less-than-convincing explanations about the Rev. Wright — even as many soured on Hillary, casting her as Lady Voldemort. …

The pollster Peter Hart says the central questions are: “Is Hillary honest?” and “Is Obama safe?”

Her foreign affairs plumping-up has hurt her, while his exotic and unorthodox narrative stirs doubt.

Notice the either-or paradigm at work. Either we stick with the (“racist”-by-association) Obama or we go to an inappropriate extreme and (perhaps out of sexism) cast Clinton as the epitomy of evil. And notice the implication that Obama’s “exoticism” and intersectionality makes him “unsafe”.

OMG! The multiracials are coming!! They’re going to hit us with their curly-but-not-kinky hair and stare at us with their not-quite-epicanthically-folded eyes and loom over us casting their milky brown shadows!!! And they’re trying to TAKE OVER!!!

Can’t have that, now, can we?

(If you’re wondering, the title of this post is taken from my favorite lolcat image, which is probably taken from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, and which may very well be taken from something else.)

23 Responses

  1. Heh. De ja vu all over again. I feel like this happens every five years or so — a spate of articles ‘discovering’ mixed people. Sometimes I think the NYTimes has these articles stored away somewhere and they just change the celebrity references and switch a few sentences up. Voila — a ‘new trend’ that they’ve reported on five times already!

    I mean, are we really still at the point where sentences like ““When you’re multiracial, you can be several things at the same time,”” are revelatory? Like, Black people and Arabs and white people and asians can have SEX with each other!? And the offspring LIVE!? No way!

  2. ^^^^^

    BTW, I didn’t mean to leave ‘Asians’ uncapitalized. I did, however, mean to leave ‘white people’ uncapitalized, because I’m petty.

  3. You know this is one of my PET PEEVES of ALL TIME. My family is also mixed Black, white, and Native heritage, and I am fed up with people ignoring the history involved in making that happen. I’m amazed when people, especially from outside of the US, start babbling about how America needs to be more ‘mixed’ and move beyond the past all of a sudden. As if it never happened before MLK had “a dream.”

  4. It is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from the original book/articles. HST was a strange cat. I think he claimed to be on mescaline, coke, and amyl poppers at the Bat Country incident. And was probably driving the car.

  5. [...] are multiracial. My grandmother used to call us her very own “Rainbow Coalition”… We can’t stop here! This is MULTIRACIAL country!–The Angry Black [...]

  6. Obama had done a really good job of transcending the racial questions, until the Klanservatives decided to stir the racist pot up. They only have one hope of prevailing in November, and that’s to portray Obama as the new Eldridge Cleaver.

  7. nojojojo, thanks for posting this.

    Not surprisingly, my quote was cut short. When I said “When you’re multiracial, you can be several things at the same time,” I went on to debunk the idea that people identify as multiracial and nothing else.

    I for example, identify as multiracial. I also identify as Asian-American. I also identify as a person of color. Those are all parts of my identity. Obama obviously identifies as multiracial. But he also very strongly identifies as a black man.

    To some people those seem like mutually exclusive categories. As if people who identifying as multiracial are doing *instead* of identifying as black, for instance. That multiracial identity is a way of “running from your blackness” or a naive attempt to opt out of racism by calling yourself something else.

  8. @ Carmen

    Apologies — I should have guessed that the article made your comments sound simpler than they were. It’s happened to me before…

  9. No worries! I would’ve come to the same conclusion as you.

  10. Hear, Hear! Well said. The both-and model is so much better than the either-or model, even for those of us who look “pure” from a distance.

    I’m not sure the causality between math and either-or thinking is in the right direction, though. Just as the Greeks couldn’t have invented calculus because they couldn’t get away from the idea that perfection is static, I think it’s the American tendency to insist on dichotomies that makes it so immensely difficult for my students to understand that ‘W’ can be both a variable (Work) and a unit (Watts), and other, related mathematical tasks.

    But hey, it’s probably some of each, a feedback loop if you will.

  11. Great post! One day “they” will all get it…

  12. the majority of black Americans who are multiracial,

    The majority of American whites whose ancestors have been in the Americas for more than a couple of generations are too. Despite claims to the contrary. Race is a weird concept.

  13. Great post. I get so tired of this discussion about who is 100% black or 100% anything. I’ve tried to make this point (with including a rant a few years back to Carmen on the Addicted to Race blog) about this bizarre racist idea of “mono-racial” people and how deeply invested in and steeped in racism it is. I mean why are we just taking some abstract concept of racism at face value and moving forward with it when it comes time to pick our own identities? My father is African American family from North Carolina and Georgia, there was some European in there and possibly some Native American, the whos and the whats I don’t know and frankly could care less. My mother is from Ghana, her parents are from two different regions of the same “tribe”. I am a “mono-racial” but my experience is not the same as every other “mono-racial”, so I am all too happy to throw the baby and the bathwater all out.

    I think this concept of “multiracial” is totally non-political and absolutely accomodationist. I seriously question whether someone who is so invested in the “multi-racial” movement can really be, at the same time, committed to anti-racism as a true political gesture and not just an effort to push through tolerance legislation.

  14. ugh i hate that i wrote african american instead of black and native american instead of indian. total slip up. sorry.

  15. camille,

    Uh… what’s wrong with using “African American” and “Native American”?? ::confused:: You’re the second person I’ve seen in the past few days who has declared these terms racist, which makes no sense to me. I feel like I missed a memo somewhere. Please explain?

    I think this concept of “multiracial” is totally non-political and absolutely accomodationist. I seriously question whether someone who is so invested in the “multi-racial” movement can really be, at the same time, committed to anti-racism as a true political gesture and not just an effort to push through tolerance legislation.

    I’m not sure I understand you here. You seem to be simultaneously lambasting the idea of “monoracialism” as racist — which I agree, it is — and yet also rejecting the idea of “multiracialism” as some kind of cave-in to racism. So what terminology would you use?

    I personally think “multiracial” is a perfectly acceptable term. It’s one of the terms that people who are multiracial and want to claim that as an identity have chosen, and AFAIC they have the right to name themselves (as opposed to outsiders/racist society picking a name — e.g. “mulatto”). That hasn’t been my choice — I am multiracial, but I don’t identify primarily as such — but I respect their choice, and the fact that they’ve fought for the right to make that choice. In claiming that identity they defy a number of racist ideas — the “one drop rule,” for example — so how can that be accommodationist?

    Also — I’m not comfortable with the fact that you’re questioning people’s commitment to anti-racism based on their chosen identity. That’s not cool. I have met far too many multiracial people who were and are totally committed to anti-racism; why the hell wouldn’t they be?

  16. I never declared those terms racist. Please don’t put words in my mouth. I just happen to choose black and Indian for political reasons. I like Indian particularly because I once heard a native elder say that every time he says the word Indian its a reminder of how dumb the Europeans were when they got here thinking they were walking upon the shores of India. Hee hee.
    *
    The concept of multiracial is built upon the concepts of monoraciality, the possibility of their being a singularity within race. That anyone is really truly just one thing. As we all know everyone traces their ancestry back to Africa, so if we are cooking up this concept of mono-raciality on which multi-raciality is predicated on how far back do we go before we stop including certain ancestors. It’s just too asinine.

    To answer your question, the question of terminology is not interesting to me. In fact, I think the entire discussion is racist accomodationist subterfuge. “Let’s all focus on what your particular “mix ” is and let’s lobby to get you your own personal check-box so we can turn away from the question of white supremacy.” I’m sure a lot of the people engaged in the debate mean well, but I’ve long ago realized that identity politics is about 99% identity party and 1% politics. I am not interested in checking politics at the door, and I am not interested in some watered down “people-of-colorism” either. I want “colorblind” people to start seeing color and go into the holy ghost convulsions and I want “multi-racial” people to jump into the blackness that they are running away from.This has nothing to do with your one drop or my five drops or someone else’s delusion of their zero drops, it has to do with anti-black racism as all-encompasssing. combatting anti-black racism necessarily includes all the struggles in a way that “people-of-color”-ism does not. for that reason i say come into the blackness, one and all.

  17. Camille,

    I find the “Indian” thing funny too, but since I now get confused when referring to Indians-who-are-indigenous and Indians-from-India, it seems more logical to use the term they chose awhile back (Native American). Plus, *they* chose it, not the white folks, so I prefer to use the term that most of the people in question have claimed.

    This has nothing to do with your one drop or my five drops or someone else’s delusion of their zero drops, it has to do with anti-black racism as all-encompasssing. combatting anti-black racism necessarily includes all the struggles in a way that “people-of-color”-ism does not. for that reason i say come into the blackness, one and all.

    …And what about multiracial people who aren’t partly black? Yes, technically we’re all African, and yes, racism does seem to have a particular emphasis and intensity when it’s focused on black people. But we’re not the be-all and end-all of racism, and not all struggles *are* encompassed by the black struggle. That diminishes/dismisses every other struggle out there by every other group of oppressed people, which just doesn’t make sense to me.

    It also seems dangerous, and bizarrely contradictory, for you to rant against mono-raciality… and then demand that all people of color and all multiracial people declare themselves black. This is precisely what the one-drop rule was all about — separating us all into white people and Other.

  18. I am not interested in blackness as a race, I am interested in it as a political location. I am only interested in questions of identity as they relate back to a political identity in line with doing the kind of political work I am interested in. I think blackness is the right place to start from. That is why I say I am not interested in any little drops. I am interested in the flood we could start if we would all go into that Otherness rather than fleeing from it.

  19. Also as for the Indian thing, who is this THEY that chose it?
    The radical Indian movement I am most familiar with was/is called AIM the American Indian Movement not the Native American Movement. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_Movement

  20. camille,

    Good luck with that. I think I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure how far you’re going to get by dismissing other people of color and multiracial people as “little drops”.

    As for the Indian thing, there’s as much controversy over that as there is over “African American”, “Asian American”, and any other modern name we can come up with. I’m fully aware of that. My grandmother used to insist on “Negro”, even after “Negro” went out of fashion and its use began to be regarded as an anachronism. She refused to adopt either “black” or “African American”; she dismissed them both as pointless new-fangled fads. “Negro” was the term she’d grown up with (the polite term, I mean), and in her house it was the term we had to use. So when I’m dealing with people individually I use whatever term they seem to prefer; that’s only proper.

    But when I’m talking about a group of people, I use the term that seems to be most commonly accepted. I tend to use both “Indian” (or the “abbreviation” NDN) and Native American interchangeably, because that’s how they seem to use it — “American Indian” is by no means ubiquitous. But mostly I use Native American, because sometimes here at ABW we talk about Indian Americans, and it’s useful to be clear.

    But as I said, you’re the second person I’ve seen lately who treated the term “Native American” as if it was a problem. I believe you called it a “slip up”, and you actually apologized for using it, as if you’d given offense. Ditto “African American”. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

  21. Thanks for this post. Cultural identification is something I have been trying to get my head around for some time now. This helps!

  22. It’s all bogus, we’re all 100% human, or at least that’s what I thought. We need to focus on who’s being oppressed and the reasons why. We really need to get to the root of the problem. We are trapped in a redundant argument that is nothing but “a whirl of confusion.” We are missing the real point. There is a vast group of people that are underpriviledged and subjected to maltreatment. The name of the group is “non-white.” So while we are trying to figure out what color we are, the world is moving forward and we are moving backwards. We are still holding steadfast to our entagled roots of slavery. That’s the era when African slaves were dispersed all over the world. The result was the loss of alot of African culture and identity. It happened by FORCE. This argument is so redundant. We are all subjected to multi-culturalism because we are not in our Native lands. That’s just the way the mop flops. So for those of us who feel as if we need to validate ourselves, we should do our Genealogical Research so that we can feel whole. There are centers everywhere and they are accessible online. What is RACE anyway. Read a book, do the research, it’s all bah loh ney! Again, I say we are all humans, and humans can reproduce with humans. Furthermore, we have been doing so since the beginning of time. Soooooo…. If we continue to choose to be classified and discriminated against, we will be. I think a bigger and more intelligible argument would be figuring out why there is a group of people that is subjected to so much segregation, degredation, misuse and abuse? We are all governed by the same government, Right? If we are checking census blocks so that the government can disperse funds to specific underpriviledged groups, where are all of the funds REALLY going? Are we seeing results in our minority neighborhoods, schools, housing, and poverty levels. (And when I say minority, I don’t mean just “Blacks”) I mean minority. All minorities are being affected, I don’t care what you label yourself as. It’s a minority issue, not a race issue. We need to stop entertaining petty arguments and take action on the bigger issues. The issue is I might classify myself as “flourscent pink,” but I want the same equal oppurtunities and treatment, as all AMERICANS, MY NATIVE BORN COUNTRY. ( I don’t know too many people jumping off of the slave ships here recently) We are all AMERICANS at this point. Taste the Rainbow :) LOL

  23. “I want “multi-racial” people to jump into the blackness that they are running away from”
    -from camille

    Running? Let me tell you a story…
    Once, a girl was born to a white mother and a black father. Her daddy got sent to jail. She never, until the moment she typed this, thought, “My black dad’s in jail…sounds like a lot of stuff I hear.”
    She spent most of her life assuming she was black. (Black people assumed she was Mexican, which wasn’t a minority where she lived.)
    Then..one day..she looked at her mom. And she looked at her hand. And she noticed, well, it’s not very dark. In fact, it wasn’t that dark at all. It may even be lighter than it is dark.
    And BAM. She found out she WASN’T COMPLETELY BLACK.

    I’ve assumed my whole life. And Now I wish I wasn’t. I mean, I’m uncomfortable even posting, becuase I’m mixed. I can’t do anything even remotely black (And i don’t mean stereotypical, I just lost my train of thought >..<

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