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.)