I was reading a bunch of painful black history stuff I’d avoided all my life, and it was both cool and horrifying to discover the history of mixed-race people in particular. I’ve started referring to myself as “mulatto” because it makes people uncomfortable.
Mixed-race people tended to be house Negroes, and light-skinned blacks tended to have higher socio-economic status (but not too much higher). It’s always been a problem that the “favored” Negros had incentives to identify with the slave-owner’s interests in some ways. The fucked up thing is where all these mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons were coming from. The one-drop rule is unique to the United States. A court decision established that, in cases of miscegenation, the child would have the slave or free status of the mother. This maximized the slave population, which was “beneficial” for economic reasons. By the time someone is 3/4 or 7/8 white, they basically look white. This made mixed-race women particularly valuable slaves, because anyone with $1000 could have themselves an essentially white sex slave that they could rape whenever.
I got my 23andMe results, and discovered that I’m close to 60/40 white/black, partly due to my Y chromosome that’s probably from somewhere in the UK. My dad’s black, so I couldn’t physically exist if not for the rape of a slave somewhere along the way.
Racially ambiguous people are in the unique position of being able to “pick sides.” The temptations of whiteness or an ethical commitment to “one’s people?” In some ways I think that I “pass,” in that I speak like a white person, so people forget I’m black and say racist stuff in front of me. I look non-white in a nondescript way, and I could just as easily pass for Middle-Eastern. A Chosen Exile is a history of passing in the United States. It meant different things at different times.
During slavery, passing was a way to escape. Quadroons and so on frequently looked 100% white, to the occasional surprise of European visitors. If a person that could pass for white was also literate, they could write their own travel pass and just head North. There was less reason to pass right after the Civil War, when there were high hopes that black people might achieve social equality. Jim Crow replaced the Reconstruction and passing was incentivized again. It often entailed painful family separations, constant fear of exposure, the disapproval of other black people, etc. During the Harlem Renaissance, and later with the Civil Rights Movement, passing faded into the background.
During all periods, there were people that could’ve easily passed that chose not to, and they tended to be doing better socioeconomically. Racial identification has uniquely high stakes for people that can pass easily. It’s part of maintaining institutional racism that higher-class minorities are encouraged to internalize white values. Look at Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, etc. At the same time, because of this privileged position, light-skinned blacks are in the best position to advance the interests of black people. It’s a heavy choice, self-handicapping with blackness in American society.
Mixed Race Students in College is a book about what the title says, from 2004. It was obviously relevant to me, getting a sense of how other people deal with being mixed-race. The first nice thing was that it objectively confirmed my sense that I am weird and completely unrepresentative of anything. 2-3% of people in the United States are mixed-race in the first place. Among those people, the book describes 5 patterns of racial identification (really 4 non-exclusive categories and a 5th for people spanning more than one). The same person may engage in different patterns at different times each day, or during different periods of their lives. I love the conclusion:
Perhaps the most important finding of this study is that, for mixed race students, achieving a singular racial identity outcome is not necessarily reasonable or desirable.
Of course it’s natural that Buddhist talk about “no-self” and Lacanian stuff about “deconstructing the ego” appeals to me. I thought it was especially interesting that “people exposed to postmodernism” is its own thing.
- Monoracial Identity. Sometimes, the one-drop rule applies and I’m black for the purpose of meeting administrative diversity needs. About half the people followed this pattern at least sometimes. Somehow I have the feeling that I’m black as far as other people are concerned. A recurring theme in the book is the conflict between what people do in public and how they think of themselves.
- Multiple Monoracial Identities. “Half white, half black.” That’s usually the way I answer the question. Growing up, I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense for me to somehow forsake either parent, even though there were mixed messages about blackness. My parents spoke with completely different accents. “Several study participants in the Multiple Monoracial Identities pattern were the children of immigrant parents or had substantial international experience prior to coming to college…Some of these students were aware of being bicultural, but also of their parents’ attempts to assimilate into mainstream, white American culture.” Lots of people report similar weirdness with being part of a race but not having the cultural knowledge that goes with it.
- Multiracial Identity. This is where “mulatto” fits, along with “biracial” or “mixed-race.” Mulattoes have always been a thing, but it’s a newer social development that biracial people of any sort form an abstract category of their own. This is controversial, because some argue that it reinforces the idea that race is real, and that being black is bad. For other people, it’s a unique enough experience that they feel an affinity with other mixed-race people, partly due to shared experience with the stigma against race-mixing. This section had a great quote:
Mixed kids have to think more about race. One of the students I talked to for my paper said, “Yeah, by the time I was five, I knew the grownups were wrong. I knew that they were putting categories on kids. I know that’s not right. So, I grew up knowing that authority never knew what it was doing really.” It was the same for me. I’ve always known that authority didn’t know what it was doing.
That was additionally true for me because of my mom being a Jehovah’s Witness.
It’s notable that cultural knowledge was less important for this group. Some of the people also noted some upsides: it gave them a more open-minded perspective on things, and it positioned them to educate others.
- Extraracial Identity. These are the people that were typically exposed to postmodernism. They reject the validity of the race concept and define themselves in other ways. Even continuing to use racial categories could be considered harmful. It’s not exclusive to postmodernism, though. A Chosen Exile talks about Jean Toomer in particular having this mindset in the Harlem Renaissance era. Several things are notable about this pattern. The first is that it’s the least common (13-23%). The second is that it’s particularly uncommon among mixed black-white people like myself. There were 6 colleges of different types included in the study, and the deconstructionists were over-represented at the Ivy League school. It was the only school where a significant number of people were exposed to these ideas.Mixed-race people are relatively uncommon in the first place, and I’m apparently a very uncommon sub-subtype of them.I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I learned about postmodernism in debate, and debate is elitist. The thing that concerns me is that this deconstruction stuff is a highly convoluted way of expressing the desire to be white. The periods when I “feel white” are those when I’m not thinking about race at all. Whiteness is the absence of a social burden. So what’s the difference between that and having the luxury of deciding for yourself that race doesn’t apply to you? One student in this category:
I just say “Jamaican”…I hate being called african american. I’m not American, and granted way down the line I’m of African descent, but I don’t really identify with it or anything.
Another student said she didn’t attend a “preorientation for students of color” because she’d been “scared because [she’d] never been in a huge minority community.” Scared in the way that white people are scared of minorities? Weren’t the postmodernists mostly French? Having accepted “diversity” funding while holding these beliefs was uncomfortable, and “colorblindness” is the thing that’s the most uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I should pause and reflect when my beliefs are leading me to the same conclusions as a bunch of crypto-racist anti-immigration activists.
It’s the philosophically strongest position and also the least practical. The reason is that OTHER PEOPLE won’t stop using race, and the effects are very real.
You know, it’s kind of scary–this discussion is going on here and not out there and well, where else is it going on? The way people think here is awesome, you know, it’s wonderful, but when I go home and talk about “the construction of race and blah-blah-blah” and “race does not exist” people are just–, well, it’s completely absurd to their reality.
So to help my dad understand why it’s okay to say, “mixed”, I had to explain to him about how, really, race is just a way of categorizing people that goes back in history and that we got stuck with. When I was able to tell him about how the categories aren’t based on anything biological, even though he still didn’t really agree with me, he could understand better how come I say “mixed” rather than “Mexican, native american, and black.” “Mixed” gets away from those things and kind of makes a space apart from race, where the first thing you think isn’t “race” necessarily, but maybe you think, “Oh, ‘mixed,’ Ellen is mixed. What’s that about? Who is she?” But my dad still hates it when I say I’m mixed.
I like that one person said “I feel like theory is pretty central to my racial identity.”
Beyond having been merely exposed to theory, students demonstrated their acquisition of language and cognitive skills related to deconstructing categories. Some students were aware at a metacognitive level of this acquisition. In discussing art and identity, Luz said, “Yeah, you could put it in cheesy art semiotics terms, like ‘signifier for this or that.‘” Commenting on the “cheesiness” of theoretical jargon marked Luz as self-consciously aware of her use of the tools of postmodern theory to explain herself and her work.
It’s just so strange to me that I have a PhD and coincidentally have views on race that specifically match those of privileged, over-educated black people, i.e., the exact social category I belong to, which has faced this dilemma since the beginning of mulattoes. It’s like it’s historically determined, except that people with this view ALSO resent race as an imposition from outside, and it’s a matter of self-determination to them. If blackness is joke white people made up to treat other people atrociously, why call yourself that? Everyone should just be white, i.e., not have other people force this burden on them.
Nobody went through life with this as the primary way they dealt with race. It’s literally incomprehensible to many people, partly because it’s normally expressed in terms of obscurantist jargon with convoluted syntax. Relativism isn’t an obvious insight. “Defusion” is something Acceptance and Commitment Therapy trains people to do. Not enough people are going to get it right away to make social construction talk worth the bother, usually.
The fact of race being imposed from the outside, due to arbitrary birth circumstances, is basically what Lacan’s idea of “the Symbolic register” is getting at. Important aspects of identity are determined from birth, and the language the child acquires determines how they view themselves. The Symbolic is Other, and it affects the contents of the unconscious. The Real resists full symbolization. So while Lacanian psychoanalysis is sort of a silly quackery thing, it also speaks to an important personal concern that I guess is invisible to a lot of normals?
- Situational Identity. About 60% of people were in this group, i.e., belonged to 2 or more of the preceding 4, at different times. Identity is contextual and performative, etc.
It’s nice to know that my own experiences and reactions aren’t that abnormal, compared to the other handful of people with similar experiences.