Populations of humans have always been mixing genes, but we still have trouble with the concept.
Two recent books by University of Washington professors address what mixed means in America, particularly examining the period between the Census Bureau’s decision in the late 1990s to allow people, beginning in 2000, to choose more than one race, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Both books say something about how mixed race as a category is sometimes used to further marginalize African Americans.
“Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism,” by Habiba Ibrahim, an assistant professor of English, is written largely for an academic audience.
“Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial,” is written by Ralina Joseph, associate professor in the Department of Communications.
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Both are important works, but today I’m going to focus on Joseph’s book, which is also scholarly, but written with the general reader in mind.
We’re not post-racial yet, Joseph told me when we talked over coffee this week, and more mixing isn’t getting us there, because we haven’t shaken old ways of categorizing people. The combination of black and white, weighted with centuries of racism, raises the most issues.
Joseph noted the census change was most notably championed by Susan Graham, a white mother who wanted her son to be able to mark down multiracial, and, Joseph said, “had her young son testify before Congress, so that he did not have to identify as black.”
Joseph said a mother could correctly assume being black would make life more difficult for her child. She noted the volumes of data that show how deeply race affects life chances in America.
She mentioned the investigation of Seattle Public Schools’ disproportionately heavy suspensions and expulsions of black students.
But seeing multiracial as a separate category, a way of transcending blackness, is not a step forward, and it isn’t racially neutral, Joseph said. It is, instead, a new use of old concepts, an affirmation that blackness is something to escape.
Embracing all parts of a mixed heritage is a more positive act than migrating to a new category. Joseph calls herself a mixed-race African American. “One can’t think about one’s own identity choices without thinking about power realities.”
In the book, she writes that mixing generated the first race laws. The first anti-miscegenation law was passed in Maryland in 1661 as a response to black and white and Native-American pairings, and it was all about power. It was the beginning of laws that set white people apart, and above, others across the Colonies.
And, as the institution of slavery grew, white men could have sex with enslaved black women — but without marriage, the children who resulted inherited no land, no money, no power.
The African-American community has long been multiracial, ranging from milky skin and green eyes to deep chocolate, but to be counted as white still requires “purity.” It’s a protected status.
Joseph’s parents were married in Washington, D.C., in 1972, then lived in Virginia. The Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia had struck down laws against black-white marriages only five years before.
The parents never talked with their children about race. Joseph looked for images of people like herself in magazines and on television.
In the book, she examines portrayals of mixed-race black people in books, magazines, television and other media, and finds that often two old patterns recur.
In one pattern, the mixed person, usually a woman, is troubled, torn, wild. She analyzes the sad girl in the movie “Mixing Nia,” and Jennifer Beals’ bad-girl character on “The L Word.”
In the other pattern, the multiracial person is seen as elevated above stereotypes about blackness. That “exceptional multiracial” category would include Tiger Woods before his fall and President Obama, she said. The “exceptional multiracial” is enough proof for some people that we have arrived at a post-racial time, or that with a little more mixing we soon will.
We haven’t, but Joseph sees some bright spots in the portrayal of mixed-race black people, and black people in general, especially because of the opportunities online media offer.
She mentioned the comedy duo Key & Peele, and the Web show “Totally Biased,” whose star W. Kamau Bell exhibits a type of black masculinity we don’t often see in other media. He’s a big man with an Afro, a white wife and a mixed child, and who is anti-homophobic and acknowledges America’s rich diversity. Joseph also likes the Web series, “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.”
Maybe when her two children grow up, they won’t have to look so hard for positive reflections of their reality.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org