The Politics of Multi-Racial Identity-Part 4 of 4

My thoughts on Multi Racial identity throughout my college experience are still shifting, as this is written three weeks after my graduation from Chicago. In the infamous words of Zhou Enlai, “It is too soon to tell”[1]. Regardless, there were some definitive changes on campus that were apparent as soon as I arrived. The major was a demographic shift in terms of race and class. Upper class and white individuals now made up the majority of my immediate peer group, perhaps for the first time in my life. I was told that College was a time in which I was supposed to be pushed out of my comfort zone, so I supposed engaging in a very different aspect of society was part of that general shift.

There is, however, a distinction between feeling uncomfortable, and feeling threatened, and it was between these two feelings that I spent a majority of my time at Chicago. When I say I felt “threatened”, I should probably clarify. This wasn’t necessarily feeling threatened by physical violence—it was feeling threatened by a general sense of bad faith, and poor concern. While it has become a standard complaint that college campuses are hotbeds of “political correctness” that threaten the very essence of “academic freedom”, I would assert there being a difference between stifling discussion, and making discussion bearable for minority individuals of all demographics. A prime example of this was during our Orientation Week, which is the first week that first years are on campus. A series of exercises were designed to get students to “think” about their conceptions of race. One such exercise (and these have changed since my year): you’re walking alone late at night, and you see two black males walking towards you. Do you cross the street? Little discussion was actually had on the point.

The University had the awkward job of attempting to efficiently maintain boundaries, while not appearing racist. So, with one hand, they loosely offered support to minority communities of race, gender and class, while the other tugged on the strings of the UCPD, racially profiling people on campus to ensure that, in particular, African Americans not part of the UChicago community spent as little time on campus as possible. I remember being told to stay away from certain transit lines, as I would die if I took them.

Things get interesting when we remember that Chicago, as a university, is structurally a Western creation, and this made transitions for non-Western groups incredibly difficult. I can only speak to the Chicago experience, and only of my perspective on that experience, but there appears to be occasional moments in which similar frustrations have been expressed. The Black Bruins’ spoken poetry last year[2] and Alok Vaid-Menon’s “Break-Up Letter with Stanford”[3] both speak to this tension of maintaining one’s sanity, while having feet both in a part of the hierarchy created, and as an outsider. If we read people like we do texts, then the role of a University is to produce people who can be read as marked by Reason, with a capital R. The sort of Reason that one might expect from a Western Enlightened institution.

Chicago may have been a slightly better place in the sense of coming to terms with its origins in this regard. As a friend of mine once remarked: “At UChicago, you’re only as good as your last argument”. In theory, this sounds like the brilliant beginning of a serious engagement with a post-racial world, and I would like to believe it was. On the other hand, there was a definitive double standard for the theories that pointed out the need for multicultural engagements. I’ve seen and heard more than one classmate in this regard refer to the academic projects of provincializing the West as “bullshit”. In this regard, we might say the transition to college included a reflexive aspect of inquiry, one that might even be said to challenge the empirical realities of a student’s past.

We might say this if it wasn’t for the fact that white hierarchy was shown, again and again, to reject the offerings of diversity and discourse. This may seem like a radical claim, but it is difficult to shy away from when one considers how, year after year, another series of incidents occur to de-stabilize the utopian racial harmony construction that diversity was supposed to engender. One year, it was African Americans being body slammed in our main library[4]. Another year, it was a party entitled “Conquistador Bros and Aztec Hos”[5]. Despite Asians only making 16% of the College, there was a constant barrage of whispers about how there were “so many Asians”, which of course, discounted the South Asian demographic. During my second and third years, a variety of anonymous sub forums would reveal the drastic difference in how individuals perceived race—some going so far as to suggest African Americans ought to be removed from the University, and that Hitler might not have had the worst ideas.

Of course, one might defend the College experience by claiming “not all white people” or “not all men” whatever the category in question may be. However, that such vitriol existed is enough to suggest that the navigation process was extraordinarily different than the one that had existed in high school. When I invoked “threatened” I meant that, at certain points, I was no longer sure how much I could actually trust classmates.

The worst aspect of this environment was that it fell upon minority voices to offer pushback on most of these issues. What had been billed as “diversity” actually entailed minorities on all fronts to defend their rights to exist. And at times, this included opposition from the University itself. Thus, when someone like Sy Stokes says “Because our faces are just used to cover up from the public what’s really inside//Revitalizing lies to perpetuate your disguise//Stop pretending that the wounds of our past have healed”, one might imagine how this could resonate with a larger population than simply students within UCLA.

This was what I meant when I earlier stated that the failure of early humanities education on a whole made the diversity project harder. Rather than having a basic sense about how the past influenced the present, and how racial structures permeate through time, to the present, it was easier for people coming from privileged backgrounds first experiencing other groups to deny there was anything wrong with society. Eighteen years of structural validation meant that transforming perspectives on the relationship between empirical and conceptual race-thinking was much harder than it should have been. This was best illustrated by an unwillingness, for example, to acknowledge the backhandedness of a comment like “you speak so well for someone of your culture”. To challenge the authority of the cultural hegemony laid down by racial hierarchy was to challenge everything a majority of the College had experienced up to this point.

Combine this with a deep commitment to the Marxist tradition at the time—the elimination of class would eliminate other sources of social struggle—and you understand why I did not initially desire to engage my classmates on issues of race. Part of this was a deep desire to believe that society was structurally fine, and that our problems were based in a couple of unintelligent people who would never amount to anything politically relevant. However, the longer I remained in the College, the more I realized that Arendt’s diagnosis of Eichmann was equally applicable to most of my classmates, in some regard. Darin Strauss best expressed what I mean in his use of Arendt during the Paula Deen scandal:

“ In Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that sometimes what we call evil — and what can bring about the most horrible outcomes — can often more accurately and simply be thoughtlessness of a sort…

…Again, Arendt was perhaps the first to write coherently about the trouble communities have in seeing the world as being something other than what they have been conditioned to see — without any kind of cultural empathy.”[6]

If we take this suggestion with some merit, then it appears as though the role of college diversity is to inject this cultural empathy that had been lacking for so long from my classmates’ experiences. Yet, this completely ignores the fact that this conditioning is also operative for the sources of diversity that are expected to maintain cool, calm and collected in the face of comments, microaggressions and queries that make us re-evaluate our role in these schools on a day-to-day basis.

I would like to end this story, coming full circle. I started with the empirical facts of my race, and the conceptual aspects assigned to me by my peers in kindergarten. One of the points of college is to escape from parental units, and looking at one’s life without the shadow of constant adult supervision. In my case, this meant being removed from the most powerful reinforcement of my white identity—my mother. I didn’t see it in this way until much later—as Vaid-Menon wrote, “your parents – called it ‘becoming an adult’ but you called it staying out past your bedtime dancing, called it holding his hand on the street, called it safe, and sometimes even freedom”.

It was late one night, after a study session in our main library, and I was heading back to the dorm, during winter. I had a large North Face jacket, the sort with fur around the hood, which was up because Chicago winter. I had been walking briefly, when I saw a friend walking towards me, somewhere ahead of me. I went to shout a greeting, but before I could, he stepped back and crossed the street. I don’t know if he recognized me, or if he just saw a large hooded jacket headed towards him. There could be any number of reasons this occurred, but I think one would be a fool to not consider the reality of the situation. I had begun with an identity that was completely maintained in the sphere of White, and ended with experiences that rapidly placed me into Black.

I wasn’t quite sure how to react, so I didn’t, and I’ve quietly born the experience alongside the many others I have had as I watched other people balance where I do or do not live, and what claims I do or do not get to make. Even now, I get the random email or message from some person or another questioning about what right I have to appropriate racial experiences.

I am still unsure if I have mapped out exactly what I wanted to bring to the discussion about Multi Racial identity. My basic point is to illustrate the power society yields in the deployment of conceptual categories in regards to race, and what Multi Racial bodies have to do in order to navigate those politics, for where there is power, there is certainly a set of politics that guide how that power is used. And it is through the careful engagement of these navigations that we may be able to formally create spaces in which Multi Racial subjects of all backgrounds may feel comfortable laying claim to all engagements of this social power, since the way people perceive us is incredibly dynamic and dependent on a variety of factors beyond our control.

 

By: July 2014 Guest Blogger- Marley-Vincent Lindsey

MVLphoto

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a freelance writer and independent researcher located in New York. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history and is primarily interested in 16th century Colonial Spain, the influence of Christianity on colonial institutions, subaltern studies and postcolonial theory and the relationship between digital media and history. He will be presenting at the Sixth Annual  Conference on Power and Struggle hosted by the University of Alabama, and is publishing a paper entitled “The Politics of Pokémon: Socialized Gaming, Religious Themes and the Construction of Communal Narratives” in the forthcoming volume of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. When he’s not on the academic grind, he’s probably playing Starcraft and other related strategy games, skating or thinking about contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse. He can be contacted via email (mvlindsey92@gmail.com) or through his notebook-blog (mvlindsey.wordpress.com). He also really likes cats.

 

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our Facebook page – we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories)


The Politics of Multi-Racial Identity – Part 3 of 4

This section requires a brief moment of intellectual self-aggrandizing, and I apologize for that, but how race impacted my high school experience can only be understood in the context of what my high school meant for the city on a whole. Stuyvesant High School, initially founded as a trade school for boys in 1904, is a name with real power in New York. This power came from the expectations of a student going to Stuyvesant: it was an academic pressure cooker, a sink-or-swim environment and a feeder for the Ivy League and top-tier universities worldwide. Multiple schools like MIT, UChicago, Yale and Harvard employ admissions officers whose specific jobs are to deal with the Stuyvesant application pool. We boast multiple Nobel prize winners, Fields Medals, Intel Science Search winners, and influential alumni both in and out of the academy.

These are the sorts of things one might expect from an affluent private school. They are not common for a public high school with a majority of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. The element of economic diversity for Stuyvesant, combined with its role as a stepping-stone for a number of first generation immigrants led to its place as a source of constant pride for New York. A group of talented and ambitious low-income kids who, based on a single test, are admitted into the “elite” company of students who attend the school.

The question on the table is whether this economic diversity was enough to speak for one of the largest racial divides in high schools across the country. Eleanor Archie, an Assistant Principal during my time at Stuyvesant, was quoted as referring to the 11 black students admitted in 2013 as the fewest she’d seen in the 20 years she’d been there[1]. Currently, the school is 72% Asian, 21% White, 1% African American and 2% Hispanic. Black and Hispanic enrollment has been declining for a variety of reasons, some of which include former principal Stanley Teitel’s decision to end Summer Discovery, a program that allowed underscoring students to attend classes over the summer to earn an admissions slot. The Summer High School Institute, a program designed to help bolster underrepresented minorities, has seen a slew of budget cuts since its inception. Outreach to schools zones like District 7, poor and with few resources, is minimal, while normal support networks like families and communities come to the growing understanding that schools like Stuyvesant were never meant for them.

Whenever I brought up this astounding lack of representation for African Americans, Indigenous or Hispanic groups, I often received the response that Stuyvesant was diverse where it matters—in terms of class. What this economic diversity showed was that anyone could make it to my high school, and that the lack of racial diversity indicated a cultural problem within those racial categories. This was an objection essentially rooted in Marx. When he wrote that history was “hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”[2], he was not ignoring the colonial legacy of the early 19th century. He was placing that legacy as a direct problem of the economic ramifications of colonial rule. Colonial Marxists, like Frantz Fanon, could be seen in turn as developing these relationships as subject to the one of capital.

It is fascinating, then, that the philosophy of Marx is used in a conservative sense. The status quo of Stuyvesant is fully operational so long as it continues to subvert traditional classist assumptions about the role of income in determining long-term prospects. Setting this remark aside, these responses also demonstrate how racial comprehension failed in this environment where racial diversity was stratified. The discussion of “cultural problems”, for example, ignores a long history in which education was a valued characteristic, and how it steadily became de-valued as a function of racial discrimination. Any cursory glance at the rise and fall of Black Wall Streets demonstrate this. Further, the lack of serious representation within such an environment rapidly pushed discussions past points where they would normally be called out on their directly racist mentalities. As it is, the rationalizations created by classmates when a number of white male students created a video targeting a black female classmate based on race and gender reveal is astounding[3].

But here is a point where my experience as Multi Racial diverged from traditional minority narratives. The fact that I was also Chinese as well as Jamaican meant that the discomfort triggered by racial episodes also included the flattening of Asian experiences at the school. The same New York Times article that lamented the loss of African Americans at Stuyvesant would also hint that Asian representation was too high[4]. Descriptions of the Asian population as “invading”, or as particular Asian students as functionally equivalent contributed to an odd discourse in which no minority was really safe from critique. There was, of course, usually one face to represent Asian Americans at Stuyvesant: a Chinese one. This is despite the conceptual boundary between populations of people like Indians, Afghans, and Pakistanis and what American consciousness conceptualizes as “Asian”. As an example, it was not Chinese Americans who were targeted after 9/11. What’s more, the difficulties for some students in terms of being first generation, or largely lower class tend to be ignored when constructing this monolithic entity of “Asian”. It was almost as Asian-ness gave its beholder some sort of super power, which rendered the model minority myth and the elements of discrimination with which it is associated irrelevant.

In a world where all people are monoracial, the polarizing nature of model minority versus under represented minority may have been discomforting, but probably did not trigger existential crises. Was I taking advantage of one identity to bolster another? Is this an acceptable way to further underrepresentation? Am I a sell-out? I was expected to have fully developed answers to these questions by the age of 14, and as soon as I began talking about these things, I could expect my peers on both sides to remind me that I was not “Black” nor “Chinese” nor “White”. Paradoxically, I was also expected to “pick” a side, regardless of how well my peers policed those conceptual boundaries. One classmate, for example, insisted on reminding me that college admissions, would only see me as African American. And since my classmate’s impression of African American was uniformly that of the inner city, gangs and violence, I had no right putting that down on my application.

These sorts of statements were deeply ironic. I wasn’t Black enough to make it acceptable for college applications, but I was Black enough for girls to explicitly mention that their fathers would kill me if I touched them. I was Black enough to transform into an expert on slavery, reparations and segregation in the inner city for classes that could be devoid of darker faces. But, for whatever reason, I was challenged to put down only “Chinese” or “Chinese and White” on college applications. The fact that I had the audacity to identify with all parts of my empirical identity was a challenge in the atmosphere of hyper-competitive college admissions season.

I pre-empted this section by asserting that what mattered less was the empirical reality of race, and more what people saw of me. The signifier shifted from my mother, to what conceptual expectations my classmates had of particular racial distinctions, and where I stood in regards to expectations. This was also true of the world at-large. Prior to my arrival at Stuyvesant, people normally guessed at my ethnicity as “some kind of Latin American”. If they knew I went to Stuyvesant, these guesses shifted to “Middle Eastern, or maybe Jewish”. I had little say in how I was perceived, or what was assigned to me. In multiple areas of institutional applications, I had to pick whatever ethnicity I best identified with, and I doubt Stuyvesant included my cross-out of the Scantron bubbles, and the write-in, “Multi Racial” as an option in its report to the Board of Education.

While my identity was not directly negated in high school, it was undermined at many turns. However, I recognized the source of that undermining as classmates who, for the most part, had their own systemic problems with which to deal. I rejected class as the primary point of tension, but a majority of us knew and understood the experience of being low-income as a large difficulty. A number of friends were frustrated by a lack of understanding as to why affirmative action helped make a level playing-field, but I found it easier to discuss with my high school classmates, a majority of which had their own problems navigating the racial hierarchy.

The transition to the University of Chicago thus became a similar marker. I had spent eighteen years in New York, living amongst an incredibly diverse array of experiences in gender, race, class and orientation. Chicago, despite its “quirky” reputation, was largely an engagement with normativity in every respect. I had seen stereotypes of what life was like West of the Hudson River, but I had little real experience in engaging with that world. Unfortunately, there was little warning that I would be expected to engage individuals who had as little experience in diversity as I had in normativity.

 

By: July 2014 Guest Blogger- Marley-Vincent Lindsey

MVLphoto

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a freelance writer and independent researcher located in New York. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history and is primarily interested in 16th century Colonial Spain, the influence of Christianity on colonial institutions, subaltern studies and postcolonial theory and the relationship between digital media and history. He will be presenting at the Sixth Annual  Conference on Power and Struggle hosted by the University of Alabama, and is publishing a paper entitled “The Politics of Pokémon: Socialized Gaming, Religious Themes and the Construction of Communal Narratives” in the forthcoming volume of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. When he’s not on the academic grind, he’s probably playing Starcraft and other related strategy games, skating or thinking about contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse. He can be contacted via email (mvlindsey92@gmail.com) or through his notebook-blog (mvlindsey.wordpress.com). He also really likes cats.

 

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our Facebook page – we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories)


The Politics of Multi-Racial Identity – Part 2 of 4

My childhood area of New York bordered the remnants of the Puerto Rican Loisaida, and edges of Chinatown. As a result, our class was a mix of working class Asians and Latinos, along with Italians and African Americans. My kindergarten class was a reflection of this composition, which would have made any proponent of diversity happy. Our cognition of race at this point was limited to what we interacted with in reality. We could perceive a correlation of skin color to racial identity—lighter individuals being white, and darker individuals being black, with Asians and Latinos having their own looks—and this correlation was hammered home by interactions with the families of students. If one’s identity was not made immediately clear by their body, the sign to be read was the body of the person who was generally responsible for the student.

This is where the fluidity of my own racial identity began. In my mind (and the minds of my five year old peers) I was white. My skin color might have identified me as Latino, but my mother was a working class, Western European woman and that identity became my own. Indeed, my first memory of directly engaging race was mentioning to my mother something about how I was white. To which she responded that my impression was a half-truth; I was part white, but my dad was also Jamaican and Chinese.

This was not the biggest surprise in my mind. I was cognizant of a difference between my mother and myself, but this difference was brought out by social interactions. What enforced the conclusion of my whiteness in the classroom was the presence of my mother, a white woman. However, this was not enough for all people outside the classroom and it was the interactions with these people that made me suspect there was more to my identity.  A prime example: there was a park near our apartment in which I regularly played. While the children played on the jungle gym, or by the sprinklers, our parents would gather and have the sorts of conversations adults have. Years later, my mom informed me about the subject of one such conversation: another white mother had seen me with my mother, and was not deceived. Thus, once I was out of earshot, she asked, “Where did you get him from?” This woman thought that my mother had a contact with a Latin American adoption agency.

It was not a moment of malicious racism, and the woman became apologetic upon realizing that we were indeed biologically related, but it did reflect a number of normative assumptions she had made and was comfortable with sharing in public. Her question did not entertain the notion that a biological relation was possible—it made the normative assumption as one of adoptive kinship. This is reflective of a historical consciousness in which the world makes more sense maintaining the strict lines that bind our conceptual categories of race to empirics, rather than suggesting that the lines between them could change.

Of course, it is difficult to say whether biological relations ought to be presumed as normative ones for society, but what I wish to highlight is the selective standard by which this question of normativity is raised. It was not any other relation between child and parent that was question—it was my mother and myself. This is a question continually raised by people who think they are clever: “How do you know what you are if you never knew your dad?” The separation of empirical verification and conceptual trust is one that exists in every parental relationship. For all any of these people know, their parents had lied about being their parents, and were actually ex-KGB operatives. These explanations are rejected because they seem more complex and difficult to maintain. However, when it comes to multi-racial identity, everything that does not have immediate empirical verification, is available for strict scrutiny.

These forms of “benign” racism were equally prominent within my peer group. In fact, by 2nd grade, my peers had become incredibly good at creating groups based on ethnicity, and policing those lines. Throughout my interaction with Asian friends, for example this was a common response I would receive when they heard I was Chinese: “No you’re not. You don’t look it!” This was another simple negation, one that seems benign, as it came from seven year olds with little world experience. We would expect this of children in the same way we might expect a child to disbelieve in purple potatoes until presented with one. But people are not potatoes, and this was indicative of a larger problem—namely the inability to differentiate between races beyond empirics. These early experiences with empirical validation of race would later be the source of my peers’ conceptual ideas of race. This wasn’t a failure of the individual, but one in which the American state itself has been incapable of understanding racial lines, both conceptually and empirically, as moving targets.

When a student learns history in elementary school, the typical revisionist charge is this history is the “old dead white dude” variant of history. My only contribution to this discussion is that even in the most virulent threads of historical fantasy, in which the Civil War was one of “Northern Aggression” there is some acknowledgment that other races existed, if only to be subservient to the white one. Yet, both revisionists and traditionalists police these very lines that we learned as children: races do not mix. Even the more progressive histories, based on popular historians like Howard Zinn, still spend very little time pointing out that Multi Racial identities exist[1]. And when this absence of mention is combined with the tradition of separation, it is no surprise that children cannot conceptualize Multi Racial identity as something possible. My identity was practically a unicorn—non-existent.

Part of this erasure is a refusal to engage with the reality in which we exist, and the history behind it. In middle school, our humanities curriculum was well developed, with emphasis on primary sources, and even a trip to the NY Supreme Court to argue the case for slave reparations. But there was always a sense that we were playing with dead ideologies—this court case was partially imaginary, in the sense that none of us were forced to consider race as an element of the present. I remember some peers being very surprised to hear that racism still existed as a politically powerful force, as though racism ended with Brown vs. Board of Ed. The failure of our humanities education was the inability to link this history with the social structures of the present[2].

This connection was made for seldom few of us as children, but I would suggest that the living experience of dealing with racial discrimination, combined with the historical knowledge of the past (and here, parents become teachers as well—for example, people who fought for civil rights) means that non-white children make this connection much more quickly. There are a variety of studies that show white students tend to be less aware of race as a profoundly influential factor in the possibility of advancement. By denying these connections, or at least failing to address them, the later work of “diversity” becomes exponentially harder—something I will return to in a later post.

My first engagements in which my peers became actively aware of the political stakes for race-thinking, and the ideologies it spawns was in high school. This began a long journey, one in which I had to begin navigating how I wanted to identify, and as what others wanted me to identify. I will go more into detail about this process later, but I will close with the basic distinction between my early childhood days, and my life as a teenager.

As a child, my identity as Multi Racial appeared to have few stakes involved. My mom, as a sign, meant passing was imposed upon me, and while moments of tension surfaced when this sign was challenged, they meant little in the grander scheme of my own opportunities. Yet, it wasn’t as simple as a conscious decision to act and appear white at all times. I still interacted with my peers, expecting them to accept my racial identity as empirically valid, regardless of the conceptual construction of my educational trajectory as white.

At a high school where the distance between my empirical and conceptual identities began to grow wider, the stakes became raised. No longer was the question whether I actually was Jamaican, or Chinese, but whether I had the right to claim that identity as my own. My peers became less concerned with the empirical, and more concerned with the conceptual.

 


[1] Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has become the standard form of popular marginalized histories: http://www.thegoyslife.com/Documents/Books/A%20People’s%20History%20of%20the%20United%20States-%20Howard%20Zinn.pdf .

[2] The literary scholar Gayatri Spivak has some powerful words on the role of the humanities in education within this lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZHH4ALRFHw .

 

By: July 2014 Guest Blogger- Marley-Vincent Lindsey

MVLphoto

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a freelance writer and independent researcher located in New York. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history and is primarily interested in 16th century Colonial Spain, the influence of Christianity on colonial institutions, subaltern studies and postcolonial theory and the relationship between digital media and history. He will be presenting at the Sixth Annual  Conference on Power and Struggle hosted by the University of Alabama, and is publishing a paper entitled “The Politics of Pokémon: Socialized Gaming, Religious Themes and the Construction of Communal Narratives” in the forthcoming volume of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. When he’s not on the academic grind, he’s probably playing Starcraft and other related strategy games, skating or thinking about contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse. He can be contacted via email (mvlindsey92@gmail.com) or through his notebook-blog (mvlindsey.wordpress.com). He also really likes cats.

 

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our Facebook page – we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories)


The Politics of Multi-Racial Identity -Part 1 of 4

Race-thinking has two distinct aspects: the real, and the conceptual. Both of these are important in the development of the racial politics of identity. These politics surround both what we know to be true about race (the real) and what we are taught corresponds to that reality (the conceptual). What these aspects have in common is their role as signifiers in the categorization of people both for the state and the individual. Stuart Hall suggested that the entire construction of race was an exercise in turning the body into a text, something that is neat and well defined, in order that we might better understand it[1]. Skin color, and the physical associations based on that color, become signifiers that we use to organize and categorize groups of people in a way that is convenient for a plurality of the population. If this idea is taken with some merit, then we can say that a whole series of problems in discussions of race are problems of language. When we argue about stereotypes, negative or positive, we are arguing about how accurately we have read people in the context of the state. The confirmation of stereotypes represents a successful unification of the real with the conceptual.

The need to categorize is not exclusive to race-thinking; it is how we make sense of information. Without classifications and groupings, we are left with a variety of data that have little meaning behind them. Yet, if we look at race-thinking as a series of signs within language, then the importance of categorization is open to another set of problems. These are problems of relative identity. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, perceived language as a series of signs that were ultimately relative[2]. Particular words gained their significance only when defined in relation with their antithesis: “open” only really means something when compared with “closed”, “up” with “down”, and so on. “White” and “Black” is another example of these antithetical pairs. A long history is associated with these colors, and their applications. As one example, Augustine in the 5th century CE used the concept of light—another synonym for white—and the fall from light to denote those who maintained piety, and those who fell into sin, respectively.

“White” and “Black” as historical terms gained power within the conceptual that has never been fully developed. This history is also what complicated issues that made the line between them less distinct. And here, Multi Racial identities become actively political. To have someone who physically embodied White and Black is to actively challenge not simply the hierarchy, but the categorizations themselves. This was the reasoning behind legal prohibitions of miscegenation, as well as social de-valuations of Multi Racial Subjects. As Frank Furedi noted, in ”How Sociology Imagined Mixed Race”: “The research agenda of the emerging race relations industry was dominated by the imperative of damage limitation”. This policy began with the interactions of the Americas with Europe, and continued up to policing commercials for Cheerios[3]. It relied on lines that could be imposed and enforced to the point that policing boundaries became subconscious. Edward Said’s process of Orientalizing the East is another way of formulating the creation of this category. Orientalism is a way of creating such conceptual categories, where lines are very clearly defined in the subconscious, although they may be difficult to articulate—we might recall Justice Stewart on pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced with that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it”.

The political power of these subjects, of course, has been subverted to serve the role of structural power. As Antonio Gramsci asserted, the culture of the powerful became the culture of the state. Those whose identities challenged this cultural form of hegemony were inevitably perceived as political.  The scholar of the Classical World, or that of 18th century poetry is able to conceal political identity to her writings in a way that is never accessible to those whose histories were based on a past of permanent dislocation. We might say the “white” category has been established as default. As a result, those who study white areas cannot be said to be political—they seek to understand the history of our world.  And yet, even structures have their politics.  As Edward Said noted in Orientalism: “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society”.

In this sense, the multi racial subject is paradoxically both political and apolitical. Within reality, her appearance is not enough signage to read her as belonging to the white or black category. However, her very existence is testimony to the long struggle at the periphery of such well-formulated categories. This means the mixed race identity is one that is always partially compromised: “What are you?” is less offensive for its depersonification and more for its historical erasure. Those who do not fit neatly in structured conceptions of race and culture do not belong, and need to be modified to fit with the worldview: “No, you can’t be Chinese!” the implication being that it violates some natural law of civilization.

What can we do about this problem? Our current solution, grounded in the empirical sense of what is feasible, suggests that it is merely a problem of experience. The whole debate about diversity is that experiencing the “real” aspects of people is enough to shift the “conception” of people[4]. There is no doubt that this must be part of the solution, however, it is not as simple as merging the boys and girls at a middle school dance. The beauty of ideologies is that they maintain their powers not simply in the real experiences of people, but also in how those people conceptually engage with categories through structures. As Arendt noted, part of the process of opinions turning into ideologies is this: “The appeal of both [in reference to history as an economic struggle of classes and as a natural fight of races] to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines”[5]. In short, factual blind spots that are tacitly endorsed by state action do not disappear through rectification. The larger ideological traces must be addressed as well.

I would like to show how a different approach to education is necessary, through my own experiences. While the origins of the problem in racial hegemony is similar to that of most minorities, there is still a unique encounter of the Multi Racial Subject as merging the expectations and identities of these two conceptual categories of “White” and “Black”. Just how fluid their assignment is can be seen in our own president, and his own struggle to fluctuate between seeming “Black” in some parts of his real struggle (encounters with police, for example) but also acknowledging his “Whiteness”. It is a microcosm of the multi-racial struggle on a whole, one whose solution is best presented in the words of Said: “All systems of education alas are still deeply, sometimes unconsciously, nationalistic. So I think we have to de-nationalize education and realize, and make it possible for people to understand that we live in a very complex and mixed world in which you can’t separate cultures and civilizations from each other but, in fact, history ought to be taught as the exchange and of course the clash of civilization”[6]. This process of nationalization includes a history by which we are invested in separating these categories, which cannot be so easily done in the context of the Multi Racial Subject.

I propose that my own experiences bear out to a more pressing issue—the socialization of racism. Children are aware of the racial boundaries that separate us, when they are a concern of those children’s realities. And they mirror the same sort of boundaries without consciously being aware of what they are doing. This is because they see the structures around them, and understand those structures to be models. A true humanities education is one in which the structures themselves become the subject of inquiry as much as any one particular subject. As a recent New York Op-Ed summarized: “Duncan said that Americans tended to be “ahistorical” — that is, we choose to forget the context of our past, perhaps as a way for a fractious nation of immigrants to get along.”[7] This context is essential, if we seriously seek to reform how race-thinking defines the worlds in which we inhabit.

A couple of warnings: one, these are my experiences. As such, I have little protection from the sort of critical cross-examination that is necessary for any sociological proposal. I don’t think of this as an answer—if I am lucky, it is the beginning of a question. The second is that, as I am a cisgender, heterosexual, male, several large aspects of identity are mostly put to the side. I don’t mean for them to be unimportant—rather, I have no serious experience being a minority in any of these camps, and would rather, like Foucault to the prisoners, “let them speak for themselves”. It is my belief each could write a narrative similar to my own, and those with multiple aspects could note the role of intersectionality in these debates.

 


[1] Stuart Hall, “Race as a Floating Signifier”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRk9MZvOd2c

[2] As an informal guide, the Wiki page on Deconstruction is helpful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction#From_diff.C3.A9rance_to_deconstruction

[3] For this particular commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYofm5d5Xdw . The comments had to be disabled.

[4] http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/BoardDiversityStatement-June2012.pdf . This statement is demonstrative of what is called “positivist” tendencies about diversity—its value is only determined by what it produces.

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published initially by Jovanovich in 1973, available here: https://ia600509.us.archive.org/7/items/originsoftotalit00aren/originsoftotalit00aren_bw.pdf .

[6] This was a review of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, given by Edward Said in a lecture. For the transcript: http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/404/transcript_404.pdf . For the lecture itself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPS-pONiEG8 .

[7] Timothy Egan, “Lost in the Past” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/23/opinion/egan-lost-in-the-past.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=1 .

 

By: July 2014 Guest Blogger- Marley-Vincent Lindsey

MVLphoto

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a freelance writer and independent researcher located in New York. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history and is primarily interested in 16th century Colonial Spain, the influence of Christianity on colonial institutions, subaltern studies and postcolonial theory and the relationship between digital media and history. He will be presenting at the Sixth Annual  Conference on Power and Struggle hosted by the University of Alabama, and is publishing a paper entitled “The Politics of Pokémon: Socialized Gaming, Religious Themes and the Construction of Communal Narratives” in the forthcoming volume of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. When he’s not on the academic grind, he’s probably playing Starcraft and other related strategy games, skating or thinking about contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse. He can be contacted via email (mvlindsey92@gmail.com) or through his notebook-blog (mvlindsey.wordpress.com). He also really likes cats.

 

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our Facebook page – we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories)


The Family Pangaea

With a rich heritage rooted in various parts of the globe, Pangaea comes to mind when pondering our sons’ racial make-up. For the sake of simplification, we call Raf & Armand bi-racial, or multicultural since listing African, Native American, German, Italian, Scots-Irish & Mexican seems a bit long-winded. In addition, given the strong tendency towards fragmentation – culturally speaking that is – Pangaea aptly symbolizes the primordial unification of Earth’s land masses and therefore, humanity. As stated in an earlier exploration titled,  “I’m What?… ” my husband and I are on a mission to raise our sons to be whole, happy and positive contributors on this planet. And it’s about as general yet complex as it sounds. The notion of wholeness & embracing one’s full self is a work in progress, as we parents strive to follow suit in our own lives. Just what does it mean to be a man, woman, child, American, White, Black, and plain old human? I imagine many would agree that these are some seriously loaded questions, which brings me right back to that über ancient supercontinent that began to break apart about 100 million years ago. The massive drift largely responsible for the current global landscape laid the framework for the myriad of (often clashing) cultures & colors also known as contemporary humanity.

The family-mixed-roots-image

Referring to our young, loving, energetic duo, that which has been likened to a mixed bag of multicultural goodness also embodies the fundamental essence of human equality and oneness. The ever-evolving face of Mama Earth vividly illustrates the awesome beauty of inter-connectedness, and we pray, takes root in the burgeoning of a healthy sense of cultural identity for our beloved boys.

By: May 2014 Guest Blogger – Sky Obercam

skyphoto

Born & raised in Philly, Sky currently resides in the San Francisco

Bay Area. A full-time mamma, and creative spirit, she’s lent her voice

to The Source, Format Magazine, Bossip, Black Web 2.0, Vibe Vixen,

Frugivore, XO Jane and co-founded art & culture blog,

Visual Culture. Peep her blog, Mindless Culture vs. Sky Obercam, for

updates on new (and hopefully exciting) endeavors, as well as

entertaining tid-bits, info, and arbitrary rantings from the

self-proclaimed eccentric.

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our  Facebook page- we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories) 
 

“I’m What?”: The Adventures of Raising a Racially Ambiguous Bi-Racial Child

The deep rooted nature of racial segregation and inequality in the good ole U S of A can hurl certain individuals right through the black & white, past the shades of grey and often into the complex, multihued road less traveled: Winding, rugged paths riddled with rusty old warning signs like “Do Not Enter” or “Dead End”. My husband, David and I began our journey 15 years ago and my Lawd was it a heck of a hike… Kinda endemic amongst Black/White interracial couples, no?

Perhaps what makes our union unique from a purely surface perspective is our apparent racial/cultural ambiguity. Essentially, we’ve been asked to unravel the ‘mystery’ of our racial make-up a lot throughout our lives. David, who is Pennsylvania Dutch & Italian is often mistaken for being Latino, Jewish or Arab. When folks openly assume I’m bi-racial, Latino, and so forth, I let ‘em know in so many words that I’m just a paler shade of “Black” & occasionally disclose the details of my deep rooted mixed heritage when the spirit moves me.

So naturally, when we decided to start a family 7 years into our union, David and I were hip to the fact that this issue of racial/cultural ambiguity was about to get put on full blast – particularly in this racially hostile culture obsessed with labeling and division. We wanted to help our children embrace the fullness of their heritage, develop a sense of inner harmony and take pride in their uniqueness. To that end, we moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco’s East Bay shortly after our first son, Rafi, was born. ‘Twas our very own quirky paradise: It ain’t perfect but the East Bay is home to communities that exemplify social & environmental progressivism – attributes completely aligned with our values and beliefs.

So while we relocated miles away from our close knit, multicultural village of family and friends, our commitment to immersing Rafi (and eventually his baby bro Armand) in a world brimming with a veritable array of family units was absolutely solid. We’d entered a sphere in which the mixed experience was a common one – the figurative cherry on top.

See, as a West Philly native, I knew countless youths, both mixed and otherwise, grappling with identity issues to some degree. Maybe it was the time in which I came up, but the process looked quite uncomfortable (to say the least). The internalized ‘race based’ battles I’d witnessed were the last thing I wanted any child of mine to endure. The realization, however, was that perhaps the whole predicament was completely out of my hands. My suspicions were justified, fears confirmed and empathy enhanced the day I observed my son’s reaction to learning he was half Black.

Our Eldest Son

It may sound like plain old mamma pride, but I gotta say that Rafi is one of the most sensitive, perceptive, creative and hysterical people I’ve ever known. Like most children, he views the world with eyes of pure innocence and openness. In that vein, David and I became hesitant to introduce him to matters with inherent mind-warping qualities like religion or racism. We thought such topics should be addressed when he was mature enough to grasp the overall concepts involved. “Why not develop a healthy sense of identity in this fractious society before slipping down any rabbit holes?” we justified.

There’s this excellent Sesame Street book titled We’re Different, We’re the Same that pretty much sums up the outlook of young ones (or perhaps the extremely rare adult who somehow avoided the mental shackles of self-loathing, ‘otherisms’, etc.) This innate ability allows individuals to view themselves and the world around them without judgment. Now at the age of 5, Rafi became acutely aware of varying skin tones. For example, he began noting if someone appeared pink, tan, brown or “orange” – it was all about the rainbow. We were unaware that Raf picked up on the institutionalized race-culture-color connection until one morning when he asked about a classmate of his named Tim, a Filipino child whose adoptive mother looked markedly different from him.

“Mommy, what color is Tim?” Raf asked. Unaware of li’l Tim’s background at the time, I replied, “He’s sort of a dark caramel color.”

“Yes, but his mommy is white.”

Whomp! There it was… “Yes, she is white. She is his adoptive mother.” I proceeded to explain that his buddy Keith was a Black child adopted by a white woman.

“Well,” Rafi continues, I’m glad everybody in our family is the same color.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, daddy’s White, me and Armand are White and you’re White.”

I was shocked and amused. No one ever mistook me for being White before. Warmly I asked, “You think mommy’s white?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Why is that Rafi?”

“Because we are all the same color.”

My li’l man had a point. Despite the ‘opposing’ categories David & I had been assigned to, we shared some similar physical characteristics, including our complexion.

So I continue, “Actually, mommy isn’t White. I’m Black which some people call African American.”

“But you’re not brown,” Rafi said bewildered.

“That’s true, but neither is Grand [my father], but he’s Black too. Daddy is White and mommy is Black, and you and Armand are half White and half Black.

At this point, tears began to well up in his Rafi’s eyes. It was as if I told a long-time believer that jolly ole Santa was a lie. Cuddling next to him, I asked his why he felt sad. The more I inquired, the deeper he burrowed himself into the living room couch. I longed to understand what he was feeling. Could it be shame, the pain borne of confusion? Perhaps it was a sense of deceit? I was in unchartered territory. I’d never questioned my racial identity, especially at that tender age. In an attempt to soothe his apparent anguish, I began to highlight other playmates that shared mixed (black and white) parentage, but to no avail.

It must be the melanin factor, I thought. It seemed that Rafi couldn’t quite grasp how someone who was not brown skinned, could be considered Black. It just didn’t compute. Welcome to Race Relations U.S. 101, my love. First up on the syllabus: The one-drop rule…. Ok, I didn’t go there. He was only 5 and this was our first collective step in this direction. As the tears continued to well up in his eyes, I warmly asked Raf to catch my gaze. I felt damn near speechless as I witnessed his entrée into this area of self-discovery trigger such discomfort.

“You may not know this now, but your heritage is something to be extremely proud of not just because it’s unique, but because it is yours.” Lovingly, I urged him not shy away from the complexities of his lineage, but celebrate his embodiment of them.

The resilience of a youthful spirit is no joke. Shortly after our talk, Raf was back to the business of boisterous play with his little brother. I, on the other hand, remained on the living room couch a spell longer in contemplation.

I realized my desire to see the world through the eyes of my children was outweighed by the foolish aspiration to manage their perception. I don’t want my boys to be crippled by prejudice and racism. I pray they stand tall and allow the foul byproducts of institutionalized racism simply roll off their shoulders fortified by the strength of authentic self-love.

I'm What-OberCamFam
By: May 2014 Guest Blogger – Sky Obercam
sky_one

Born & raised in Philly, Sky currently resides in the San Francisco

Bay Area. A full-time mamma, and creative spirit, she’s lent her voice

to The Source, Format Magazine, Bossip, Black Web 2.0, Vibe Vixen,

Frugivore, XO Jane and co-founded art & culture blog,

Visual Culture. Peep her blog, Mindless Culture vs. Sky Obercam, for

updates on new (and hopefully exciting) endeavors, as well as

entertaining tid-bits, info, and arbitrary rantings from the

self-proclaimed eccentric.

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our  Facebook page- we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories) 

The Things We Say to Each Other – by Guest Blogger June Snow

June & the boysIt was a beautiful summer day, I had recently moved to California and my kids were invited to a birthday party. The sun was strong but at Stevens Park there was a bit of a chill. The sun couldn’t reach me through the thick trees.

I remember the boys were excited. I found the party hostess. She had a sort of cold presence next to me. I had met her only once before, but it was unmemorable. I thanked her for the invite, commented on the weather and when her kids ran up, introduced them to each other.

I watched excitement grow in the eyes and in the entire being of my kids. My older son (experienced in birthday parties) quickly eyed the food, the presents, the goody bags. My younger son, oblivious to all that lay around him, was just excited to get playing.

Her two kids and my kids ran off to play. Although my eyes bore holes in the backs of my kids, I said, “They are all so beautiful!”

“It’s because of that blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Hmmm, I looked at my kids, did I mention I’m African American? My kids have black and brown hair. Their skin and eye color are almost the same description. Huh?! I thought, my kids don’t have blonde-hair and blue…
Oh she’s talking about her own kids.

Who says that to another parent?
Your kids aren’t as beautiful as mine? Is that what she just said to me?

As it turns out, we all say it. We look at kids, photos, videos, blogs, posts and respond, “Beautiful!” Leaving others to question, who is not beautiful?

I hear all the time, mixed kids are so beautiful– so does that mean unmixed kids are not?

I was hurt by this woman.  I think no matter what, we must always be aware of the things we say and spout out when we are not thinking.

(due to an abundance of spam, we’ve had to turn off comments here, but please head over to our Facebook page – we’d love to hear and share your thoughts there! facebook.com/MixedRootsStories)

By: April 2014 Guest Blogger  – June Snow

photo June Snow is a mom of two wonderful kids – Blaise & Miles – and is also the Race Director, along with Rusty Snow, of the Santa Barbara International Veterans Day Marathon. Her family is from Belize and she grew up in Cambridge, MA.