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Grupo de Trabalho 5
Historicizing “mixed-race” and post-modern amnesia

Katya Gibel Azoulay[1] 


Americans have carried the problem of the color line into the 21st century but it is doubtful that the generation of W.E.B. Du Bois anticipated the emergence of a “multiracial” movement whose primary objective was to gain recognition of mixed-race people as a unique entity and different collective. This phenomenon is an outgrowth of “interracial” marriages which, according to the U.S. Census, indicate dramatic increases since the dismantlement of state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. Blacks, however, are “noticeably absent” from this trend and Newsweek has estimated that approximately 20 percent of interracial marriages were between black and white partners and the overwhelming majority of these are between white women and black men [Fletcher 1998; Azoulay 1997:95]

This paper focuses on the demand for a multiracial category in the U.S. Census in order to explore two intersecting aspects of the multiracial discourse. Attention is only given to the black/white binary for it is this angle which is the most contentious and has received the most public attention. On the one hand, the idea of multiracialism eclipses the broader issue of power partially because it is premised on privileging individual rights rather than group rights.On the other hand, the celebration of multiracial people may be read as a postmodern script in which women, as mothers, occupy a central role in the formation and politicization of racial identities.

As a departure point, let us address the premise of the question posed by the multiracial movement: should racial classifications used to track broad demographic trends and monitor compliance with legislation against racial discrimination take each individual heritage into account? I suggest that the demand for a multiracial category confuses personal identities with prescriptive identities while ignoring the relationship between public policy and identifiable communities. Public policies that utilize race categories affect groups of people who may or may not subscribe to a shared collective identity but who are nevertheless perceived as a group. Government and institutional policies shaped by information gathered about social categories are not formulated for individuals but for groups. The political implications of this lead opponents and supporters of government sponsored social engineering to invoke the equal protection clause under the 14th amendment with very different interpretations.[2] In a departure from the direction set by the U.S. Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education toward civil rights legislation[3], the courts have moved away from protecting historically disadvantaged group rights evidenced by court-ordered repeals of affirmative action policies confusing invidious discrimination with remedial racial preference.

As a preface, let me state clearly my position: race categories are public fictions which are deeply embedded in American ways of thinking and acting. Furthermore, because classifications based on the political and social category of “race” have no scientific basis, they are misused when appropriated as biological criteria into medical research in the United States [Tapper 1999]. Consequently, arguments for a multiracial category for health reasons (such as bone marrow donors) rely on a faulty notion that race categories can be adjusted for accuracy. Nevertheless, race has assumed the status of a social fact whose meanings reflect, and are reflected by, the cognitive feel of lived experience in a race-based society [Piper 1992; Scales-Trent 1995].


The power of negation 

In the early ‘90s there seemed to be an explosion of difference in the United States: diversity was packaged and marketed in the palatable medium of cuisine, fashion and music; ethnic identities began to complement and collide with transnational identities in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other parts of the country. Quickly following “multiculturalism,” the vocabulary of “multiracial” began to insinuate itself into everyday language [Azoulay 1997]. But the celebration of difference implied and employed by the vocabulary of “biracial” and “multiracial” fortuitously eclipses a history of transgressing the color line by accentuating the experience of children born after miscegenation laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967.

In an article titled, “‘What Is She?’ How Race Matters and Why It Shouldn’t?” Carol Goforth provides a lengthy rationale for inculcating a mixed-race identity in her children. Goforth is a white mother who adopted her husband’s two children when they married because the biological mother died when the children were small. These biographical details frame her argument for color-blindness as we learn that the biological mother had identified as Black. In addition, the maternal grandmother insists that her grandchildren identify as Black. She and Goforth clash as the new mother vetoes the grandmother and implicitly the dead mother’s wishes, by insisting on her right to raise the children with a multiracial identity.

Goforth and the father agree to raise the children as multiracial, she emphasizes, because “[n]either I nor my husband is comfortable with any racial identification or classification which does not allow them to accept and appreciate their ‘white’ heritage as much as their ‘black’ identity.” The legal right to parent the children empowered Goforth to amend the identity the Black mother would have fostered had she survived. Goforth argues that race categories should be deleted from the Census altogether for “[they] are generally arbitrary, rather than being based on any intrinsic differences among individuals.”[4] By focusing exclusively on their origin in false notions of biology and genetics, however, she avoids engaging with the political factors behind the collection of racial classification data.

Naming one’s identity is a petition for recognition and thus public validation -- hence a politics of tolerance advocates that if people choose to name themselves as “multiracial” it should be respected and not second-guessed. At the same time, let us note that an understanding of Self and Other as relational as well as contextual can be expressed through negation, as Jean Paul Sartre does in Being and Nothingness when he writes, “At the origin of the problem of the existence of others, there is a fundamental presupposition: others are the Other, that is the self which is not myself.” (Sartre 1965:312) This negative formulation underlines much of the multiracial rhetoric best exemplified by golf champion Tiger Woods whose insistence on his right to claim a multiracial identity was articulated in the negative: “I am NOT only black.”

An alternative to this negative formula is Stuart Hall’s notion of the logic of coupling in which the conjunction “and” indicates multiplicity rather than partiality. As he points out,

“[P]olitical identity often requires the need to make conscious commitments. Thus it may be necessary to momentarily abandon the multiplicity of cultural identities for more simple ones around which political lines are drawn. You need all the folks together, under one hat, carrying one banner, saying we are for this, for the purpose of this fight, we are all the same, just black and just here.” (cf. Hall in Grossberg 1993:101).

In other words, had Mr. Woods said “I am Black AND I am Thai” he would have avoided the controversy exacerbated by the statement that as a child he referred to himself as Cablanasin. 


Identities and the politics of race categories 

The primary purpose of the race and ethnicity categories collected by the federal government and agencies is explicit: development of data standards stemmed in large measure from new responsibilities to enforce civil rights laws. According to the Office of Management and Budget [OMB], which overseers the Census, “Data were needed to monitor equal access in housing, education, employment, and other areas, for populations that historically had experienced discrimination and differential treatment because of their race or ethnicity.” [OMB Revisions 1999] For instance, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a case against employment discrimination cannot be proven without statistics based on existing racial and ethnic classifications.[5]

Legal scholars who favor a group rights approach to civil rights legislation argue that remediation of racial discrimination relies on the presumption that three centuries of purposeful exclusion necessitates the strategic corrective of purposeful inclusion. Thus, regardless of the arbitrary origins of racial classifications, they are the outcome and reflection of a pattern of discrimination initiated during the Colonial Period between [in the language of the era] “Englishmen and negro slaves”[6] [Higgenbotham 1980; Johnston 1970].

Advocates for “multiracial” people claim that they share the collective identity of a mixed heritage which represents a departure from the past precisely because they have grown up with a multiracial consciousness (or, as Charles Byrd editor of on line Interracial Voice calls it, “mindset”) that refuses traditional classifications []. They argue that this a growing phenomenon which represents an optimistic indicator of the progress made towards diversity. This optimism -- the idea that multiracialism is the wave of the future -- invites the question of whether, how and to what extent ideas about race are being altered in the general public arena? There is a wealth of newspaper and popular journal articles which cumulatively suggest that Euro-Americans have moved away from revulsion to tolerance for interracial couples and numerous publications and films which highlight the aesthetic value and political virtue of hybridity. Nineteenth century anxiety over racial mixing seems reversed as a satisfaction that racial blending forecasts a color-blind society within reach. Yet this optimism contrasts with commentaries on tense race relations as witnessed by the racially polarized reactions to the OJ Simpson case [Crenshaw 1997]. Perhaps, as Columbia law professor Patricia Williams notes, “[w]ith the pinning of racial hope upon blood mixtures in such a literal way, there comes a sneaky sort of implied duty to assimilate -- the duty to grab on to the DNA ladder and hoist oneself onward and upward.” [Williams 1997:53]

The OMB revisions to Statistical Policy Directive 15, Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting, were a result of an intense campaign on the part of a number of groups. Although these revisions did not include a separate multiracial category on the 2000 U.S. Census, the OMB did concede to the request for multiple selections: “Respondents shall be offered the option of selecting one or more racial designations.” Nevertheless, some of the activists were frustrated and felt that the option to select more than one category was compromised by the qualification that, “The collection of greater detail is encouraged; however, any collection that uses more detail shall be organized in such a way that the additional categories can be aggregated into these minimum categories for data on race and ethnicity.” In other words – an individual’s self-identification on the forms may be tabulated quite differently to conform with the needs of data management. The two most vocal and well organized organizations, Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) and the American Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans, interpret this administrative decision as a policy which infringes on their individual rights. However, the intense lobbying efforts for a multiracial category on the U.S. Census has had successes in their nation-wide effort for the addition of this new category wherever information on race is requested. Eight states[7] have adopted a multiracial category, while numerous colleges as well as the SAT and ACT forms include it on their race/ethnicity list.

The demand for recognition of “multiracialism” as a unique identity deserving of separate recognition is a significant turning point in the discourse of race and racial identities in two interconnected ways. On the one hand, it rejects prescriptions of a race-based community of meaning even though it is a political identity that recognizes the complex and diverse experiences of people of African descent in the United States and abroad. On the other hand, multiracial advocates who challenge the short list of five official racial categories do not argue on principle against all racial categories. Nor is their petition based on the significance of mapping out trends in coupling since the dismantlement of anti-miscegenation laws.

In this context, I suggest that the multiracial movement -- if we can speak of such a social movement in the singular -- has successfully blurred the lines between two very different forms of identifying precisely because its advocates have refused to distinguish between the implications of public self-identification and personal or private plural identities. One tribute to their success is that the OMB report on Revisions establishes an explicit link between “respect for individual dignity” and “respondent self-identification.” It is true that the OMB mysteriously allows for observer identification although no information is offered on how the subjective aspect of observer identification is to be monitored. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that if a very dark-skinned person self-identifies as white or a very white-skinned person self-identifies as black, the observer who has no knowledge of the color diversity within the black population may second-guess the accuracy of the information offered.[8] Thus observer identification immediately signals an auditing of both white and black – in other words, an inconspicuous or, at least, a benign policing of boundaries.

In all cases of multiple responses following the race question, and in the interest of manageability, data will be aggregated back into the designated five categories. Keeping in mind that a primary purpose for the collection of data on race and ethnicity is to oversee the implementation of civil rights legislation on behalf of groups who have been the victims of discrimination, in what way does “respondent self-identification,” which refers to idiosyncratic responses – in other words, individual and personal identity -- help to address the question of legislation designed to protect a group’s civil rights? If Tiger Woods’ public identification as Cablanasian represents an idiosyncratic response, its irrelevance -- for the purpose of collecting data on race -- was highlighted by fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller’s racist comment advising him not to expect collard greens and fried chicken at the Champion Dinner. [Anderson 1997; Page 1997].

Given the highly political nature of the debate, I caution against interpreting the current multiracial discourse as either a positive narration of difference or a question of the right to individual self-determination and self-identification. Quite to the contrary, it signals an ahistorical perspective at best and a misrepresentation of the past at worst. This is particularly obvious in efforts to rewrite the identities of the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and artists as a mulatto elite who committed “cultural suicide” when “the visibly mixed-race blacks and visibly white-race blacks threw in their lot with the apparently pure-race blacks.” [Zack 1993:95f] The revisionist celebration of a mixed race identity negates and eclipses a long history of white men crossing the color line to engage in sex with black women usually without their consent. In diverting attention away from these sexual transgressions, the violations of black women are rendered invisible while the strategic efficacy of privileging Black pride is critiqued. Parenthetically, this is occurring just as new scholarship diverts attention towards relations between white women and black men before the Civil War [Hodes 1997]. I am not critiquing the scholarship – the topic is an interesting one. Rather, I have grown increasingly curious about the ways in which the rape and sexual harassment of black women is pushed aside by fascination with the subversive actions of white women.[Gordon-Reed 1997; Sharpley Whitting 1999]

In order to consider the political implications of the debate over a multiracial category in the United States, I would like to place it in a broader perspective and consider the notion of mixed-race identity in South Africa and England.


The view from South Africa 

South Africa is frequently invoked by opponents of a multiracial category point who view their racial hierarchy as a model to reject at all cost [Spencer 1997]. The status of “mixed race” people has presented an administrative and political problem for racial oligarchies. However, it is the uniqueness of each case, rather than their similarities, which intrigues me for without taking particularities into account, it is not possible to adequately draw lessons for the present or hypothesize about the future.

The South African example testifies to the inadequacy of language in unpacking the conceptual and semantic complexity of identities and identification. Keeping in mind that Afrikaners fine-tuned segregationist policies of their British predecessors, a careful reading of the sophisticated vocabulary of apartheid reveals pronounced discomfort in relying on biology and genetics in differentiating population groups.[9] In contrast to the U.S. South, Afrikaners had minimal interest in “mathematizing” ancestral heritage consequently Coloureds were simply lumped together in one group. This was an expedient strategy for preserving the fragile alliance between Afrikaners and Anglos on the basis of white supremacy while simultaneously accentuating ethnicity and language under the guise of preserving cultural groups meant to protect Afrikaner hegemony.

The 1976 Soweto uprisings mark a shift in naming political identities and “Black” was a strategically deployed as an umbrella identity for, and term of alliance between, Coloured, African and Asians activists. The post-apartheid state has not erased the continuing centrality of white racism in the formation of current South African identities as Coloured identities were cultivated for three centuries and legally prescribed for 43 years. Under the Nationalist government, signifying Black as a political identity was an act of resistance to the policy of classifying Africans into separate “national” groups by language and culture in order to legitimize territorial apartheid, the policy of Separate Homelands. In this purposely balkanized context, Coloured South Africans were positioned in an intermediate space conceptually, physically and politically. The specificity of a Coloured identity has never been particularly specific. In the post-apartheid state, theoretically the Coloured community should be in the process of dissolution. In practice, Coloured South Africans have acquired a self-consciousness of their political and social existence. Within the discourse of nation-building, Coloured South Africans comprise a political constituency who have outlived their white architects. Consequently, some South Africans argue against interpreting the articulation of Coloured identities as divisive and propose instead, that as a community in the making for 300 years, their lived experiences be recognized and legitimated as part of the broad parameters of diverse black experiences which collectively contribute to an emancipated South Africa.[Erasmus 1999]     


African diasporic identities  

Within the discourse of mixing in England, we find that Englishness is currently represented as both a national identity and a white identity under siege. In England as in the United States, phenotype is a significant factor for how people who are either interracial -- or intercultural -- negotiate their identities and reference themselves. And, as in the United States, recent literature -- both anecdotal and scholarly -- situates white mothers as central characters in the mixed race narrative which invoke an analysis of both national and racial identity.[10]

This is where the similarities to the U.S. diverge and we find a distinction between being English (white) and being British (citizen) in which nationality is linked to color and culture.[Ifekwunigwe 1999] The dichotomy insists that although one may have internalized quintessential British cultural habits, color ultimately determines Englishness.[11] While the image of “American” which most readily comes to mind is still intuited as white, often male, it is equally true – and everyday life marked by contradictions elegantly defy tidy theories – that Oprah is perceived as a quintessentially American role model by all the women who faithfully tune in to her program.

Mixed-race British citizens -- like Hanif Kureishi, director of My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, whose mother is British and father is Pakistani -- can claim both indigenous and Diasporic roots. This is significantly different from the United States where the struggle for equality has been based on a coterminous notion of citizenship and nationality. In the English-African Diaspora, children of parents born in Africa and in England can claim a territory, affiliation with a people, as well as a specific reference to a history that precedes colonialism and slavery. For them, a diasporic pan-African identity is a question of choice which is quite different from people of African descent who were involuntarily uprooted during the slave trade. When the child who is of English-African parents speaks of African relatives, it is not a Du Boisan trope of family but identifiable kin [Du Bois, Appiah, Azoulay, Outlaw]. The English parent also bequeaths an inheritance of blood, territory and history – here too the trope of family is gratuitous.

England is not the only place where the boundaries of belonging have been demarcated simultaneously along a color line and according to specific geopolitical boundaries. Gossip shadowed Alexander Pushkin in 19th century Russia and Jerry Rawlings in 20th century Ghana. Dominican born Denny Mendez caused a national debate in 1996 when she was voted Miss Italy. Outside of Europe, the children of U.S. servicemen left behind in Japan, Korea and Vietnam continue to experience discrimination. And in the optimistic atmosphere of the recent Nigerian elections, an official in President Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party commented to a NY Times reporter, “When we speak of African-ness, Nigeria is 100 percent African, much more than South Africa, which is mixed.” These examples of “intercultural” people -- children of parents of different national origins -- challenge the idea of equating nationality with physical appearance. How should we identify, name and define individuals who otherwise are described and positioned within multiple, diasporic, racialized spaces through hyphenation -- English-African, Brazilian-African, Canadian-African?

Remembering that colonialism was a project founded on commerce between goods and bodies [Young 1995], let me suggest that outside the U.S., the question of identity is inherently entangled with the question of nationality and therefore includes the legacy of colonialism and the struggle for liberation. For if we were to invoke Ghana’s President Jerry Rawlings and described him as “mixed” it would be a false appellation. Rawlings’ point of reference and self-identification is unequivocally Ghanian. And it is not a coincidence that his mother is a Black African.

When we bracket American discussions of racial identities, the focus slides quickly to inter-cultural identities -- however problematic the culture concept may be -- and for this reason we need a careful distinction between nation- and race-based identities. My encounters with “interracial” people outside the U.S. has made me much more cognizant of the significance of deliberately using continental terms to ask how people who are of European and African parentage identify and are identified in the context of Africa where the impulse to construct an identity based on the idea of an African diaspora is unnecessary. [12]


Postmodernist scripts 

If the focus of identity is framed as interracial, then the question of the racial identities of mothers needs to be examined much more carefully in the narratives of people who identify as “mixed-race.” In the U.S. many of the post-70s rainbow generation who labor over an intermediate racial vocabulary as a way of classifying themselves have white mothers and have grown up in predominantly white, often relatively affluent environments. In the sixties, appropriation of race labels functioned as an explicit strategy for mobilization and political activities. Black is Beautiful spoke to a state of mind and the relation of the individual and community. By the nineties, Black became a floating signifier mediated by mass consumer culture while a politics of self-definition emerged in public conversations about personal identities. The century closed with the commodification of racial ambiguity and a campaign for assimilation in which “race is not seen as a political/economic construct, a battleground where Americans vie for power and turf but a question of color, a stick-on, peel-off label.” [Jones 1994:57].

As postmodernist fantasies of fragmentation became the latest academic fashion, the celebration of mixed race people quickly diverted attention from the long history of sexual intercourse between Anglo-American men and women of African-descent. In the United States, and elsewhere the conspicuous absence of Black mothers (and their children) from various “multiracial” movements, publications is more than noteworthy [Hernandez 1998]. The most prominent multiracial activists have been white mothers, like Carol Goforth, and their children who have been socialized to think of themselves as belonging to two cultures, the prevalent sentiment in on-line essays about the Pan Collegiate conferences in the Mixed Race Experience and documentaries on the mixed-race experience [Hernandez 1997, Moss 1993,,]. The use of the term culture as a context in which to discuss racial identity based on parents who are socially classified and recognized as white and black is misleading. What exactly is white culture?

In the American colonies, English laws of patrilineal descent were reversed to ensure that the children of Englishmen and African slave women would follow the legal status of the mother, prescribing a collective Black identity that would override color and class.[13] Today, advocates for a multiracial category preface their demand by pointing to their parents or their children as evidence that they do not want to define themselves, or be defined as, monoracial and insist on the importance of also embracing their white heritage. But what does this mean? In the context of the United States, can one invoke a generic white heritage as a point of reference in quite the same way as a Black identity and heritage?


 Identities in black and white 

In 1782, immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur could write “What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country....Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” [cf. Sollors in Hickman 1180] This sentiment was echoed 126 years later in British-born Jewish Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot which applauded the social melting and reformulation of identities from “all the races of Europe.”[14] The standard against which the flattening of European difference occurred was measured against a norm set by English Protestant colonists at one extreme and people of African descent at the other. As Toni Morrison maps out so effectively, “Deep within the word “American” is its association with race....American means white.” [Morrison 1993:47] The dissolution of European races or types and their reconstitution into the Anglo-American category of white/Caucasian makes sense when we are speaking about the legal, political, economic and social elevation of whiteness as a privilege and a property to be coveted.

In the article referenced at the beginning of this paper, “What Is She?” Carol Goforth accentuated her daughter’s appearance, her Indian ancestors and dark-skinned Euro-American father in order to argue that they are of equal importance to her African-American heritage. But the logic of insisting on cultivating a multiracial identity was equally dependent on the daughter’s lack of dark skin, kinky hair and phenotypically “Negroid” features. Here we see how the absence of recognizable signifers of blackness which lends itself to racial ambiguity also facilitates the individual’s right to control information about herself. In this context, ambiguity serves to shield the individual from discrimination and to diffuse the stigma of blackness by accentuating identities with greater social currency [Goffman 1963].

If questions of appearance, performance and class require a separate analysis of diverse and divisive perceptions and conceptions of blackness, the campaign for a multiracial category obscures the fact that Black/African-American is already a multiracial category. Patricia Williams, skillfully encapsulates this sentiment when she writes, “what troubles me is the degree to which few people in the world, and most particularly in the United States, are anything but multiracial, to say nothing of biracial. The use of the term seems to privilege the offspring of mixed marriages as those “between” races without doing much to enhance the social status of all us mixed-up products of the illegitimacies of the not so distant past.”[Williams 1997:53]

 We can also refer to the research of anthropologist Melville Herskovitz who estimated that, contrary to “the general belief that the ‘pure’ Negroes were the majority ... almost 80% show mixing with White or American Indian, or both stocks” while in terms of ethnic diversity, an amalgamation of African groups had occurred among the slave population in the United States [Herskovitz 1928:10; Myrdal 1944:1205]. Despite public rhetoric against amalgamation, sexual relations between white men and black slave women was tolerated throughout the slave period as W.E.B. Du Bois poignantly remarked, “[t]he rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes and written in ineffaceable blood”[Du Bois 1924:106 cf. Myrdal 1944:1187n.14; see Kaplan 1949]

The children of these interracial sexual encounters, though lighter in skin color than their mothers, were usually treated as property, not family and socialized to identify with black people and their histories [Williamson 1980]. This is not to ignore or minimize the problem of colorism and prejudice within the black community, a the theme carefully taken up by independent filmaker Haile Gerima. His dramatic portrayal of the lives of field slaves leading up to rebellion, Sankofa premiered in 1993. One of the central characters is a West African woman who had been raped on the slave ship en route to the colonies. Gerima, who was born in Ethiopia and has lived in the United States since 1967, consciously works to demystify racial stereotypes and for Sankofa he found an actor who “is light-skinned not because he was working with the master” but because his mother had been raped. “Its logical for me to have him light-skinned. And I also wasn’t thinking about his light skin...That’s her son; I wanted people to look at their bones; the mother and him, their faces. That was the map I was working from, family: would he come out of her?” [Woolford 1994:98].[15]

We return to the question: what do white and black signify in late twentieth century narratives of multiracial identities? Historically, the two have been juxtaposed as positive and negative. Moreover, despite the tremendous diversity within the black community in terms of class, color, religion and even national origin, blackness has been represented in the social science literature as well as in popular media with poor, uneducated and often socially deviant people while whiteness is synonymous with educated middle-class and protocols of civility: blacks live in urban hoods, whites reside in suburbs and poor whites blackened by poverty, inhabit trailer parks.

The negative stereotypes which direct the industry of popular culture reproduce and contribute to a racism in which authentic blackness is represented by Tupac Shakur not Paul Robeson, and Sista Soulja not Jessye Norman [see du Cille 1998, 29] replacing the rural (Southern) folk images invoked in the 1920s and 1930s by black urban intellectuals [Carby 1999]. Consequently, a careful reading of some of many mixed-race narratives indicates that sentiments of alienation and tension revolve around class issues and therefore racial identity is reduced to performative criteria -- the dramaturgy of blackness. But these tensions are not unique to the experience of being “mixed-race” as they are also experienced by the children of black professionals reared in predominantly white and middle-class environments as well as young Caribbean and African immigrants. [ Dominguez 1997]

Which brings us, at last, to the question: what does “multi” mean in the word multiracial in the context of the black/white binary? The arguments of the multiracial advocates emphasize and thus privilege “the integrity of personal and family identity” and in the process fall back on biological notions of race and purity invented by whites and legitimized by the science of race. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folk and Spike Lee’s relentless interrogation of Italian American claims to whiteness come readily to mind. The current insistence on recognizing a parent’s white culture, as Mathew Frye Jacobson methodically maps out in his Whiteness of a Different Color, is “a remarkable erasure of a long history of race thinking across time” in which “mid-to twentieth century liberalism has demanded a certain amnesia regarding both the naturalization law of 1790 [limiting citizenship to free white persons] and the fact that today’s Caucasians had ever been anything other than a single, biologically unified, and consanguine racial group.” [Jacobson 1998:135] In sum, the generic notion of a white identity erases the political context within which descendants of immigrant groups from Eastern and Southern Europe moved from the status of undesirable races and became incorporated into the status of a monolithic whiteness [Barrett and Roedgier 1997].

Yes indeed, given the social construction of all social categories, it is ludicrous to link or limit personal identities to the existing race and ethnic categories. The notion that one must choose from among five categories whose definition relies on nebulous criteria of belonging to “one of the original people of” a geographical region is absurd especially for American-born U.S. blacks whose lines of descent in the United States (North and South) go back to the 17th and 18th centuries.[16] However, given the specific and precise objective of utilizing socio-political categories to support legislatively-based priorities, the motives behind the multiracial movement are suspect when they welcome support from opponents of affirmative action and color-blind advocates.


The conservative politics of multiracialism 

The goal of organizations like the American Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans headed by Carlos Fernandez (“half Mexican and half white”) and Project RACE whose founder and executive director, Susan Graham, is the white (Jewish) wife of a black television anchorman, is to oblige public recognition of mixed race people. Since the question of race categories is as much a political issue as a family affair, it is worthwhile giving attention to the people they commend and those with whom they align themselves. political allies. For instance, Project RACE cites an editorial by George Will, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post who argues, “ The multiracial category would serve civic health by undermining the obsession with race and ethnicity that fuels identity politics. The multiracial category is opposed by many who have a stake in today’s racial spoils system.” [Project RACE 5 Oct 1997] Former Speaker of the House, and the Republican Senator from Georgia, Newt Gingrich is complimented for writing the Director of the OMB, Franklin D. Raines that multiracial people are currently “denied ability to declare all their heritage on census and federal forms.” [Project RACE 1/7/98] anticipating Project Race’s press statement a few weeks later that the multiracial child deserves the dignity and inclusion of having a racial term that describes exactly who they are.” (25/7/97).

In their on-line articles, both Project RACE and the American Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans cast the NAACP (National Association of Colored People) and Franklin D. Raines (father of three multiracial children) as villains oppressing the individual rights of multiracial individuals and families. Historian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor, John Hope Franklin and U.S. President Clinton are berated for their refusal to include a multiracial voice in the Presidents Race Commission while Ohio’s Democratic Congressman Tom Sawyer is singled out as “a traitor to the multiracial community.” Charles Byrd, editor of the online journal, Interracial Voice (and one of the few activists with a Black mother) complained that the Race Commission was “designed and assembled solely to validate, to rubber stamp [Clinton’s] limited personal interpretation of the race issue.” [17] Within a short time, it was apparent that the campaign was politically aligned with opponents of affirmative action and other race-conscious policies. In sum, the political orientation of the campaign to add a multiracial category, leaned against race-conscious policies and toward a color-blind approach to instances of discrimination.

In contrast, those who favor a group rights perspective, argue that the U.S. Census is not the place to document plural identities of individuals for these have little bearing on government policies [Ford 1994]. Being black has always been a liability in the United States that has never been limited to or defined by color, evidenced by the phenomenon of passing which required anonymity and erasure of all linkages to one’s family. Many blacks who could pass elected not to. Many who did, live in fear of exposure.

In 1896, when Homer Plessy was denied recognition of his 7/8 white ancestry and the Supreme Court legislated separate but equal, he was not singled out for being of mixed race – indeed he was white in appearance and therefore informed the railroad conductor that he was a Negro in order that he could be arrested. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was a test case in which the courts legislated and formalized public opinion that appearance and class were not to be confused with racial status. In this very public context, marking the box that states Black or African American is not a statement about the limits of heritage or incomplete ancestry. As Carol Camper, editor of Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women writes, “We should not be forced into a ‘closet’ about White or any other parentage, but we must recognize that our location is as women of colour.” Her political position is underscored by the selections of essays in her book which do not include “the idea that racial mixing would be the so called ‘future’ of race relations and the future of humanity...I strongly disagree with this position. It is naive. It leaves the race work up to the mixed people.. It is essentially a racist solution.” [Camper 1994:xxiii)

Multiracial families of all combinations constitute less than 2% of the population, they have received a significant amount of attention over the past few years. In a lecture on the state of relations thirty years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy notes the “continued social ostracism that continues to afflict African Americans” and points out the wide disparity between figures for interracial marriage between blacks and whites and those between whites and other groups. Despite the high visibility of black-white marriages in the media, they account for only 20% of all inter-racial marriages and of this, less than 4% include black women married to white men. [Kennedy 1997] This raises calls into question why one network (PBS) devoted ten hours to a single family last fall and who was their intended audience. The documentary, An American Love Story, was directed by a white woman, Jennifer Fox, whose interest in interracial couples was sparked by her own romance with a black man. If the testimonies to the congressional Task Force and anecdotes on the various interracial/multiracial websites are a reliable indicator of patterns, it can be persuasively argued that the demand for recognition of multiracial identities comes from people who have not been raised to identify with or feel an obligation to carry the weight of history and memory that people of African descent have chosen to hold on to as a strategy of survival and as witnesses for ancestors whose humanity was denied.

At the dawn of the twenty first century, we remain hostage to the tropes of scientific racism. The discourse of diversity and multiculturalism represent new forms for the management of difference. 19th century racial discourse was revised in the late 20th century discourse of “multiculturalism” to sanction social engineering policies tolerant of “mixture.” Where institutionalized race-based discrimination has yet to be eradicated, any analysis of the politics of racial identities must address the biologization of ideology while simultaneously recognizing that race, not culture, mediates social identities and cleavages. If the concept of identity is inflected by novel repertoires of meaning, and narratives of mixed-race people are profitable commodities on the postmodern global market, one might ask whether we are witnessing the emergence of a racial ambiguity which reinforces whiteness as normativity. It is a question whose answer cautions against confusing personal identities with strategic public identities and returns us to the more important relationship between race-based communities of meaning and the distribution of resources and power.



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[1] She has an MA in African Studies from Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Chair of Africana Studies at Grinnell College and an assistant professor in the department of Anthropology. She is author of Black,  Jewish and Interracial: Its Not the Color of Your Skin but the Race of Your  Kin and Other Myths of Identity (Duke UP, 1997). Published articles on race  and racial identities, culture and pedagogy have been published in journals  including Research in African Literatures, Cultural Studies and the Review of  Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies.

[2] The Fourteenth Amendment, legislated after the abolition of slavery, guarantees equal protection under the law although it originally referred to the civil, not political, rights of people of African descent.

[3] Brown v. Board of Education overturned segregation in public education and served as the precedent for the annulment of all separate but equal legislation.

[4] An important component to Goforth’s problem with racial identities and classifications revolves around appearances. As the title indicates, her focus is on the light-skinned daughter with long black hair inherited from an Indian ancestor causing people to remark on her appearance and ask “what is she?” In contrast, the son has kinky hair, a dark appearance and phenotypical features which conform to people’s expectations of a “black” child.

[5] In practice, however, women of color have been at a disadvantage as they cannot argue discrimination on the grounds of both race and gender but must choose one or the other. See Iglesias 1997.

[6] In 1662, Virginia passed its first statute on the question of status and the Negro and the language is particularly relevant: “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by an Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free. Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” [Higgenbotham, Jr. 1989:1971] The legislators were, quite obviously, motivated by concerns of property, not propriety. At this early date, maternal descent determined the status of bondage and freedom-- not race-- and was a shift from English laws of inheritance expressly designed to protect slave owners’ property.

[7] By legislation: Ohio (1992), Georgia (1994), Illinois (1996), Indiana and Michigan in 1995, Maryland in 1998 and by administrative mandate North Carolina (1994) and Florida (1995). In 1997 , multiracial classification was introduced as legislation in Minnesota and Texas.

[8] On three different visits to the pediatrician at the University of Iowa Medical Center, the registration clerks have entered “white” or “other” into their database for my white-looking daughter despite the fact that I had written “Black/African-American” on the registration form. Evidently this would be changed after we left, for at each subsequent visit, we went through the same ritual of clarifying the race-category information.

[9] This point has been underscored by liberal historians like Paul Rich as well as Marxist scholars such as Martin Legassick and Duncan Innes, who point out that “It is important to notice that, in the arguments of the leading discussants, assertions about a biologically-determined hierarchy of 'races' rarely entered.” [See Legassick and Innes 1977; Moodie 1975]

[10]Parenthetically, the link between motherhood and nationhood is interesting precisely because of the manner in which it diverts attention from black mothers in England whose children were fathered by white men. But this is a subject which has yet to receive attention.

[11] One can refer to the Irish and Alan Parker’s film, The Commitments with the glorious line: The Irish are the Blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. North Dubliners are the Blacks of Dublin so say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” Of course this is a different discussion.

[12] Here I am reminded of the title of Anthony Appiah’s thought-provoking book In My Father’s House, which strategically highlighted his royal Asante roots rather than his maternal English ancestry. Appiah dismissed the efficacy of race-based identity and, in the process, overlooked (or at least understated) the symbolic capital of being an African, the cultural capital of a Cambridge education and the economic capital of being associated with an elite American institution. To his credit, Appiah has clarified that In My Father’s House accentuated fundamental differences between discussions of continental mobilizations and diasporic identities formulated against the science of race [Appiah 1996].

[13]As indentured servitude for whites declined and was eventually prohibited, the association between slavery and blackness cemented itself regardless of color. Hence litigation of racial identities in court turned on definitions of whiteness where color and appearance were recognized as unreliable criteria. [Saks 1988; Pascoe 1996]

[14]The Melting Pot opened on 5 October 1908 in Washington D.C. in the presence of President Teddy Roosevelt.

[15]The welcome move away from cinematic representations of the tragic mulatto theme, should not blind us to examining why black mothers of “mixed-race” and white-looking children have virtually disappeared while films and documentaries on white mothers of black and brown children are popular. The disparity in the ratio of interracial relationships and marriages is a key factor but it should not be the sole explanation.

[16] And this doesn’t address people who think they are white but whose ancestors of African descent were Negroes who were able to pass into the obscurity of unmarked whiteness because of their appearance. There is an obvious logic that in 1993 the American Health Policy and Research director recommended universal testing for the sickle cell disease because it was impossible to tell race and ethnicity based on physical appearance, surnames, presumed or self-reported racial and ethnic identities. See Tapper 1999.

[17]One strong supporter of the multiracial community is Baling Vazsony, a senior fellow of the Potomac Foundation and Director of American Founding. I checked the web for information about him and discovered that he came to the U.S. in 1959 from Hungary and is distressed by signs of socialism in the United States. The John M. Olin Foundation is on the advisory board of the American Founding. Note that they were established to “help conservatives be effective in the public policy initiative.” Strange bedfellows.