Blackness/Mixedness: Contestations over Crossing Signs

Blackness/Mixedness: Contestations over Crossing Signs

Cultural Critique
Number 54 (Spring, 2003)
pages 178-212

Naomi Pabst, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and American Studies
Yale University

While studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked. The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seem to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.

—George Hutchinson, “Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

In spite of rumors regarding the infinite privileges open to those of us with visible white ancestry, there is always, yes always, a great deal of pain that comes with this “privilege.” Our sufferings as Black [people] of different shades are not identical, and they aren’t even always equal, but they most certainly are mutual. And because my experience of racism as it is felt through this light skinned body is not the same as that experience which is felt through darker colored flesh does not mean that either of the two is any truer, more valid or authentic.

Kristal Brent Zook, “Light-Skinned(ded) Naps”

Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the hybridity, the mixedness, of African-Americans. Indeed, the vast majority of black Americans have white, native, and sometimes other cultural and racial ancestry in addition to African. And the refrain is by now familiar, even if it still bears repeating: there are no pure races or cultures to begin with. At the same time, much has been made of the “one-drop rule,” the law of hypodescent, which denies black/white interracial persons a legitimate claim to whiteness and assigns them to a purportedly lower rung on the heritage hierarchy. Through this practice, black/white mixed persons have generally come to be classified as black, legally and in popular imaginaries. This essay will examine the links and rifts between blackness and mixedness, with an eye to what is at once a chiasmus and a truism, that black people are mixed and (black/white) mixed people are black.

Through an analysis of various literary and critical representations of racial hybridity, this essay will demonstrate that the blackness/mixedness paradox is and always was but the very beginning and by no means the end of the story of American racial classification within the black/white schema. Even the most vociferous proponent of the one-drop rule would have to concede that it does not require, nor has it ever required, much of a stretch of the imagination to make a commonsense distinction, even if a fraught, provisional one, between authentic blackness and black/white interraciality. To even state that a mixed-race subject is black or the reverse is to reference the joint realities of both mixedness and blackness. The one-drop rule itself suggests quite literally that one can at once be fully black and only one drop black. Moreover, the tendency to overstate the historical ineluctability of the one-drop rule elides the a priori crisis of classification mulattoes have long presented within American discursive and cultural imaginaries. As Werner Sollors underscores in the introduction to Interracialism, “contrary to many assertions, the so-called one-drop rule (according to which any African ancestry, no matter how far removed, made an American ‘black’) was never widely applied” (6). Rather, contestations over the “true” racial and cultural status of mixed-race subjects are ongoing and can be traced a long way back.

Endless and passionate debate on how to situate black/white interraciality has penetrated the realms of legal classification, census taking, and grassroots movements, as well as the domains this essay mainly concerns itself with, the discursive, the ideological, and the popular. I problematize rather than contribute to these debates, for what is more interesting to me is the extent to which interracial subjects elide a classification that can be agreed on. I recommend that…

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