Playing Games with Race
The Feminist Wire
University of California, Berkeley
NOTE: This article expands on a comment on Prof. Hortense Spillers’ article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too” published on The Feminist Wire on February 25, 2011. Omar Ricks would like to thank Prof. Spillers for inviting his contribution to The Feminist Wire.
At several places in the first article of her New York Times series, Race Remixed, concerning mostly young adult multiracial individuals, Susan Saulny has one woman, Laura Wood, vice president of the University of Maryland Multiracial Biracial Student Association (MBSA), embody much of the human-interest side of what might otherwise be an article about U.S. Census data. In a game at the beginning of the article, an MBSA friend correctly guesses Wood’s genotype: “Are you mulatto?” We learn of Wood’s painful personal journey. Initially given up for adoption by her white mother, later taken back and raised as white until the age of 8, she is rejected by the black family of her father, who she says “can’t see past the color of my skin and accept me even though I share DNA with them.” As Saulny conveys Wood’s story, we do not get a sense of any other problematics of this woman’s multiracial identity besides this one. We are left wondering at the shape that black people and blackness take in the rhetoric of Saulny’s article, if not of the interviewees, like Wood, with whom she speaks.
“If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.” (Saulny, 2011, January 29)
“All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” Ms. Wood says. “I want us to have a say.” (Saulny, 2011, January 29)
Few actual opponents of multiracialism are quoted in the article, but, oddly enough, when opposition to multiracialism is given a face, it is generally not the face of “all society” but a black one. Through such moments as these, this article is not merely reporting on but also typical of multiracial discourse, a diverse and sometimes mutually contentious collection of speeches, writings, and collective actions that broadly assert: (a) the presence of multiracial people as such; (b) the freedom of people to define themselves as their genetic diversity allows; and often (c) the implicit imperative that people (especially, for some reason, President Barack Obama) should choose to identify as multiracial. Time and again in this article, as in much of multiracial discourse, several questions arise when it comes to the ways black people are figuratively deployed. Is the problem really that blacks, more than others, are truly preventing multiracial people from identifying as such? If so, how so? Were one to ask against which real or anticipated threat to this freedom to “have a say” the MBSA students are asserting it, and attend closely to the rhetorical structure of the answers that Saulny articulates, I suspect that one would notice in those answers a structural function that blackness serves within multiracial discourse. This structural function owes to the staying power that comes from blacks’ unique position not just as a group, but also as useful rhetorical figures against which the coherence of an asserted “freedom to identify” might be sustained…
…The problems with multiracial identity, at least according to this article series, are not for the most part problems within the movement or its philosophical foundations. Rather, the problems almost always consist of the failure of others to accept mixed-race people—and those “others” are not those with the power to shape things like media representations or urban geography. For example, Saulny says,
No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.
Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans. (Saulny, 2011, January 29)
This passage is performing some subtle but important ideological work. Those who advocate “the blending of the races” are contrasted with those who oppose “a more powerful multiracial movement.” Considering that one can be in favor of “the blending of the races” and yet opposed to the particular politics of “a more powerful multiracial movement,” this statement is a curious slippage, comparing “apples with oranges.” There is also the laying of the mantle of “optimist” on those who make the questionable juxtaposition between “bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action,” almost as though there is no question that affirmative action is rooted in the bigotry and prejudice that necessitated it. Based on my reading of the article series as a whole, it is unclear to which specific “optimists” Saulny refers here, but, far more important is the way she leaves this equation unpacked. By juxtaposing these terms without critically examining them, Saulny ends up, intentionally or not, echoing a connection that multiracial discourses routinely and uncritically draw: the connection between black freedom struggle (affirmative action in this case, although any of the other political concessions that black freedom struggle has effected would probably suffice) and bigotry by blacks toward non-blacks…
Moves like these might be easily bypassed, if they did not bear a close resemblance to a common trope within multiracial discourse. As analyzed by Jared Sexton in his book Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, the thing that unifies a diverse (left, liberal, conservative, and right) field of discourse around multiracial identity is the singular desire to achieve distance from “certain figures of blackness” that “resurface in each instance of multiracial discourse” and “are generally made to serve as a foil for the contemporary value of multiracialism” (Sexton, 2008). It would require an excessive degree of naïveté or willful disregard to ignore the same symptoms of thought in Saulny’s article series. In Sexton’s words, “what lends [multiracial discourse] its coherence […] is its obdurately unsophisticated understanding of race and sexuality and its conspicuously negative disposition toward what Fanon (1967) terms ‘the lived experience of the black’” (Sexton, 2008).
Most essentially, then, in multiracial discourse, blackness stands in not as an identity or identification to be rejected or worked through but, in the words of Sexton, as a structural position “against which all other subjects take their bearings” (Sexton & Copeland, 2003). In what might otherwise be an incomprehensible world or a movement without a cause, blackness is so serviceable that it can be used to stand in as that with which nobody wants to be associated, even by those who are partly black.
Even if multiracialism shifts us from the “one-drop rule” to a more graduated mestizaje model of racialization, this changes nothing for black people because blackness is still located at the “undesirable” end of the continuum—or, more accurately, hierarchy. In my view, it is necessary that we first understand the stability of that unethical structural relation before we can say that multiracialism challenges racism by injecting into the racist structure a “more fluid” sense of identity. Rainier Spencer’s 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article, [“Mixed Race Chic”] (Spencer, 2009, May 19), for example, asked, “how can multiracial identity deconstruct race when it needs the system of racial categorization to even announce itself?” Posing this question as a statement would be to say that one needs for there to be a structure of race in order to call oneself multiracial. Small wonder, then, that so many celebrations of multiracial identity sound antiblack. They are…
Read the entire article here.