The Multiracial Identity Movement: Countless Ways to Misunderstand Race
Steven F. Riley
In Jen Chau’s essay, “Multiracial Families: Counted But Still Misunderstood,” in the October 31, 2011 issue of Racialiscious, reveals just how much race is misunderstood by some activists within the multiracial identity movement and exemplifies why the movement—in its current form—is incapable of leading us into a post-racial future.
Part of the “quiet” that Ms. Chau is experiencing is due to the realization that President Barack Obama is not the multiracial messiah some had thought he would be. He is neither a messiah, nor is he—as he has stated on multiple occasions—multiracial. Unfortunately, in many ways, the policies of our first black President differ little from our previous white President (George W. Bush). Is this the “black-white mix” we were hoping for? Perhaps the quiet is the palatable disappointment in President Obama’s first three years office. What part of “race is a social construction” does she not understand? As succinctly stated by Professor Richard Thompson Ford,
“Because race is a social category and not a biological or genetic one, Obama’s mixed parentage does not determine his race. Mixed parentage may influence one’s appearance, and a person whose appearance is racially ambiguous can influence how she is perceived. In such instances, race may be a question of personal affiliation to some extent. And mixed parentage may influence how one chooses to identify. But for the most part, society assigns us our races. At any rate, Obama’s appearance is not ambiguous, and he unquestionably identifies as black.” (Emphasis is mine.)
A good first step would be to for activists respect Obama’s identity as they would like us to respect theirs.
My theory—which differs considerably from Ms. Chau’s—is that the “quiet” is due to fact that multiracial-identity movement is simply not the progressive force she and others think it is; and we—including activists themselves—are beginning to recognize that. In many ways, the multiracial-identity movement mimics the tactics, ideologies and demagogueries of the right-wing conservative adherents that it claims to fight.
The problems with the movement are numerous, but they can be narrowed to three major issues: 1) Race as biology, 2) Ahistoricity, and 3) the refusal to discuss the role of white supremacy within the discourses of multiraciality.
After nearly a century of scientific acknowledgment that there is no such thing as “race” as a biological concept, why do some in the movement still pursue issues dealing with so-called “multiracial medicine?” A truly progressive movement would preface all of its statements with the fact that “race” in short, was a concept used to justify the extermination and enslavement of non-Europeans.
Another deficiency in the multiracial movement is its unwillingness to acknowledge that so-called “racial mixing” in the Americas is a five-century—not four decade—aspect of our history. Thus even if “race” were a biological concept, we are all most certainly “mixed” by now. Rather than making hypocritical (demanding the freedom to self-identify for some but not for others) pronouncements on President Obama’s heterogeneous background, multiracial activists should also consider the heterogeneity of the First Lady Michelle Obama, the overwhelming vast majority of black and Latino Americans, and yes, a significant segment of white Americans. In 1927, 40 years before the mythological baby-boom that was allegedly brought about by Loving v. Virginia and just seven years after the last 20th-century census that would enumerate “mixed-race” people (Ms. Chau seems to have forgotten the seven past censuses starting in 1850 that counted mixed-race individuals), anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, revealed that,
“The word “Negro” is, biologically, a misnomer, for the African Negroes, brought to the United States as slaves, have crossed in breeding with the dominant White population, as well as with the aboriginal American Indian types with whom they came into contact, so that there is today only a small percentage of the American Negroes who may be considered Negro in the ordinary sense of the term.” (The emphasis is mine.)
When an early 20th-century anthropologist—in the midst of an overtly racist era—can show more insight that 21st century activists—in the midst of the so-called “Age of Obama” era—we have a serious problem.
Lastly, the most deafening “quiet” within the multiracial movement, is its silence on the role of white supremacy in the continuing oppression and shaping of identities here in United States and around the world. It is the ideology of white supremacy that created the notion of race as biology, then racialized and dehumanized, enlslaved, and exterminated people around the world for centuries—and continue to do—to preserve the current Eurocentric hegemonic paradigm. As Professor G. Reginald Daniel has warned,
“We should be especially concerned about any half-hearted attack on the Eurocentric paradigm in the manner of interracial colorism that merely weakens rather than eradicates the dichotomization of blackness and whiteness, while leaving intact the racial hierarchy that maintains white privilege.”
The type of incidents that agitate the multiracial identity movement today are not the growing wealth disparities among racialized groups, or current vigorous attempts to curtail voting rights of minorities ahead of the 2012 General Election, but rather the freely chosen racial identity by the President or the chosen racial identity of the child of a Hollywood celebrity. As Ms. Chau has stated, there are many ways that we have to fight racism and ignorance, yet the movement—particularly on the internet—is more interested in exploiting the bodies of young people by hosting “mixed-race” fashion shows that conjure-up images of Quadroon Balls from the early 19th-century or posting photographs of the allegedly “multiracial person of-the-day” in a self-aggrandizing exercise that Professor Rainier Spencer has coined as “miscentrism.” At this rate, the multiracial-identity movement will be no more effective in combating racism and ignorance than a lukewarm decaffeinated soy-triple-shot no-fat latte at Starbucks.