Are We Content to Let Our DNA Define Us?

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Identity Development/Psychology, New Media, United States on 2011-07-12 19:47Z by Steven

Are We Content to Let Our DNA Define Us?


Ashton J. Liu

A Chinese friend once responded harshly when asked, “Are you Japanese?” by a young child who had approached him on the street. His response struck me as strange. After all, my identity was always a topic of discussion. As a child of a Chinese-American father and Caucasian mother, I looked neither. I have thick dark hair, a long nose, large eyes, and slightly colored skin. In fact, I was more often mistaken for Hispanic or Native American rather than Asian or white. My identity was discussed among close friends, acquaintances, and even with strangers who I bumped into in a bar or with whom I had a brief encounter on the street.

Plus, I got it all the time. Meeting someone for the first time usually meant that he or she might give me that slightly elongated, curious gaze, which was followed by an awkward “I’m sorry..I can’t tell, are you [insert misconceived identity here]?” Or, in contrast, when meeting someone Asian, my appearance wouldn’t merit a second glance, but my last name would always surprise them. “Wait…. why do you have a Chinese last name?” they might ask. In time, I got used to it, like a high school graduate who puts up with questions like “What are you going to major in? What do you want to do when you graduate from college?” You know people are good intentioned and genuinely curious, but when you answer the same question to all your relatives, family friends, teachers and random acquaintances, you still answer out of courtesy, but each time you draw a deeper sigh as you prepare your now well-practiced response…

…This all changed once I set foot in college; there was a blossoming of expression and awareness. Suddenly, we were one. Organizations and clubs formed to challenge preexisting notions of race, and ran discussions, published magazines and held conferences on the multiracial experience. Being biracial went from being a footnote to being something one could flaunt, something fashionable.

Yet strangely, I grew tired of this discussion. I went to one diversity awareness event, and visited the multicultural session, structured as a reenactment of what mixed blood students encountered in high school. I entered a mock cafeteria and students representing the black table, Asian table and white table, and turned you away, saying you weren’t black, Asian or white enough to sit with them. C’mon, I thought, of course some people think like that, but what an over-dramatization….

Read the entire article here.

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Mothering Multiracial Children: Indicators of Effective Interracial Parenting

Posted in Canada, Dissertations, Family/Parenting, Media Archive, Social Work on 2011-07-12 19:44Z by Steven

Mothering Multiracial Children: Indicators of Effective Interracial Parenting

McGill University
123 pages

Nicolette De Smit

A Thesis Submitted to The School of Social Work Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for The Master’s Degree in Social Work

The goal of this descriptive/exploratory study was to examine the behavior and attitudes of eleven white and five non-white mothers involved in raising multiracial, preschool-aged, biological children. A theoretical framework based on research carried out with multiracial individuals was used to define interracial parenting strategies that promoted strong racial and personal identities in their children. Through individual interviews, using a questionnaire, an opinion survey, and four vignettes that described racially complex situations, two areas of parenting were examined: contact maintained by mothers with the child’s minority background, and the mothers capacity to effectively problem-solve.
Little difference was found between the responses of white and non-white mothers. However, among white mothers, the younger, less educated mothers had considerably more contact with the minority culture than did the older, highly educated mothers. The latter, however, performed significantly better than their younger counterparts in providing responses that displayed more of the attitudes and parenting strategies recommended in previous research.

Read the entire thesis here.

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“Suddenly and Shockingly Black”: The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-07-12 02:43Z by Steven

“Suddenly and Shockingly Black”: The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction

African American Review
Volume 41, Number 1 (Spring, 2007)
pages 51-66

J. Michael Duvall, Associate Professor of English
College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

Julie Cary Nerad, Associate Professor of English
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

From at least the Civil War through the Harlem Renaissance, black and white authors alike regularly imagined interracial babies who grew lighter-skinned with each generation: the greater the proportion of white ancestry, the less obvious are signs of black ancestry. These writers thus follow the common understanding of racial interbreeding as tending toward, in Stephen Jay Gould’s parlance, “a ‘blending’ or smooth mixture and dilution of traits” (24). The “natural grandson of a Southern lady, in whose family his mother had been a slave,” Harper writes, “the blood of a proud aristocratic ancestry was flowing through his veins, and generations of blood admixture had effaced all traces of his negro lineage” (239). The blending, mixing, and dilution of African features of interracial characters occur across a wide swath of late 19th-century American fiction and answer to a wide variety of purposes, from the reconciliationist fiction of Lydia Maria Child, whose Romance of the Republic (1867) offers a model of national reconstruction in two generations of loving, moral, interracial couples who have white-skinned children, to the white supremacist tales of Thomas Dixon, whose The Clansman (1905) reifies the myth of the lascivious and tempting nature of black women via their whitened interracial offspring. And, of course, this blending model also creates the conditions for a staple trope of much white and African American fiction of the late nineteenth century and onward: racial passing.

 Yet if the fiction of the time features this “amalgamation” model of heredity as embodied by Latimer (as well as Iola and her brother Harry), it also sees the emergence of a countervailing discourse of interracial heredity the specific effect of which throws a wrench into the mechanics of passing. In Iola Leroy, the eponymous heroine warns the white Dr. Gresham, her first suitor, that should they marry and procreate, her race could be revealed by an “unmistakeab[ly]” black child (117). An undeniable “throw-back” to a black racial past, such a child would result from the supposed process of “atavism” (in Latin, “a great grandfather’s grandfather”). Submerged racial features were believed to skip generations only to recur farther down the family line, rupturing a smooth hereditary narrative of blending and exposing the parent’s “true” race, always black and never white. In many novels and stories, atavism remains only a threat. However, in texts we examine below, atavistic children are actually born. These children range in appearance from simply showing signs of color to manifesting a monstrous, ape-like form, the fancied evidence of a supposed profound and irremediable racial pollution.

We argue specifically that the actual birth of grotesquely atavistic children in fiction, suddenly appearing at the turn of the twentieth century, is both historically bound and distinctly gendered: such children were usually the product of black male/white female sexual relationships that were seen by many whites as particularly threatening to white hegemonies at the historical moment. Various turn-of-the-20th-century authors use racial atavism, structured through a logic of contamination, to consolidate racial identity, maintain the color line, or bolster white supremacist discourse. The unidirectional logic of racial contamination, common throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, fueled white racist propaganda for maintaining distinct racial categories and white hegemonies: black blood, once introduced into a family line, could be diluted, but never removed. Such mongrelization, white supremacists feared, would eventually lead to the disintegration of the white family and, consequently, the white nation. Framing these atavistic children or the threat of their appearance against their more common cousins, the light or white-skinned mulatto figure, we thus argue that they function as a dire warning both to black men of any shade and to white women whose wombs white men needed “uncontaminated” to (re)produce a white nation.

The idea of an apparently other-raced child, Werner Sollors tells us in an indispensable chapter of Neither White Nor Black Yet Both (1997), goes back to antiquity, during which an other-raced child was thought to prove adultery or, alternatively, to figure as a true wonder. In this ancient cultural setting, atavism could result in either a black or white child: such a child might be Natus AEthiopus, a black child birthed by white-appearing parents, or Natus Albus, a white child birthed by seemingly black parents. With one parodic exception, we find no instances of Natus Albus in the fiction of the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century. (1) Furthermore, according to Sollors, with the advent of a species model of race, the nineteenth century marks a change in attitude toward the idea of Natus AEthiopus, which he summarizes in his chapter’s closing discussion of Robert Lee Durham’s novel, The Call of the South (1900):

In the hands of a racialist radical, the Natus AEthiopus changed into the white horror of horrors. Underneath the Gothic machinery, however, one … recognizes the issues of the past in their transformation: atavism explains a child’s color, but in a cultural context in which it could be asserted that black and white must never be related in a family structure. Wonder is replaced with horror … ; adultery seems to have completely disappeared [as an explanation for atavism]; “essential” racial difference cuts even fully legalized family relations…. (66)

 The present essay builds on Sollors’s work by investigating what, aside from the species-inflected racial science and thinking that he identifies, lies behind this shift from wonder to horror, at the end of the nineteenth century. What, more precisely, governs the appearance in American novels of not just unexpected, dark-skinned babies, but grotesquely atavistic ones, and to what ends?…

…That the myth of atavism emerges in a wide range of novels makes sense, given the period’s fixation on the discourses of blood, the idea of racial purity, and the legally entrenched system of segregation, yet the texts that actually produce atavistic children are in fact striking for their rarity. Indeed, the arguably overwhelming presence of light- or white-skinned mixed-race children in interracial fiction, even in those that include the threat of atavism, prompts us to ask what governs the appearance of those few mixed-race infants who actually show black racial traits. We suggest that these children often materialize within particular narrative constructions. Two turn-of-the-century stories, both again involving racial passing and featuring comparatively mild incidents of atavism, suggest that narrative’s contours. In one, Kate Chopin’s widely-read 1893 short story “Desiree’s Baby,” a presumably white woman commits suicide and infanticide, and in the other, Pauline Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon” (1900), a mixed-race woman survives, but her male child dies. (10) In Chopin’s story, Desiree, herself a woman of “obscure origin,” marries Armand, the son of a respected family, only to produce a baby—a son—who has black racial characteristics. Unclear as to what this appearance could possibly mean, she queries her husband, who replies: “it means that you are not white” (176, 179). Befuddled by this revelation since her complexion is lighter in shade than her husband’s, but accepting his judgment against her, Desiree walks into the swamp with her infant, presumably committing infanticide and suicide. The story ends not here, however, but with Armand’s discovery of a letter written to his father from his long-deceased mother, explaining that Armand has black heritage. This discovery reverses the common narrative construct of the white male/black female coupling. Instead, the story offers us a black male/white female pairing that actually produces in very mild form an atavistic (male) child. (11) Pauline E. Hopkins’s short story “Talma Gordon” (1900) also offers a case of a mildly atavistic child. Although the child issues from the more common white male/black female pairing, the child, who has physical characteristics that identify him as having African heritage, is again male. The child dies from disease while still an infant, while his two older, physically white sisters survive. What we begin to see in these two stories of mild atavism is a gender dynamic that further complicates narrative embodiments of grotesquely atavistic children…

…The manner in which individual authors have engaged the trope of the atavistic child—as evidence of an everlasting barrier between the races, as warning not to transgress or pass over the color line, as strategy for solidifying race categories and white hegemonies–suggests that the trope of the atavistic child functions as the bearer of certain kinds of what Jane Tompkins has called cultural work the functional relation of a piece of literature to its immediate historical conditions and the answer to the question “what kind of work is this novel trying to do?” (38). Throughout the nineteenth century, novels that explored “the race question” did significant cultural work by helping to shape our national politics. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps the best-known example of the impact that a novel can have in our cultural imaginary. By the turn of the twentieth century, the novel had perhaps an even greater impact on the public. As Lee Baker explains, “The mass media played an integral role in shoring up the ideological demarcation of the color line. Technological advances and rising literacy rates increased the circulation and decreased the prices of magazines, newspapers, and books. By 1905, stereotypes that had previously been reinforced by folklore or expensive texts were now voraciously consumed by the public in the mass media” (38). The graphic racist novels by whites in the first decade of the twentieth century promulgated negative stereotypes about African Americans, using the atavistic child as a nodal point for articulating the discourses of miscegenation, white supremacy, racial passing, black male/white female sex, the mythic black beast rapist, and lynching. These novels, in essence, reinforced anti-miscegenation sentiment in a particularly unidirectional way to maintain the color line and to deny black civil rights. While white male/black female sex may have been considered immoral–by many people, black and white–it ultimately failed to destabilize cultural hegemonies. Not so with black male/white female sex, which whites considered much more dangerous because it disrupted the reproduction of whiteness. White men, so novels such as Lee’s and Davenport’s conclude, must strenuously guard the white womb against race pollution and perversion, corruptions marked by the birth of a degenerate atavistic child. Punishing black men who dare pollute those wombs works to consolidate whiteness across a North-South regional divide…

….Ironically, women posed one of the greatest dangers to the sanctity of the color line because of their central role in the reproduction of whiteness. White women held the biological key to maintaining and increasing the white race, and thus fortifying white hegemonies because only white women could produce white children. Their race loyalty alone made possible the continuation of white male authority that insured white privilege. If white women’s bodies served as the vessels for reproducing whiteness, they had to remain “pure” from the corrupting taint of blackness. The grotesquely atavistic child that drove its mother to insanity and/or death became a graphic symbol of the punishment of racialized transgression and one that starkly highlights white men’s anxiety over controlling the reproductive powers of white women. Thus, while woman’s importance in cultural production was elevated above other cultural factors, it also remained linked to their racial identity and to their biological role as mother and the age-old attempt to govern female sexuality. The grotesquely atavistic child’s appearance at this moment stems from the same white fear that fueled the industry of lynching in this decade…

Read the entire article here.

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Mediating Blackness: Afro Puerto Rican Women and Popular Culture

Posted in Anthropology, Communications/Media Studies, Dissertations, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2011-07-12 02:41Z by Steven

Mediating Blackness: Afro Puerto Rican Women and Popular Culture

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
145 pages

Maritza Quiñones-Rivera

A Dissertation Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Communications in the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In my dissertation I discuss how blackness, femaleness and Puerto Ricanness (national identity) is presented in commercial media in Puerto Rico. National identity, no matter how differently defined, is often constructed through claims to heritage, “roots,” tradition, and descent. In the western world, these claims, almost inevitably allude to questions of “race.” In Puerto Rico, it is the mixture of the Spanish, the Taíno Indian, and the African, which come to epitomize the racial/traditional stock out of which “the nation” is constructed, defended, and naturalized. This mixture is often represented by images, statues, murals across the island that display the three racialized representatives, as the predecessors of the modern, racially mixed Puerto Rican people. In their portrayals of black women, figures as Mama Inés (the mammy) and fritoleras (women who cook and sell codfish fritters), Caribbean Negras (Black Caribbean women) contemporary media draw upon familiar representations to make black women bodies intelligible to Puerto Rican audiences. In this dissertation I argue that black women are challenging these images as sites for mediating blackness, femaleness, and Puerto Ricanness where hegemony and resistance are dialectical. I integrate a text-based analysis of media images with an audience ethnographic study to fully explore these processes of racial and gender representation. Ultimately, my project is to detail the ways in which Black women respond to folklorized representations and mediate their Blackness by adopting the cultural identity of Trigueñidad in order to establish a respectful place for themselves within the Puerto Rican national identity. The contributions from the participants of my audience ethnography, as well as my own experiences as a Trigueña woman, demonstrate how Black women are contesting local representations and practices that have folklorized their bodies. The women who form part of this study also responded to the pressures of a nation whose official stance is that race and racism do not exist. In addition, I present global and local forces—and in particular commercial media—as means for creating contemporary Black identities that speak to a global economy. By placing media images in dialogue with the lived experiences of Black-Puerto Rican women, my research addresses the multiple ways in which Black identities are (re)constituted vis-à-vis these forces.


Media and popular culture are powerful venues in which women assert and communicate national and social identities.1 In this light, I contend that Black Puerto Rican women mediate their Blackness by challenging folklorized representations of themselves that are perpetuated in local commercial media and advertising. In the face of a society whose media presents “race” as part of the nation’s past, a fokloric identity, many women adopt a new language of Trigueñidad in order to find a place for themselves within the national landscape. Before I begin this line of research, it is vital to first review representations of race and gender in commercial television and other media in the island…

…Theoretical Framework

Overall, the process of mediating blackness in Puerto Rico is one caught in the dual tensions between the local media‘s inscriptions of black women as folklorized on the one hand, and the influences of U.S. popular culture and additional transnational media on the other. What is crucial here is the understanding that media messages and their representations do not work in a vacuum but form part of a broader social and cultural network, and that media itself is not a monolithic body that operates as a single, unified, controlling entity. Instead, media compose a complex set of production and consumption practices. In the case of Puerto Rico from 2003 to 2006, for instance, the influence of localized media began to dwindle following their purchase by American media conglomerates. A vast majority of television programming now comes from off-shore corporations (for example, telenovelas produced in Latin America) and U.S.-based, Spanish language commercial media. In spite of this narrowing of diversity, it is important to compare Black women‘s representation in one media to racial and gender representations in another. Approaching media from this standpoint allows me to critically combine elements of existing theories in order to gain a better understanding of the relationship between various media, Puerto Rican cultural identity, and black identity at the collective and individual levels. More specifically, my work is centrally interested in advertising and the way black women are represented in the Citibank advertisement mentioned above. It will be crucial not to examine advertising in insolation, however, but to also explore the representations of black women in different mass media forms, such as newspapers, television, radio, and Internet. The images of advertisements operate in a system of sign that can never work in isolation from other signs or cultural factors.

Mediating blackness is also a process that necessarily interacts with the commonly-held beliefs and daily practices of racially mixed populations in Puerto Rico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. My dissertation thus explores the production, representation, and consumption of media by populations, and incorporates academic arguments on the shifting roles and boundaries of media in daily life. My central discussion of media accordingly draws upon several fields of academic inquiry, among them media studies, black feminism, body politics, and the study of racial blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean, though it is ultimately grounded in cultural studies approaches to media studies.

Among these common conceptions that must be addressed is the dominant notion of Puerto Rico as a culturally unified nation that has produced a racially mixed, democratic society. Representations of this unified Puerto Rican culture are presented in such institutions as museums, the government, the education system and other “official” cultural sites. In response to this collective Puerto Rican cultural identity, forming a racial identity is often a struggle for some non-white Puerto Ricans (See: my autoethnography in Chapter 3), especially when Puerto Rican blackness is represented as folklorized, and when racism is a tacit component of official culture (Warren-Colón, 2003, p.664). Scholars have given only minimal attention to this phenomenon, and to the dismissive or stereotypical treatment of black women‘s bodies through their folklorized representations in popular culture and other media…

Read the entire dissertation here.

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