Playing Games with Race

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-02 03:54Z by Steven

Playing Games with Race

The Feminist Wire

Omar Ricks
University of California, Berkeley

“Mulatto” by Jenia Lisunov

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.

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Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2013-03-31 04:54Z by Steven

Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too

Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine
First Issue Launch (2011-02-16)
Volume I (2011): Race: Theories, Identities, Intersections, Histories, and the “Post-Racial” Society
4 pages

Hortense Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

In the world of newspapers, “beneath the fold” apparently means that the feature bears only secondary interest or importance compared to what is situated above it, but in all fairness to the writer of the article that I am alluding to, all news for the last three weeks has taken a back seat—or should I say, assumed a beneath-the-fold-posture?—to events unfolding in Egypt. In a very real sense, though, post-millennium changes in American racial attitudes—the topic of the article—are in fact revolutionary-seeming and may go far to explain both the 2008 national elections and their midterm mate of 2010. Both elections “addressed” race in a more or less explicit manner and dispatched glaringly opposite messages concerning it. We might put it this way: It was as though 2010 were furious with 2008 and wrought its revenge in an election result that all but cancelled out the previous outcome. It seems that the Facebook crowd—the young and the restless—stayed home that day, and it is precisely that generational cohort toward which Susan Saulny’s New York Times piece, “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above,” is aimed and from which it draws its inspiration. For this cohort, race is no longer just “race,” but becomes a playful smorgasbord of this, that, and the other. My head spins and my eyesight grows cock-eyed, trying to figure this one out. In short, I fall down in the dizziness.

We’ve been here before, and that is the disappointment. Reminded in the course of Saulny’s treatment that terms like “mulatto,” “once tinged with shame…is enjoying a comeback in some young circles” (1), one wonders what all the brouhaha about “post-racial” identity actually means, unless the new racialist reflexes are intended to be taken as parodic gestures, but I’m not at all sure that is the case. Ms. Saulny’s article, designated as a single entry in a series that “will explore the growing number of mixed-race Americans” (20), is based on the author’s probe of the issues, conducted among some fifty students who are members of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association at the University of Maryland in College Park. Though membership in the MBSA is said to be open, the rationale for the group’s existence is predicated on the number of racial mixtures that converge on a single personality and the descriptive apparatuses that differentiate skin tone and hair type: “tan skin” and “curly brown hair,” for instance, signal, in one case, that the person’s ancestry “could have spanned the globe” (1). Americans are in the midst of a demographic shift, we know, that is fuelled by immigration and intermarriage, as “one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities” (1). As a result, today’s undergraduate population comprises the “largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States” (1). Needing, then, names for racial categories that do not fit the traditional census classifications, the “new” subjects of race welcome “the multiracial option… after years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by white mothers of biracial children who objected to their children being allowed to check only one race.”

What amounts to demographic data and genetic input is here transliterated into terms of human and ontological value, and that is precisely the rebarbative boomerang of the old race concept, or “the racialized perception of identity,” as Robin Blackburn describes it. Rainier Spencer’s view, cited in the article, that “‘mixed race identity is not a transcendence of race, it’s a new tribe,’” penetrates to the heart of the matter, which I would conceptualize as the mimesis of a social and political problem that misnames its vocation. And what, exactly, is the problem?

…We very much doubt that the fury here is that there are not enough boxes on the census form, or a deficit of classificatory items, or the prohibition to check more than one, or even the thwarted desire to express racial pride, but, rather, the dictates of a muted self-interest that wishes to carve its own material and political successes out of another’s hide. To that degree, these celebratory, otiose gestures are very American! In other words, if “racial ambiguity” or looking that way, can be amplified and translated into a legitimate political interest (as it is increasingly becoming a commercial one), then the padded new racism that comes about as a result will gladly declare a new class of winners. But the historical reality (which the nineteen-year olds are not aware of, and neither this author, nor anyone else has informed them of it) is that racial ambiguity is itself a new-world thematic—probably about seven centuries old by now—so that 300 million coeval Americans, all of them, could check off several race boxes on the decennial census form, and who could argue with them? But I suspect that the citizen-taxpayer is not thinking, first and foremost, about traditional race ascription when she responds to the census taker’s queries, but, rather, by what cultural name she is interpellated. Saulny apparently found out (and how silly is this?) that President Obama, for instance, checked only one box on his 2010 census form, and that was the black one, while he could have checked two, Saulny trumpets. Well, yes, he could have checked two, but this President likely has a solid grasp of race and how it operates in the social and political context of the United States, and to call oneself mixed-race, or black and white, or something and something else, means what? What work is that supposed to do for you?…

Read the entire article here.

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Destiny’s Child: Obama and Election ’08

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, New Media, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy on 2012-07-15 19:26Z by Steven

Destiny’s Child: Obama and Election ’08

boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture
Volume 39, Number 2 (Summer 2012)
pages 3-32
DOI: 10.1215/01903659-1597871

Hortense Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English
Vanderbilt University

“Destiny’s Child: Obama and Election ’08” interrogates the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States as a historically ordained event. This essay not only addresses the question of whether we might plausibly read it as the fulfillment of telos but also examines the implications of our having already done so.

Read or purchase the article here.

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