Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More On Being Mixed

I found a couple new websites that have been diverting my attention away from schoolwork (if it weren't these sites, it'd be something else). Yesterday, I finally got fed up with reading about a white/Asian binary to the point where I went searching for sites that specifically addressed issues between blacks and Asians. I found a perfect site, and it has led me to so many great readings on other sites, in addition to the pieces on its own site. I'm going to comment on some points made in some of the readings I've done in connection with the site and its links.

Some Latinos Are Black
This point was also made, I believe, in response to a post on Blackprof about how Latinos do not/will not support Goodblack Obama, i.e. the two groups are not always mutually exclusive. Now...I discuss them as if they are, and so do most people. There are reasons for that.

First of all, one of the pieces I read was basically saying, at one point, that mixed blacks aren't really forced to choose black as their identity or only be seen as black because nobody makes Latinos do this or sees Latinos as black, despite many of them having mixed heritage that includes African descent. Then I saw another piece say something similar, i.e. Latinos aren't involved in the discussion of how mixed people identify, how they should identify, etc, even though they're mixed. They can get away with refusing to identify as black, so why can't mixed blacks?

These people didn't realize a couple really vital things about how society works. It really reminded me of the issue of Asians as "perpetual foreigners," and here's how: I explained before on my blog that, in general, (I believe) that when people ask Asians where they are from, they're doing so not because they don't believe that Asian individual was born in the US but because they don't know the difference between things like race and ethnicity, ethnicity and nationality, and so on. Furthermore, it is my belief that if you ask people what "ethnicity" or "nationality" means, they wouldn't really know. If they did, if you asked them the difference between some of these terms, they wouldn't know. "Where are you from" for Asians is really a very sloppily-phrased/termed way of asking "what is your ethnicity?"

Asking that doesn't mean we don't feel you were born in the US or are American, especially if you speak good English and we haven't bone-headedly commented on that to you. The answer people are looking to hear is that you're Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, or whatever...in terms of ethnic origin. And I'm sure most Asians know that, but they haven't made the connection to the question being more about ethnicity than nationality, not to say that I'm referring to Asians when I say people don't know what these cultural terms mean. I'm also sure that they and everyone else in the US who does know the difference among these terms has seen several times when the terms have been used incorrectly.

Well, another term that is used incorrectly all the time based on our lack of knowledge is "Latino," or "Hispanic" or even "Mexican." And I can't claim to be an expert on who is Latino or what that term means, but I know some of the ways it's used incorrectly. The most prevalent way, to me, is as a race. "Latino" is not a race, and I can't tell you how many people I've tried to explain that to and they still really don't believe me or remember. But because most people think of it as a separate race, they think of "black" and "Latino" or "Latino" and "white" or "Latino and "Asian" as mutually exclusive. But, indeed, most Latinos I've encountered in my life have looked no different from any of the white people running around the US. Racially, they are usually white, and I would bet that's the race they mark on the US Census.

But this is part of the reason why I use "Latino" and "black" mutually exclusively--more Latinos are obviously white than obviously black. And even though Latinos who look like George Lopez and Jon Secada--and probably even Tony Orlando--should send bells off in people's heads about their African heritage, it's still not obvious to most people that, hey, these guys are probably really black racially (via the one-drop rule), or at least mixed blacks, instead of just the "Latino" labels they use to evade the question of race. The other part is the racism among the Latino community towards blackness and darkness. There are plenty of Latinos who look like Lopez and Secada who refuse to identify as black or even refuse to admit to any African heritage, and lighter Latinos who know they have "black" uncles or grandparents but state very adamantly that those people are not black.

Latinos basically get a pass because of people's lack of knowledge, not because of something mixed blacks and Latinos have equal control over. Latinos merely exploit everyone's ignorance. I could never fervently disclaim being black or that my mother is black because I look too black, but because black Latinos have slightly different facial features than black people and nobody understands that "Latino" isn't a race they can get away with, in some ways, inventing a separate racial category for themselves based on mixed-race identity. They get to opt out of blackness, and they keep it their little secret. Makes you ask a question I've asked myself several times before in relation to myself: if other minorities physically could pass as another racial or ethnic group, would they do it?

"Mixed" As A Separate Race
There has been a lot of discussion and commentary about this. I saw about a year, maybe less, ago a blog post over at Racialicious about the consequences of developing a new racial category for mixed kids and identifying as "multiracial" on forms instead of as each race. I've also seen many people claim that, at least for mixed blacks, wanting a separate racial category is tantamount to wanting to move up in the world and be seen as distinct from/better than blacks. When I learned of this argument and when I read the link on Racialicious, I decided not to tell what I think about the issue. But here it is:

On a personal level, I would like a distinct racial category for all mixed people (i.e. one parent is a different race from the other), regardless of what they're mixed with. This is not thinking about benefits conferred on the basis of race or what it would mean in relation to other black people. I'm thinking about what it could mean for me. You're talking about somebody who feels incredibly uncomfortable around white people, especially white men, and alienated by black people, especially black women. So, for me, it's about personal social benefits, not hierarchies or the government. I used to think that maybe if all mixed kids had their own racial group, then we'd do like all the other minority groups do, i.e. create a culture, social and support groups, flock to each other and segregate from everyone else...only this time it wouldn't be alienating.

Unfortunately, I'm starting to see that the reasons why I'd want to be just considered mixed or multiracial wouldn't happen, most likely. I mean, there are social and support groups out there, but I don't think they're everywhere. I feel that the fact that we're not a formally recognized racial group makes it more difficult to find these sources or these people because they get swallowed into or submerged by the dominant, recognized racial groups--they don't stand out. This university is the first place I've been that I've known of a mixed organization, but I'm finding that there are still reasons to be alienated--like not being in the right program, not knowing anyone when you first attend the meetings and everyone else is already in comfortable cliques, being queer probably could still be a problem, and so on.

Frankly, I also just have a personal problem with ever using race to connect to other people. I just do. And I can't get over that. And I think, more than the fact that I'm defensive about what a group of blacks at a Black org meeting would say or do to me, or not fitting in at a Women's org that is full of white women, I feel so awkward in these environments because I'm aware that there is a racial segregation undertone that is, especially with the Black org, actually being celebrated. I think about the fact that I quite naturally have made friends in the past three years who are from African families, mixed black/Asian, mixed white/Asian, just plain ole white, just plain ole black, Southeast Asian and queer, and that's what I like. In fact, one of my white friends and I have a joke that we need to find a Latina or Latino to be our friend.

I understand needing your space because being black or gay can be alienating in this kind of environment, but, for me, being in all-anything environments is alienating. There is just never anywhere I go and feel totally comfortable/at home, not even mixed-race meetings, except home or when I'm having one-on-one time with a friend. I don't understand people who suddenly feel okay just because everybody in the place is of their sex, racial background or sexual orientation. I guess I focus more on the individual.

I've also realized that most mixed people would probably segregate even further than that based on their particular racial mix. Someone can be white and Asian, but that doesn't mean they think it's okay to date blacks or a mixed black person just because they are the product of an interracial relationship--and, honestly, their parents probably would have instilled that in them anyway like my parents wouldn't be happy about my bringing home an Asian or Latino/a. And they still might not be interested in having black or mixed black friends, or their interest might be more on finding other white/Asian kids because of the assumption that they go through exactly what they experience.

My approach to identifying racially is to identify both as mixed and as black/white French. I think the same could and should be done for forms. Identifying simply as multiracial or mixed raises the issue of denying a parent's background just as much as identifying as only black or white, or Asian or white, does, because the word "multiracial" or "mixed" alone doesn't tell you much. As far as mixed blacks trying to escape blackness or become better than blacks...all I can say is I thought this is what blacks already believed was the case. In other words, when black people talk about things like colorism...the issue of having white blood and how that benefits those blacks with white blood is implicit in the discussion. Is the problem having this formally recognized?

For some mixed black kids, I would bet snobbery is the issue. But for others, I think a lot of it is basically the situation I described for myself. And then there are other mixed black kids who don't have an immediate drop of white blood, i.e. mixed black/Asian kids. How does colorism come into play here, or is it just being exotic? With or without the formality, everything and everybody will tell you that at least mixed black/white kids are treated better by most people anyway. We're already a higher rung of people, along with light blacks who aren't mixed.

For mixed blacks who realize that, escaping black identity, at least for that reason, is not really the issue to us. We don't need a separate category to be better than you in the eyes of society nor the eyes of many in the black community even. We do need somewhere to feel totally accepted, a group of people to identify with completely and some kind of group unity or community to feel part of, and we don't exactly have this. Unfortunately, my recent thoughts shared above indicate that some of us, with a separate racial category, still wouldn't have this. This is not to say I've changed my mind on a personal level.

How I Became Aware of Race or Being Mixed
I really couldn't tell you. I have no idea. I bring it up because I've seen Rachel at Rachel's Tavern express interest in how kids become aware of or curious about race, and books about mixed kids sometimes seem interest in exploring these kinds of stories, as well. The first thing I remember is being in pre-school--maybe four years old--and recognizing that almost everyone there was white and I wasn't. If this was my first awareness of race, it was very subconscious. The other kids didn't seem to like me or want to play with me, but I didn't exactly know why. And I think that was when the brainwashing began...when I started wanting white friends more than black friends, thinking whites were more attractive, being mean to dark black girls sometimes and not liking my black mother. In other words, if my parents made any mistakes with me in terms of race, having me in that white pre-school was it. Mixed kids should always be in racially mixed environments.

And, honestly, you could say everyone needs to grow up in such environments, but there are groups of people it's more crucial to than others for identity's sake--first and foremost, mixed and transracially adopted kids; then black, Asian and Latino kids; then white kids.

I really don't know how I came to understand I was mixed. It was definitely earlier on, though, because I remember being in elementary school marking "other" on standardized tests and later seeing that a teacher had erased it and marked "black." Back in the day, you were either white, black or other on standardized tests, at least in the South. Maybe the teacher thought I was saying I was Asian...??? I know I had asked my mother if my father was white a couple times when I was really young, but I don't know around what age.

When he was six, one of my nephews started questioning race. But before that, my sister and her husband had been talking to them about color anyway. I can't recall my parents ever talking to me directly about my color. My sister's husband is black--dark. So, we have a first in our family--a dark-skinned black girl. Though my mother is darker, she's not "dark." Anyway, it seems like the kids sometimes like to compare their skin colors and say what other people's skin color is, another thing my family has never done. Twice, my nephew has indicated to me that he doesn't know or is confused about my color/race...which makes no sense to me. I am light enough to be the lightest person in my law school--and a lot of mixed black kids attend this school--and I have white features...but, to me, it's obvious I'm black, and I think it's obvious to most people.

But when he was six, he asked why my sister--his mother--was black and why I was white. Then probably about six months ago, at age seven, he and his sister were naming everyone's color--he called everyone to that point brown, as they were--and he asked me what color was I. I said I was brown, too, but I guess technically I'm not. My mother responds happily to crap like that, talking about how I look like an "Indian"--which, Native American Indian, no, Asian Indian maybe. She is happy that my sister and I are light-skinned, and she always tried to attribute my problems with black girls growing up to their being jealous of my skin color...which I guess I never really believed. My mother has tried to falsely pin, I feel, a color complex on my niece just because she noticed she's darker than others. It could be true--my mother would probably know better than I do since she's darker.

I would hate to think the brainwashing has started with them. But it probably has. They are always in white environments, except when they're at home. All of my nieces and nephews like me much more than family members of my sisters' spouses, who are all darker. I know some of it is they are not as fun. But I remember once when I was in college and I tutored at a majority black elementary school, I walked down the hall and I heard a little black girl say "her hair is so long!" in amazement. What the hell??? I have never had so many black people like me in my life, either, as when I tutored at that school--all little kids, many of them black girls looking at me with wonder. And it's probably for a sick reason.