what’s up with this mixed-race thing?

24May09

I’m out of London again this weekend, gone to another totally random midsize city. But more about that in another post.

I had a long chat over breakfast with the proprietor of the B&B, during the course of which President Obama came up. I think I was saying how nice it was to have a black president, in light of a conversation we’d been having about the people he knew who were scared of groups of black men. (It should be noted he thought this was ridiculous). After I said my bit, he said that he’d been holding back from telling me not to call Obama black. “He’s mixed-race! He’s mixed race!” he insisted.

This is the stereotypical British response to Obama: he’s mixed race. They do not understand why we call Obama black. They’re right, of course, when it comes to the bare facts. But there is something that troubles me about the way they use the expression “mixed race.” I think it’s the fact that they think they’re so progressive because they use the phrase “mixed race” while us backwards Americans opt for the more reductive term “black.” (Clearly they’re unconcerned that Obama sees himself as black, while still acknowledging his white mother and grandmother.) Certainly, our modern-day applications of the “one-drop rule” leave a lot to be desired but I just can’t accept that the British formulation is any more progressive.

Here’s why. First, the Brits don’t get that in the US, being black is often about looking black. All of the negative baggage that comes with being black in the US (driving while black, getting shot by “accident” by the police, being followed in stores) comes from looking African-American. If the old woman walking down the street perceives the black man walking towards her as a threat, it does not matter if his mother is white. Only if you’re so light-skinned as to look white and happen to have hair that doesn’t give the game away might you avoid some of these things. (I’m not mixed so I’m not even 100% convinced that what I just wrote is true.) So while it might be nice to chatter away about “mixed race,” that designation doesn’t mean that these people aren’t being treated as though they’re black.

But second (and maybe this concerns me even more), they’re a little too hasty to call him mixed-race, as though he can’t be black. There’s no room for nuance, there’s no room for his own sense of who he is: he’s mixed race by virtue of the racial makeup of his parents. Full stop. In the hunt for precision, nobody stops to wonder why it matters so much to be precise. Identity is more than a science, more than a formula or an equation, and I find it troubling that his (and that of everybody else with parents of different races) identity has to be what they say it is. And while there’s always a bit of British condescension when they instruct you on this point (as though they’re handing you commandments from heaven), I’m left with my own worries: why the rush to call him something other than black? Is there something wrong with his being black? Is his being black somehow a taint, best whitewashed with “mixed race”?

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4 Responses to “what’s up with this mixed-race thing?”

  1. 1 whitheramp

    yeah, i totally agree with you here. did you discuss this with the guy you were chatting with?

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    Not really…as always, I’m much more eloquent when I’ve had a few hours to mull something over and it seemed a bit tacky to bring it up again this morning. I did stress though that Obama has referred to himself as black and I said that it is a British thing to insist that he’s mixed race as distinct from being black. That’s the real problem, I think. It’s fine to say that he’s biracial, it’s fine to recognize his white mother and his white grandparents, but it’s not fine to bristle when somebody calls him black.

    I also mentioned that virtually every African-American has some measure of white in them, along with a few other scattered points that I’ve forgotten now.

    It was a good conversation, though, because I’ve finally been able to put my finger on why their insistence that he’s mixed race bothers me so much.

  3. “I also mentioned that virtually every African-American has some measure of white in them.”

    This seems like a really key point, at least to me.

  4. 4 Hattie

    At a party in Canada a woman told me, “Canada is no longer a white country. In Calgary we have 18% visible minorities.” Like you, I was so surprised that I could not think of anything to say on the spot about this. Later I found out that “visible minorities” is an official designation used in demographic studies. So if you are an East Indian born and brought up in Canada you are a visible minority but if you are a Pole or a Czech fresh off the boat you are just another white person.


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