"A long time ago I disappeared. One day I was here, the next I was gone. It happened as quickly as all that. One day I was playing schoolgirl games with my sister and our friends in a Roxbury playground. The next, I was a nobody, just a body without a name or a history, sitting beside my mother in the front seat of our car, moving forward on the highway, not stopping. (And when I stopped being nobody, I would become white--white as my white skin, hair, bones allowed. My body would fill in the blanks, tell me who I should become, and I would let it speak for me.) This was back when Boston still came in black and white, yellowing around the edges. You could just make out the beginnings of color: red-eyed teenagers with afros like halos around their faces, whispering something about power and ofay to one another as they shuffled to catch the bus; a man's mocha hand on a woman's pale knee. I disappeared into America, the easiest place to get lost. Dropped off, without a name, without a record. With only the body I traveled in. And a memory of something lost. This is what I remember."
Danzy Senna's semi autobiographical novel Caucasia published in 1998. Without giving too much away (the book is a relevant must read, even twelve years later): set in the turbulence of 1970s Boston, the story is told by Birdie, the daughter of a black scholar/revolutionary and a blue-blood WASP mother who denounces her family and white community to join in the "struggle". Birdie is the youngest of two children. From the beginning it's very clear that Birdie can "pass" as white in a way that her older sister Cole never can and it's this continuous act of Birdie's "passing", becoming invisible and at one point quite literally white, that emerges as one of the central themes in the book.
As someone who has never passed as anything other than black (and maybe a lil' somethin' else from time to time, but always black), I was surprised to find just how much of Birdie's story resonated with me-- the idea that our mixed bodies become at once the canvas and the mirror upon which others cast their perceptions of who we are. At the same time, I kept wanting to get inside Cole's head. I wanted to hear her side of the story-- the story of the sister "left behind"-- the sister who's "black" body could not be erased or so easily forgotten. Instead of feeling like Birdie, I found I felt much more like Cole. We only hear about Cole through Birdie and see her through Birdie's eyes. Birdie seems envious of the ease with which her sister can pass through and into the black community, while she struggles to make her blackness visible. Ultimately, Birdie passes as white, Cole passes as black.
Lately, this idea of passing has been nagging me. Racial ambiguity and passing are big issues in our multi experiences, yet are they prerequisites? How do our current conceptions of passing support the centering of white/non-white identities in the mixed community? Can we think of passing as multidirectional-- not just passing as white, but also the ability to pass as black, Asian, Latin@ or even races/ethnicities we don't identify with at all?
mentioned before, it was the first time I had ever been in a space where multiraciality was so visible and seeing so many other multi folk was something akin to a spiritual experience. Yet many of the organizers and participants were racially ambiguous in a way that I never have been (well not unless you count the first few days after my birth, before the melanin kicked in). And it left me with that heavy "not enough" feeling.
Crazy, huh, to feel like you're not "mixed enough"? All of a sudden I felt like I wasn't "light"enough, my hair not coiled and curled enough to pass myself off as a mixed (black)girl. Granted, this was all in my head and lasted only a few fleeting seconds. Yet reflecting on that moment, I realized there were quite a few things going on:
- Like every other category, there are definite essentializing characteristics and stereoypes associated with multi people. I have, unfortunately, despite all my continued efforts towards counter-socialization, still managed to internalize some of them :( Even though I'm multi, and despite how open other multi people are, I've managed to internalize this idea about what a "text-book" multi person looks like (yes, wildly problematic, I know! I'm workin' on it.)
- White/non-white multi experiences are still inevitably being centered when it comes to who's talking and what's being spoken about in terms of multi issues. And while that experience is really important and should be heard, there are also the voices of non-white multi people out there, as well, that add a rich complexity to the issues already being discussed.
- Someone recently said to me: "I'm not mixed, multi-racial, or whatever...I'm just light-skinned." This declaration got me to thinking about passing and multiness generally, but particularly how it plays out in the black American community. How do we define "mixed-race" or "multi-racial?" Who gets to claim a mixed identity and how is mixedness policed within a given community? Ultimately, who's mixed and who isn't?
Sasha and Malia Obama be considered mixed though their mother isn't "first generation"? What about people with that one Native American great-grandma somewhere down the line? What about people that can claim two different ethnicities, but not necessarily "races" like Japanese and Filipino or Dominican and Puerto Rican? What about transracial and/or transnational adoptees who are monoracial, but have been raised in families of a different race(s)? See? It all starts unravelling... especially when things like the rule of hypodescent, and native blood quantam laws have historically policed how multi people identify.
I've also come across (mostly older) people that think mixed-race applies to just white/non-white individuals or even more specifically bi-racial black/white individuals. I've also heard people say that white ethnics/ethnicities should be included in mixed-race. The response from many is that the distinct experience and history of racialization, marginalization, "othering" and racial inequality faced by people of color and their mixed descendants in the U.S. makes including white ethnicities well... not likely to happen any time soon. The assimilation of white ethnic groups throughout U.S. history into a dominant WHITE group writ large is fascinating stuff and only further highlights the constructedness of race itself.
(la raza cosmica), Brazil and Trinidad.
If race is a social construct and there are whole nations of people that identify as mixed then who, in fact, is mixed? Are we all mixed?...
So, I took us on that wild rambling goose chase to conclude with this:
I don't think we're all mixed. And while, I'm still grappling with all the issues I highlighted above, something still irks me when people say, "Well, we're all mixed-up anyway, so what are all these mixed people whining about?" I believe that there are certain experiences that bind multi people together, but that also differentiate and even divide us as a collective just like any other identity group. In the U.S. as in other countries where there are mixed people, there is a distinct history that weaves itself between the lines and more often than not, that history is not a very happy one. In our desire to embrace all the identities within us and to recognize and not exclude others, multi organizing and efforts to develop a "collective"identity can get quite complicated.
But no one is saying we have to establish some sort of clear cut collective identity as multi people. It's precisely this inability to build a defineable, collective identity, that makes the multi phenomenon so post-modern. If anything the strength in multiness is that it inherently deals with the fluidity and maleability of identities and the shaky foundations of "authenticity" and monolithic identities. It demonstrates that whether we're multiracial or even monoracial we're all a bit like Birdie-- our bodies filling in the facts and fictions, the realities and the myths of who we once were, who we are and who we could become at any given time...