Am I to be cursed forever with becoming
somebody else on the way to myself?
~ Audre Lorde
Despite the twisted logic and lies of eugenics, scientific racism and old school anthropological research, none of us wear the completeness of who we are on our skin, in our eyes, the thickness of our lips, the squareness of our jaw or the texture of our hair. So why does our cultural, racial or ethnic legitimacy and authenticity have to come from how we look? How do we resist the colonizing gaze and decolonize our conceptions of beauty and aesthetics? How can we find strength and empowerment and how can we break static definitions and categories of who we are if we insist on reading our bodies as if they should be a clear and discreet sum of our parts?
We are all marked. And we all take part in marking ourselves and others. Our skin carrying it with it visible and invisible stories of who we are (and aren't). How much control or power do we have over what others "see" and who we feel we are? Are we arbiters of our own appearance and how we choose to express it? Do collective politics trump our individual agency? Oh, the questions.....
Last week in my Mixed Dreams class we discussed the complexities of "keeping up appearances" as multiracial individuals (though, as always, I would argue the same goes for 'monoracial' people). Appearance plays a key role in conceptualizing "mixed" experiences because it is often what marks our "difference." The privileging of the visual is something we can't quite escape and it holds a powerful currency all its own. And indeed, if we were all blind, would race exist at all? The visual is an inextricable part or the world we live in. Yet, while empowering aesthetics of people of color is a critical part of decolonizing our bodies- mixed aesthetics--mixed looks-- are often contested. And in this wonky racist world we live in, some would say rightly so. I'd like to take up two points-- paradoxes--of the "mixed experience"(forgive the generalization): on the one hand how do we critically discuss our racial appearance without always centering it and privileging "passing" and "ambiguity" as the text book markers of multiraciality and second, how do we as mixed people understand who we are and how we choose to present our racial selves as at once a personal choice, but one that is, ultimately, often externally ascribed and politically implicated as well.
Mixed Drag?: Performing Race
Marking our identities is something we all do -- sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Throughout my life and at different points in my personal growth I've marked my gender, my races and cultures-- often through clothing and hair. Froing my hair out to the best of my ability one day, wearing big earrings and blasting reggaeton the next, pressing my hair out or piercing my nose another day.... Some decisions were motivated by trying to fit into the communities that make up who I am, others were experimentations with my mixed looks and how far I could stretch them to encompass all that I am-- what would it take to look "blank enough"? But is "looking something" the same as "being something?" Is there something problematic and appropriative in the process of marking?
Some of my acts of marking and racial performing were attempts to hide what I felt were inadequacies--those gaps in authenticity. Looking back and even now as I continue to grow in my self-identification, I'm embarrassed at the ways in which I inevitably succumbed to essentializing myself and others on the road to de/reconstructing myself. Yet you use the tools you are given... inadequate as they are.... and ultimately, I turned my racial marking into an exercise of empowerment and a grounding source developing my own style and embracing the fact that I can be all those different women. At the same time, I have butressed those empowered identities with the development of a critical consciousness. I would argue that, especially as a mixed-race black women I cannot express my racial identities without a deep understanding of my positionality in the systems and structures that unfortunately still control our lives. But with that understanding in mind, I'd like to think that I can inhabit both the personal and political spaces of my identities....
Oberlin College just finished hosting it's annual Drag Ball-- a celebration and homage to queer identities and performance. Despite the continuing violence inflicted on queer communities, the basic idea that gender is something that is performed and not biological is a commonly accepted one in the world of progressive liberal bubbles.
And while I am often wary of using "queer" as a catch all phrase or a blanket theoretical lens because of its political significance, discussing multiracial identities and queer identities-- particularly when thinking about trans and gender non-conforming folk provides some really provocative insights into racial identities and appearance as well. Ultimately, we all perform our gender, but also our race. But are there different implications for performing our gender and our race? Is the relationship to power different when moving between genders as opposed to moving between racial identities? In class, there was a unanimous discomfort with the idea that race can basically be a choice. While empowering for many, if anyone can be whatever race they feel like, how do you respond to a person of color saying they are white or a white person saying they are a person of color? There were some interesting ethical concerns I couldn't quite put my finger on underlying this discomfort that weren't present in discussions of gender that suggest some distinct considerations when it comes to thinking about race and gender.
Racial Spies & Imposters: On Passing & Authenticity
There's an overwhelming amount of scholarship on multiraciality and racial ambiguity. There's also a weird pathology that accompanies these discussions- remnants of hybrid degeneracy and marginal man stereotypes of multiracial people in U.S. history. While these are important issues, I often wonder how much we limit ourselves by constantly reducing mixed identities to preoccupations with passing and ambiguity. I don't want to downplay the fact that for many of us this is cause for a great deal of anxiety about place and belonging. Feelings of inadequacy or feeling like a racial spy or even an imposter aren't healthy for anyone's identity formation. There are also so many external factors that police those lines. The gatekeepers are often times, members of our own communities. Yet instead of thinking about multiracial identity as the identity for the racially ambiguous how can we redirect the lens and challenge ourselves and others to look at the diversity of appearances and yes, ambiguity that exist in all races. That redirection would perhaps also lend itself to creating safer more comfortable spaces for mixed folk because it would destabilize the farce of authenticity. I don't know how many mixed people feel this way, but I know that I was often consumed with the search for authenticity. And it wasn't until I understood that authenticity did not truly exist, that I was able to create and find spaces for myself and my identity. I also accessed my other identities through coming to a profound understanding of the mixedness of my blackness- my most visible and political racial identity. We all have a different process, but multiracial identification often comes under attack because it is conceptualized as simply the opposite of "monoracial"-- specifically monoracial communities of color-- and in doing so it falls into the same trap of essentialism and from the outside looks suspiciously separatist. That dichotomy "multiracial"/"monoracial" is itself a farce and one that we need to critically debunk. The debunking, however, does not have to come at the expense of silencing mixed identities. Instead, I'd like to think that it would strengthen and ground mixed identification.
Decolonizing Mixed Looks: The Politics of Mixed Aesthetics
One of the dangers of blindly kumbayahing ourselves into a multiracial/post-racial paradise is that we will fail to adequately heal the scars of internalized racism. Contrary to popular belief, mixed folk have not escaped unscathed by any stretch of the imagination. As a mixed black woman, I have inherited just as many complexes about my blackness and my mixedness. Our bodies and minds need to go through that important process of decolonizing. I use "decolonizing" before "empowerment" or "pride" because while other marginalized racial identities are deemed inferior in the US's color schema, multiracal identities (I would argue some more so than others-- crazy to think about a heirarchy or pigmentocracy within multiraciality) are increasingly praised. And look, that can and does mess with your head a little. But as I find myself saying all too often: whatever you do, don't drink the Kool-Aid! Because anyone can assert racial pride-- case in point our resident white supremacists. Acts of decolonizing are related to power and privilege and require a conscious politics of resistance and empowerment.
This is where knowledge of history and a political education becomes incredibly important on our road to a radical mixedhood. And I'm starting to get a tad defensive. But I can't fight alone. The multiracial collective is accused of being individualistic and even ahistorical. It is seen as having no concern for the needs of other communities or standing in solidarity with other communities of color. It's all about our personal right to choose and to hell with everyone else (that sentiment came up a lot during the fight for multiracial identification on the 2000 Census.) But we must remember, the minute multiracial people and families decided to mobilize for state recognition was the moment that mixed-race became a political identity. As such, that comes with a different set of implications that demand we go further than the personal. What we all could do well remembering is that before we could choose multiple boxes, we were all and still are part of the other "boxes." We can't blame civil rights organizations and advocates for getting a little territorial. While we're over here celebrating our "right to choose" we've got things like racial profiling and the prison industrial complex destroying communities. We can't put the cart before the horse. I want to obliterate all these racial boundaries just as much as the next one, but we're still living in a world where these racialized identities matter and hold political significance.
Will we ever wake up from the sleep we've lulled ourselves into over the years? I refuse to collude with oppressive systems and structures. But will we ever be able to collectively create proud, politicized, anti-racist, anti-oppressive multiracial identities?
And even as I continue to use "we," I sometimes find myself questioning whether there is a "we" to speak of at all.