Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Outsiders Within

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
-President Obama, Election Day Speech November 2008

"A natural born citizen is a person born with unalienable and undivided allegiance to the United States of America. And this is something the current occupant of the Oval Office never had. "-From The Birthers website


Call me unpatriotic. Call me unAmerican.
But I have to admit, I've had all too many days in my short life when I've been ashamed to be an American. Today was such a day-- as I read the news articles and watched the television coverage announcing that 44th President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama was indeed born on U.S. soil (I didn't realize so many people were doubtful) as proven by his birth certificate. I felt sick watching Donald Trump's statement posted above. Sick thinking that people felt they should be demanding proof from Obama of his U.S. birth to begin with. Sick that it has been framed as something "witheld" and "concealed" from the American public whose right it is to know without a shadow of a doubt that Obama was born in the U.S. It makes me sick that no one is publicly asking why there is even a doubt in people's minds about Obama's birth and citizenship status in the first place...

Before today, I was one of those people that snickered at the foolishness of the "birthers"--so dedicated to getting their hands on Obama's birth certififcate,  questioning the legitimacy of his presidency on the grounds that he was not a natural born citizen.  I believed that efforts of the birthers and their supporters were ultimately ineffectual-- stupid and racist, but really just a blip. But apparently, (and sadly) they held enough sway to finally obtain Obama's birth certificate and make it public. And we're supposed to be "post-racial?" Can you imagine just how much power this small group of "birthers" and supportive voters in states like Iowa have, to be able to sit there and have their petulant, ludicrous demand met? The thought itself makes me shudder.

Today we saw a shining example of the twisted paradox that is the United States of America. In one moment we uplift our "multicultural" history as a part of the Great American Melting Pot (and parade it around the world and actually have the audamndacity to judge other people on how badly they're doing on civil rights and justice) and in another moment we scrutinize the leader of our country-- the praised "American son," the oft-celebrated "embodiment of the melting pot" and demand that he produce cold hard proof that he is indeed a natural born citizen of the United States of America. Obama produced his birth certificate in an attempt to finally shut down the birther's once and for all, and  to perhaps reveal their foolishness and demonstrate that amidst the countless more significant issues facing our world and country today, the matter of a simple piece of paper has consumed so much time and effort. Incredulously, even after the document was released, there are still those that believe the certificate was forged.

Today, was proof  (not that we needed it) to many of us-- people of color, immigrant mothers and fathers, immigrant daughters and sons that our claim to citizenship and belonging is not stable... it is contested and delegitimized at every turn from the seemingly benign inquiries about where we're really from from? to the same insidious hand of white nationalist supremacy that publicly questions the legitimacy of President Obama's black body--his mixed body and it's belonging in this nation.

You don't have to be an avid Obama supporter to recognize the blatant racism that underlies the "birth" issues ( Funny how no one is asking Senator John McCain for his birth certificate. He was born in Panama). This preoccupation with Obama's birth is in no way an isolated issue,-- a hiccup in our post-racial paradise-- but rather, a reminder that rhetoric such as this has been inscribed in the very nation-building history of our country. In my course today we covered mixed Asian-America and discussed the "mixed" experience of simply living on the hyphen, always having to validate the "American" part of your identity with other qualifiers like Native American (this is the one that gets me the most), African American, Japanese American, Mexican American. "American", apparently cannot stand on it's own and histories of exclusion and violence against communities of color as well as outright denial of citizenship time and time again have buttressed this need for constant acts of identification.

Later for the genocide and colonization of indigenous peoples who have long lost any "legitimate" claims to the land we now call the "United States" save for the reservations on which they were (dis)placed. Later for  the millions of Africans who were brought forcibly to the Americas and on whose backs and labor we built a powerful empire. Later for the millions of immigrants  who have claimed America as home and have labored for this country over generations. Later for all those who checked their heritage, histories and languages at the borders in order to access the elusive American dream/myth. Are these people and their descendants not part of the nation? Have they not proven their worth? Apparently not....

Must we be perpetual foreigners? Must our bodies always be markers of our difference? Will we forever be outsiders within?

I guess today, I'm angry and defeated. Tomorrow, I'll pick up the pieces and remember Obama's words--(however, cheesy and full of fuzzy feel good liberal multi-culti rhetoric) back in early 2008 and remember that the struggle continues and that I stand on the shoulders of those before me. Those who painstakingly carved a space for me to exist as a young woman of color in the 21st century. That space was not freely granted or written into the founding laws of this country, but it was fought for and will continue to be fought for as long as racism and injustice are the order of the day.  Tomorrow, I'll pick my torch back up, move forward and resist. 

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ethno-Ambiguo Hostility Syndrome and Other Mixed Symptoms

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.