Unfixing the race

Twenty years or so ago, I tried to write a book about multiracial identity and media called Mixed Messages. For a variety of reasons, the book never happened. But one piece of the project did wind up in print as a journal article on Eminem . . . and there was a lecture that went through several different iterations for a few years. The version below is from a visit to the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University in November 2004 (renewed thanks to Jennifer Daryl Slack, who was kind enough to invite me and my then-partner, Margaret Werry, to the Upper Peninsula to both give talks).

One thing that’s not included below are the images that went with the talk. I rarely use slides when I lecture but, in most of its variations, this talk always came with images. And I only mention these here because the image-less text loses at least two visual allusions/jokes that (rightly or wrongly) I’m still fond of. If you want a sense of what you’re missing, when you reach the word “commonsensical” in section IV, you should imagine seeing an image of Thomas Jefferson flash before you. And, shortly after, when you reach the line about “a not-so-distant cousin,” please think of Dennis Rodman.

I. July 1993. I’m sitting in an auditorium in California with about a hundred other people. The traditional end-of-conference bitchfest/business meeting is already in full swing when Mr. Gadfly — the man who’s spent five days ranting and fuming and pissing people off at every panel he’s attended — grabs the floor for one final burst of bile and venom. “Who the hell are you people?” he asks, “And what gives you the right to talk about other people’s cultures as if you were natives?” In particular, he’s berating white academics for making authoritative pronouncements about authenticity in rap music. Not having heard the papers that are the focal point of Mr. Gadfly’s diatribe, I don’t know whether they really deserve such scorn, but I’m willing to accept at least part of the underlying point: namely, that who and what someone is affects both their ability to speak with authority on a given subject and the value of what they’re trying to say. At the very least, scholars who are quick to claim that it matters whether the most prominent public face of hip-hop is Vanilla Ice or Chuck D should also be savvy enough to recognize that similar questions matter when it comes to the public face of hip-hop studies — and that the white appropriation of black culture is made possible, not just by artists and industry executives, but by fans and critics as well.

Mr. Gadfly’s proposed solution, however, is a bit harder to swallow. He claims that speakers have a moral obligation to preface their papers with detailed explanations of who they are, where they come from, and what gives them the right to speak about their subject matter. It doesn’t help his case that he’s huffed and puffed his way through the conference in almost complete anonymity because he hasn’t bothered to wear his nametag. Or that he, too, is a white member of the professional managerial class who feels qualified to police the boundaries of hip-hop authenticity. Even if we forgive Mr. Gadfly for talking the talk better than he walks the walk, however, the underlying assumption behind his “talk” remains deeply flawed. For while it’s true that one’s identity and experience can have a significant impact on the value of one’s message, this relationship is rarely (if ever) a simple one: being black (or queer or male or Lutheran, etc.) doesn’t guarantee that one’s claims about one’s own community are accurate or insightful, nor does being an outsider necessarily negate any and all claims that one might make about other people’s communities.

I start with this particular anecdote because it raises a number of important questions about identity, representation, and authority: questions that I want to spend most of my talk reframing, complicating, and unsettling. More specifically, I start here precisely because I don’t want to begin with an autobiographical prologue that attempts to bestow a magical mantle of authority on my words. Who I am does matter to my argument . . . but not necessarily in the way that you might expect. If nothing else, given past experience, really explaining who I am — even just the bits that are relevant here — takes far too much time to be a mere prologue: in fact, that story is actually a large part of the point. But it’s not the place to start.

Instead, I want to begin my main argument with a quote from Stuart Hall describing the work on race and racism done at the CCCS at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s:

We had to develop a methodology that taught us to attend, not only to what people said about race but . . . to what people could not say about race. It was the silences that told us something; it was what wasn’t there. It was what was invisible, what couldn’t be put into frame, what was apparently unsayable that we needed to attend to.

As Hall explains it, the Birmingham School took this particular turn because they had run up against a dead end in their work on race: namely, they came to recognize that analyzing media texts so as to identify and critique misrepresentations of people of color was simply not an effective way to struggle against racism.

The problem here is not that media representations didn’t matter in the UK then — or that they don’t matter in the US today. On the contrary, I would argue that as long as people of color continue to be depicted on a regular basis as dangerous criminals who pose a grave threat to the existing social order, as exotic primitives to be feared, despised, and controlled, as helpless children dependent on charity from the technologically superior West, or as fetishized objects readily available for appropriation by white America — as long as images like these remain in active and heavy circulation, it’s vitally important that cultural critics continue to identify and critique them . . .

. . . but it’s also not enough. One brief example of the shortcomings involved in simply replacing negative images of people of color with positive ones can be found in The Cosby Show. The debates over the racial politics of Cosby are too broad and multi-faceted for me to do full justice to them here, but I think it’s fairly easy to recognize that even while Cosby presented a far more uplifting public image of blacks than had regularly been found on network television beforehand, these “kinder, gentler” fictions didn’t translate very well into “kinder, gentler” living conditions for real black people. In fact, as many critics have argued, the widespread popularity of Cosby may actually have made it easier for white America to believe that the Huxtables’ upscale lifestyle was more typical of black experience than was really the case — and thus that material differences between white and black America either didn’t exist or could safely be blamed on lower class blacks who “failed” to live up to the ideal presented by Cliff and Claire and their designer-sweater-wearing children. Whatever real gains Cosby represented with respect to racial politics — and I don’t want to deny these — those gains didn’t go very far towards eliminating actual racism.

And so, like Hall, I want to argue that understanding — and fighting against — racism as it currently exists and operates in the US requires us to look not only at what is being said about race, but also at the sizable gaps and silences in contemporary public discourse on the subject. There are, of course, more of these blind spots than I can do justice to today. The one I’m most concerned with here is the one that obscures the very old, very common phenomenon of racial mixing, and that works to transform that phenomenon into something novel, deviant, and invisible.

The nature of blind spots, of course, is that when you try to look at them directly, they slip back to the edges of your field of vision. And so I’m going to approach the subject of racial mixing from several directions at once, in the hopes that a series of different takes on the subject will help to make it less elusive and more visible. A brief map of the major pieces of my argument looks something like this:

First, I briefly discuss the notion of race as a social construct, with a particular eye on how the construction of race in the US works to maintain the powerful fiction that “race” describes a discrete set of non-overlapping identities and communities. Second, I turn to the ways that mainstream media discourses routinely resist and reject the possibility of racial mixing of any sort — even when (or perhaps, especially when) it’s at its most visible. Third, I return to the question of personal history to help give a face to at least one form of racial identity that can’t be readily acknowledged (much less accepted) in contemporary US culture. Fourth, I discuss the ways that public policy, especially as manifested in the US Census, works to rein in and/or erase these “aberrant” forms of identity, even while apparently embracing them. Fifth, and finally, I’ll offer some tentative — emphasis on “tentative” — suggestions on how we might productively reconstruct our notions of race and racial identity in more progressive and democratic ways — ways that, hopefully, will help us move closer to a world without racism.

II. For decades now, cultural critics and natural scientists alike have argued that the racial categories into which the population is divided are, in fact, social constructs. As natural as racial categories might seem, they are always conjuncturally specific, shifting in significant ways from one historical moment (or one cultural context) to the next. This thing we call “race” is an invention, a construct, a Frankenstein’s monster: an artificial grid laid over the natural world, rather than a scientific truth dwelling within it.

The existence and persistence of racial categories is perhaps best explained, not by biology or genetics, but by a concept known as articulation: the process by which otherwise unrelated phenomena — practices, beliefs, texts, social groups, etc. — come to be linked together in a seemingly natural way. Stuart Hall describes articulation using the analogy of a tractor-trailer truck, which the British refer to as:

an “articulated” lorry (truck): a lorry where the front (cab) and back (trailer) can, but need not necessarily, be connected to one another. The two parts are connected to each other, but through a specific linkage, that can be broken. An articulation is thus the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions. It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute and essential for all time.

Applied to race, what articulation tells us is that the connection between a given population group and a particular racial label is artificial, rather than natural. While there are real biological and genetic differences between individual people, there is no necessary reason why those differences have to matter in ways that divide the world’s population into (allegedly) natural racial or ethnic groups.

And, in fact, actual forms of racial categorization vary dramatically across cultures. For example, in the US, the label “black” is generally understood to describe people whose ancestry can be traced to Africa, but the “same” category in South Africa is much narrower (it doesn’t include people of mixed African and European ancestry (who are seen as “colored”)), while in Britain, the “same” category is much broader (it also includes people with ancestral ties to non-African parts of the former empire, including Pakistan and China). One can find similar variations in racial categorization over time as well. Terms like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” used to be more prominent in US culture, reflecting an understanding of racial “mixing” comparable to that embodied in the South African use of “colored.” Moreover, early immigrants to the US from certain parts of Europe (most notably, Ireland and Italy) were often seen to belong to their own racial groups, and only subsequently came to be assimilated into US-centered constructions of whiteness. What these examples help to demonstrate is that the various ways people conceive of “race” are rooted, not in nature, but in culture: if race were purely a natural phenomenon, there wouldn’t be such variation across space and time in people’s understanding of racial difference.

While the idea that race is a social, rather than a natural, phenomenon is generally well accepted by scholars across the disciplinary spectrum who study race, even a casual examination of the public discourse around race in the US demonstrates that the constructionist view isn’t widely recognized at all by the general population. We simply haven’t come that far yet. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this gap (at least given the time available) is to note that even people who do acknowledge that race is a social construct often have an extraordinarily difficult time following through on the broader implications of that idea. For example, a few years ago, Newsweek ran a cover feature on “science, politics, and racial identity” that included both a detailed scientific explanation of the constructionist view and an extended discussion of the then ongoing efforts to add a “multiracial” category to the US Census. In spite of all this, however, the magazine insisted on framing the issues at hand — and the people involved — strictly in terms of “black” and “white.” Most striking here was the opinion poll on support for that “multiracial” census category: a poll that blatantly ignored the question’s main implications by simply dividing the survey population into two homogenous groups, black and white.

A similar example comes from the Village Voice, which published a “Racism Quotient questionnaire” in 1992 that began with something I had never seen before: the usual demographic question about racial identity, but with the novel instruction to “check as many as apply.” Having acknowledged that racial identity is more complicated than “check one box only,” however, the questionnaire then went on to assume that you had, in fact, only checked one box. Question #4, for instance, began: “A person of a different ethnic background is elected to a high office instead of a candidate of your ethnicity . . .” Question #8: “A couple of your own race in your neighborhood decides to adopt a child of a different race . . .” The survey had a vast host of problems (not the least of which being that its efforts to tease out people’s racial prejudices were about as subtle as a Klan rally in Harlem), but the most significant for my purposes here is that anyone who actually did “check as many as apply” simply had no way to respond to most of the questions meaningfully. To compound the problem, when the Voice published a follow-up article discussing the results of the questionnaire, the demographic data actually contained fewer racial and ethnic categories than had been present in the original survey — none of which reflected any of the possible identities that would have resulted from multiple box checking.

In theory, of course, what the constructionist view of race should do is make it possible (which is not to say “easy”) to get beyond the “check one box only” mentality. If race is a biological fiction, then how might we revise and rewrite that fiction in order to produce a more progressive view of race and racial difference? How might we rearticulate our notions of race and racial identity in order to more effectively combat racism? But when even the folks who explicitly acknowledge that race is socially constructed still wind up discussing the existing racial categories as if they were discrete, monolithic, mutually exclusive phenomena, there’s not much space left in which to imagine other, less rigidly fixed forms of racial identity.

III. The prevailing fear of miscegenation in the US today extends well beyond the realms of biology and genetics: it’s also a powerful cultural taboo. It affects where we live, how we dress, how we walk, and how we talk. And it’s a taboo that plays itself out across the mediascape as well. With this in mind, I want to turn my attention to three prominent media figures who could — and should — be well-positioned to help construct a more fluid vision of what race might look like . . . but, so far anyway, the dominant public discourses around these figures have failed to produce such a vision.

The first of these is rap superstar Eminem, who, as many of you know already, has been at the center of a small moral panic or three over the hateful, violent, misogynistic, homophobic nature of his music. I’m not interested in absolving Eminem from all criticism on these fronts — after all, there’s no reason to believe that, deep down, he’s really just a misunderstood little ragamuffin — but I do want to argue that what matters about the controversy surrounding Eminem is not what it reveals, but what it conceals.

More specifically, the moral panic over Eminem, like any “good” moral panic, involves a displaced anxiety in the culture: one where the transgressions that are the focal point of that anxiety are too disturbing, too unsettling, too threatening to be spoken out loud. In Eminem’s case, those silent anxieties are centered on fears of cultural miscegenation. There’s a longer version of this argument that I don’t have time to deliver in full here, but let me touch briefly on the three major pieces of it.

First, we need to recognize the existence of a pernicious double standard across racial lines, where mainstream rock, folk, and country musicians have much more liberty to write and perform violently aggressive, sexually provocative, and/or politically strident music than do artists working in genres like dance or rap. For example, John Lennon could sing “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” Johnny Cash could boast that he’d “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Bruce Springsteen could undertake a murderous rampage across Nebraska in which he killed “ten innocent people” with a sawed-off shotgun. And none of these musical crimes sparked significant waves of moral outrage from the public at large. Rappers like Eminem who dare to perform similar material, however, are routinely criticized, condemned, and censored for fictional crimes that are generally treated as acceptable exercises of creative license when the artists behind them work within “white” musical genres.

Second, when it comes to his art, Eminem performs his whiteness in ways that pose a serious threat to the dominant racial order. It’s not that he’s a white man making “black” music — in and of itself, that’s a practice that white America has been willing to embrace (albeit gingerly at times) for more than a century — but that he does so with an almost unthinkable humility about his race. Rather than being something he wears as a badge of pride or a marker of status, whiteness is something that Eminem accurately recognizes was a liability to his entree into the field . . . and the idea that “whiteness” might be a liability (and that people of color need to be acknowledged as formidable and legitimate cultural gatekeepers) is a very hard pill for white America to swallow. Put a slightly different way, Eminem’s particular performance of cultural miscegenation poses a dramatic challenge to the status quo precisely because his personal investment in rap is readily seen as one rooted in love rather than theft.

Third, Eminem becomes the focal point of a moral panic, not because he violates cultural norms, but because he embodies them all too visibly. On the one hand, the violence and misogyny and homophobia in Eminem’s music that have drawn the wrath of outraged commentators on both the left and the right are, sadly, all-American values with a long and ignoble history behind them. This doesn’t excuse Eminem for helping to perpetuate those values, of course, but his hyper-masculine lyrical excesses may actually be the most normative thing about him. After all, the “clean” versions of Eminem’s albums that Kmart and Wal-mart (those stalwart retail institutions of middle America) were willing to sell didn’t delete the misogyny and homophobia: just the drug references and profanities. Mainstream US culture has a long way to go before it can hold Eminem’s feet to the fire on this front without hypocrisy.

Perhaps more crucially, as critics from Eric Lott to bell hooks, Jim Goad to Donna Dickerson, have noted before me, the vision of itself that mainstream white America works overtime to perpetuate is a vision largely devoid of hate, violence, and prejudice. White America generally ignores or dismisses such attitudes, behaviors, and practices when they manifest themselves in its own ranks, while actively projecting them onto a broad range of marginalized Others: black bodies, brown bodies, lower class bodies, foreign bodies, etc. At best — if you can call it that — when white America has to face its own warts and blemishes, it tries to find ways to explain them away as exceptions, as aberrations, as deviations . . . anything but as a common and pervasive aspect of white America’s normal condition.

Historically speaking, this sort of deviance from the heart of whiteness has been met in three different ways: the race traitor in question has been forcefully reassimilated, rendered invisible, and/or demonized. And so, arguably, Eminem’s real crime is that he’s too popular to be ignored, too brash to be pulled back into the bosom of unthreatening whiteness — and so he must be branded as a demon, a deviant, a bête noire (who’s all the more bête for “failing” to be noire) — and then the demon must be cast out, lest his racially blurred performance come to be accepted as a viable option for other members of the white club.

Whereas Eminem is a white man working in a black-dominated media formation, Spike Lee is a black man working in a white-dominated media formation: i.e., mainstream feature films. What most interests me about Lee are the ways that he continues to work squarely within existing systems of racial identity and categorization, even as he manages to challenge the ways that such systems operate. On the one hand, Lee’s films are notable — and laudable — for the breadth and complexity with which they depict black American life, thought, culture, and politics. All too frequently, mainstream Hollywood’s efforts to address racial diversity amount to mere tokenism, where a lone black character is placed into an otherwise all-white film, with the expectation that he or she can stand in for “the” black community, as if black America were small, simple, and/or homogenous enough to be adequately represented by any one person. What Lee regularly gives us, however, is a diverse and multi-faceted vision of black America: one consisting of a broad range of backgrounds, aspirations, politics, and belief systems, and where the crucial tensions in his films regularly revolve around the conflicts and disagreements within and between black communities.

Perhaps paradoxically, though, even in films that address the underexamined questions of colorism and interracial relationships in relatively complex and open-ended ways, Lee is largely unable (or unwilling) to deal very well with the question of multiracial identity. In School Daze, for instance, the conflict between the light-skinned Wannabes and the dark-skinned Jigaboos is framed entirely as a struggle over who can (and can’t) legitimately lay claim to “authentic” blackness: the possibility that other shades of identity might exist between “black” and “white,” however, is one that Lee refuses even to acknowledge. Similarly, in Jungle Fever, Flipper’s penchant for light-skinned women is presented as a problem when the object of his desire is the white Angie, but completely acceptable with respect to his equally light-skinned wife Drew — and the “problem” that Drew’s mixed-race parentage poses for this sort of racial segregation is completely evaded by the script’s straightforward, never-questioned assertion that Drew is black. Lee clearly wants to use his films to complexify public images of blackness and this, I believe, is a Very Good Thing. At the same time, however, he also very much wants to hold onto blackness as an unassailable category of identity: a gesture that strikes me as highly problematic.

Comedian Chris Rock has a seemingly ever-expanding schtick on how he knows that the world has gone completely crazy. Germany doesn’t want to go to war. France accuses the US of arrogance. Etc. As far as I’ve been able to trace it, however, this routine began as nothing more than a one-liner: “End of the world: best rapper’s white, best golfer’s black.” The rapper in question, of course, is Eminem (who I’ve talked about already). And the golfer, perhaps equally obviously, is Tiger Woods . . .

. . . except that Woods is not black. Or, more precisely, if Woods is black, it’s in spite of his own efforts to create and maintain an alternate racial identity for himself. The initial media attention that grew out of Woods’ stunning early success as a professional golfer was clearly magnified because of his race: a white wunderkind of Woods’ talent would have become a celebrity within the world of golf, but probably not a household name for anyone else. Early on in that fanfare, however, when Woods was being touted as the “great black hope” of golf, he went on Oprah and claimed to be “Cablinasian”: a label he had invented to describe the “Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian” melange resulting from being the child of two mixed-race parents . . . and a label that the mainstream media simply ignored in the end, choosing instead to present Woods unambiguously as a black golfer. There is, it seems, enough room in the public imaginary to acknowledge that Woods’ mother isn’t black (though, symptomatically, she tends to get presented simply as Thai, rather than as Thai-Chinese-white), but not enough room for Woods to be anything but black.

IV. What’s black and white and red all over? As a child, I knew lots of answers to this riddle. A newspaper. A zebra with diaper rash. A sunburned penguin. A nun with a spear through her forehead. And so on. An equally appropriate answer to that question, however, would be me. On both sides of my family tree, one can find multiple traces of African, European, and Native American ancestry. And while the vast majority of my family identify themselves as “black,” for as long as I can recall having any racial self-consciousness, I’ve thought of myself as “mixed” and have taken a perverse (if occasionally angry) pleasure in making messes of forms that ask me to give my race and to “check one box only.”

I don’t recall the precise context in which the subject came up, but I do remember standing in our dining room, somewhere around the age of eight, while my parents informed me in no uncertain terms that we were black. And I remember looking at them, and then looking at my pink skin, and looking back at them to make sure they weren’t pulling my leg, and becoming very confused. For while I don’t recall being particularly aware of race prior to this time, I must have already acquired some understanding of a relationship between skin color and racial categorization: an understanding that left me unable to grasp how my family could simultaneously be pink-skinned and black.

Presumably, part of what made it so hard for me to accept our blackness was that we didn’t seem to resemble any of the other people I saw who bore the label. My mother, for instance, is actually a shade pinker than I am in skin tone, while my father’s straight jet-black hair, slightly olive complexion, and first name (Orlando) have often led people to assume (incorrectly) that he was Latino.

In spite of my mottled pedigree, however, when I checked “other” on my college applications, my father was outraged that I would deny my heritage. From where I sat, though, the only thing that I was denying was the one-drop rule: the racist assumption — still with us today and largely unquestioned — that mixing white “blood” with any “other” kind somehow “taints” the stuff that comes from Europe, with the end product being little black babies, little brown babies, little mulatto babies, but never, ever little white babies.

On one level, of course, this is a terribly banal observa­tion. So-called “mixed” couples have been having multi-ethnic babies for centuries, and I’m not the first person to rail against the perverse hierarchy that places whiteness at the top and views all other races as “deviations” or “degenerations” from the unsullied pinnacle of white normativity. Nevertheless, for an idea that seems so commonsensical, an inordinate number of people seem to have a great deal of trouble acknowledging it.

In ordinary conversation, for example, when the question of my racial identity comes up, “mixed” is rarely an answer that satisfies people who haven’t heard my story before, and I’m often asked follow-up questions that attempt to reel my unconventional self-identification back into the realm of “normal” racial categorization. Which of my parents, people will ask, is the black one? What are the relevant fractions and proportions that would supposedly help to explain what race I “mostly” am? Even if I were to accept that my racial identity could be adequately expressed as a string of genetic percentages — which I don’t — my family tree has too many holes in it for me to even begin to guess what those numbers might actually be . . . or who else in the world I might legitimately be able to claim as a not-so-distant cousin.

As if all of the above weren’t complicated enough, there’s the case of my mother, who, all her life, has thought of herself as black. Partially, this is a byproduct of the very tiny town in rural North Carolina where she was raised. Living in a community that small, especially in the South, it doesn’t matter much what you look like or what your skin color is: everyone knows who and what you are, racially speaking. So my mother grew up being seen by the community around her as black — and, her pink skin notwithstanding, being discriminated against because of it. In particular, she recalls having to use the “colored” window at the town’s general store in order to be waited on — at least whenever there was a bus in town and the local white community’s reputation for “keeping the Negroes in their place” was potentially on the line.

About a decade ago, however, relatives doing genealogical research on my mother’s side of the family discovered that much of the allegedly black population from that part of the country are actually descendants of the Meherrin Indian tribe. Our best guess as to how this particular bit of mistaken identification came about is that the Meherrins, like other Native Americans, were called “colored” at a point in US history when that term referred to non-whiteness of any sort. Somewhere along the line, however, the link to the Meherrins was lost, but the “colored” label stuck — and was interpreted in the way that it eventually came to be most widely understood in the US: as a simple synonym for “black.”

All of which makes for a very convenient example when I attempt to explain the social construction of race to my students: my mother, who “looks white” (whatever that may mean) but has always understood herself to be “black,” discovers in her 50s that, biologically speaking (whatever that may mean), she may actually be more Native American than anything else. Yet she can’t (and shouldn’t) simply cast off half a century of lived experience overnight and suddenly understand herself as a Meherrin Indian.

Unfortunately, however, it’s often equally hard for people who hear my story to cast off their lifelong understanding of race as a discrete set of mutually exclusive categories. Racial mixing remains one of the great open secrets of US culture, and on those rare occasions when the silence around it is broken, the resulting noise typically suggests that racial mixing is an extraordinarily rare or new phenomenon (even though it’s neither), or that it’s a highly undesirable — and even tragic — practice (which it also isn’t). And so I find, with stunning regularity, that many people who hear my story are eager to try and “fix” my racial identity: both in the sense that they want to pin me down to a single category, and in the sense that they want to repair — at least discursively — the “mistake” of my mottled heritage.

For instance, when I use the story of my mother to help illustrate the constructionist view to students in my “Communication and Cultural Diversity” class, students frequently tell me that it suddenly makes sense to them why I would teach such a course once they “learn” that I’m “really” black. On the flip side, I’ve heard well-meaning colleagues in my department at USF — who also know my story — lament that we only one have one person of color on the faculty . . . and since it’s clear that they mean the woman who has the office next door to mine, I have to assume that, in their eyes anyway, I must “really” be white.

All of which might be nothing more than a source of mild amusement if it weren’t for the fact that race is a form of difference that continues to make a huge difference in the material circumstances of people’s daily lives. In a world without racism, after all, the biological fictions of race that underlie everyday discourse and public policy would be of little consequence. The fact that racism — i.e., systematic inequities in the distribution of resources, power, and justice across racial groups — continues to thrive stands as evidence that the existing fictions of race are sorely in need of change.

V. To borrow a line from Margaret’s talk on Friday, public “policy can be read diagnostically.” In particular, when it comes to matters of race and ethnicity, public policy is an extraordinarily blunt instrument — which makes it much better suited for maintaining and reinforcing existing forms of racism than it is for eliminating racism or repairing the damage that it’s done. The particular example of too-blunt racial policy that I want to discuss here is the US Census: more specifically, the failed movement to have a “multiracial” category added to the official list of choices for the 2000 census. There are at least two obvious benefits to inscribing a “multiracial” classification into governmental practices and policies. The first is the formal recognition of the simple fact that men and women from “different” races can get together and make babies who — biologically, genetically, and in all the other “scientific” and “natural” ways that allegedly count — are bi- (if not multi-) racial. While the fact of such intermingling is hardly a newsflash, prior to 2000, our official system of classifying the races simply denied the possibility. You were black or white or Asian, and so on. These officially-imposed categories don’t merely describe race as we live it: they help to shape the ways we think of race in the first place. So that same issue of Newsweek I cited earlier, in reporting on the push for a “multiracial” census category, argues that this movement “really” began with the 1967 decision by the US Supreme Court that struck down the last of the country’s anti-miscegenation laws — and the coming of age of all the mixed-race babies born in the wake of that decision. As if, for centuries, the races had patiently waited to intermingle until the Supreme Court finally said it was okay to do so.

The other obvious benefit of the “multiracial” category is that it strikes a powerful blow against the one-drop rule: that extra box not only says that a child born of a white mother and a black father (or vice versa) shouldn’t be forced to identify him- or herself using a simple binary equation, but it also says that the traditional answer to that dilemma — i.e., you can be black if you’re part white, but you can’t be white if you’re part black — is based on the false assumption that one must be either one or the other.

Nevertheless, while I think the introduction of a “multiracial” category has much to recommend it, I also think it ultimately creates more problems than it solves. For starters, while such a category acknowledges the reality of racial blending, it’s a pathetically empty signifier. Not only does it fail to distinguish between children of “simple” biracial couples, otherwise all-white folks who can point to a Cherokee great-great-great-great-grandmother, and people (such as myself) with incredibly tangled roots from several different categories, but it also fails to bring such disparate populations together in recognizable ways. Lisa Jones — daughter of Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones, and an exemplary cultural critic in her own right — puts the point most bluntly when she asks whether the multiracial movement is “just one more polite, largely academic game of identity hopscotch folks are playing while Los Angeles burns?”

Beyond that, given the lengthy — if not always joyous — history of interracial unions in this country, it’s reasonable to ask who couldn’t call themselves “multiracial”: between 70-90% of the African American population, for instance, can legitimately claim to have European ancestry. A category so open-ended and flexible as to describe virtually anyone and everyone is only useful if what it’s really aiming for is the ultimate erasure of racial categorization altogether. Whatever merit there may be to such a goal, eliminating racialized thinking completely doesn’t appear to be on the agenda for the “multiracial” movement as a whole.

I think a more plausible reading of this movement can be found in the fears expressed by many people of color that tacking a “multiracial” box onto the end of the existing list is simply a way for the white majority to undercut “the browning of America,” and that such an approach to contemporary racial politics ultimately benefits white America the most. A growing population of “multiracial”-identified people will most likely only come into being at the expense of those groups that currently fall under the headings of “black,” “Latin@,” “Native American,” and “Asian” — with the end result being a class of “colored” people (in the South African sense of the term) who enjoy social, cultural, and political advantages that their darker, “unmixed” cousins do not. Once again, Lisa Jones raises important concerns here when she wonders whether the “multiracial” movement is primarily about “white parents of mixed-race bambinos bartering for a safety zone for their café au lait kids”: a scenario in which the move away from defining oneself as black (or whatever) is liable to reinforce the problematic notion that whiteness — even when it’s measured in fractions — marks the identity that we should all aspire to.

VI. As I noted earlier, the constructionist view of race has not exactly been embraced by the general public. Nonetheless, I think that this view has traveled just widely enough that we can — and should — begin thinking about some of its further ramifications. In particular, what I want to do in moving towards a conclusion is to explore some possible answers to the “what next?” question. Given that race is a historical invention, it should be possible (which, again, is not to say “easy”) to reinvent it, to reconstruct it, to rebuild it in ways that move us further away from racism. I certainly don’t have simple solutions to these problems — one can’t simply undo centuries of racialized thinking in a a single book (much less a 45-minute talk) — but I do want to put two possibilities on the table for consideration: one that’s been tried in Britain, and one admittedly unusual idea that I think might actually get us somewhere better than where we are now.

The first of these possibilities revolves around the redefinition of race as a political (rather than a biological) category. Stuart Hall notes

that people of diverse societies and cultures would all come to Britain in the fifties and sixties as part of that huge wave of migration from the Caribbean, East Africa, the Asian subcontinent, Pakistan, Bangladesh, from different parts of India, and all identified themselves politically as Black. What they said was “We may be different actual color skins but vis-a-vis the social system, vis-a-vis the political system of racism, there is more that unites us than what divides us.”

The most obvious benefit of such a strategy is that it undermines the status quo’s ability to play divide-and-conquer games with different racial and ethnic populations. In such a scenario, the “more-oppressed-than-thou” squabbles that too often comprise the extent of the dialogue between different marginalized groups can be set aside in the name of a strategic alliance against a more important enemy: institutionalized racism.

There have been similar — if less successful — efforts to rethink US “blackness” along comparable lines. Writing in the Village Voice a little more than a decade ago, for instance, Joe Wood argued that:

We need a clearly articulated theory of coalition — political, economic, and cultural coalition across biological, and class, and cultural lines — towards the liberation of African and other marginal peoples. Such a theory would be a new “black” objectivism, a grand theory that would include an expansive and progressive definition of “blackness,” one to describe African folk who choose “blackness,” as well as any fellow travelers. . . . Next go-round we’ll drop Clarence Thomas quickly, and with theoretical confidence. And we won’t confuse questions about Michael Jackson’s African authenticity with the nuts and bolts concerns — his political loyalty, his “blackness.” . . . If “black” the term is to be of any use, it ought to mean something, and not any old African thing.

Wood’s idealism notwithstanding, however, I think the more plausible vision of how such a rearticulation of “blackness” might play out in the US comes from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Towards the end of the film, after Sal’s Pizzeria has been torched, the predominantly black crowd turns to the Korean-American-owned grocery across the street and makes angry noises about the need to “clean house.”

The grocer, however, swiftly and passionately proclaims that he, too, is black. And while, in the fictional context of the film, this tactic actually works and his store is spared, Lee isn’t pointing to a plausible political alliance between African Americans and Korean Americans under the shared banner of “blackness.” The grocer’s embrace of blackness works, not because the crowd suddenly recognizes a deeper affinity with the Korean family “vis a vis one kind of enemy,” but because the laughability of his claim defuses the tension. In the end, then, I think that the lesson we should take from the British example is not so much how we should rewrite the fiction that is race, but the fact that such a rewriting can be done.

So let me now turn to that other possibility for reconstructing race in the US — which, as I said before, is one that I think might actually get us somewhere better than where we are now. But I want to cover myself by placing particular emphasis on the word “might.” In part, this hedge is simply an unwillingness to make g­uarantees about how any abstract notion will play out in the real world. More important, however, is the fact that this territory involves what Hall has called a “politics of positionality” – and that such a politics cannot (or at least it should not) pretend to represent a utopian ideal: Hall notes that, in attempting to rearticulate and reconstruct our ideas about race,“one always has to think about the negative consequences of the positionality,” with the implication being that there will always be such consequences. So I’m not going to pretend that this solution will (or should) actually be seen as such by all people — just that I think it’s an improvement on what we’ve got now.

As you’ve already heard, the full story behind my own racial heritage is a long and convoluted one — and I’ve actually had to leave some of the best parts out in the interests of time — but that’s actually part of the point: that we shouldn’t think of race as a multiple-choice question (e.g., the absurdity of “check one box only”) or even as a question that can be answered with reference to multiple — but inherently discrete and separable — categories (e.g., the newly official doctrine of “check all that apply”). Rather, I want to suggest that race is — or should be made into – an essay question. Which, of course, will give bureaucrats and government computers fits, but that strikes me as a price we should be glad to pay: if the main impetus for rewriting the biological fiction of race is to make the State’s attempts to classify and separate people any easier, then we’ve definitely taken our eyes off of the prize.

I think there are at least two “negative consequences of the positionality” worth considering here. The first of these is that turning race into an essay question will simply invite those frustrated bureaucrats to put people into the cubbyholed categories that the State wants (instead of letting people choose for themselves): i.e., the State will still hold on to discrete racial categories, but they’ll chose which boxes the “messy” cases get placed into. This is probably true . . . but it’s also nothing new. I’ve spent years checking multiple boxes — and I know for a fact that different institutions have picked a single box (though not always the same single box) for me anyway. For instance, in spite of my multiple-box-checking ways, USF has elected to count me as “Native American” (which presumably makes them look a little better when it comes to EEOC statistics). When I got my Florida driver’s license, on the other hand, I wasn’t even given boxes to check: the state employee behind the counter got to do that based on her visual reading of my race. She chose “white.” I objected and she switched it to “multiracial” — all of which seemed oddly irrelevant (or ominous) when my finished license didn’t have a racial identification box on it at all.

The second — and probably far more pressing — drawback to making race an essay question is that the very same categories that are used to separate people, to divide and conquer, to mark people for prejudicial treatment also make it possible for ordinary people to form productive alliances in the face of systematic prejudice and to take collective pride in uniquely valuable cultural traditions, and for watchdog organizations to verify and monitor instances of institutional discrimination. The phenomenon of redlining, for instance (i.e., the illegal practices that realtors, banks, and mortgage brokers use to create and maintain racially segregated neighborhoods) can continue perfectly well in the absence of any demographic forms at all: it simply requires that the institutions in question treat people who “fail” to look or act white differently from people who do. But it’s extraordinarily difficult to prove (much less stop) redlining in the absence of an extensive paper trail of demographic forms that demonstrate a recurring bias against people of color.

In spite of these problems, however, I still see a great deal of merit in making race into an essay question. If for no other reason, then because there appears to be no easy way for us to hold onto just the positive aspects of existing forms of racial categorization (e.g., cultural pride, political solidarity, collectively empowered communities, etc.) without remaining vulnerable to the devastating ways that those categories can be used to marginalize, disenfranchise, incarcerate, and annihilate large segments of the population. The problem with race is not that we don’t understand “the truth” about these supposedly fixed categories, but that the categories themselves are divisive and alienating. And simply tinkering with how we think about those categories isn’t going to make them any less so.

Of course, making race into an essay question won’t instantly bring about the end of racial categories, and many of you have probably already noticed that I’ve been forced to rely on all the old labels throughout this talk. At the same time, however, I think that this particular way of rearticulating race makes it possible to destabilize the existing set of rigid racial categories in productive and valuable ways. It encourages us not to see race in the sloppy (and often misleading) visual cues that we typically rely on, but to pay closer attention to how other people articulate their own sense of racial identity. And those articulations will surprise us more often than we might think. For instance, it’s rare for me to describe my family history to my undergraduate classes and not have several of them — and not always the most likely looking possibilities — approach me afterwards and tell me about their own polycultural heritages, and their personal frustrations with a society built around “check one box only” assumptions.

Relatively speaking, it only takes a few such stories circulating freely through the culture to eat away at the foundations of the existing system of racial classification. Describing a specific twist on this argument, the editors of the new abolitionist journal Race Traitor write:

The rules of the white club do not require that all members be strong advocates of white supremacy, merely that they defer to the prejudices of others. The need to maintain racial solidarity imposes a stifling conformity on whites, on any subject touching even remotely on race. The way to abolish the white race is to disrupt that conformity. If enough people who look white violate the rules of whiteness, their existence cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the upholders of white rules to speak in the name of all who look white, the white race will cease to exist. . . . How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a majority — just enough to undermine public confidence in the official stuff.

And, when it comes to the ways we describe and understand race and racial identity, I think it’s high time that we undermine public confidence in the official stuff. Rearticulating race in the ways I’ve suggested here will not be easy, by any means, but there’s also nothing terribly easy (or fair or just or democratic) about the sort of racism that is kept firmly in place by the existing racial hierarchies. If we’re going to bring an end to that particularly ugly set of stories, then we’re going to have to find new stories of our own to tell.

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