Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How much does mixed race matter?

Recently I've been realizing that there are people whose race I've assumed to be one thing who are, in fact, something else.  People who I thought were mixed-race African American who turn out to be mixed-race white & Burmese.  Case in point: Alex Wagner, host of the show "Now with Alex Wagner" on MSNBC

People who identify as African American who have one white and one black parent.

[Melissa Harris-Perry, another MSNBC staple with her eponymous show "MHP: Melissa Harris-Perry."  Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University]

People who appear white who identify as a person of color or multiracial.

[Aside 1: The folks in this category are actually not public figures, so I'm not going to name them nor post their photos here]

I mention all of this because I think this is a commonplace thing to happen to many of us, particularly in the U.S.  We believe that racial categories are stable--we fit people into one of the slots on the racial pentagram (white-black-Latino-American Indian-Asian American) or hexagram (add Middle-Eastern/Arab).  Multiracial people defy this kind of easy categorization.

[Aside 2: Although it can and should be argued that there's really nothing easy about racial classification systems and that they've always been flexible and liable to change]

Yet, as the Harris-Perry example above and our own president, Barack Obama, demonstrates, even when someone has parents of two different racial backgrounds, one may identify not as bi- or multi-racial but with the minoritized racial category.  And it's probably not a coincidence that both of these very public mixed-race/black-white figures identify as African American, given the ways in which our country has treated (and continues to treat) people who identify as or are visibly identifiable as black.

The title of this post, "How much does mixed race matter?" has to do with whether or not having knowledge of someone's mixed-race background matters in terms of how this person is regarded.  Now that I know Melissa Harris-Perry has a white mother and a black father, does that change my opinion about her and her show?  Now that I know that Alex Wagner is half-Asian, does that change how I view her commentary on MSNBC?

While my immediate answer is "no"--the truth is, I think that our experiences make a difference in our lives--so someone who was raised with parents of 2 different races may have very different experiences than someone who was raised with parents who shared the same racial.  So while knowing about Wagner and Harris-Perry's backgrounds may not change what I think or how I feel about them, knowing, with more precision/accuracy what their racial background is, is important in understanding that their life experiences may offer differences that have shaped their opinions and personas.

[Aside 3: This post is actually not quite as articulate as I had hoped it would be -- things sometimes sound different in my head than when I type it out.  I suppose I could scrap all this and start fresh, but I figure I'll let this stand, especially because I haven't written about multiracial people for a while and this IS a blog called Mixed Race America and therefore SHOULD actually spend some time thinking and talking about multiracial Americans]

Finally, the last thing I want to leave readers with is a book recommendation.  I've finally gotten around (embarrassing to admit this, but it's true) to reading UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez's book White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (originally published in 1996 and re-issued in 2006).  It's a very smart book, particularly in tracing the legal construction of whiteness through what Haney Lopez terms the "prerequisite cases"--cases by people who we would now identify as Asian American and Latino who tried to claim citizenship based on "whiteness" who were denied access to whiteness and hence denied the right to naturalize as U.S. citizens.

Haney Lopez identifies as white and Mexican American.  I can't help but wonder about his personal experiences growing up as mixed-race and how they may have shaped his ideas about racial formation and racism.  His book is a primer on the way that the law has been instrumental in shaping our ideas and even the very physical appearance of our nation.

[Aside 4:  And if you don't have time to read the entire book, you can get a sense of his writing and his trenchant racial analysis by reading this piece about Mitt Romney and whether Romney would, as he has famously claimed, have an easier time being elected president if he were Mexican American]

1 comment:

Dianne said...

I will definitely take a look at Haney Lopez's book. I think this is a great topic to continue discussion on, and though you felt you didn't articulate quite as you had imagined, you really brought up interesting points. Unfortunately, race identification does matter negatively for some, and it is the way society assumes attributes for that individual. I think personal identification is important because it is highly individual and based on experience and environment. I was just talking to my husband about George Zimmerman. Initially in the reports he was identified as white, but once he got charged, the media started identifying him as Hispanic. Very interesting.

I also understand about how our blogs are sometimes containment for our ideas. Really, if I think on it now, I would have broadened my blog name because I write about culture as well as race including gender issues like civil rights for women and gay couples. But how would we know and is it so terrible to talk about other things? I like to wander if that's where my brain wants to go.