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Tangled Wanderings about Race

November 29, 2008

So, there’s been a lot of speaking and writing lately about Barack Obama’s biracialness, and how his biracialness means so much to black people who aren’t biracial, and it got me thinking again about race and ethnicity/culture. I think about that kind of thing a lot, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I am technically biracial but, like Barack Obama, physically monoracial. No, I am not the tragic mulatta of the pale pale skin and blue eyes, desperately hoping for a place amongst the oppressed (because the oppressed will treat her light bright self so much better than they’ll treat themselves, naturally). I am the technically biracial daughter of a black woman and a nonwhite man. I look black, and I am black. My nonwhite father didn’t leave much visible trace in my appearance – I look so much like my mother that most people never asked about my father at all, let alone my racial heritage, and still don’t – and his absence from my life has meant there is no cultural mark either. My technically monoracial sister and I look so much alike that people automatically know we’re sisters, right off the bat, whenever we enter a room together. I never even so much as refer to myself as biracial unless I also use the qualifier “technically.”

And even I realize that my experience isn’t representative of the black experience. Even I, raised by the black mother in whose spitting image I stand today, understand that I do not speak for black people who have two black parents. I know intimately that even people who are presumed to be “all black” are treated a little better by teachers, law enforcers, bankers, and employers, if they’re a “pretty” enough shade of brown or yellow. Better if their hair lays a certain way. Better still if their enunciation is quite good (read, white), or their credentials quite impressive. So, when I read odes written by white women about how Barack Obama’s white-raised light-brown self is some beacon to dark-black, black-raised little girls and boys, my hackles raise. Because, frankly, if for any dark-black black-raised little girl or woman, boy or man, Obama’s white-raised, light-brown ascension to the presidency means anything more than continuation of the same old white(nened) male supremacy we’ve seen thus far, it’s only because that poor girl, woman, boy or man has so internalized the hatred of all things *black* that she is satisfied with a white-washed, white-identified, diluted blackness. She is probably more than just satisfied with this faded vision of blackness, for it is probably the only way she can see blackness as acceptable, beautiful, and dignified – when it is whitened.

But I have seen white women glorify this whitened blackness over and above, even in place of any acknowledgment of actual blackness, and that upsets me. It is one thing when I see black people themselves doing it, praising half-whiteness as if it ever did any other society on earth any good to hang their nonwhite hopes on the half-white. Did it do the fully indigenous in the Philippines or Brazil any good to pin their aspirations on the mestizos? The Coloureds in South Africa, descendents of half-whites, for what it’s worth, voted overwhelmingly against Nelson Mandela. So, no, those who could pass (as either white or mixed, both of which have been privileged positions over the fully nonwhite) passed, and those who couldn’t – whether genetically mixed or not – were left behind. But I can at least understand the urge in the fully nonwhite to believe that perhaps a mixed-race child might help to bridge the gap. It’s the brainwashing, then, the slow and life-long process of the draining of all self-respect and -esteem and the replacing of it with hatred for self and with love for whiteness. It is sad and nihilistic. But when white women do it – the “biracial people are the new way forward up and out of racism” thing – it’s like they’re entirely forgetting that when black women are left to raise biracial children alone (ie, not with their non-black, especially white, man living right there in the house setting a privileged example, for crying out loud, and don’t get me started), black women don’t do it with any inside knowledge of white institutions and establishments. Black women’s biracial kids, even when they don’t look black, unlike me, are less likely to be starting out with certain social advantages than white women’s biracial kids.

For one, there’s white language. If kids end up speaking the language of their mothers, kids being raised by a woman (and usually, her family, too) who speaks black English are going to speak black English. Whatever racial ambiguity or favor their genetics have afforded them (as in, non-blackness, because we all know if we’re being honest with ourselves that any step away from physical West African blackness is considered a grace and a blessing in this white male supremacist society) can be obliterated with that very first “how you doin‘?” if it’s how they grew up speaking. Then there’s hairstyles. Now, my mom had no trouble styling my hair just like any other black child’s hair because, despite my technical biracialness, I have black hair. But I had a friend who had what is considered biracial hair and whose white mother used to blow-dry her hair straight and let her wear it all over her head and flowing down her back like the little white girls. I cannot even begin to tell you the positive social effect, insofar as positivity can be measured in popularity and not-being-teased/bullied, that had on my friend’s life. Even the biracial girls who had kinkier hair, though, didn’t wear their hair like the black girls. Had those girls been my mother’s daughters, they’d have worn their curly blond tresses and sable waves just like my sister and I wore our black fuzz – in cornrows, puffs, and braided pigtails with beads and barrettes. And they would have developed a keener sense of themselves as nonwhite in this world for it, and they would know now in their adulthood that the peace gained and friendships made as a result of anti-black, white-supremacist concessions – the straightening of hair, the diminution of blackness, the dismissing of black family as “jealous” – are all false.

I say all that to say that whiteness, and the ability to get along in white company, are about more than just genetics. It is about maintaining a certain stoic distance from the concerns of nonwhite people, from the trivial to the life threatening. And I think that biracial children raised by single white parents are more comfortable with that psychological detachment than those same biracial children might be if raised by comparably competent black parents. I certainly don’t want anyone misconstruing what I’ve written as me saying I’d rather biracial kids be raised by their more racially disadvantaged parent (and, yes, in every interracial couple, one person is more racially disadvantaged than the other) no matter what kind of person s/he is. I simply believe that there is a perspective to be gotten from the disadvantaged – physically, racially, economically – that cannot be had in the privileged. And I don’t have much use for a wishy-washy in-the-middle won’t-take-sides perspective, either, because ultimately, that’s just another layer to the oppression of the people on the very bottom, right?

And if a wishy-washy perspective is ultimately just another layer to the oppression of the people on the very bottom, doesn’t it seem a little more than compromising that white women, in particular, would be loudly celebrating a biracial man’s ascent to the presidency as being a perfect substitute for a black man’s ascent (leaving aside the issue of when are we ever going to see a fully nonwhite, non-whitemale-supremacist woman get that job). The only people doing any redefining of boundaries in that scenario are black people. White people get their lighter, whiter black person, but whiteness hasn’t itself become any darker or blacker. It’s not an even exchange, and uneven exchanges are usually indication of some unequal distribution of power. So why would anyone advocate that black people abrogate anything that white people aren’t also being made to give up? Why are black people being made to agree that a biracial man can represent blackness, but no one’s arguing at all that he can represent whiteness – he can be president of a white nation, but no one’s calling him the “44th white president;” they’re calling him the first black one, even though he’s not; he’s a raised-by-white-people biracial with foreign black roots. Maybe “At long last! Black people have been fighting for equal rights under white men’s law (which is misogynist, of course, but don’t let that stop them), and finally, we get a sign that… biracial children of white women, raised by white families can be accepted by white Americans at large! Oh, how far, um, black people, have come!” doesn’t sound quite as catchy and inspiring as whatever little soundbite Obama made about all doubts as to “black people’s” potential being laid asunder now that he’d been elected, but I’m a fan of the more truthful version anyway myself. Call me a literalist.

I think that’s enough from me on Obama. I’m no political blogger, after all. I just wanted to touch on what I see, from a biracial perspective, as white (male) supremacist rhetoric coming from some white-women’s quarters.

10 Comments
  1. Professor Zero permalink
    November 30, 2008 1:11 am

    Good post. And I’m so tired of the idea that producing mixed children will solve things that I could spit.

    (I was more enthusiastic as Jesse Jackson voter than a Barack Obama voter, though, and it wasn’t about degree of mixture but about the actual positions each candidate took.)

  2. Professor Zero permalink
    November 30, 2008 1:11 am

    Good post. And I’m so tired of the idea that producing mixed children will solve things that I could spit.

    (I was more enthusiastic as Jesse Jackson voter than a Barack Obama voter, though, and it wasn’t about degree of mixture but about the actual positions each candidate took.)

  3. MargaretJamison permalink
    December 1, 2008 8:12 am

    Hi, Professor Zero, thanks for commenting. I could certainly spit myself at this notion that having biracial kids makes you a revolutionary.

    What you say about “degree of mixture” versus “actual positions,” though – I think the degree of mixture, so to speak, often influences a person’s political outlook. In other words, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the degree to which one is or can be accepted by white society in matters of physical appearance and social mannerism is often the same degree to which one aligns with the oppressor politically. There are, of course exceptions, but they are indeed exceptions, in my opinion.

    Margie

  4. Deb permalink
    December 1, 2008 7:54 pm

    Margie…Great post! I was thinking a lot about this myself, particularly this weekend! I’m too full to comment right now, but I’ll be back! 🙂 Just this one thing before I go:

    You said, “…(because the oppressed will treat her light bright self so much better than they’ll treat themselves, naturally).

    Naturally. Being Black in America is the enduring “ethnic cleansing” of all time. Your nuanced understanding of the complexities of that fact is evident many times in this post – the Black English, the hair, not just the skin, but the shade of skin (brown-bag test in the South), layers to the oppression – all of it! And so effective has been the cleansing that many of us don’t even realize it ever occurred or continues for that matter.

    And one other thing…

    You said, “I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the degree to which one is or can be accepted by white society in matters of physical appearance and social mannerism is often the same degree to which one aligns with the oppressor politically. There are, of course exceptions, but they are indeed exceptions, in my opinion.”

    Absolutely agree!

  5. Shainzona permalink
    December 3, 2008 1:52 am

    Thank you for this post. I am a white woman who looks at this election and has been wondering why anyone believes that Obama’s election does anything for black Americans. I hope I don’t offend when I say that he – like OJ simpson before him – was simply more “acceptable” to white America.

    I will applaud long and loud when an election of a black American as POTUS actually occurs. But this man is not that.

    By the way – one thing I have noticed is that advertising has finally caught up and is now casting blacks in most of the more recent commercials. Yea! BUT, when you look at the casting you realize that what TV has done to white women (thin, gorgeous, young) they are now doing to blacks. I know that soon there will be studies about how these new sterotypes are hurting the self-esteem of young black women.
    And they will be right.

    Sigh.

  6. MargaretJamison permalink
    December 3, 2008 12:28 pm

    Hi y’all. Thanks for your comments. I’ve been so busy these past couple of days that I hadn’t had a chance to respond.

    Deb, it really is ridiculous to me the way no one is ever supposed to talk about the fact that a person’s physical manifestation (including mannerisms and language/dialect/accent) in the world has quite a lot to do with people’s political values. And not because politics and values are innate, but because we are endowed with privileges and denied them on the basis of those traits. I mean, it can be mitigated, but I just wonder why so many people want to deny it.

    And I feel as though it happens on quite a lot of fronts, too. When I think about fat-positive activism, I see a lot of “voluptuous” and “buxom” and “curvy” women being presented as the poster women for the cause, women who are simply larger versions of the hour-glass ideal. That, to me, is *exactly* the same thing as when a biracial person is put forward as the representative of blackness. I mean, it would be one thing if there was *ever* a big, not just “plump,” apple-shaped woman brought forward as a representative of fat activism in a non-derogatory way, or if there was *ever* a dark-skinned, woolly haired, broad-nosed, full-lipped woman put forth as a representative of black womanhood. But it’s very nearly *always* the woman who can most closely approximate the lean mean heterosexual white male ideal that is granted such positions of visibility. And it’s no accident, then, that those people are the first to run from actual blackness, and actual obesity, when the society that has elevated them to spokespersons for the black and the obese decide to exceptionalize them up and out of the slummery of “true” blackness and fatness.

    Sorry to ramble.

    Shainzona, I’d be interested to learn more about the journey that led you to your perspective! Very rarely do I run across white women who understand that biracial kids (and, by extension, I’m sure you’re aware, interracial relationships) aren’t the get-out-of-racism-free card they are so often believed to be (and, sadly, the biracial kids themselves so often believe it themselves). Sigh indeed.

    Margie

  7. Amy's Brain Today permalink
    December 18, 2008 6:22 pm

    Wow. This is really great and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you so much for writing it.

  8. Amy's Brain Today permalink
    December 18, 2008 6:22 pm

    Wow. This is really great and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you so much for writing it.

  9. Amy's Brain Today permalink
    December 18, 2008 6:22 pm

    Wow. This is really great and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you so much for writing it.

  10. Amy's Brain Today permalink
    December 18, 2008 6:22 pm

    Wow. This is really great and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you so much for writing it.

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