Mixed-race theory for everyone
Posted on: Monday 20 August 2007
What insights does mixed-race theory bear for mixed-race people, our allies, and the professionals who work with us? This paper introduces three lessons which are especially relevant in this time and place.
Lesson 1: Scandalising the 'What are you?' encounter
Mixed-race theory helps us challenge the voyeuristic entitlement which some people feel to find out intimate things about us. Many of us are used to giving unreciprocated information about our identities, origins and families. We endure this treatment as we know from experience that the person asking 'Where are you from?' will not be satisfied with 'Northampton'. We rarely risk challenging this inappropriate 'smalltalk', for fear of being labelled irritating.
We share this experience with other people of colour. Yet our perceived 'ambiguity' or 'incongruence' - of looks, name or accent - provides the perfect excuse to take a closer look. Our bodies are split into parts, and stamped as 'black', 'white', or 'Chinese': 'You are so tanned.' Or: 'I can see it in your eyes.' This ideology of 'phenotype' presumes that hair, skin and features carry essential meanings, and invite scrutiny and categorisation into different 'races'. It assumes that some people possess the knowledge and authority to 'recognise' who belongs to which of these artificially delineated groups. Of course, we are often mis-recognised. This shows that what people see has a lot to do with who is doing the looking, and what they are looking for.
Mixed-race theorists have scandalised the 'What are you?' encounter. It is not a normal reaction to abnormal bodies, but something that reaffirms the right of, especially white people, to know and define us. Teresa Williams-León was the first to describe this encounter as 'sociologically significant.' The American theorist, incidentally, identifies as '100% Hapa' - a Hawaiian term meaning 'half'. Such linguistic interventions are characteristic of an American multiracial movement which proclaims that 'Fractions are for math, not for people'. They are insightful for all of us who want to learn, or help others develop, an entitlement to wholeness.
Lesson 2: The good mix and the bad
We have come a long way since colonial and Nazi scientists declared us degenerate monstrosities who combined the 'worst of both worlds'. Jayne Ifekwunigwe, the theorist of British mixed race, ironically describes this as 'race science fiction'. The term 'mulatto' is a remnant of that time. People of mixed parentage, like mules, were believed to be the freak, infertile offspring of distant species. As one part of our parentage was considered 'subhuman', it could be freely exploitated, colonised or enslaved, even killed, by the other.
Then, biological explanations gave way to social ones. Mixed-race people became the subjects of sociologists and psychologists. We were viewed as the 'marginal', and 'dysfunctional' offspring of antagonistic groups, belonging nowhere and confused about our identities.
Things changed when mixed-race people began to make their own theories, often highlighting bicultural skills and other positive aspects of growing up in interracial families. The media, meanwhile, began to celebrate us as the attractive representatives of a generation which no longer 'sees race'. Far from monstrous and marginal, we came to be considered beautiful and hybrid - the model cosmopolitan 'citizens of the world'. Such celebrations were especially frequent around the time of the Census 2001, when the new 'Mixed' category was introduced.
However, theorists such as Cynthia Nakashima (a colleague of Teresa Williams-León's) remind us that the 'good mix' and the 'bad' are two sides of the same coin. How does the celebration of 'mixed-race beauty' in fashion, music and television serve to exoticise and commercialise our bodies? And why are some interracial families, such as the ones in my Thai diasporic and research context, more likely to be evaluated as a product of 'sex slavery' than as the 'love that knows no colour'. It is understandable if some of us choose to join our public celebration. Who would not rather be a model than a monster? Nevertheless, we need to consider the costs of allowing others to racially and culturally evaluate us in the first place - both to our psyches and to our diverse communities.
Lesson 3: A Mongrel Nation?
Suki Ali, the author of Mixed Race, Post Race, argues that the British nation likes to imagine itself as multicultural and 'race-free'. Mixed-race people are often treated as the proof and symbol of this. This idyllic view contrasts with the growing racism and reversal of hard-won civil rights and liberties we are currently witnessing. Multiple belonging and biculturalism are losing their positive connotations, and are re-interpreted as signs of disloyalty. Similarly, in-between phenotype is increasingly evaluated as 'criminal' and 'terrorist'. The fate of Jean Charles de Menezes is sad proof of this.
The Lancaster academic Ann-Marie Fortier argues that ideologies of 'mixing' play a central part in this backlash. Muslims in particular are accused of 'segregating themselves' and 'not mixing enough'. The case of Misbah ('Molly') shows how many discussions of mixing are actually biased against Muslims. The girl of Pakistani and Scottish origin decided to live with her father in Pakistan, where she felt more accepted. Yet far from celebrating her cultural agency and heritage, media reports suggested that she was the victim of a 'forced marriage'. Through such public representations, 'Muslims', who already face the brunt of racism at this time, are construed as anathema to mixing.
The interest in mixed race expressed by conferences such as this shows that we are living in times of recognition. Yet we are also living in times of war. As a multiracial movement, we have to ask ourselves how we can intervene in the divide-and-rule, not only between the 'good mix' and the 'bad', but also between the 'good' and the 'bad' parts of our non-white community. How can we resist being appropriated for racism and war? And how can we ensure an equal distribution of the benefits of this recognition to all mixed-race people? We yet have to answer these pressing questions.
About the author
Dr Jin Haritaworn is a post-doctoral fellow at Goldsmiths College and has researched and published on mixed race in Thai diasporic spaces in Britain and Germany.
Publications include 'Beautiful beasts. Ambivalence and distinction in the gender identity negotiations of multiracialised women of Thai descent', in Women's Studies International Forum (forthcoming, in preparation), 'Hybrid border crossers? Towards a radical socialisation of "Mixed Race"', in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (forthcoming, in preparation) and 'Queer Mixed Race? Interrogating Homonormativity through Thai Interraciality', in G. Brown, Gavin, K. Browne and J. Lim (eds.), Sexy Spaces: Theory, Politics and Practices in Contemporary Geographies of Sexualities, Aldershot: Ashgate (2007).