Gendering mixed-race - deconstructing mixedness
Posted on: Tuesday 28 August 2007
Dr Suki Ali
This short paper arises from the workshop of the same title from which this collection comes, in which we presented some of our perspectives on the contemporary interest in mixedness. As such this paper aims to add some thoughts to an ongoing debate about research into mixed-race, and how this is and might be configured by the current debates about mixedness in the UK; this is not an academic paper per se, but draws upon my own research in this area.
I particularly welcome the emphasis for the need of continued dialogue, debate and informed dissent on issues of mixed heritage, as it is here referred to. It seems to me that this area is in some considerable danger of being carried along on the tide of, albeit well meaning concern, into reactive responses to this 'at risk' group. Jane Ifekwunigwe (2004) has argued that discussions on mixed-race have been 'characterised' by different approaches in particular eras or epochs. I do not agree with this analysis as it seems to me that there are always competing discourses to be found within 'eras' - it is just that some are heard more loudly than others. Currently we are definitely being assailed by the media and from government and other public institutions by two very different discourses - one of the brave and beautiful new potential of the 'exotic' mixed-race individual, (1) the other of the difficulties attached to mixed-race identities and by default the extraordinary problems faced by mixed-race people. (2)
I want to, unsurprisingly, raise several objections to these simplistic positions, but also for the purposes of this piece to consider what difference it makes to think about gender as a central component to these discussions. Although I welcome the opportunity to introduce gender as a specific topic I would, like many others, suggest that the issue of gender is one that runs through all of the other areas under discussion. If gender is key to processes of racialisation, then it must surely be the case that it matters to the racial politics of health, education, anti-racism and so on, in which mixed-race people feature. Perhaps for me the more complete way to think about this is to make more of our continuing struggles to articulate racialisation with other kinds of social differentiation - the full range of differences that make a difference. The continuing problem of intersectionality and multiplicity, not only for theory and policy, but in very grounded and everyday ways, should be at the forefront of our research agendas. If it is important to note that experiences of mixedness are mediated through and with gender (and sexuality for that matter) as they are by different kinds of racialisation, by cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as by class, ability and by location.
My own research has shown that, for example, class is a very important feature in relation to experiences of racism, and location is crucial to understanding the contextual nature of racialisation. (3) Given the immense difficulty in trying to unravel the relationships between these issues and their impact on 'life chances' or 'outcomes', I do not think we are yet in a position to form policy at this stage of our discussions. If the 'mixed' category is so diverse how can we address it in policy terms?
One of the most effective ways for me to begin to think about this whole area is to interrogate the way in which the category of mixed-race is being invoked in ways that are homogenising of such a range of experiences (as above). I am grateful that we have had expert intervention on the theme of statistics from Charlie Owen as it seems that much of the categorical anxiety seems to hinge on some dubious interpretations of statistical data. We surely need this data and demographic 'changes' are not only interesting but significant, however these discussions are often flawed from the outset in that they take as their starting point a somewhat misplaced faith in data collection as reflecting accurately the way in which people seek to identify and thus form groups. So my initial concern is that we cannot (yet?) identify a singular group of mixed-race individuals. It seems important that we would not do this for any other racial or ethnic group - simply talk about Black people or Catholics as if they were all the same in all locations, but we are being forced to do so about this group.
If we continue to elide differences amongst mixed people, we evade what I believe is any key aim in this work - to tackle inequality and discrimination. These two may be linked, but it is not always clear what the links are. It seems to me that the major problem in focusing on a singular mixed-race category is that it starts from an end point - that we know that there is a category. For me, it is the construction of the category and the meanings that it conveys that is still up for grabs. Miri Song's paper deals with this in relation to identity as does Chamion Caballero's, but it is equally important in relation to policy in education and anti-racism concerns around health and well-being. If we take for granted that the end product is a group of individuals who share this identity as the overriding feature of their life, then we find ourselves perpetuating this problematic simplification. Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not suggesting that people should refuse to identify as mixed - or should not be allowed to, or that this is not meaningful for many people - it is for me so why should it not be to others? I am saying that the core problematic is untangling the way in which the self-chosen (or for that matter ascribed) category is now completely caught up in the performative of 'mixed' - 'race', heritage, parentage - and how this is becoming something which has become the collective category of a singular ethnic minority group - it is that with which we have to grapple. It is not a new problem, this is the difficulty we have been working with in relation to collectivised race politics for decades, it is just a newer incarnation. To return to my earlier point about the collectivisation of Blackness - we know that there have been reasons why the term has been used in research, policy, practice, theory and politics as a way of signalling affiliation and communality. It might be true to say that in fact we do sometimes use the word in a way that might be seen to be simplifying. This term used as a collective does tend in my mind to foreground one particular aspect of Blackness and that is 'race' as physiology, not in fact cultural or ethnic diversity. Hence my concern with making clear if we talk about mixed-race that 'race' is indeed the most salient feature.
So how does adding gender into the mix help this? Well it doesn't - not if we take the 'add and stir' approach and apply it on its own and for its own sake. There are perhaps two main ways in which gendered interventions might impact upon debates about and research on mixedness, at the level of theory and as an object of study. To use a more grounded example here I want to mention a particular area of interest of mine: how the whole idea of mixedness relies upon discourses of reproduction, kinship and belonging that are of course gendered, and how the 'mixed' identity category is destabilised by incorporating gender. If one centralises the issue of gender at the level of theory, then we might consider how certain kinds of gendered theories are being used in the service of work on mixedness. We might, if we took a feminist or queer approach, insist on revealing ways of understanding the world that continue to serve particular political agendas, whilst being open and reflexive about our own. We might be very concerned about how heteronormative discussions of families could be perpetuating familial models that are in some ways conservative and reactionary and are certainly pathologising. Or, we might look at the continued demonisation of single mothers (or absent fathers) and how this is racialised and racialising. Gender also impacts upon the way that the biological sciences are returning to central stage in discussions about racialised health issues, bringing us back to a form of scientific racism that is highly problematic. (4) In discussions about mixed families or mixed people's health problems, we see notions of reproduction and family formation that are normative and highly naturalised; thus both implicitly and explicitly formed upon and through particular ideas about gender, sexuality and social organisation.
Secondly, we might insist that gender should not just be referred to as a minor variable, but rather centralised in research and practice that concerns any conception of mixed heritage or mixed-race. We might note that it is already there, but needs to be built upon, particularly in policy based work. It is surely not helpful to consider mixed-race as ungendered any more than other so-called monoracial identities; for example, in education we know Black Caribbean boys face problems different to Black Caribbean girls. This is not solely about identity but about structural and institutional constraints and prejudices. How would it be less so for a singular category of 'mixed children'? (5) Using families as a point of intervention the notion of 'parenting' a mixed-race child is in fact slightly misleading. (6) There are very few parents who don't fall into the category of mother or father, or gendered replacement for one or both of these. In relation to mixedness, and in particular mixed-race, this becomes crucial to the debate. It has been suggested for example that white mothers cannot mother black mixed-race boys; meaning problems arise from the absence of their black fathers. It is impossible to separate gender from 'race' here, nor ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, culture. Most importantly, class, poverty and location all but transform these discussions. In my own research it was very clear that no straightforward or predictive links could be made between these areas and parenting practices, and how they impact upon identity formation. Further, it was evident that for young children negotiating heterosexuality and gender positions is often seen as more important to them. This worked in relation to identification with parents and also in peer relationships. (7) While I believe that these processes are also profoundly classed, what is significant for this piece is that the respondents themselves considered gender as key.
Finally, at various points I have used the term mixedness and at others mixed-race and mixed heritage. This is not accidental. There is a wealth of writing on the problems of terminology which I won't go into here, however, I remain convinced it is at the heart of the concerns on the invocation of mixed-race as an ethnic group, which is not only nonsensical but I would suggest a worrying development. Such collectivisation allows for the development of debates in which mixed people become demonised or idealised. These in turn map on to wider sociological concerns about what Zygmunt Bauman has called 'mixophobia' or the distrust of difference, the 'death of multiculturalism' (8) or integration and cohesion and community formation, and the continued struggle against discrimination and prejudice. Throughout history, mixedness and mixing have troubled boundaries (9) and this is true of the current UK political situation. As ever, the so-called mixed-race person comes to literally embody these anxieties and as such becomes the focus of a gaze which, although perhaps having benign intentions, can have negative consequences. These negative consequences concern not only those who currently identify as mixed-race but also those who are managing other kinds of mixedness and those who are continuing to grapple with other kinds of racialised and ethnicised prejudice - for example, the rising tide of Islamophobia.
So, in conclusion, I would like to caution against taking the idea of mixed-race or mixed heritage for granted as a category of analysis. At the workshop I raised a series of questions to help us think through our points of congruence and dissent, our politics and theoretical differences and affinities, and our diverse experiences of mixedness:
1 What is a mixed-race population? What is the difference between mixed-race and mixed heritage? Is either an ethnic identity?
2 How might gender reframe our research into mixedness?
3 Should we abandon research into mixed-race/heritage?
These questions raised quite diffuse responses, but we all agreed that we still had a lot to learn from each other. In the light of the lack of understanding about the meanings and experiences of mixedness, I believe that we should not and cannot make meaningful policy interventions that would address a 'group' that are not yet formed as such. In particular, we need to be wary of assuming that it is 'mixed-race identity' that gives rise to greater risks. While we need to look at the experiences of those who claim mixedness, we need to be careful not to continue to understand it as a fixed category of identity or being, but with the idea that it might help to see how such experiences form and reform the wider racial and ethnic landscapes in the UK.
I am grateful for comments from Hamish MacPherson and Jill Olumide on the draft of this piece.
(1) c.f. Ali (2005)
(2) See e.g. Trevor Phillips' (2006) comments on 'identity stripping'
(3) see: Ali (2003 a)
(4) See Mark Johnson in this collection
(4) See Leon Tikly in this collection
(5) See Chamion Caballero in this collection
(6) e.g. Ali (2003 b)
(7) See e.g. Kundnani (2002); Phillips (2005)
(8) See e.g. Tizard & Phoenix (1993); Olumide (2002), Ifekwunigwe (2004)
Ali, S. (2003 a) 'To Be a Girl: Gender, Culture and Class in Schools' In: L. Archer & C. Leathwood (Eds.) Gender and Education. Special Issue on Diverse Working Class Femininities, 15(03)
Ali, S. (2003 b) Mixed-race, Post-race: Gender, New Ethnicities and Cultural Practices. London & New York: Berg
Ali, S. (2005) 'Uses of the Exotic: Body, Narrative, Mixedness.' In: Making Race Matter, Bodies, Identities and Space. C. Alexander & C. Knowles (Eds.), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bauman, Z. (2003) Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds London: Polity Press
Ifekwunigwe, J. O. (2004) Mixed Race studies: A reader. London: Routledge
Kundnani, A (2002) 'The Death of Multiculturalism' IRR, April.
Olumide, J. (2002) Raiding the Gene Pool: The Social Construction of Mixed-Race. London & Stirling, Victoria: Pluto Press
Phillips, T. (2006) 'Opening Speech', delivered at the Race Convention, 29 Nov
Phillips, T (2005) 'After 7/7: Sleepwalking to segregation'. 22 Sept
Tizard, B. & Phoenix, A. (1993). Black, White or Mixed Race: Race and Racism in the Lives of Young People. London: Routledge
About the author
Dr Suki ali is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her main theoretical interests focus upon feminist cultural studies, postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, research methodologies, visual culture, and theories of identity and embodiment. Her work centralises the interplay between gender, sexualities, 'race' and class. Whilst continuing to work within these areas her current research explores processes of racialisation with specific regard to 'racial science' and technologies, kinship and postcoloniality.
This paper is taken with kind permission from the forthcoming Runnymede Trust publication: Mixed Heritage: Identity, Policy and Practice.