Mixed or Not, Why Are We Still Taking Pictures of “Race”?

Just days ago PolicyMic put up a piece entitled “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful.” In it writer Zak Cheney-Rice attempts to address the so-called rise of multiracial peoples which has captured/enchanted the public eye and with which the media has become deeply enamored. He spotlights a retrospective and admiring look at National Geographic’s “The Changing Face of America” project of last year featuring a series of multiracial portraits by well-known German photographer Martin Schoeller, and also peripherally cites some statistics/graphs that demonstrate the explosion of the mixed-race population.

Changing Faces

(Image source)

“In a matter of years,” Cheney-Rice writes, “We’ll have Tindered, OKCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race.” Despite admitting racial inequity persists, he still flirts with the idea of an “end” approaching (presumably to race and by association racism), and suggests while we’re waiting for things to get better, we might “…applaud these growing rates of intermixing for what they are: An encouraging symbol of a rapidly changing America. 2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.” We are then perhaps left with this rather unfortunate centerpiece of his statement, “Here’s how the ‘average American’ will look by the year 2050”:

Portrait

Not surprisingly, the Net erupted in controversy/debate; some standing by and championing the purported beauty of race-mixing as hope for a post-race future; many others pointing out the absurdity of a multiracial=postracial equation, angrily accusing the article of privileging light-skinned mixes thereby centering whiteness and upholding an age-old white dominant race hierarchy. NPR blogger Gene Demby @GeeDee215 tweeted, “Dunno what to do with the fact that the idea we’ll screw racism out of existence is considered a serious position.” A day later Jia Tolentino wrote a rebuttal on the hairpin in which she calls the piece “dumb,” “shallow,” “shortcut-minded,” and charges it with appearing “researched and progressive while actually eliding all of the underlying structural concerns that will always influence what race (and attendant opportunity) means in America far more than the distracting visual pleasure of a girl that looks like Rashida Jones.” She too also unfortunately comes to rest again on this particular portrait, “Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate”:

I have been thinking a lot about this face which, thanks to National Geographic and PolicyMic, is now flying around the World Wide Web and has become the stage for much heated race-arguing. What is particularly striking to me, and what I have written on before, is that this person is an actual living, breathing human being — but she is not being treated as such. She is being wielded as a tool, a device, maybe even a weapon? Her physical body is used as a site for others to play out their racial theorizing while her own voice and story remain conspicuously absent.

What I think is incredibly important here (and doesn’t seem to have come up in the ensuing disputes) is why portraits designed to quantify/quality racialized appearance were taken with such intent in the first place? Photography which captures a person’s image for the sole and express purpose of measuring then discussing their supposed race is not new and frankly, like pretty much everything race-related, has a long and insidious history. It’s known as racial-type photography and it was popularized in the late 19th century by white pseudo-scientists to “prove” the superiority of some races, and the inferiority of others. Anthropologists used photography to make anatomical comparisons, then racially classify and rank human subjects on an evolutionary scale “seeming to confirm that some peoples were less evolved than others and would therefore benefit from imperial control” (Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879-1940 by Anne Maxwell, p.21). One of first scientists to use photography to record the anatomy of different races was Swiss-born zoologist and anthropologist Louis Agassiz who lived in America and in 1865 was the nation’s most celebrated naturalist. Agassiz, along with the help of portrait photographer Thomas Zealy, produced some of the earliest racial-type photographs of African slaves to appear in the US. He “wanted to see if the distinct traits of African-born slaves survived in American-born offspring. This would prove his theory that environmental factors wrought very few changes to the type, which by and large remained stable over time.” He staked his whole scientific career on the belief that the different races were created separately by God and in accordance with a divine, preordained plan (Maxwell, pp.23-24):

Enslaved Woman

 

(1850) photograph of an enslaved woman in South Carolina by Thomas Zealy for Louis Agassiz

 

Other influential examples of racial-type photography include: those produced by “British anthropologists Thomas Henry Huxley and John Lanprey [who] developed guidelines for the anthropometrical photographing of native subjects” (Maxell, p.29), those produced in 1871 Germany by the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory which “set out to assemble anthropological images from around the world, with the eventual purpose of disseminating these to scientific institutions in Germany and Britain” (Maxwell, p.39), and those by Australian photographer Paul Foelsche, “among the best examples of photographs of colonized peoples taken under oppressive conditions” (Maxwell, p.35):

Foelsche

(1870) untitled portrait by Paul Foelsche

Of course the overt, blatant racism in this older practice of racial-type photography would not be acceptable today. But has the practice of “photographing race” then gone away completely? Has our need to scan and declare the racial appearance of others for the purpose of valuation diminished? Apparently not. We’ve now got National Geographic’s 2013 endeavor (photographed by a white man through a racialized lens no less). We also have Time Magazine’s infamous 1993 cover “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society” which was the computer generated face of a mixed-race woman created by merging people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds and who I have read her creators subsequently sort of fell in love with Pygmalion-style:


(1993) Time Magazine cover, “The New Face of America”

And we have Kip Fulbeck’s 2001 photo project of over 1200 volunteer subjects who self-identified as “Hapa” meant to promote awareness, recognition and give voice to the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Though Kip Fulbeck is aware of racial-type photographic history and acknowledges/challenges it in his book Half Asian 100% Hapa some feel his attempt to stand old forms on their heads, doesn’t work. He himself is a person of mixed-race Asian descent and certainly being a person of color behind the camera lends credence to the idea of reclamation and redefinition. Nevertheless at the end of the day, we are still left with a collection of photographs meant to capture race in some formation.

.

Apparently now we are comfortable shifting the practice of race-scanning and many of its same foundational values onto the ambiguous appearance of “different” looking people. Racism is incredibly adaptive and morphs to fit the times. I suggest that while modern race-photography believes itself to be celebrating the dismantling of race, it may actually be fooling us (and itself) with a fantastically complicated show of smoke and mirrors. What a critical mixed race view can offer at this juncture is something so crucial. We need to continually challenge and examine our desire to racially file people. We need to lift our eyes from the ground and take off the rose-colored glasses. We need to put away the headphones, turn off the music and turn on our ears. We need to make much, MUCH more space for something ultimately pretty simple — the stories of actual people themselves which in the end, will paint the real picture.

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes at the blog MultiAsian Families.

Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.

Why isn’t College for Learning About Mixed-Race Identities?

Learning

There are some incredible opportunities out there right now to get certificates, higher ed and even advanced degrees specializing in the experience of Americans of color. Want a degree in Asian American Studies? Sure. How about African American, Native or American Indian, Latin American, Mexican American or Chicano studies? Absolutely. Google all of these and you’ll find brilliant choices to be credentialed in these heritage experiences at very fine colleges and universities.

But what if you ID as mixed-race multicultural across any of these racial lines? Is there a degree for that?

“Not that I’m aware of,” writes Steven F. Riley of MixedRaceStudies.org (46), “The vast majority of courses on mixed-race studies are within the disciplines of Sociology, Psychology, History and Literature, etc.” Despite the fact that the crop of students moving through college today is the largest group of self-identified mixed-race people ever to come of age in the U.S., “In traditional Ethnic Studies,” writes University of California, Berkeley: Center for Race and Gender, “Mixed race scholarship has often been marginalized, misappropriated, tokenized or simply left out.”

Indeed it has only been in recent history that an arena for multi-race discourse has even forcibly begun construction mostly due to multiracials themselves. In the US this is because we have (a) not only a history of denying mixed race which persists but (b) a habit of continuing to operate under the assumption that race can be easily identified and filed away. Anyone who can’t be instantly categorized by visual scanning either gets shoved into something that kinda sorta fits, shows up as a mere blip on the cognitive-radar screen or flies under it completely. Case in point, whether by choice or lack of choice, some of the more visible mixed-race Asian scholars/authors right now are embedded in other departments at their campuses: Laura Kina (Art, Media, & Design, DePaul University), Leilani Nishime (Dept of Communication, University of Washington), Stephen Shigematsu-Murphy (Asian American Studies, Stanford University), Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain (Sociology, University of Ireland).

I woke up one morning and had this great idea to write a post on multiracial studies, classes and programs in higher ed. The first day I sat in front of the screen I naively believed I could come up with some sort of beginner, working list through a neat Google Search. Within 15 minutes I had searched about five or six variations of “mixed race studies,” found shockingly little, threw up my hands, and was so irritated I gave up. In fact after that quarter hour I was pretty sure I didn’t want to write this post at all. I supposed stuff was out there but felt confounded to find it without launching an epic dissertation-level exhaustive research project.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just leave it to college counselors, professors and academics who have the inside scoop.” But then I thought twice. What about the exploding number of young people such as mixed race high schoolers (one day my son) who are starting to think about college, have a blossoming awareness of their multiraciality and would like to be in an environment that supports them, even allows them to pursue degrees along those lines? For that matter, what about any number of mixed race folk wanting to pursue professional certificates or advanced degrees along those lines, or the millions of others increasingly vested in mixed race issues? Are any of these folks going to sit at a computer for hours on a fruitless wild-goose chase that dead-ends in needing to rely on others “more in the know”?

Now I’m not talking student interest clubs and groups here. Those seem to abound and admittedly, are deeply important. But such involvement may or may not be resume material and, let’s be honest, in our society extracurricular certainly doesn’t hold the weight of alphabet soup like B.A. M.A. Ph.D. etc. I also suspect such groups centrally revolve around offering social support, which is of course extremely critical, but may not offer the mixed young person academic space to round-out by learning deeply and reflecting critically upon the construction of race mixing in the US. No. What I’m talking about is also giving mixed race students the space/option to explore their history and identity in their studies, and to become credentialed experts of their own experience.

So what happens when the historically overlooked and unrecognized mixed-race person hops on Google to figure out if they can spend thousands of dollars (they probably don’t have) on an education that would enrich their existence in a racially policed/divided world? It’s not good, people. It’s not good. The average Google Search garners 92% of all its traffic on Page 1. Page 2 only sees about 5%, Page 3 about 1%, and by Page 4 – well, just forget it. In the interest of posterity, let’s take a look at the critical first page of my Google Searching for mixed race studies at college and university campuses across the US:

Search phrase: degree mixed race studies

Of 10 first page results**: The top 3 results turned up this hub, a seriously great and well-known hub of mixed race research. But a quick perusal does not immediately show a listing of places to pursue such research and as we saw earlier, Riley himself states very clearly that he knows of no specific mixed race degree program. Following the top third, 2 results turned up a fairly new endeavor spearheaded by Laura Kina (among others) out of De Paul Unviersity. It is an expanding multiracial academic community that currently includes a biannual conference and academic journal. The website certainly lists organizations and hubs but again, I didn’t see a list of schools to pursue studies.

Following this, 2 search results turned up San Francisco State University’s Master’s in Ethnic Studies which is “increasingly concerned with mixed race studies” but obviously not a mixed race degree. Of the remaining, 1 search result was a write-up of the first Critical Mixed Race Studies postgraduate symposium ever offered at the University of Leeds in May of this year, 1 search result was a graduate thesis, 1 search result was a graduate student bio and 1 search result was a listing for a design-you-own-Master’s at Southern Methodist University.

Of course we see the obvious inability to obtain a specific critical mixed-race studies degree. But also notice the heavy, heavy emphasis on graduate, postgraduate and doctoral level research. In my view this does not allow very accessible entry points into the field of multiracial studies at all. We see a possible end result – but how to even begin? And what if a person does not aspire to become a researcher? Can there be an option to learn without the pressure to contribute to a growing body of mixed-race scholarship that’s struggling to exist? Search phrases like degree multi-ethnic studies or degree multiracial studies and the outcome isn’t much better. Personally I love researching and am excited by finding any results at all. But as the mother of a mixed race child who may or may not follow in his mother’s footsteps, I always have an eye to his future and best interests too. If my 4 year old goes to college one day, I want to feel less nervous and way more comfortable that wherever he goes as a new “legal” adult and young person existing across racial lines, he will find a place to learn more about himself in a life-giving way. I think we’re headed there but we still have a long way to go. I hope to see before my son fills out his first college application (aside from maybe no racial checkboxes to deal with), at least one campus that boasts an entire Critical Mixed Race Department. Pipe dream? We’ll see…

**(Note: I recognize that Google Search results change rapidly and the first page I analyze here is only a snapshot. Subsequent searches by others may turn up different, even very different results.) See my blog, too.

Are We Really So Different? The AAA Exhibit on “Race”

Did you know there’s a national exhibit that’s been traveling the US since 2007 entitled RACE: Are We So Different by the American Anthropological Association (AAA)? When I heard about it my thinking went something like this, “Oh good. A credible entity getting behind race discourse. Oh no. Why are they asking if race really makes us that different?”

National Exhibition [Source: Exhibit at Museum of Man – discovers.com]

 

As a multiracial woman often scrutinized for being “ethnically ambiguous” my experience of race is of something absolutely differentiating at the same time I find myself constantly butting up against people who deny its salience. So I felt invalidated then worried that an exhibit choosing to lead with the question, “Are we so different?” might prove unhelpful. Studies have found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts they (a) rarely changed their minds, (b) often became even more strongly set in their beliefs , and (c) did so without recognizing how their own desires influenced them. We live in an era when undoing racism means battling avoidance, denial and the inability to understand another point of view. If people see what they want to see, might a national science exhibit questioning the salience of race run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the colorblind ideologies that plague us today? Here’s what I mean…

Simply Human?

As I first entered the exhibit at Seattle’s Science Center, a panel entitled Race Off offered me this, “There is no biological evidence that supports racial categories…What are we? The answer is simple – human.” This is something I run into a lot in my research and has become a trigger for me as a multiracial woman and mother. Check out what trailblazing scholar Maria P. P. Root has to say about this kind of language when it comes to our children:

If a child brings up a racial incident at school and meets with an abstract response from her parents, such as, “We’re all members of the human race,” “Race doesn’t matter,” or “We all bleed the same color,” the child gets no help from these pat answers and will be unequipped to deal with hazing, name calling, racial attacks, or other bullying…most children do not want to be confronted by their parent’s lack of competence in an area in which they need a role model (Maria P. P. Root as cited in Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2003. Print.).

134 Brazilian Alternatives

I believe to demonstrate how arbitrary our concept of race can be, a panel against the East wall pointed out that Brazilians don’t identify racially in the same way Americans do. Instead, Brazilians align with a multitude of skin-shades rather than a handful of prescribed races. To illustrate the point, the panel gives an impressive list of 134 “Brazilian Terms for Skin Color.” While I was standing there wondering if this was being presented as a solution to our problems, two white women stepped up and admiringly commented, “Wow! This is amazing. We should do this here.” Now there is certainly a point to be made about the importance of discussing skin color but this long list, while different, does not mean Brazil has transcended issues of race. In fact quite the opposite – a reality the panel only lightly alludes to. Brazil, a nation to which 4.9 million African slaves were shipped during the slave trade (versus 400,000 to the US), struggles greatly with its own form of racism/colorism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and did nothing to turn former slaves into citizens. According to their 2010 Census, the income of whites was slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians and more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black compared to just 7% in richer districts. Sound familiar?

Who Gets to be “Mixed”?

Wrapping up my visit I found myself in a corner dedicated specifically to Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. Fulbeck’s work has been incredibly influential in defining the multiracial experience and bringing visibility to a very underrepresented demographic. But I got the uncomfortable feeling RACE was trying to use it as a voicebox for how all mixed race peoples choose to face questions of racial identity today.

I became alarmed. Why? Because choosing to be recognized as mixed race in America is still not something all multiracial people get to do. We must always remember our insidious history of oppressing especially mixed-race Blacks and Natives for holding a few drops of said blood (e.g. shutting them out of white and its associated privileges, relegating them instead to “lesser” categories of color). And this legacy persists. Do mixed Black children want or even get to identify as multiracial now? Case in point, our very own mixed race President Obama (who is “half” white) checked “Black” as his race on the 2010 Census. Any discussion of mixed-race identity needs to include a conversation about how this idea exists differently across racial lines. I immediately hunted down the exhibit’s content expert and asked if they had a panel explicitly featuring an exploration of the “One Drop Rule” and issues of blood quantum as a juxtaposition to the Kip Fulbeck corner. Guess what the answer was.

Now before I bring the full wrath of the AAA and America’s science museums down upon me let me say there is a lot this exhibit does well. But while RACE is incredibly researched and offers important information we should all know, it ultimately struggles to reconcile its driving science-based theme that we aren’t so different with a very strong demonstration that we definitely are. And this is where the exhibit did itself a great disservice. By trying to remain neutral on a completely non-neutral issue it not only left itself vulnerable to racial messaging but also positioned itself precisely in the danger zone; a place where the race-matters camp finds plenty of fuel for their fire, but the colorblind-postracial camp does too. And everybody leaves the room possibly having discussed nothing and gotten nowhere.

 

~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.

 

Interracial Cheerios – What We’re Still Ignoring

A recap for those of you who haven’t been following the cereal saga. On May 28 General Mills aired a YouTube Cheerios ad featuring a Black father, White mother and their young biracial daughter.

The 30-second clip was immediately bombarded with racist remarks referencing Nazis, “troglodytes” and “racial genocide.” It got so many negative reactions the comment section was taken down a day later. It is now impossible to verify any of the racist vitriol that was submitted there. But that wasn’t the end of it anyway. Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page said they found the commercial “disgusting” and it made them “want to vomit.” One viewer expressed shock that a Black father would stay with this family writing the mother was, “More like single parent in the making. Black dad will dip out soon.” Simultaneously a Reddit stream on the ad turned into a debate about the accuracy or likelihood of the mixed-race family comprising a Black man and White woman, rather than a Black woman and White man. The negative responses drew explosive and infuriated attention across the Internet and then media. The result was an overwhelming and massive outpouring of support. America rushed to defend the bi-racial family en masse. Now, if you Google “Cheerios ad,” there will be no end to the pages and pages of results you find. Indeed as I write, the commercial has received close to 3.5 million views. The comments section is still disabled.

A couple weeks later, the saga seems to be coming to a close. Americans are still a little shaken but ultimately appeased by the final tally (i.e. the dramatic outnumbering of positive to negative responses). To date however the discussion never really included an examination of some critical points that could have propelled us forward. And so we may continue to tread water. First, we have been greatly influenced here by a history we like to forget and neglect. We have long feared interracial unions particularly between Black men and White women because they presumably pose the greatest “threat” to White male control. Remember, 18th and 19th century opposition to race mixing aimed to protect White male interests in an era of colonial expansion. While Black women’s lives were tragically treated as inconsequential, male freedom to choose a White partner made access to White women a barometer of power. For instance, when White men, who held the highest position of privilege, crossed the racial border in having consentual and nonconsentual relationships with Black women, they were seldom penalized. But Black men who crossed, or who were even suspected of crossing the racial divide by having relations with White women, were severely beaten or killed. These social politics rooted themselves in stereotypes that still profoundly affect us:

“Black men are thought to lust after white women; white men are thought to be envious of black male sexuality; black women are supposed to be more sexually satisfying than white women; and white women are dehumanized as trophies in competition between men…The system of racial apartheid and oppression that defined the early years of this country’s racial history remains in force today. Racial and sexual stereotypes are still very powerful, and double standards still abound. White men were ever vigilant about black men’s sexual access to white women – and they still are.”1

Second, I think it’s worth asking which character really had us up in arms. The mother, the father, or the CHILD?? I suggest it was the body/appearance/phenotype of a young multiracial child who centrally sparked this race controversy. Her character represented living proof of sex between a Black man and White woman, fanning an age-old fear of Black male virility and the dismantling of White supremacy. The Cheerios child also embodied a commitment to longevity on the part of her parents. This was not a tale of dangerous romance swept up on wild winds, but the story of a steadfast family living their every day life. The message being, we’re not going anywhere; a direct challenge and deconstruction of what has long been the dominant American family prototype (i.e. White heterosexual parents and their White children, a dog and house with white picket fence).

(Image from here)

What’s perhaps even more important to note here however is the way a multiracial body again became a platform for race deconstruction while its voice and experience went largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. And how we continue to avoid having race conversations with mixed children and perhaps most children in general. Much of the Cheerios debate has been dichotomous and adultcentric, focusing on interracial partnership/marriage and the Black/White divide. But we need to ask ourselves, how does the divide translate for the mixed race child? Does she herself feel divided when she sees she is poised precariously on a tight rope in “the middle”? These are the children of the future and they are being asked to represent race redefinition without the privilege of weighing in. Case in point, when MSNBC interviewed the child actress, Grace Colbert, and her real-life parents, her Black father was asked most of the race questions. His daughter meanwhile bore silent witness while sitting attentively at his side. And when Grace’s White mother, sitting on her other side, was asked if the backlash had “pushed sensitive conversations at home” with the kids, mom answered, “Not really. Um our kids are very open. And you know they – I inquired about, to my daughter, about it and she actually just thought the attention was because she had a great smile. So. She really had no idea.” This answer was given within obvious close hearing range of Grace’s fully capable ears. Grace just wordlessly continued to flash her great smile. But we are left to wonder – what was she really thinking?…

~ Sharon Chang blogs at MultiAsianFamilies

Note 1. See Root, Maria P. P. Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.

Mixed Race, Pretty Face

It was once thought multiracial children were destined to be confused, inwardly conflicted and maladjusted. “Think of the children”, used to be the warning used to discourage interracial couples from marrying. Mixed-race children often faced discrimination and prejudice. Experts worried that these children would suffer from poor self-esteem and lack of identity (Fields, Julianna. Multiracial Families: The Changing Face of Modern Families. Broomall, PA: Mason Crest, 2010.)

The “tragic mulatto” archetype was featured prominently in American culture (Show Boat, 1951).

Usually female, she embodied dislocation, incompatibility and confusion. Similarly we often saw the heartrending, Native American/White “half-blood” (Dances With Wolves, 1990) and in Yellow Peril fiction, the interracial love affair that ends tragically (Sayonara, 1951). (Nakashima, Cynthia L. “Servants of Culture: The Symbolic Role of Mixed-Race Asians in American Discourse,” Pp.35-57 in The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed Heritage Asian Americans.  Ed. Teresa Williams-León and Cynthia L. Nakashima. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. ).

Things have certainly changed.

 

In 1993, TIME Magazine published a special issue on multiculturalism in America. The now well-known cover featured an ethnically ambiguous woman over the caption “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society”. Their model however was not a real person. Her image was computer generated by merging men and women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The editors felt she was a preview of what was likely to emerge in tomorrow’s America (). She was bold, beautiful, and significant enough to capture a prominent magazine cover. I remember being a young multiracial woman in Los Angeles when this issue was released (at a time when there weren’t near as many multiracial people). I was mesmerized. Perhaps I swelled with some pride and dignity knowing I was a part of the “future”.

 

Well that future seems to have arrived. According to the 2010 Census, those identifying with multiple races grew by 32% over the decade, for a total of 9 million while single-race identifiers grew by just 9.2%. A February 2012 Pew Research report showed the number of intermarriages has more than doubled since 1980. It credited growing public acceptance of mixed-race relationships as one reason for the rise.

Nowadays it’s all about “Multiracial Chic”. Being mixed is the coolest thing you can be. Take for example the 2006 Psychology Today article “Mixed Race, Pretty Face?” detailing a study which suggested part Asians are considered more beautiful than their monoracial counterparts.  Such pieces lauding the beauty of mixed race peoples abound. And this wide admiration is clearly visible in pop culture. Multiracial models are taking over advertising, plastered across billboards and magazines. Mixed race actors and pop stars are on the rise.

 

So what does this racial shift mean for our “global” future? Interestingly, the bodies of multiracial peoples (rather than their experiences) are now often being cited as proof that we have become a “postracial” society where racism is frowned upon and ethnic diversity is celebrated. Multiracial people supposedly breakdown racial boundaries just by their mere existence. Their ambiguous appearance alone is enough to destabilize and ultimately eradicate white privilege and the racial hierarchy. Others are beginning to contest this claim. Some predict that growing numbers of mixed race Americans will lead to a new racial hierarchy based on pigment, like those characterizing most Latin American countries. What may look like the “end of race” as more people of color gain political, social, and cultural visibility actually veils a redistribution of power. And multiracial people themselves are perhaps getting caught in the crosshairs, blurring the boundaries between whiteness and nonwhiteness even as they receive certain privileges that historically have been conferred upon those with white bodies (Park, Jane. “Virtual Race: The Racially Ambiguous ActionHero in The Matrix and Pitch Black”. Mixed Race Hollywood.  Ed. Mary Beltrán and Camilla Fojas. New York and London: New York University Press, 2008. 182-202. Print.).

 

It begs the question. How will the children of today feel about their multiraciality as they come of age in this new America? Will they be the enlightened world leaders of a model “postracial” society? Or will they find themselves entrenched in a new, confusing racial hierarchy with redefined standards. One in which some of them are privileged and others are not?

 

~ Sharon Chang’s blog is MultiAsian Families

“Mongolian Spots”

My son was born with a large bruise-like birthmark on his low back and buttocks. Not overly concerned, but curious, we asked our White nurse about it. She told us it was called a “Mongolian spot.” Both my husband and I must have had a visible reaction, because she quickly followed with, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do.” A year later I recounted this story to a white family member (whom I am close to and love dearly). He didn’t see a problem. Thought I was overreacting. The conservation quickly deteriorated into a heated argument. Not knowing my history I was helpless to defend myself. Wasn’t “Mongolian,” he wondered, just a harmless – maybe even nice – reference to the people of Mongolia?

Um, no.

Mongolian spots are congenital birthmarks found on the lower backs, buttocks, sides and sometimes shoulders, of primarily infants with East Asian heritage (but also East African, Native American, Polynesians, Micronesians and Latin American). They typically disappear 3-5 yrs after birth.

(Image source)

The term was coined by German internist and anthropologist Erwin Bälz who spent 27 years in Japan and is considered cofounder of its modern (western) medicine. In 1881 he married a Japanese woman and had two multiracial Asian children of his own. In 1902, he was appointed personal physician-in-waiting to Emperor Meiji and the Imperial household of Japan. Finding blue spots on Japanese babies, he thought these spots were characteristic of Johann Bluembach’s “Mongoloid” race, and named them accordingly.

Johann Friedrich Bluembach was a massively influential figure in the development of race as we know it today. Sometimes referred to as the “Father of Scientific Anthropology” or the “Founding Father of Craniometry,” he laid out the scientific template for contemporary race categories.

 

(Illustration source)

 

In his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, he mapped a hierarchical pyramid of 5 human types (founded on the description of human skulls):

 

  1. the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race
  2. the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race
  3. the Malayan or “brown” race
  4. the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race
  5. the American or “red” race

 

Though Blumenbach strongly opposed slavery and believed in the potential equality of all people, he placed “Caucasians” at the top of his pyramid because a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains was to him “the most beautiful form of the skull, from which…the others diverge.” Many European scholars at the time showed tremendous interest in the Caucasus Mountains, particularly the holy “Mount Ararat.” It was there, according to the Old Testament (Genesis 8: 4), that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood. Supporting a Judeo-Christian worldview, Bluembach considered the Caucasus Mountains to be the birthplace of humankind (i.e. only Europeans) and that the Mongolian and the Ethiopian had diverged from the Caucasian. By stark contrast, it is thought his use of “Mongoloid” derived from the Mongol people who caused great terror throughout Eurasia during the Mongol Empire invasions.

The words “Mongol”, “Mongolian”, “Mongoloid” had been extensively used throughout European history since the 13th century usually in a negative manner (see also this and this).

Blumenbach’s works themselves were not widely read in early America but American academics (notably Samuel George Morton) distorted and recast them. This “scientific” image of man went on to form the basis of modern racial theory, and hence racism. Today, in addition to obvious negative socio-political associations, the term “Mongoloid” is also considered derogatory by the scientific community due to its association with discredited models of racial classification. I believe most would agree all the –oid racial terms (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc.) are controversial and offensive no matter how they are used.

And yet, despite its insidious history and racist associations, we continue to use “Mongolian spot” to label a physical appearance of our young Asian and multiracial Asian children. In fact, I have even heard it used endearingly, or sweetly, as a signal of the child “belonging” to Asian culture. Interesting to me how our nurse deferred blame to some unidentifiable other, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do,” denying her role as an active agent in perpetuating the term. As a postpartum nurse she is on the frontline. She is in every day contact with hundreds, probably thousands, of parents of Asian and multiracial Asian children. Bewildered by the entry of a new person into their life, I’m sure many of these parents tiredly accept “Mongolian spot” on her medical authority, and then move on to try to figure out the incredible tasks of breastfeeding and/or sleeping. I suspect no one would reprimand her if she simply started saying, “O that’s just a birthmark. Sometimes we see those types of birthmarks on Asian babies.” Just leave out the “Mongolian” all together.

So what’s stopping her?

What’s stopping us?

 

~ Sharon Chang, originally posted at Multiethnic & Multiracial Asian Families

Universal Racial Justice: Priority #1



In response to a recent New York Times article entitled “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above”, which suggests mixed race teens are “beginning to reject the “one-drop rule” and embrace their multiple racial heritages,” Tuesday, John McWhorter, conservative author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, wrote an article in The Root entitled “Let’s Stop Being Angry at Biracial People.” In typical McWhorter fashion, the author was very critical of Blacks arguing they are “adopting the racial-classification strategies of Strom Thurmond” and other white supremacist by encouraging biracials to identify as Black. McWhorter’s argument could not be further from the truth. Black animosity toward multiracials does not stem from internalizing white racist classification schemes. Blacks’ hostility toward multiracialism stems from biracials privileging their personal identities over the universal struggle of people of color against white supremacy. Supporting this claim, Natalie, a respondent in my current project looking at the multiracial movement, suggests:

They [the multiracial movement] need to become more aware of the politics of race in the United States rooted in equality concerns not cultural identity concerns. Cultural identity is fluid and highly personal, but racial justice is a need for the collective to embrace with an understanding of how nonwhites are viewed.

Natalie, as well as sociologists Rainier Spencerand Jared Sexton, suggests, the problems between biracials and Blacks are rooted in biracials placing a higher priority on personal identity recognition than on universal racial justice. McWhorter’s argument is based on a false assumption and only serves to frame Blacks as racist and pathological–as much of his work does. Arguing Blacks are the party championing racism, it is McWhorter who has embraced the colorblind lie and denial of the systemic nature of race in America.

In McWhorter’s argument, Black anger toward the multiracial project stems not just from accepting the white racist classification system, but also from deep feelings of self-hate. According to McWhorter:

That anger comes from insult — specifically, a sense that Troy must think he’s better than they are. After all, why couldn’t they just allow that Troy has had a different life from theirs? Or, more simply, open up to the obvious fact that some people are genetically (and culturally) more black than others? Those would be perfectly natural responses. Thinking that Troy looks down on you is just one alternative. And that alternative can feel natural only to someone who deep down does feel that being black is somehow lowly. [Emphasis added]

This excerpt reveals McWhorter’s assumptions about Blacks. In this statement it is clear McWhorter believes Blacks feel themselves to be a “lowly” and inferior race and thus perceive expressions of multiraciality to be offensive. However, as evidenced in their rich counter-frames, Blacks have historically maintained a positive self-image despite whites’ assault on their personhood.

It is whites who view blackness as a lowly status, not Blacks. The historical record shows McWhorter’s assumption of Black self-loathing to be clearly incorrect. After this assumption is shown to be false, McWhorter’s argument collapses. Once it is shown Blacks love themselves, McWhorter doesn’t have an argument because Black self-hate is the core of why he believes Blacks oppose multiracialism.. Therefore, biracials being encouraged to identify as Black is not an act of anger for “looking down on Blackness” or “letting racism win.” The frustration Blacks feel toward the multiracial project is a result of Blacks commitment to racial justice, not self-hate or internalizing racist classification schemes as McWhorter suggests.

New Education Report: High Levels of Racial Inequality, Again



The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a very interesting and revealing 2010 statistical report– Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups–on children and parents, with a main emphasis on educational issues. Here are just a few of their findings:
Little Rock Nine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Snodgrass

The percentages of children who were living in poverty were higher for Blacks (34 percent), American Indians/Alaska Natives (33 percent), Hispanics (27 percent), and Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders (26 percent), than for children of two or more races (18 percent), Asians (11 percent) and Whites (10 percent).

Forty-eight percent of public school 4th-graders were eligible for free or reduced- price lunches in 2009, including 77 percent of Hispanic, 74 percent of Black, 68 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native, 34 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 29 percent of White 4th-graders.

These revealing data show extreme poverty levels for major groups of color, with very high levels qualifying for reduced-price or free lunches. Among other things the data demonstrate huge problems of structural inequality and racism that seem to be off the white-controlled policy agenda for the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In 2008, some 44 percent of White 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in colleges and universities, while in 1980 some 28 percent were enrolled. In addition, approximately 32 percent of Black 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in colleges or universities (an increase of 12 percentage points from 1980) and 26 percent of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled (an increase of 10 percentage points from 1980).

Inequality and structural racism at lower grades contribute substantially to inequalities up the line at college. Here, again, very substantial differentials. Some other data also tell us something significant about current immigration and demographic patterns:

In 2008, a higher percentage of Asian children (51 percent) had a mother with at least a bachelor’s degree than did White children (36 percent), children of two or more races (31 percent), Black children (17 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native children (16 percent), and Hispanic children (11 percent).

The Asian children are more likely to be the children of documented immigrants, who have come in under a biased U.S. immigration system that increasingly tends to “cream off” the world’s middle and upper middle classes. Thus, many documented immigrants come in with college degrees and some social or economic capital that facilitates socioeconomic their and their children’s mobility in the U.S. Other children of color are no so fortunate, including those who are the children of undocumented Latino immigrants. Other data are also revealing:

In 2007, a higher percentage of White (18 percent) children ages 12 to 17 reported drinking alcohol in the past month than did their Hispanic (15 percent) peers, peers of two or more races (13 percent), and Black (10 percent) and Asian (8 percent) peers.

I wonder why we do not have white leaders and politicians talking a lot about the “white problem” of drug (alcohol) use among white youth in the U.S.

And like other studies they also show the trend toward an more diverse society where whites are gradually becoming a statistical minority, especially among children:

Between 1980 and 2008, the racial/ethnic composition of the United States shifted— the White population declined from 80 percent of the total population to 66 percent; the Hispanic population increased from 6 percent of the total to 15 percent; the Black population remained at about 12 percent; and the Asian/Pacific Islander population increased from less than 2 percent of the total population to 4 percent. In 2008, American Indians/Alaska Natives made up about 1 percent and people of two or more races made up about 1 percent of the population.

And these demographic changes continue at a fast pace today.

Diversity in University Administration – Myth or Reality?

[Note: I am posting this anonymously for someone who knows these issues very well from the inside.]

Frequently on college campuses you will hear people say that there are too many administrators and their pay is too high. Few understand the fragile and precarious working conditions of administrators. Unlike faculty whose careers promote individualistic accomplishments solidified through tenure, university administrators typically serve without employment protection or tenure to support the success of the whole institution.

Diverse administrators are only beginning to break the glass ceiling in the 277 American research universities. Only a decade ago, no Hispanic female administrators had been appointed, and between 1997 and 2007 this number increased 207 percent to 2665 a decade later. Over 80 percent of the incumbents in administrative roles are white, with white non-Hispanic women now outnumbering their male counterparts in 41% of these positions.

Yet women and minorities tend to be clustered in lower ranking administrative positions. For example, a revealing study by the American Council of Education in 2007 indicates that only 10 percent of chief academic officers are minorities, and women represent only 23 percent of incumbents in senior academic roles, the typical pathway to the presidency (See pdf here).

These statistics still indicate that leadership and decision-making in the research university mirror the racial stratification of our society. As social theorist Joe Feagin points out in The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing (2010), “we still live in a very hierarchical society in racial, class, and gender terms, one where white men continue to make the lion’s share of major decisions about our economic development, laws, and major public policies” (p. 193).9780415994392

Going beyond the numbers, however, new research on micro-inequities, micro-invalidations, and micro-aggressions illuminates how forms of everyday discrimination can still isolate, marginalize and exclude diverse individuals in the workplace. Take Stephen Young’s ground-breaking book on Micro-messaging. Micromessages are small, cumulative behaviors with monumental impact. These micro-inequities can take place through facial expressions, hand gestures, choice of words, eye contact, and tone of voice and reveal what is behind the masks that connect myths of incompetence with race, gender, and other factors. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University describes the cumulative impact of micro-aggressions, micro-invalidation, and micro-assaults that create unfair disparities between minority and majority individuals.

In the effort to develop new leadership models within the university that emphasize empowerment, collaboration, and equity, women, minority and LGBT administrators have an important role to play in the change process. Through collective action and mutual support, they can lead institutional efforts to create systemic organizational learning initiatives, institutional policies and processes that help overcome subtle forms of discrimination and foster inclusive excellence.