Black and White and Read All Over

If you're mixed-race, they never stop asking 'What are you?'

It's back in the '90s in San Francisco. I'm undergoing a wisdom tooth extraction, hovering happily in nitrous oxide–land, when I vaguely hear a voice beam in. The dentist has asked me something. I attempt to focus—has my blissed-out fog really been penetrated by that question, that dreaded demand of the racially ambiguous: "What are you"?

"Ummm, uhhhh," I mumble in universal dental garble. "Well, one thing I am is not so high anymore."

As the product of extensive mixing and moving, I hardly know where to begin or end in alleviating people's curiosity (even yours, dear reader). Let's just say that if you appear racially indeterminable, you are read all over. As in from head to toe, as in wherever you go. Like any other unstraightforward or indecipherable text, ambiguous bodies are given a close reading, between the lines. And if that fails to clarify matters, any serious reader will consult a primary source: you. You become an informant, other people's resource for more information. It's an intervention into your everyday existence that can happen anyplace, anytime, by anyone. You are interpreted, your body a sign, forever decoded and discerned.

Tracy Chapman! Whitney Houston! No, it's Naomi Pabst.
photo: Robin Holland
Tracy Chapman! Whitney Houston! No, it's Naomi Pabst.

The infamous "What are you?" question gets ample screen time in a new documentary film, Chasing Daybreak, put out by the MAVIN Foundation, an interracial-advocacy organization. The film, released on January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday, endeavors to increase awareness about "America's mixed- heritage baby boom" and foster dialogue about diversity and the ever changing demographic makeup of this country. Chasing Daybreak chronicles the "Generation MIX National Awareness Tour," which sent five variously mixed twenty-somethings on a 10,000-mile road trip across America in a 26-foot RV.

There is no filmmaker per se, just the five travelers and their crew, recording themselves and the people they encounter. One encounter they relate is with a Southern sheriff who demands to know, "What's your ethnicity?" The film is compelling, but it is "not trying to be fancy," says MAVIN's founder and president, Matt Kelley. The point, he continues, "was not to feature so-called experts who would wax eloquent about contemporary issues of race mixing, hybridity, and ambiguity, but rather to show enthusiastic, interested individuals who could engage with the public and with viewers in an accessible way."

But what exactly is this so-called "Generation Mix" and this would-be "mixed-heritage baby boom"? Kelley suggests that while there have of course been mixed-race people for as long as different races have resided together, we now see the first critical mass of adamantly multiracial people in America—teens and twentysomethings like these. I agree that race mixing, and not just in the well-known crime of white-on-black rape, has been more prevalent than is generally acknowledged, and that at first glance mixing seems to be a common enough occurrence these days. It is true that intermixing is on the rise, especially in places like New England and more so on the West Coast. But once talk turns to population "booms" and "generations," we need to note that the numbers remain much smaller than one might think.

This is especially true for black and white mixing. Currently, approximately 5 percent of all American marriages are between people of different races. And since 1967, the year the Supreme Court legalized marriage between blacks and whites, rates of black-white intermarriage have jumped radically indeed, from 1 percent to around 5 percent of all marriages involving a black person. The relatively small numbers don't take away from the social significance of race mixing, but rather add to it. That the overwhelming majority of people still stick to "their own" makes the exceptions stand out and seem more common than they actually are, while also exacerbating the widespread fetishization of all things interracial.

One time, with friends at a restaurant, I notice this white guy, a total stranger, scrutinizing me from across the room. He ambles over to ask, "How is anybody supposed to be able to tell you're black?"

I suspect, though I can't be sure, that in an unintentionally ironic way, this man is telling me not so much that I look white, but that I look white for a black person. On another occasion I am told, "You know, you almost look mulatto." There are those who insist that I look 100 percent white, while others hold fervently that I look black and they never would have thought I was biracial. And then some tell me anybody can spot from a mile away that I am a blend of black and white. A final camp maintains that I look neither black nor white nor in-between, but like something else altogether.

This ongoing commentary is un- solicited. It is as though the confusion you generate in others gets projected onto you—you must be confused. And people are eager to help clarify things, for your own good, by telling you "what you are." Your being mixed is an enigma, an anomaly, an assault on a common-sense logic that insists on neatly categorizing and sorting people.

Often, the first word I hear from others after offering up the personal information they've requested of me is "but." People protest. They make suggestions. Should I happen to say I'm black, I'm told, "But . . . you're not really black," or " . . . you must have a white parent," or " . . . you look more this or you seem more that." And if I say I'm black and white, I'm subjected to a mini-lesson in American racial ideology: But that means you're black. It only takes a drop. When you're walking down the street, people will see you as black and treat you as if you are. And if there's a race war, no one's going to care, let alone ask you if you're half white.

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