Black and White and Read All Over

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

OK, so why did you ask me?

You see this phenomenon with multi-racial celebrities who have some African ancestry. Take, for instance, the treatment of Halle Barry. When she wins an NAACP Image Award, tongues of all backgrounds wag about how a mixed woman won it, how black is she anyway. If she publicly discusses her white mother, as she is often called upon to do, she is accused of capitalizing on her ties to whiteness—when is she going to realize she's black?

Tiger Woods's claiming on Oprah to be "Caublinasian" (Caucasian, black, native, and Asian) caused a public outcry. The audience pounced on him, and I still hear his self-designation tsk-tsk'd and scoffed at in a variety of settings. And while he was ostensibly trying to claim all of who he is, black included, he was seen more as trying to distance himself from his blackness and perhaps even to "whiten" himself.

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

But we are getting somewhere. An academic field called "critical mixed-race studies" is developing in American universities. Mixed-race students on these campuses are forming support groups and holding national conferences. A grassroots movement brought about a key change on the 2000 census, allowing you to check more than one box for race. And several organizations have come into being that advocate for mixed-race individuals and families, the MAVIN Foundation being chief among them.

In addition to their Generation Mix film, they produce MAVIN magazine, they've published a Multiracial Child Resource Book, and they are coordinating a multiracial bone marrow drive.

For tots, there's a new line of dolls called Real Kidz, with five models of different mixed persuasions because, as the website puts it, "All children should have dolls that look like them." There's also Swirl Syndicate, a new T-shirt company founded by Leigh-Ann Jackson. One of her clothing creations features the words "I'm Swirled" beneath a picture of a chocolate and vanilla soft-serve ice cream cone. You can get "Black and White and Loved All Over," and "Multi-Culti Cutie," and "I'm a little bit of everything." As Jackson puts it on her website, "It's a cute little way to give props to kids who are going to have to field really annoying questions—for the rest of their lives."

For adults, there's Multiracial Apparel, founded by Rudy Guevarra. He offers T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, stickers and the like, and says he "wanted to create and share a clothing line that acknowledges and celebrates our experiences as multiracial/multiethnic people." The clothes feature sayings such as "Beautifully Blended," "Team Hapa—Multiracial," and (drumroll, please) "What Are You?"

I personally wouldn't wear any of these or put them on my kid, mind you. Aesthetics alone would prevent that. And then there's my distaste for the idea of wearing race so literally on one's sleeve, added to my discomfort with the selling, marketing, and commodification of race. But above all, it seems to me that to wear such logos would be to give in to society's fascination with race mixing, to become complicit in my own objectification.

MAVIN's Matt Kelley says one of the risks run by the participants in Chasing Daybreak was that they'd be accused of enjoying people's curiosity about their heritage, for why else would they have gone on this nationwide tour drawing attention to it. Kelley puts it well, asserting that it is more a matter of multiracial people wanting "to take agency, to turn the questions around, or even to preempt uncomfortable questions."

The crisis of classification is not just an American phenomenon. Take for instance the time I am sauntering carelessly through a piazza in Rome when a remarkably handsome man establishes eye contact. He opens his mouth to speak and it is not the anticipated come-on, but the word "nigger" that seethes through his lips.

Mostly, throughout that sojourn, the men, and I'm talking strangers, say fetching things to me like "Black women are so beautiful. Champagne for you, on the house!" It's a celebratory, exoticizing form of "othering" particular to Europe that operates alongside stereotypes of black women as prostitutes, drug smugglers, illegal aliens, and in some cases, particularly the case of light-skinned black women, terrorists. Indeed, come time to fly out of Leonardo da Vinci airport, I find the authorities are convinced I may be the latter. They are adamant I look Moroccan; the recent trip to Morocco documented in my American passport makes them all the more nervous.

I flash back wistfully to that North Africa trip, where I had more or less shared the coloring of the masses. I had often been mistaken for one of the long lost. I enjoyed and at times ran with this misrecognition. But was it a misrecognition? Sometimes I suspected it was the Moroccans' very detection of my African American–ness that led to a kindhearted pandering to the well- publicized desire of black diasporic folk to belong somewhere. My suspicions were aroused by the calls of "Tracy Chapman!" and "Whitney Houston!" that sometimes regaled me.

Zoom forward to my predicament in Italy. I'm disturbed that anybody would be treated this way for looking, let alone being, Moroccan. The little interrogation takes awhile but eventually I am released. As it turns out, however, by then an African American tour group has missed their flight and been rerouted onto my plane, filling all the seats. I take the train back to Rome.

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