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.
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.
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.
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.
Twenty-four hours later, back at the airport, there has been a change of staff. Nobody thinks I look Moroccan today. In fact, a flirtatious airline employee puts me in the best available seat on the plane while proclaiming how beloved black women are in Italy. My flight attendant is an African American woman, and she smiles at me warmly. My perception of a bond between us fades as she pleasantly asks me, as part of her job, whether I speak Italian or English. For when I say, “English,” she replies cheerily, “Oh, you could have fooled me! You look straight-up Italian. I thought for sure you were.”
I sigh, more bemused than exasper-ated. The great thinker W.E.B. DuBois spilled much ink explaining what he called “the strange meaning of being black” and the implications of falling to one side of the “color-line” or the other. It seems to me that at the dawning of the 21st century, it is every bit as strange to be racially ambiguous. And that the so-called color-line is far from clear-cut.
Naomi Pabst is a professor in the African American studies and American studies departments at Yale University.