Baby Janay and Naomi Pabst: negotiating race mixing, adoption, and transnationality.
The variety of takes on a particular social phenomenon is an expected part of the human condition--the mass disagreement among people makes things interesting and illuminating, even entertaining. And yet, nobody wants to be alienated, judged harshly, insulted, or misunderstood, especially for matters of identity that cannot be helped. Most people would not hesitate to participate in a debate on whether black and white people should date or marry. Though even to argue in favor of it is, in a way, to consent to the legitimacy of a debate that, in this day and age, has little legitimacy. The same goes for the hotly contested topic of interracial adoption. The September 2008 issue of Ebony, for instance, features an article entitled, "Should Black Children Only Be Adopted by Black Parents?" The piece earnestly weighs both sides of the argument. And some also question whether transnational adoption should be discouraged or allowed.
The crossing of perceived cultural, racial, and national boundaries carries a built-in reminder that such boundaries are more of an illusion and a false construct than we tend to realize. We must broaden narrow-minded paradigms of race, culture, ethnicity, nationality, identity, affiliation, and belonging. And we must establish mixedness, overlap, and crossover as the utterly normal things they are. It is imperative that we bring to the fore the many manifestations, past and present, of an interracial and intercultural reality. To those who insist that hybridity is something that should be curtailed and problematized, to those who are invested in groupthink, a politics of sameness, and retaining the stares quo, to those who believe that a hybrid social location is fodder for debate, I say why not be more visionary? Why not be more imaginative and flexible? Why not expand our collective consciousness, be more forward thinking, and get over some of our limitations already?
BABY JANAY is the name that was meticulously typed onto the hospital records, the adoption records, and my birth certificate when I first came into the world. Who named me that no one remembers now. My biological mother, whom I met when I was nineteen, has a vague recollection of choosing the name. But she remains uncertain as to whether it was actually an obstetric nurse or the social worker that handled my foster care arrangement and then my adoption at the age of six weeks. For those first weeks I had no formal ties of belonging in the way of family or culture. You could say I was sheer human essence, free and untethered in a way that can be a blessing. My destiny--whatever its contours would come to look like--was a grand adventure waiting to unfold. Or you might say I was born without a last name, a people, or a home. Or you could see it both ways.
It is fitting I wound up a professor, because I was conceived on a college campus. It was 1968, an apocalyptic year. The Civil Rights Movement was a loudly protruding backdrop for an interracial relationship between two college seniors, even if Minneapolis, Minnesota, my place of birth, was hardly the movement's epicenter. Just one year earlier, a Supreme Court case called Loving vs. Virginia had legislated that marriage between blacks and whites was henceforth legal in all American states. My parents did get married--and have stayed married--albeit tying the knot two years after having me. And they had been together for two years by the time I was born. But when I came along, the pregnancy took them by surprise and neither of them felt equipped to take on the pressures of parenting a child, more particularly a biracial child. I admired my mother's candor when she took the risk of telling me, cringing with remorse, that if she is honest about it, race was the key reason I was put up for adoption.
My mother explained how her Swedish-American family disapproved of her relationship with my father. She had not been raised to be racist and was shocked to discover such small-minded attitudes being held by people she held so dear. Her father practically disowned her, though he changed his position a few years later. Mso my mother's aunt tried to set her straight, sneering with disgust, "cows don't mate with horses." My mother also underscored that on the national level, 1960s racial tensions were at an all-time boiling point. She spoke of the intense embattlements of that era, the prejudice and discrimination added to the deep-seated taboos around race mixing and out-of-wedlock birth. These things were of issue back then with a magnitude that is difficult for many of us to comprehend today. Looking at me and looking at my life, you wouldn't necessarily know at first glance the degree to which my personal path has been powerfully and fundamentally shaped by race and racism.
I consider myself fortunate, all in all. Through life's ups and downs, I endeavor to keep a positive outlook, to be grateful for the advantages, the opportunities, the life-experience, and the exposure to people, places, and ideas that I have enjoyed. Yes, I have been privileged. And yet it would be a mistake to conclude that based on color, class, career, or a measure of cosmopolitanism, that mine has been a life of good fortune only. Being mixed will inevitably include painful experiences of oppression, though discrimination against mixed people is often disavowed, invisible, marginalized, and not given credence within conversations about racial oppression.
To be racially mixed is to stand alongside other people of color in navigating various inescapable racial realities, and in sharing an underdog position within the Western world's legacy of white supremacy. W.E.B. Du Bois famously called this legacy "the problem of the color-line," back in 1903 (3). Despite his own hybridity, in Du Bois's formulation people occupy one side of the line or the other. But the truth is that some of us live on the line itself and something interesting happens when that is the case. If you are on the color-line, in the racial borderland, you are still subject to discrimination for not being on the right side of the line. The weight of this might be lightened somewhat; you will be privileged and disadvantaged simultaneously. However, you will also be subject to discrimination for being on the line, because the color-line proper is not considered a tenable social location.
Mixed Race Oppression
THERE EXISTS a version of oppression that is explicitly anti-mixed race. There is, as I like to put it, an existential deviation within an existential deviation, a custom-designed form of discrimination and prejudice and all the more so, a profound incomprehension and condescension that is specifically geared toward mixed people. Historically, in a U.S. context, being the product of a black and a white parent was to confront common assumptions about one's illegitimacy, literally, as decreed by anti-miscegenation laws. Popular belief dictated that if you were mixed, you should not exist, a view bolstered powerfully by the fact that your existence was against the law. As such you were considered less than, which in turn conjured up a slew of anti-mixed-race prejudices and stereotypes that operated alongside of anti-black ones. As scholar Robert J.C. Young writes, no one in human history has been so maligned and "so demonized as those of mixed race" (180).
Our present-day attitudes toward mixed people operate as a palimpsest with historical ones. That is to say that while attitudes have changed, in many cases dramatically, they still retain certain historical underpinnings. A Larry Elder Show episode I watched on television a few short years ago brought this point home. The show featured three sets of guests, all of whom refused to accept their white daughter's relationship with a black man. Here we were, well into the new millennium, and for me it all harkened back to decades ago in the 1960s when my own grandfather was voicing equally troubling opinions to my mother, a time when I wound up on the adoption market precisely because of these kinds of ignorant attitudes.
As the show unfolded, each guest insisted that she or he was adamantly not racist and had nothing against black people. They just didn't agree that race mixing should occur. One biracial woman in the audience stood up to testify in defense of her kind, and was told, point blank, by several of the guests, that she should not exist. Nobody told Larry Elder that he should not exist. In fact, several of the guests expressed their respect for and approval of Elder as a black man, for his accomplishments, and for being an admirable human being by any measurement. They just insisted that he had better not try to date their daughter. This is, of course, a racist attitude toward a black man, couched in the nonsense language of, "I'm not a racist but ..." However, it is also the case that in this logic, racial difference is acceptable, while racial mixing is not.
ONE CAN DRAW THE CONCLUSION, then, that just as mixed people can experience preference in certain settings, we can also experience a unique form of ill will and animosity. Bearing this in mind, we can see the overcompensation in the oft-heard slogan that to be mixed is to have "the best of both worlds." It is also revealed as ironic that some think it purely beneficial to be socially designated as black and yet to have biological or other ties to non-black groups. Indeed many insist that being mixed is a matter of unmitigated privilege, perhaps even a form of racial transcendence. But it is simply not true. While some believe that the "less black" you are, the better you automatically have it, this fails to account for the specific issues presented by being perceptibly mixed. Indeed, I wonder if widespread assumptions of our privilege are actually a facet of mixed race oppression, as these assumptions cause an equally widespread disavowal and dismissal of the discrimination we do confront.
The degree to which we are seen as exempt from, or above and beyond discrimination, along with the degree to which we are forever being asked to cop to our in-between-ness and inauthenticity ("you're not really black"), corresponds to the degree to which people get let off the hook for their ignorance and negative attitudes about mixed people and race mixing. Unfortunately, we see bias against interracial people and interracial life not only among random, under-exposed mainstream Americans, but just as much in would-be progressive, would-be anti-racist, widely disseminated scholarship written by highly educated people. As one among many possible examples, in Fighting Words, Patricia Hill Collins problematizes the orientations of black women who have lacked in our upbringings, as she puts it, "access to historically created and shared Black feminist wisdom" (Collins 227). She also argues that accounting for the diversity among black women is unnecessary, "trivial," and "apolitical" (Collins 150). In the first edition of her book Black Feminist Thought, she overlooks interraciality entirely and repeatedly references black mother-daughter bonds without once acknowledging that some black women's mothers are not black.
One might expect that the remedy to this oversight would be inclusiveness, awareness, and sensitivity. But instead, the revised second edition of Black Feminist Thought makes fleeting mention of "the birth of biracial children," not as an additional population of black women to be contended with, but as an affront to real black women (Collins 165). In Collins' hands, black women do not give birth to biracial children. Instead, they "ironically ... remain called upon to accept and love the mixed-race children born to their brothers, friends, and relatives... [children] who at the same time represent tangible reminders of their own rejection" by black men (Collins 165).
To read her words generously, Collins is speaking to legitimate matters of hierarchy, internalized oppression, and anti-black racism. But she goes wrong in placing the weight of these matters on the shoulders of mixed people. To place such deep symbolic value on any category of living, breathing human beings is discriminatory and insulting. It is never wise to look upon any category of humans as a "reminder" of anything. Indeed, seeing things this way generates its own set of problems. In Collins' case, the problem lies not in mixed race identity, nor in what it might represent, but rather in her own skewed, unfair, and inhumane perceptions of what it means to be mixed. Negative attitudes toward mixed people and race mixing reify oppression and forms of discrimination we should all be seeking to dismantle.
Insults, Injuries, the Fruit of Ignorance
SOMETIMES, mixed people encounter a more covert form of hostility: suspicion. Without regard to who we are or what we represent as individuals, people are prone to distrust, challenge, and have doubts about us. Early on in Barack Obama's presidential bid, Cornel West let it be known that he was "suspicious" of Obama, not because of his political views, but because he is a product of the "white establishment." Given that West himself is entrenched in the white establishment, we can safely assume that for him, the "problem" is Obama's beloved mother, grandparents, and other family members. West is perpetuating a problem, an anti-mixed race problem. For many of us have no choice about our ties to whiteness, nor is their any just reason to stigmatized them per se. And people could choose to learn something from that background, rather than pre-judging it. For instance, our intrinsic ties to multiple categories place in relief the degree to which all people are interconnected even through our various power differentials. Our multiple belongings make a mockery of any sharp "us vs. them" divide.
Despite my ineluctable ties to whites, I have not escaped the reality of being black. Anti-black name-calling is one black experience I haven't been able to sidestep. As one among other instances, I have a scar on the middle of my back that I received while a child after being called "nigger" and shoved from the top of a towering slide. Mind you, it was my white older sister who came to my rescue, and my white mother who tended to me and bandaged me up. That is the layered reality of life among whites. Also, while being mixed can bring a type of objectifying, exotifying flattery from some quarters, there are also all sorts of disparaging names reserved for mixed people: "dirty half-breed," "mongrel," "ugly mutt," "yellow bitch" and other put-downs. I have been subject to all of the above, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In younger, more ignorant years, I myself have unintentionally caused offense to the odd black person by asking if they happened to be mixed like me. The fact that I caused insult suggests that among some, having mixed ancestry is okay, while having mixed parentage is decidedly undesirable. I felt bad about the embarrassment I had caused, and yet, I wondered too, could it be that the fact I caused offense was actually insulting to me and to others like me who are mixed at the level of parentage? Then there are the times I have been offered unsolicited reassurance by well-meaning black people, that my being mixed is okay with them. I take to heart the warm outreach represented by these gestures. Yet at the same time, they serve as a reminder that it could have been otherwise. Plus, who can ignore the unintended condescension that broadcasts in such a moment? Is there not something patronizing about others assuming not only that you need their validation, but that they have the authority to offer it?
As somebody who is the product of an interracial kinship structure, my experiences with race are sometimes different than they would be for another black person. Shortly after the birth of my first child, her father, my ex, was slated to drive my mother to the airport. Though I was sleep-deprived, under the weather, and had my hands full with a newborn, he pleaded with me, "Can you please just come along? When people see us, they are going to think I'm with my parole officer." We might find in this plea reason for compassion about the unfavorable ways black men are looked at in American society and about the unfair questions raised in situations where people of different races are placed in contact. And yet there is also irony in my ex's self-protection, as it came at the expense of people like me who have no choice about our ties to whiteness and no control over what people might think when they see us with our kin. In this, a comment such as my ex's, while perhaps understandable if we think only of his position in the racial landscape, is insensitive toward my position as it shows disrespect toward my family and a lack of acceptance of the basic tenets of interracial life.
Abiracial friend tells a story with similar implications about being sick and calling his mother who also happens to be a doctor. His boyfriend at the time clucked and chastised him for "calling some white woman" in his time of need. These are not isolated incidents--they are par for the course if you are of mixed parentage. And it is people of all backgrounds who have the potential to demonstrate this sort of insensitivity toward interracial realities. There was the boy who lived across the back lane from me when I was a child who took every opportunity to warn me that eventually the white members of my family would come to their senses and grow to hate me because I'm black. I think here, also, of a time in my late teens when a white friend invited another friend of hers to come out with the two of us. I overheard her assuring her friend that although I might look black, I am not black. I didn't confront her, though I did allow our friendship to dwindle and dissipate. To this day I remain unsure if she was suggesting I was literally white, if this was a bizarre case of someone else attempting to have me pass. Or maybe she meant to convey that I was "not really black" culturally.
If this former friend was trying to raise my cachet by erasing my blackness, others have called me "white" as a put-down. For mixed people, to be called "white" and told you're "not really black" is an expected part of day-to-day life. Less often, in more extreme situations, you may be called a sell-out, a race traitor, or a "house negro," without regard to your character, solely on the basis of being mixed. Some will defend these antagonistic attitudes, schooling you on the ways that mixed race and light-skinned blacks have been privileged historically and the ways in which such persons have capitalized on that privilege, how they have developed a superiority complex at the expense of darker people. It is only a historical half-truth at best, but even if it were entirely true, does anyone personally deserve to be mistreated because of this history? Silly Alan Keyes relied on this logic back in the Illinois senate race, when he publicly proclaimed that Obama has a "slaveholders mentality." It was ostensibly part of a critique of Obama's politics, but it was really just a personal slam on a person who embodies hybridity. The Keyeses of the world--and fortunately they are in the minority--insist at every turn that the likes of Obama have not experienced discrimination and hence are not black, and yet the irony is that the Keyeses of the world are often the very ones doling out the oppression we do experience!
Errors of Essentializing: Understanding Hybrid Identifies
MORE FREQUENTLY than overt insult, mixed people tend to inspire a "crisis of classification." People do not know what to make of you, how to file you in their personal sorting system. You are enigmatic, anomalous, a mystery. You represent an assault on a common logic hell-bent on categorizing people. Hence you are bombarded with the "What are you?" question. Sometimes it is asked with simple curiosity, and your answer is accepted at face value. Other times the query turns into a debate you didn't ask to participate in, with the questioner authoritatively giving you their interpretation of "what you are." When put in a position where they don't understand something or don't know what to think, some people are prone to judging rather than seeking to become more informed. Too often, when we encounter unfamiliar territory, the ego kicks in and prompts us to become an instant expert, a "know-it-all." What is called for in such situations is humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness. It is as if we are afraid of having our preconceived notions challenged, even when it would be in our personal and collective best interests to grow, to learn, to shift our thinking, and to expand our consciousness.
Scholar George Hutchinson is on point in arguing that interracial matters continue to be "subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked," and that they remain an embattled social terrain, rendered "invisible, untenable, and/or fraudulent" (Hutchinson 330). Those of us working in the arena of critical mixed race studies must actively endeavor to remedy this and to continue to bring legitimacy to this field of inquiry. It is equally important, however, that we not essentialize mixed race experiences, because such experiences are diverse and varied unto themselves and also because they have so much in common with other forms of racial and cultural hybridity. Indeed, the same reception greets those who are of more than one cultural background, those who have more than one nationality, and those who are interracially and/or transnationally adopted. And in my case, I am all of these things at once.
Once, back in graduate school, a black nationalist peer lambasted me for not knowing what a "handkerchief head" was. She knew nothing about me, nor did she wish to. She simply concluded, and told me as much, that I was deficient as a black person. Had she been curious, rather than invested in judging and one-upping, I could have provided some legitimate reasons why my black reference points might differ from hers--for instance, being mixed and raised in integrated environments or having been adopted by white parents or having grown up in Canada. I'm certain my black Canadian peers would have no more familiarity with the reference than I did. But then, plenty of black people in the U.S. would not know the reference either. The point is that it is risky to make broad generalizations or to draw conclusions about what constitutes mixed race matters. Issues are always multi-layered, overlapping, and intersecting, and carry with them a wavy sea of contingencies and alternative considerations.
I METAMORPHOSED from Baby Janay into Naomi Pabst after my placement in a family at the age of six weeks. The fact that my adoptive parents are white tells less about them than some might think. For instance, neither of them is American. And for that matter, I was not raised in the United States. My parents are also themselves a mixed couple for being intercultural. My father is a German immigrant who was born in and spent his early childhood in Kenya, East Africa. The first home he knew was the town of Kisumu, where the movie Out of Africa takes place and where Obama's paternal family stems from. My father met my white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant mother in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where they both attended university. At the time of their meeting, he was a new arrival from Germany and spoke little English. From the outset, my parents had to contend with differences that sometimes felt like barriers, differences of language, custom, and culture that are ongoing despite my father's successfully mastering English and despite the fact that they have by now been married for over fifty years.
In the post-World War II era, anti-German sentiment permeated North America in a way few people seem to realize. Some of the stories I have heard, primarily from my mother, about the way my father was treated in Canada back in the 1950s and 60s are disheartening. Probably they do not compare in scale or in significance to the forms of discrimination experienced by my African American father here in the United States, but they are, on a purely interpersonal level, more similar than one might expect. And not unlike my the objection of my Swedish-American grandfather to my biological parents' union, my WASP Canadian grandfather was initially not at all happy that my mother had chosen to marry a German man. That is to say, that while the experiences of my two sets of parents have been very different from one another, they have not been entirely dissimilar. Both sets of parents have had to confront the challenges of coming from diverse backgrounds, of being put at a disadvantage in certain settings, and of incurring the intense disapproval of intimates and strangers alike.
The arguments against interracial adoption idealize similarity among family members. A featured quote in a large, bold font in the September, 2008 Ebony article on whether interracial adoption should occur reads, "children are best reared in families like themselves" (122). To me the argument is ludicrous, considering the variance within both my adoptive and biological families. Indeed, isn't family life, whatever ours happens to look like, precisely an immersion into a setting fundamentally characterized by human contrasts? I can't think of a family that does not consist of varying types of people, clashes of personality, power differentials, divergent interests, talents, abilities, and opinions. Within families we also find differing sexes, sexualities, health challenges, spiritual views, and so on. Encountering difference within our family settings is a guarantee. Negotiating these differences can be challenging, even maddening. But the goal need not be to avoid or eliminate such struggles--they are simply a part of life. And even if there were some fantasy family out there who are "the same," what would this family look like in terms of race, culture, and nationality if they happened to be "like me"?
ENCOUNTERING groupthink and cultural nationalist rhetoric is off-putting to anyone of a background and outlook similar to mine. This holds equally true for mixed race movement rhetoric that is narrow in scope and that makes broad generalizations. In-between identities must be recognized, honored, and validated. But it is equally important that we not advance new, equally rigid cultural renderings to operate alongside the extant ones we should be fighting against. For instance, too often in mixed race movement discourse mixed people are posited as the product of two parents, each belonging to different races. These parents are assumed to "belong" straightforwardly to their culture of origin, which rests on two problematic notions: cultural essentialism and cultural ownership. We also tend to see in the mixed race movement too much emphasis on an old-fashioned nuclear family construction, which assumes both parents are in the picture, that each parent is of different gender, and that families are made up of biological, blood kin. Families are often so much more complicated than this.
Just as families are complicated, races are, too. One key complication arises in the fact that race is not "real"--it is an illusion. And even accounting for the real-world effects of this illusion, race is not an index for culture or ethnicity, nor does it tell us much about people's beliefs and practices. There is tremendous variation among members of so-called races. A marriage between two black people, one from Nigeria and one from the U.S. involves far more cultural difference than that between a black American and a white American who both grew up in the same neighborhood, town, or state. It is also worth mentioning here that the vast majority of African Americans have mixed ancestry, including African, Native American, European, and sometimes Asian. This means that there can be a lot of shared territory between being black and being mixed--they are not mutually exclusive or fixed categories. It is important not to create absolute divides between people or between races. For there are always blurs and bridges between social locations, always spectrums and kaleidoscopes when it comes to difference.
While it is no secret that most New World blacks are of mixed heritage, this simple fact is often put out there not only as "FYI," but as a silencing device. It is often put out there in order to curtail further discussion about interraciality, as if nothing else of significance can or should be said about it. Some people, especially academics, seem to think that the only valid thing to be said about racial mixing is that "everybody is mixed." Proclamations of universal mixedness can be helpful as they debunk "purity," removing the stigma of being mixed and also in emphasizing, rightly, that the phenomenon of hybridity is widespread. But on the other hand, this emphasis takes the salience and the meaning out of mixed race matters. As such, it reifies the taboo of race mixing. To say that everybody is mixed overstates the similarity among people. This in turn prevents us from being able to talk about what makes us who we are and the differences between us that make a difference. It also means that some people, people like me, are being asked to be mixed like somebody else, to sing somebody else's tune, and to transform ourselves into somebody else's image. We all need to be able to be ourselves, to define our own realities, and to tell our own stories on our own terms. Ideally, all of our stories will be greeted with receptivity, with caring, and with thoughtfulness.
Batiste-Roberts, Gloria. "Should Black Children Only Be Adopted by Black Parents?" Ebony. September 2008: 122.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. New York: Roufledge, 2000.
--. Fighting Words: Black Women in the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (1903). New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Hutchinson, George. "Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race." American Literary History. 9.2 (Summer 1997): 329-349.
Young, Robert, J.C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. New York: Routledge, 1995.