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Being between: can multiracial Americans form a cohesive anti-racist movement beyond identity politics and Tiger Woods chic? (Action).

So much of being mixed race these days seems about having to explain, always answering "What are you?" for others and for one's self. And I'm tired of it. This variation of identity politics confronts the annoying question, but then gets hung up on the self in a way that hinders the collaborations necessary for fighting racism in all its mutating forms. In my mind, the problem of how to move from individual experience to collective action defines the current struggle of the multiracial movement.

I grew up in St. Louis, where race was mostly black and white, and where it seemed clear enough in schoolyard politics that I had slanted eyes and was neither. In St. Louis, the police arrived at our burglarized house and questioned my mother about the Hong Kong gang connections they assumed she had used to rip off her own husband, whom they assumed she had married in a bid for a nice white slice of American pie. Never mind that my mother was born and raised in Indiana or that my father hails from working class Ontario. Being mixed race means you elicit fears of loss all around (of status for whites and culture for people of color) and accusations--sometimes justified--that multiracial identity is just about passing.

When I moved to California, I discovered the labels had shifted on me. An Asian American woman took one look at my face, and said, "You're hapa haole, aren't you." Ignorant of her terms, I snapped back, "I don't think so." I soon learned, however, that hapa, from hapa haole or half-white in Hawaiian, was my mixed race category between categories of race in America. Two syllables dismissed me from belonging to the Asian America I had always imagined from my St. Louis schoolyard. I started to look at myself differently. I began a quest to become a real hapa, whatever that might be, not just one who was passing. But, passing for what? I've been Chicana in the eyes of Missourians, white in San Francisco Chinatown, and a Uighur minority on the streets of Beijing, where I landed after years of learning Chinese to prove myself to my own Chinese American family.

Multiracial identity, being between, challenges the biological essence of race and exposes it as a construction designed to create social hierarchy. But progressives find themselves resisting those who naively claim that the existence of multiracial people effectively ends racist thinking. A character in Afroasian playwright Velina Hasu Houston's 1988 play Broken English declares that she lives in a "no passing zone." She suggests a space of possibility for mixed folks to embrace composite identities as part of an inter-ethnic, anti-racism struggle.

Monoracial Logic

Racial, ethnic, and cultural mixing has defined U.S. history for centuries. In 1691, Virginia passed the first anti-miscegenation law, declaring the offspring of interracial unions to be an "abominable mixture" that could be banished from the colony. Nor surprisingly, the most active policing has always occurred around intimacy between whites and nonwhites. Questions about passing rarely enter, for example, the history of Black Native Americans or families of Afro-Chinese plantation laborers.

The U.S. has pursued racial classification relentlessly since the first Census in 1790. The most infamous change to preserve white privilege, instituted in the early 20th century, is the "one-drop rule" designating individuals with any African lineage as black. Dominguez emphasizes that "white" has always remained the single unfragmented identity Undoing this logic entails more than the addition of a new category.

Debate in the 1990s over adding a multiracial category to the Census led to the new check-more-than-one choice, selected by over 6.8 million. It also created tensions between traditional civil rights groups and multiracial organizations, as well as controversy among multiracial groups over classification methods. Those lobbying for multiracial data collection on Census 2000 garnered an unprecedented level of media attention. The arguments tat unfolded around this issue demonstrate the high stakes of racial classification when viewed as an either-or proposition: continually reinforcing the old categories as mono-racial segregation or immediately abolishing them as politically naive in terms of achieving racial justice.

With no previous data against which to measure the 2000 numbers, the implications of multiracial identification are difficult to predict. Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, points out that in the multiracial concept, race, rather than ethnicity, still dominates. But for many of those deemed "Hispanic" by the Census, ethnicity is paramount. Pachon describes the confusion among Latinos filling our the 2000 Census: after selecting 'White, Black, American Indian, Asian, or Other for race, a separate ethnicity question required a choice between Hispanic or non-Hispanic. Some Hispanics checked "some other race" or checked no race at all. This has led to tabulation confusion, heightened by disputes over how to count people who checked both black and Hispanic.

The possible growth of a beige-black split surfaced as another concern. Latinos and Asian Americans are out marrying in increasing numbers. This trend has led to predictions of a hierarchical multiethnic community that pushes African Americans to the bottom. Pachon suggests that through inter-ethnic families, the concept of white in America is darkening. However, he emphasizes the variable outcomes of this phenomenon: "There are potential splits, and there are also potential coalitions." "While coalitions do not always emerge at the street level, he hopes that current efforts in leadership, such joint policy work of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, will provide examples. Matt Kelley, president of the multiracial Mavin Foundation, also rejects "this beige-black dichotomy as an inevitable scenario" and stresses the importance of alliances.

No Passing Zone

While the Census emerged in the mainstream media as the overriding issue for multiracial organizations, most campus and community groups directed their energy in the 1990s toward developing a space for reflection on identity among multiracial, multiethnic individuals. Given the difference in historical circumstances for people of color in the U.S., the issues they brought to the table were as diverse as the heritages they claimed, but they rallied around the common experience of having to routinely answer the "What are you?" question.

Robin D. G. Kelley of NYU's Africana Studies Program, who defines blackness as multiethnic from the get-go, says don't ask the question "unless you're ready to sit through a long-ass lecture." Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera writes, "The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.... She operates in a pluralistic mode--nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned."

Searching for a language to describe the multiracial experience in terms beyond stereotypes or superficial "United Colors of Benetton" labels, scholarship of the "no passing zone" has prioritized a historical examination of racial formation in the U.S. and its creation of distinct monoracial groups. Questioning of what it means to be "in-between" has led to the slow but increasing growth of ethnic studies courses devoted to the topic. The longest-running course, "People of Mixed Racial Descent," began at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s. In 2000, San Francisco State University hired Wei Ming Dariotis to fill the nation's first faculty position devoted to multiracial, multiethnic identity and politics.

As Jen Chau, the founder of Swirl, a mixed-race community organization in New York City, explains, collectively unpacking the half-truth of being told, "You're the best of both worlds," allowed her to gain "a language to discuss something that had always been shut down before."

Servants of Culture

Part of the multiracial movement is a refusal to be defined by others' manipulations. The figure of the tragic mulatto or deracinated Eurasian has been continually used to reinforce norms of racial segregation. As ethnic studies scholar Cynthia Nakashima argues in her article "Servants of Culture," the mixed race person frequently serves this symbolic role and is "much less the subject of honest inquiry than a functional representative of a social issue." Many organizing around multiracial identity articulate instead a fight to develop integrated selves rooted in historical consciousness. Without erasing the nation's shared legacies of white settler genocide of Native America, white rape of African slave women, and U.S. military occupations in Asia, they refuse to be pathologized or to deny the possibility of love in the family that, in 1967, brought Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court--ending anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 16 states.

The intimately related flip side of the "abominable mixture" symbol stares one in the face after a Web search for the keyword "interracial." A plethora of porn sites pop up to attest to the enduring taboo power of sex across racial lines. An updated fetish phenomenon emerged in the 1990s with media manipulation of what might be called "I am Tiger Woods" chic. As new Census data tracked the growth of overall minority populations in the U.S., marketers scrambled to develop campaigns that would appeal to as diverse an audience as possible. One easy solution included the promotion of multiracial spokespeople, ethnic enough to draw consumers of color, yet light enough to remain palatable and vaguely exotic to white audiences. The cybergenetically morphed "beguiling if mysterious" woman on the cover of Time magazine's 1993 Special Issue on immigration presented a face 15 percent Anglo-Saxon, 17.5 percent Middle Eastern, 17.5 percent African, 7.5 percent Asian, 35 percent Southern European, and 7.5 percent Hispanic. The proposition of her computer birth, and a similar one that created Betty Crocker's mid-1990s facial makeover, was that multiethnic identity exists only as a vision of the future rather than a fact both past and present. (Note the uncannily parallel popularity of ambiguously raced actors Keanu Reeves and Vin Diesel in their futuristic roles in The Matrix and XXX.)

A Multiracial Movement?

Multiracial people with anti-racist politics express frustration with media reports that conflate all multiracial politics with the "colorblind," anti-affirmative action opinions on websites like Interracial Voice and the libertarian Multiracial Activist. While the editors of these online journals support Ward Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative, a California ballot measure proposing to end all racial classification, several membership-based multiracial organizations have issued counter statements. Groups including the Association of Multiethnic Americans, the Hapa Issues Forum, and the Mavin Foundation have called Connerly's initiative a setback to racial justice and misguided in the way it uses multiracial families as proof that race is an illegitimate category.

When asked if a multiracial movement exists, acting director of Hapa Issues Forum Anthony Yuen says, "It depends on how you define it, but all the elements of activism, art, academics are there." Student members of the group MISC at Smith College assert that anything naming itself a multiracial movement has to move beyond identity issues to include anti-racist politics as an integral part of its agenda. They see opportunities to educate each other about interethnic racisms and, by bringing together their different lenses on how race works, to forge new coalitions. Part of becoming politicized as multiracial people is confronting people's confusions when they can't fir you into a neat box. Lianna Kushi laughs about the literal possibility of misrecognition when she describes her protests at a local store over their "All Night Oriental Massage" r-shirrs: "They're probably still wondering why some Mexican girl was in there talking about orientalism."

Reginald Daniel, professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, believes those who join multiracial organizations are not the multiracial norm, but represent only a fraction of the national population. The author of More Than Black? explains that for him it is not an identity to naively embrace, but rather a weighty choice that means being questioned explicitly and implicitly every day about one's legitimacy. As an opportunity to educate, he calls it "one tool in the anti-racist struggle, which, if activated in a radical way, can subvert some of the lies this country is based on."

As some of the larger new organizations like the Mavin Foundation, Hapa Issues Forum, and Swirl begin to forge connections, a national multiracial movement that moves beyond the personal to the political is lust beginning to emerge. One of the early public issues they have supported, registration drives for the National Marrow Donor Program, addresses the health fact that mixed-race people with leukemia have the lowest success rate in finding bone marrow donors. This implied link between race and biology unsettles some, but the project highlights the lower standard of health care and research affecting people of color. Another issue is that of multiracial youth--at high risk to be physically or sexually abused, according to a study by the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs.

Multiracial organizers face the problem of alienation through excessive inward reflection but also contain the potential to emerge as an important voice, born of a politics of cross-talk, that stresses the intersections between communities of color and the need to build coalitions. This path involves having one's loyalty questioned, from many different directions, but strength of conviction grows from having to continually answer and explain, to ourselves and the parts of our sum.

Sasha S. Welland is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her book, From All This Journey: Following the Lives of Ling Shuhua and Amy Ling Chen, is forthcoming.
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Author:Welland, Sasha S.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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