A few days ago on Facebook I watched two community activists have a throwdown over the phrase “mixed race.”
It began when Activist X posted a link to this article about the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival and noted with some irritation that despite the festival’s claims to inclusivity, there were no Latin@s mentioned in the article. X asked: if Latin@ people are the largest group of multiracial people in the Americas and the festival is supposed to be open to everybody, why weren’t Latin@ people included? A few people agreed with X, and some people who had been at the festival said that they thought Heidi Durrow and the festival were great, but that they could see X’s point.
Enter Activist Y: after expressing some trepidation, Y said that the festival was using the term “mixed race” or “multiracial” to refer to people who had parents of two or more different racial categorisations. Activist Y said that if your whole family shared the same ethnic identity, then you were not mixed in the way the festival intended.
Dear Racializens, I am sure you can imagine what happened next: a veritable Facebook wall brawl — albeit one that was highly intellectual and restrained. Most people sided with X (it was X’s wall to begin with) and Y, after making several long attempts to explain themselves, eventually left in a digital huff.
This exchange brought back some of the most difficult writing that I have ever done on Racialicious: where readers challenged my right to call myself, as a mixed race person with parents of two different races, mixed in a separate way from those who are mixed race but share the same identity as their whole family, for e.g. folks who are mestizo, Creole, African American, Metis, Peranakan…
(From here on in I will refer to people who come from mixed lineage as MRs, and people who have parents of two different and separate racial categorisations as MR2s.)
So here is one of the most important things I have learned from all my years of toiling in the anti-racist trenches here at Racialicious: when you are talking about race with anti-racist people of colour, you are speaking from a place of pain, to a place of pain. (Ok obviously we are about more than pain, but pain is always on the table.) Many of us come to anti-racism through struggle. We are used to having things taken away from us, and we turn to anti-racism to try and arm ourselves against the corrosion of racism. We are sensitive, and we come by it honestly.
Both of my parents are – to the best of my knowledge – the first members of generations and generations of their families to marry outside of the race. When I first started writing about mixedness on Racialicious, I had never heard of mixed race being used in any way other than to refer to people who had parents of two different races. I grew up in Canada and Singapore, and while, as a postcolonial nation, there are many MR communities in Singapore, they refer to themselves as Eurasian, Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese, not mixed race. It was never suggested to me that I might have a similar experience to these folks, and neither did the Eurasian friends I had seem interested in me as an identity buddy. More than this, in Singapore the term “mixed race” was restricted not simply to “a person with parents of two different and separate races”: it was used to specifically refer to people who had one white parent, and one parent of colour. (Obviously, this happens not just in Singapore.)
Through some big f-ups (which you may read here and here and here, though I am sorry to say the comments might be missing on some of those), I learned that many Americans of colour — often African Americans and Latin@s — have a problem with “mixed race” being used solely to refer to MR2s.
Using the term “mixed race” in this narrow way is to systematically erase ethnic histories that bear witness to slavery and colonization; or simply, to erase ethnic histories, period. To do so can be read as an act of white supremacy: it covers up the fact that many Americans, regardless of skin colour or the stories elders are willing to tell, have mixed lineages. To do this silences a whole community’s right to express their experience.
And another thing: it is grating to hear the term “mixed race” applied solely to MR2s, as if we invented mixedness. Cultural forces (usually — though not always — powered by white folks) that select MR2s as somehow unique, or the antidote to racism, or hybridly vigorous, or exquisitely beautiful, are just pouring salt in the wound. After generations of MR folks being ostracised or having to commit violent contortions to have a peaceful life, being mixed is all of a sudden hot – and this is the very moment that the label is being rescinded from MRs. You don’t even get invited to speak at the damn mixed race festival.
And let us note that a lot of this friction gets even hotter when we are talking about MR2s who have a white parent and a parent of colour, because we are talking about people of colour who also have white privilege and/or light-skin privilege.
There are other reasons why MRs get angry when MR2s say that being MR2 mixed is different from being MR mixed – and you are welcome to chime in in the comments, if you are so inclined – but these are the ones I have come across, time and again.
After my Racialicious education, I tried to be sensitive to the fact that “mixed race” can mean MRs or MR2s. To acknowledge this widening of the category, in a post I was writing about Alicia Keys and her warped presentation of historic racial relations, I referred to Alicia Keys as a first generation mixed race person. To my dismay, this language was deemed just as offensive as my original ignorance. Because, a commenter said, the language of generations is offensive and recalls such awful categories as quadroon and octoroon, and because, why, after everything, did I have to keep on insisting that there was a difference between mixed race people from long lines of mixedness, and mixed race people who were racial anomalies in their families?
It wasn’t, I started to realize, that MRs were solely mad that MR2s and the dominant culture didn’t recognize them as mixed. They were mad that a distinction was even being made between themselves, and MR2s. (Perhaps my very decision to say “MRs” and “MR2s” is aggravating this tension right now.)
When you are dealing with sensitive people who are reeling from cultural rejection, distinctions feel like rejections. Why do MR2s think they are so special that they can’t possibly be in the same club with MRs?
So I will dig deep into my horrible well of childhood pain to explain what this distinction business is about.
I come from a nation of two. There’s me, and there is my sibling. When I was growing up, I had no language to explain my experience. I did not know people who were mixed. And these problems were exacerbated by the fact that I was a TCK in a postcolonial nation that was still dealing with a lot of (justifiable) anger towards Westerners, and I was read as white, and I was given a hard time because of that. This was all without a real knowledge of race or racism, but simply a sinking feeling that I was hopelessly and sometimes offensively different from everyone around me, and that those gaps could never be bridged. Until I was in my mid-20s, this was what being mixed was for me. In my family of origin I did not know a single person — not my grandparents, cousins, my mother and father, or even my sibling (who, thanks to the genetic lottery, came out looking a different race from me and so had their own experience altogether) — who could understand my ethnocultural identity.
Note: I am not saying that only MR2s understand true isolation. Pulllease. I am just saying that this was my experience, and I am sure, sadly enough, that there are many other roads to that kind of loneliness.
So when I meet MRs who come from long and often proud lines of family members who share the same ethnocultural experience as them, I can’t imagine that they could have shared my particular brand of racial isolation. It is not about thinking myself better or even, as some people have alleged, more authentically and mixedly mixed than folks who share a more complete heritage with their family. It is simply that I can’t imagine they could have had the same experience.
Part of this has to be the emo-as-heck tragic mixie inside of me who is too terrified to hope that, after all this time, my nation of two is a nation of millions. I swear, that stupid Blind Melon video where the weird little bee finally finds all the other little bees gets me every time.
I know I could be wrong that there is a yawning distance between MRs and MR2s; but we can never get past the front door of fighting over what I should call myself and what I should call them, to find out. Like I said at the beginning, I’m a sensitive brotherpucker.
Like so many other things, some of this is about the amount of space the dominant culture is willing to allot the people it has marginalized: we are fighting for table scraps because we know the right to tell our own stories is in slight supply. It both frustrates and saddens me that my attempt to assert my identity causes pain to other people who are just trying to do the same thing.
We become possessive over our suffering. There is something that MRs and MR2s definitely have in common: we are fighting over the right to this label and the right to make distinctions, because any concession feels like giving up the history that we fought so hard to survive. I can only wonder at the experience of mixed race people who are both MRs and MR2s. Again, chime in from the comments if you’d like to weigh in.
I guess what I am giving you here is my thought process so far. I have no conclusions when it comes to this fight. Do I think that folks who come from a mixed lineage are mixed? Of course I do. Do I think that they should have the right to call themselves mixed, without qualification? Definitely. Do I believe that we are mixed in the same way? This is something I still struggle with. Do I want to be allies? Do I want to search for kinship where I never thought to look before? Do I want to have a mixed race festival and invite everyone?
Yes. Yes. Yes.