by Special Correspondent Thea Lim (originally published 6-1-09)
I said it once and I’ll say it again, I love Mariah Carey.
I rarely try to justify this rabid adoration when I’m talking politics. Sometimes radical folks think that just because they like something, it must be radical. I’ve seen many bloggers look foolish this way. So I try to sidestep any probing questions as to why an incredibly serious and intellectual person like me (ahem) owns a Mariah wall calendar and tends to squeal deliriously when “Heartbreaker” plays over the supermarket PA system.
Usually when people ask why I so celebrate Mariah, I say “We’re both mixed race, and we’ve both experienced heartbreak. Obviiiiiously.”
But about a week ago, while discussing Nick Cannon’s accusations that the Mariah-inspired Eminem song “Bagpipes from Baghdad” was racist and sexist, the discussion that fell out of the post made me wonder if, after all, there was some need to untangle my Mariah love and its distant political underpinnings.
A little recap of the post and discussion: in trying to defend his wife against Eminem, Cannon proclaimed that Carey was a BLACK woman (the caps are his) and that it was time enough that white men like Eminem disrespected women of colour like Carey. He went on to compare Carey to Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as examples of black queens that the black community should not allow to be disrespected. A lot of commenters said, “Right on, Nick!”
But a bunch said “Mariah Carey is black?” There were attempts to prove that she was not that black, by probing her bio and discussing her ethnic heritage in sixths and eights. Some suggested that she played both sides, emphasising her whiteness or her blackness according to which could sell more records, and that she was only black when it benefitted her. Some took offense at Cannon comparing Carey (who if half-white) to Obama and Winfrey (who are not half-white), frustrated by the fact that there was no recognition that Carey being light-skinned meant all sorts of light-skinned privilege, including more mainstream success than if she was darker-skinned.
I was taken aback. Truth be told I was unsure how Mariah herself identified. So I went back through the dusty internet archives, back to when Racialicious was Mixed Media Watch, to the first post I ever read on this site: Essence on Mariah Carey’s struggles with mixed race identity.
The post was interesting, but the comments were shocking. Commenters were incensed that Essence had identified Carey as a black woman. They were dismissive about Carey’s struggles with biraciality. Mostly the consensus was that Carey was a stupid rich poptart and that Essence was full of self-loathing idiots. Then again, I only read about the first 20 comments; it started to get too upsetting. The entire post garnered a whopping 240 comments: this was on a post that had very little analysis and was mostly just excerpts from the Essence article. My own post from last week was similar; it had very little of my own thoughts in it, but it managed 70 comments (as of this writing).
(I would like to note that the Essence post harkens back to a time before we had Latoya and Arturo tirelessly moderating comments and perhaps more importantly, commenters who take the time to thoughtfully and carefully state their argument…which is nothing to cough at.)
And then I found another post on Mariah Carey from about a year ago. This one was simply a post announcing that Carey and Cannon had married. But again, the conversation veered into Mariah Carey’s ethnic heritage. From commenter mariah_omg:
Let’s talk about how Mariah’s “black” father is Venezuelan and she doesn’t consider herself Hispanic but “African-American,” and only when it’s convenient!!! What happens when a celebrity who has been known to milk the “tragic-mulatto” stereotype in the past (again, when it’s convenient) marries a dark skinned black man. Will they have children? Will they be as tragic as she?
I almost couldn’t read the comments that insinuated Mariah was the worst kind of race traitor, a person who played up her blackness, her whiteness and her mixedness whenever she liked, in order to make millions to finance her Hello Kitty Castle.
Reading these threads, the feeling I had was similar to reading criticism of myself; it was as if I had written a post that was really badly received. But this is some high level cognitive mash-up: my beloved Racialicious community was talking about Mariah, not me.
The strange part of it is, what irked some commenters on the Cannon/Eminem thread the most, was that they felt MC played up some kind of tragic mulatto myth, and that she (or her husband) seemed unwilling to recognise how much white privilege had benefitted MC’s career. Strange, because that’s often the beef I have myself with mixed race folks.
When the Racialicious team converses about mixed race issues, often it is my fellows like Latoya and Andrea who express sympathy and patience towards mixed race folks’ complaints that they have been ostracised by their communities of colour for a lack of authenticity. It’s usually me who yells “Suck it up baby! What about that white privilege you got??” I quickly lose patience with any story about a community of colour terrorising half-whiteys — if that story doesn’t also include the mixed race person admitting the privilege that comes with the pain.
Yet I have never felt that Mariah plays up any part of her ethnic heritage, except to patiently attempt to explain, again and again, who her people are, and to mention in a very low-drama way, that her experience of biraciality has been a painful one.
Sometimes, the reason why we are smitten with celebrities is because we see facets of our own struggles in their lives. Or perhaps more accurately, we project our own troubles onto the vague details of celebrity lives, and then imagine that just the two of us are secret allies in the war of life.
(Sidebar: this also explains why people are still torn up over Jennifer Aniston and Brangelina: I’ll bet you that at least half the people who follow the (non) scandal breathlessly have either been left by a partner for another person, or left a partner for another person.)
In the early to mid 90′s when I was growing up in Singapore, the radio stations seemed to play a Mariah hit every half hour. We were inundated with stories of her divaishness (for example, how she refuses to have the left side of her face photographed). Every magazine seemed to feature her frolicking in denim cut-offs. I didn’t pay much attention to her, but she was still, simply by flooding the airwaves, the soundtrack to my adolescence. Even now I know every single lyric to the sicktatingly sweet MC/Boyz II Men duet “One Sweet Day,” often bursting out in unison with the radio, usually against my will.
As I sludged into my late teens, I made a big show of only listening to Fiona Apple and Ani Difranco. But I secretly knew all the words to “Always Be My Baby.” And then I moved to Canada, launched myself into the white indie rock hipster scene, and promptly forgot Mimi.
I’m Singaporean-Chinese and English-Irish, and growing up in Singapore everyone always told me I was white. Due to Singapore’s justifiable post-colonial hangover, I was often mocked for my whiteness. So when I moved to Canada it seemed only natural that I only hang out with white kids. And so when I got political, I got political alongside my white friends; I become a pseudo-vegan eco-feminist, and protested the way they protested.
But the problem for me with white radical culture, is that it is a response generally to a middle-class suburban experience. In protesting the system in the way that my white friends protested the system, I was responding to an experience I had never had. (See Latoya’s explanation for why she doesn’t relate to Liz Phair.) I felt myself slipping further and further away from who I was, until by the time I was in my mid-20s I really wasn’t sure who I was at all.
And then in a hail of pink feathers and high ‘C’s, Mariah showed me the way. In 2005 with her massive comeback, she was all over the radio once again – enough even to reach me, who never listened to commercial radio at that point. Part of the magic of Mimi is her sheer global reach: sure I could’ve been inspired by a more serious mixed cultural figure, like Grace Lee Boggs, but growing up I had no access to someone like that.
This is how Mariah found me: on a boat ride from the remote island in the Pacific where my partner was learning organic biodynamic farming techniques, a friend helped us pass the time by playing “We Belong Together” (with zero irony) on her ukulele. I was amazed by the genuine sorrow and depth of emotion in the lyrics.
A few months earlier, I had read that article on Mixed Media Watch (evidently I skipped the comments). In spite of the fact that Mariah had been crooning to me all those years, I never realised that she was one of my people. In other words, reading MMW, I realised for the first time that just like me, Mariah was mixed race.
I was hooked on Mimi. I became fascinated by her journey across racial lines; how she had essentially gone from being the female Barry Manilow to making international booty-shaking hits with ODB. As I started to reconnect with myself and finally found friends of colour who understood my ethno-culturally fractured experience, I started to think about how white-washed Mariah had been as a young woman. And how, in spite of that, she had eventually reached a point where she made music that expressed both sides of her; music that was still ABBA-esque in its ridiculous, mind-numbing poppiness, but which recalled the best traditions of mainstream hip hop and R&B.
I would never insist that Carey’s oeuvre is high art. But apart from the fact that she makes perfect R&B music, there is also something very profound in the expression of emotion in her music. Her sad songs go to the deepest places of loss and grief, and her happy songs reach such ecstatic levels of joy; she can even take a phrase like “love you long time” with all its despicable history, and turn it into a force for pure, pop-driven bliss (well, at least according to my somewhat questionable tastes).
As I began to learn that I didn’t have to be either white or Asian, as I was learning that it was ok to just be everything that I am, I listened to The Emancipation of Mimi on loop.
My confusion about my racial identity was entangled in my confusion about my gender identity. I’d taken up a kind of feminism that involved convincing myself any kind of grooming made me a tool of the patriarchy. Many women feel liberated when they put down their razors. And that was partly how I felt. But on another level I felt divorced from who I was. I grew up in Singapore, for pete’s sake, one of the most exquisitely-coiffed places you will ever visit.
I could only come back to my roots and embrace being a femme once I started to think of it as a choice, as a performance; as something I did to express my own unique sexuality, not because I had to. And who better to model the performance of high femmeness than Mariah? Where some commenters make fun of Mariah’s stiletto stilettos and satiny pink everything, I can’t get enough of her completely over-the-top version of one kind of female sexuality, her buoyant embrace of her own vision of beauty, no matter how tacky and bubble-gummy.
Via the strangest route possible Mimi really did show me that I didn’t have to be afraid of what I am. Mariah became an example of a mixed race girl who got sucked into whiteness, but fought back.
Passing is a privilege. And as I’ve said before, if you’re a middle-class mixed race person of colour, the cultural pressure is to be white. (and I do think that this pressure to be white extends to any person of colour who has a modicum of privilege, like education or money) Where historical racism worked by excluding people, contemporary racism works by including people of colour; and then white-washing them.
It is difficult to explain the angst that goes with being able to pass, without sounding like a sucky baby; because that light-skinned privilege that so many of us mixies possess comes laden with superior benefits. I’m aware of this all the time. At the same time, many mixed people who try to disassociate from their other heritages wind up with a panicked and deeply unpeaceful sense of self.
I guess some would say that that fractalised sense of self is a small price to pay for the benefits of white privilege. When I look at my life and think about all the immense privilege I have, this seems reasonable. Yet I think it’s very important to remember that acting white is not always a conscious choice: considering that cultural pressure to act white, it sometimes feels like a daily battle to assert our complete selves. I’m not sure that it is always right to criticise any person of colour who allows themselves to be white-washed.
I think this is why I look at Mariah’s early career and see her white-ification as something she eventually escaped from, rather than ran towards. She’s the symbol of the mixed race girl who asserted all aspects of her ethnicity and self, and after many label changes, failed relationships, public breakdowns and flops, finally won the battle. If anything the publicness of her failures makes me love her more; even when everyone knew her business, she never gave up trying to be Mariah.
But I understand that other people see her as a symbol of the way our culture idealises some kinds of beauty and flays others, the way it remembers and celebrates light-skinned women, and the way it buries and ignores dark-skinned women. The little firestorm of controversy that MC stirs up every time she is mentioned on this site is clear evidence that the fluidity of her race — which to me appears as a joyful overcoming — appears reprehensible to others. I realise now, after reading the comments from all the Mariah posts on Racialicious, that people despise her for the very reason I love her: the fact that she’s been packaged both as white and black. I see it as the fact that its never too late to be the person you wanted to be; others view it as an obscene kind of inconsistency, as someone who will use people and cultures to their own end, and then throw them away.
In truth none of these interpretations of Mariah have anything to do with Mariah Carey herself. Reports of how she identifies are oddly conflicting and murky; if you are curious and have time on your hands, page through all those comments on past Mariah posts. You’ll find a panoply of reader-supplied links that all seem to contradict each other. (Though she did say this very nice thing about her success scoring one for the ladies and people of colour.) The only concrete thing seems to be what Mariah symbolises, and perhaps unsurprisingly she symbolises opposite things to different people.
As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have to say that I see in her what I need to see: a very public figure whose sense of self was buffeted from all sides, but who came out intact. That’s a total projection; there’s no proof that she herself sees her life that way.
Some of the kinship that I feel with Carmen has to do with Carmen’s Keanu love. Whether or not this is why Carmen gets starry-eyed over Keanu, I know lots of mixies who will stubbornly defend Keanu, despite his truly awful acting — because he was one of the first of our people to make it big, really the only public representation of myself that I got to see growing up. (Do you have a celebrity secret ally? Dish!)
For me, Mariah will always be a reminder that you don’t have to be half of anything. She’s still my secret ally in the battle to maintain my sense of self, a figure who tells me to eff all those other people who don’t respect who I am, and just go my own way: things will work out in the end.
And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive.
Photo doctoring compliments of illustrator Elisha Lim.