by universeexpanding. Cross-posted from Entropy, Inc.
In response to my post about the HBO documentary “The Blacklist” a friend of mine commented on how shocked he was that Slash of Guns n’ Roses is half black. Like me he had assumed Slash was Jewish or something. He commented that he thought Slash was “on that Jennifer Beals type shit” and didn’t want people to necessarily know that he was black. He went on to say that he was kinda bummed that Jennifer hadn’t married a black man and that he thought it was a shame that she and Slash felt the need to hide their blackness. He seemed to have trouble seeing them as biracial and instead insisted upon seeing them as “black people who are passing”.
I kept my composure (mostly) but I was more than a little annoyed, especially since this type of conversation is all too familiar for me. My father is Portuguese and my mother is mixed black (her father is east indian and her mother was part carib indian). I’m a typical Caribbean mutt. Aside from navigating the colour hierarchy established during colonization this was pretty ordinary stuff when I was at home. When I went to Canada for undergrad it was a whole different thing. People not only wanted to know my racial pedigree, but would challenge me and basically demand to see my bonafides if I said something that didn’t match whatever their hunch was. Who I was depended on who was looking at me. And knowing this was at the heart of the argument I ended up having with my friend.
Being a black person who has never had to defend the visual reality of his blackness my friend was just not getting what it meant to be biracial or multiracial especially if your appearance is racially ambiguous.
Is this your image of a prototypical black woman? Is she even visibly part black? If she told you that she has intimate and personal knowledge of the black experience would you doubt her? Is someone who looks like she does readily accepted as black, in the social and cultural sense of the word? All of these questions are the ones I wanted my friend to ask himself. It is these things that affect the identity that is ascribed to (especially publicly) of people who don’t neatly fit into a box. I find it unsurprising that people who find themselves in this position choose not to force the conversation and just let people believe that they are what they see. In this article about the evolving attitudes to multiracial people, Heather Tarleton voices her frustration with how appearance affects the identities that multiracial people are acceptably able to take:
Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you… You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are.’ And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”
We hear again and again that race is not a genetic reality but a social one and I think multiracial individuals highlight this. This really great study by Brunsma and Rockquemore (2001) explores how biracial individuals navigate and establish racial identity with respect to their skin colour and their interactions with society. They found that biracial people chose from among 4 identity options: a) singular (either black or white), b) border (exclusively biracial), c) protean (sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes biracial), d) transcendent ( no racial identity). These choices were mediated by self-perception of their skin colour and features, negative experiences they had with black and white people, and situational contexts. Despite the popularity of hypodescent theory among people like my friend only 13.7% of the 177 people sampled identified as black. 64% identified as biracial. Of these 74.3 % experienced negative treatment from whites, but 60.4 % reported negative treatment from blacks. 62.5% reported that their choice of a biracial identity was unvalidated by members of their society and community. For biracial and multiethnic people saying you are black or white may have less to do with what you *want* to be seen as or what you *are* and far more to do with what other people will allow you to be.
And it is this very point that makes it so hard for me to understand why he is upset at Jennifer not shouting about being black from the hilltops. We say people should claim their blackness, but we won’t allow them to be anything but black. They are not allowed to be biracial. But at the same time we don’t fully allow them to be black either. It’s a double bind that leaves them sitting on the outskirts of every group. Faced with that kind of decision would you be in an all-fired rush to be black?
I can’t help but think that some people’s lack of acceptance of biracial or multiracial identity is that deep down they are thinking “Aw, that nigger just trynna feel special.” But that’s just the thing, they aren’t trying to feel special. If anything by questioning the authenticity of their claims to even partial blackness society makes them into a separate group even if they didn’t want to be one. Even if it’s only by this reasoning it becomes clear that to be biracial or multiracial is something different from being black or white, something different but just as valid.