Those of you who have read this blog for a while, or who know me personally, know that I am what is technically known as “mixed race”. Generically, this means that my parents identify as two different ethnic groups. More specifically, my father is black and my mother is white, which according to the racist nomenclature of Jim Crow era America makes me a “mulatto” (a word meaning ‘mule’). At various points in my life, my ‘mixed’ status meant different things to me.
When I was very young, it used to irk me that people in my mostly white home town, who knew I had one white parent, didn’t see me as half-white. After all, technically speaking it was just as true that I was half-white as much as I was half-black. However, nobody else seemed to think along those lines. When I mentioned it to my dad, he imparted to me one of the first lessons I ever had to learn about race: it doesn’t matter what you are, it’s what other people think you are that matters. It affects the way they treat you, the way they think of you, and the way they see you.
I had the opposite experience living in Mississauga, where there were white kids, “really black” kids, and then me. As if I wasn’t enough of an outcast, being a recent transplant to Ontario, not knowing most of the kids I went to school with, and not really having been exposed to other black kids before, I was viewed with deepening suspicion and ultimately kept on the outside. As much as the kids I hung out with (mostly white, as that was who I was used to being around) accepted me, I knew I didn’t fit in. Most of them were Italian, Maltese, or of another Mediterranean extraction.
As a result of my mixed heritage, I never really connected with the black community where I grew up, only able to view it from the outside. Being in a special-ed program that didn’t exactly overflow with black kids didn’t help much either. To this day I wonder whether the system passively discriminated against the black kids – failing to identify them as “gifted” (in the language of the time – who knows what it’s called now?) because of pre-conceived notions of how black kids are supposed to be. I wonder if that’s the case, or if kids that were intelligent enough to qualify weren’t encouraged at home. As for me personally, I had tons of support. That’s neither here nor there, vis a vis this story, I just thought I would big up my home environment.
People of mixed race have been around for as long as there have been distinct racial groups, but as a sociological phenomenon, there has been a marked shift in how kids of my ilk are viewed. First, people no longer call us “half breeds” a term I hated when I was younger – my parents aren’t horses or dogs; they didn’t breed. Furthermore, the idea of someone being “pure” anything is mostly nonsense – everyone is a mutt no matter where they come from. We are called “part _____”, which is a much more flexible descriptor that allows for people who are a mixture of many different things. We’ve gotten over our obsession with fractions.
Secondly, people of mixed heritage are no longer seen as an exotic oddity (at least not to the extent that we were before). Perhaps with the rising prevalence of interethnic marriages, some of the shine is off the penny when it comes to the novelty of identifying with more than one group. Even the census and most other questionnaires that ask about ethnicity use a “check all that apply” rather than forcing people to choose one that applies best.
Last week a white supremacist showed up in the comments section. While I’ve dealt with that type before, there’s always a part of me that gets apprehensive because it raises an old spectre that I don’t like thinking about. That is, if genetics (along racial lines) do influence things like intellect and “personal responsibility”, what does that mean for me? They don’t, of course, but what if they did? Is my interest in science and academic topics the result of my “white” half? Is my love of music and dancing the result of my “black” half? Do traits break down like that? Am I a lucky composite of two complementary characteristics?
I am always able to beat those kinds of introspections back with a little bit of skepticism. Are there not many prominent intelligent black scientists out there? White musicians? Haven’t we learned through history and experience that the reasons that one group does something better than another is simply a product of culture rather than genetics? The stereotypes we paint each other with are just the result of sloppy thinking. Still, it’s always a struggle to have to deal with those fears every day.
Through this blog, I am trying to encourage readers to engage in skeptic thinking when it comes to race. Above and beyond my love of skewering religious topics, if there’s one thing I’d like you to do it’s learn to recognize and challenge the nearly-inaudible voice of cultural indoctrination when it comes to race. We all have embedded assumptions about groups not like our own (or even of those within our own group), and learning how to catch ourselves when we start unconsciously following those assumptions is a useful tool for dealing with each other fairly.
I learned this trick by reflex, living my entire life trying to figure out how I fit in. I don’t have the option to turn it off, nor would I want to if I could. We can find a way to make our unique set of interactions work well if we are just a combination of open-minded, careful and honest. If we can all be “mixed” in this way, we can learn important things about each other, and about ourselves.
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