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May 16 2011

Mixed up

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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8 comments

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  1. 1
    Dale

    I truly appreciate the extended thought processes that I am normally left with after reading your pieces.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Thanks Dale, I really appreciate that.

  3. 3
    Bob

    Just a quick note to agree with Dale. An interesting and definitely thought provoking piece. The following quote should be used to replace the ten commanments on US public buildings. Much more practical and certainly humanly pertinent.
    “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.”

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Thank you very much for the kind words, Bob. I’m always gratified to learn that the things I write resonate with people.

  5. 5
    Inaji

    This comment gives a new definition to late to the party, but this resonated deeply with me, as I’m a haffer (half white, half Oglala Lakota). Thank you for writing about this, it’s a subject people generally shy away from and tend to be uncomfortable with, even now.

  6. 6
    Jurjen S.

    “Race” is such a contrived concept anyway. The only real purpose it’s ever served is to provide a pretext for excluding people who a) don’t look like you, and b) don’t talk like you (and optionally c) don’t worship the same deity as you). About the only division that has some scientific basis is the division of humankind into the phenotype-based groups of Caucasians, Negroids and Mongoloids, but nobody’s ever stuck to that because it would entail accepting that Turk(men)s, Arabs, Persians and Indians (in the sense of “Indian sub-continent”) fall into the same group as (and can therefore not be regarded as “racially inferior” to) white Europeans, and that Japanese aren’t superior to Manchurians, who in turn aren’t superior to Han Chinese, who in turn aren’t superior to non-Han Chinese etc.

    And the mythology that underlies the concept of “race” can be seen no more clearly than in the nationalist movements of late 18th to late-20th century Europe. Every single one of them hearkened back to the predominant tribal coalition that inhabited their turf prior to/at the time of the Roman conquest of that turf, blithely disregarding the various waves of invasion (particularly, but not limited to, those of the Great Migrations) that completed altered the ethnic landscape. As late as 1986, I bought a postcard at the supposed site of the Battle of Gergovia (where the Gauls beat off Julius Caesar) that spoke of “nos ancètres, les Gaulois” (“our ancestors, the Gauls”), happily ignoring the fact that the Gauls were overrun and assimilated by the Franks five centuries later (which is why the country is called “France,” not “Gaul”). Similarly, Belgium is named after the Belgae, also wiped out by the Franks, some 1300 years before Belgium even became a country. Meanwhile, the Dutch made numerous references to the Batavians: the Batavian Republic (1795-1806), a client state to the French Republic; the colony of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia; Batavus bicycles, etc. The main difference between the Batavians and the Belgae was that the Batavians were overrun and assimilated by the Franks and the Saxons.

    And if you subscribe to the notion of “race,” you’re faced with a serious problem explaining why all these descendants of Franks, from western Germany to Spain, wound up speaking different languages–some Germanic like German and Dutch, others Romance like French and Spanish–and repeatedly going to war with each other for over 500 years.

    For myself, I accepted that I was a mutt long before I read this post, and I wasn’t even born in North America. I could fairly state I’m 100% Dutch, but am I really? In a direct male line, I’m descended from a German peddler who settled in the eastern Netherlands in the 1580s, but from then to now, there’s been at least some Portuguese Jewish and Indonesian influences (I’m technically 1/16th Bantamese, even if it doesn’t show); while on my mother’s side, supposedly 100% Frisian (one of three ethnic groups to not have been displaced by the Romans or the Great Migrations, along with the Basques and the Albanians), there are reports of some Spanish influences during the Eighty Years’ War.

    There’s no such thing as “racial purity,” and the sooner we get away from that idea, the better.

  7. 7
    Joey B

    As skin color is one of several factors entering into “racial identity”, it might be good to spread the current scientific views on it. Were the other relevant sciences as advanced as evolutionary biology, then the other truths and myths of race (based on morphology, genetics, ethnicity, culture, geographic origin etc.) might be as effectively explained as evo-bio has explained skin color.

    No one (to my knowledge) has explained it better than Prof. Nina Jeblonski in the following lecture. She has other short pieces on the web that are not nearly as complete or compelling, but this one is the best and, if you’ve not already seen it, I recommend it to your attention. I’d be interested in your take on it.

    http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16926&subject=sci

  8. 8
    mynameischeese

    Pretty sure the author knows that race isn’t a scientific concept.

    However, just because race isn’t real doesn’t mean that racism isn’t real. Race becomes a real thing because people treat it like it is. And that’s not to say that if everyone stopped acknowledging race that racism would magically dissappear. Because racism has become institutionalised, it is not possible to pretend that it’s arbitrary or to think that if we were all color blind, all the problems caused by race would disappear.

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