Critical Mixed-Race Studies

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Critical Mixed-Race Studies

Critical mixed-race studies is a burgeoning scholarly approach to race, culture, and ethnicity. While its proponents hold widely varying opinions, they share a commitment to placing at the forefront of analysis the historical and present-day significance of race mixing, racial border crossing, and interracial life in the United States and elsewhere. Topics of particular interest within this line of inquiry include individual and collective identity, sexuality, marriage, and adoption. Like its counterpart, African-American studies, most scholars in this field take as a given that a complex legacy of racism lingers, that "the problem of the color-line," as W. E. B. Du Bois called it (1903, p. 3), persists, even though scientists have proven "race" to be a biological fallacy. There is, in fact, as much genetic variance within races as between races. Nor is race a reliable index for culture or for people's beliefs and practices, as these vary greatly among members of so-called races as well. While blacks are defined (in a U.S. context) as having African ancestry, the vast majority also have ancestors who were white, Native American, Asian, or some other "race." That is, they are racially mixed. Moreover, most Americans are familiar with the "one-drop rule," also called the law of hypodescent, which classifies interracial persons as black if they have any African ancestors, however distant in history and however few in number. Historically, the one-drop rule was applied far less than is perceived to be the case, however. Even though blacks are mixed, and mixed people with African ancestry are black, debates about the racial and cultural status of mixed-race subjects are ongoing and can be traced a long way back. These debates have permeated the realms of legal classification, census taking, and grassroots movements (i.e., the growing "mixed-race movement"), along with other discursive, popular, and ideological domains. The engagement of, and intervention into, these debates is one facet of critical mixed-race studies.

The negotiation of black-white interconnections is another dominant strand of critical mixed-race studies, though its practitioners might choose to examine any possible racial and cultural mixtures and their ramifications. Some in this field believe that the primacy of black-white mixing within critical mixed-race studies is problematic in its eclipsing other, equally significant manifestations of racial and cultural crossover, such as that between whites and Native Americans or Asian Americans, or between Native Americans and Asian Americans. Critical mixed-race studies overlaps with African-American studies in its concern with matters of race, racism, culture, and identity, but it is distinct in its focus on racial mixingthat is, on the fact that people from different racial backgrounds have interacted and reproduced throughout history, whether by choice, coercion, or force (as in the case of rape). Critical mixed-race studies confronts the reality that, as a result of extensive human intermixing, so-called racial groups cannot easily be divided into neat categories. While there is consensus that some fall in between socially constructed categories, debates ensue about whether this in-between space is a new category unto itself. Certainly, pervasive racial intermingling and color-line crossing raise the question of whether the color line is really a line at all. And critical mixed-race studies scholars share an interest in the vantage point from this would-be color line itself, rather than from one side of it or the other. What point of view emergeswhat lessons reveal themselvesif race and culture, past and present, are assessed from the location of racial crossover, of mixing, of in-between spaces, of inter-cultural contact zones? Applying such a lens can give rise to useful revisions of history and more accurate reinterpretations of social reality. Though it should be said that some African-American critical writings have already noted the frequency with which the racial divide has always been crisscrossed, with these color-line transgressions long operating as a site of political strategy, a site for the implementation of antiracist visions and agendas.

Critical mixed-race studies accounts for the degree to which racial contact zones can be fraught with conflict and risk. But interracial cooperation, collaboration, and cohabitation are also aspects of American reality that often go unacknowledged, given the emphasis on the black-white binary as the predominating racial schema, and given widespread notions of the workings of power and oppression as straightforwardly white over black. Within critical mixed-race studies, racial dichotomies are problematized, treated not as a matter of black or white (or red or yellow or brown, etc.), but rather as a matter of spectrums, of multiplicity, of heterogeneity, and above all of complexity. Despite racism as an overarching reality, race mixing has always occurred. The rape of slave women by slave owners was one dominant form in which race mixing took place, but it is less well known that there have always been freely chosen interracial unions as well.

Antimiscegenation lawslegislation against interracial marriage and interracial sexual relationscame about because of both racism and the rampant race mixing that was taking place historically. These laws were taken off the books only as recently as 1967, with the U.S. Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia court case, a case that figures prominently within critical mixed-race writings. Interracial marriage between whites and all nonwhite races, and in some cases between various nonwhite races, has been outlawed in various places and at various times in U.S. history. But the mandates against black-white intimacy seem to have been the most strenuously enforced and obsessed over by those who were invested in such things, as many were, due to prevailing social, political, and economic forces, and due to the depth and magnitude of racism. Racism fueled the logic that mixing with other groups contaminated, debased, and ruined whiteness. Many, however, felt that mixing was an equally bad idea for all races given the supposedly inferior nature of the progeny, seen as inferior for being impure, a mongrel race. As Robert J. C. Young writes in his book Colonial Desire, no one in the annals of human history has been so maligned and "so demonized as those of mixed race" (1995, p. 180).

Biological or other ties to nonblack groups might appear to be beneficial to a person socially designated as black, but critical mixed-race studies proponents would question whether this is necessarily the case. Certainly much has been made of light-skinned privilege, the relative social, political, and economic advantages that can accrue to black people who are fair in complexion. Some have noted the preference shown by some whites for light-skinned blacks in employment practices, politics, the media, and the like. There are also troubling histories of black people themselves excluding darker blacks from membership in the black elite. Efforts to determine a person's "blackness" have included the administering of tests to assess whether a person was lighter in color than a brown paper bag, whether blue veins were visible on the underside of their wrists, and whether a comb or a pencil would pass effortlessly through their tresses. Persons who did not pass these tests would be barred from the proceedings to which they sought admittance. Many of mixed parentage "failed" such tests, for many were not light skinned with straight hair. And even those with the requisite coloring and coiffeur could be barred from the black elite precisely for being the offspring of a white person. To have a white parent, historically, was literally to confront assumptions of one's illegitimacy, as decreed by antimiscegenation laws. Having racially divergent parentage also conjured up a slew of antimixed-race prejudices that operated alongside of and in addition to antiblack ones.

The disadvantages that accrue to interracial subjects are another concern of critical mixed-race studies. One is the general incomprehension one incurs when one's identity is "both/and" in a context where "either/or" thinking continues to dominate. Hybrid persons are seen as enigmatic, anomalous, as an assault on a common-sense logic that insists on categorizing and sorting people. Some have noted that stereotypes of mixed people being especially attractive, exotic, or occupying "the best of both worlds" serve to objectify, fetishize, and emphasize "otherness." Interracial persons are frequently asked the million-dollar critical mixed-race studies question, "What are you?" by curious intimates and strangers alike, who are unabashed in seeking assistance in their efforts to pigeonhole them. The crisis of classification mixed-race people can inspire, the confusion they can generate at the level of public perception, gets projected back onto themthey must be confused. In the past, such reactions were even more extreme. Black-white mixed people specifically were seen as high-strung with jangled nerves and a tendency toward flightiness and shallowness. This was attributed in part to the two warring, irreconcilable bloods said to be coursing in their veins, some of which was flowing in one direction, the rest in another, wreaking havoc on body and psyche. They were also seen as weak, effete, effeminate, and prone to mental illness. They were purported to be sexually impotent, with scientific thought holding officially, as recently as the early 1900s, that black-white persons were unable to reproducelike the mule from which, according to myth, the word mulatto derives (a mule being the infertile offspring of a donkey and a horse).

Black mixing with nonwhites gives rise to still other cultural considerations and forms of prejudice. In Itabari Njeri's essay "Sushi and Grits" (1993), a woman of Japanese, Native-American, and African-American descent speaks of being taunted for being a "half breed," but more specifically for eating the sushi her mother put in her school lunch and for swinging her long hair in a way some of her peers perceived as inappropriate for a "black" girl. She became a staunch mixed-race movement advocate as a result. Critical mixed-race studies can itself be seen as a kind of intellectual mixed-race movement, one that is concerned with critiquing and complicating prevailing paradigms of race, culture, and ethnicity, whether those often employed within African-American studies or elsewhere. Eschewing a monolithic approach, critical mixed-race studies emphasizes racial hybridity, overlap, and crossover. It centralizes the many manifestations, past and present, of an interracial reality.

See also Black Studies; Identity and Race in the United States; Intellectual Life


Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk (1903). New York: Vintage, 1990.

Ifekwunigwe, Jayne. Scattered Belongings: Cultural Paradoxes of "Race," Nation, and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Kennedy, Randall. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon, 2003.

Njeri, Itabari. "Sushi and Grits: Ethnic Identity and Conflict in a Newly Multicultural America." In Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, edited by Gerald Early. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Root, Maria. The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Spencer, Rainier. Spurious Issues: Race and Multiracial Identity Politics in the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999.

Stephens, Gregory. On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Young, Robert, J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Zack, Naomi. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

naomi pabst (2005)