Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can a Half Ever Be Made Whole?: Some Thoughts on Bi-racial and African American Subjectivity

I picked this trailer promoting the documentary Bi-Racial…Not Black Damn It up via Twitter on yesterday, and it immediately intrigued me. Originally, I was only going to inform you of the documentary and get your feedback on it. But as I watched and re-watched, the gears began turning, and my notes and comments bloomed.

But it all starts with the trailer and the brief sentiments expressed therein.

At one time, I believed that the race bi-racial individuals chose to identify with depended wholly on proximity. In short, whichever race they spent the most time around was the race they chose to identify as. But as I have evolved, so have my views on many things to include multi-racial subjectivity.

Since that time in talking in-depth with bi-racial individuals, I have come to realize the very complexity of the notion of identity for these individuals.

First, I notice the confusion of these individuals. Is confusion the right word? Perhaps not. It seems insulting. Let’s use ambivalence. First, I notice the ambivalence as to how one should identify his- or herself. Am I black? Am I white? Where do I fit in? Why should I even have to choose?

But our society and culture almost insists that you choose, that you identify yourself as one or the other even though whichever you choose, the narrative already exists that will invariably decide for you dependant on the amount of melanin present in your skin or the straightness or kinkiness of your hair. Just the very unctuousness inherent in one daring to try to identify oneself for oneself opens one up to ridicule from both sides of the racial divide.

At this point, I would have liked to inform you of the effect this has on bi-racial individuals. At this point, I had planned to discuss the mental stress it causes. But I find myself unable to articulate this simply because I am not bi-racial; I find it hard to argue from that subject position, one that I am not familiar with. But I am an African American, and I find the two subject positions similar, so I will continue my argument from that subject position.

African American is what we most widely identify ourselves as now. Implicit in this notion is a split subject position. We are Americans, but ultimately we can trace our ancestry back to the continent of Africa. In addition, skin color marks us as different, as somehow being outside the mainstream.

And this perceived difference extends to what is thought of as African American culture as well. Though it is almost impossible to comprehensively identify or to define African American culture, the culture too is defined as different, as outside the mainstream. In fact, it is most often defined in the negative.

But to enter into mainstream society and culture, we are asked to make a choice. We are asked to subscribe to either one culture or the other, but as with bi-racial individuals, the choice is a false choice. Whichever choice we make, we are always preceded by an existing narrative of deviance and depravity that will supposedly speak for us before we ever open our mouths.

And the result is confusion. And the result is the warring of two ideals, two selves, within the same body. The result is a distrust of those different from us. Who am I to trust? Who is really my ally, and who harbors ill will? The result is a self-loathing of sorts. We deny, we despise, we ridicule that part of ourselves, that part of our culture that would expose us as somehow different, that refuses to follow the rules.

And this effect is felt most acutely by those of us who have followed and continue to follow the rules of inclusion to a tee. Those of us with full faculty of the English language. Those of us who have spent years being educated at colleges and universities. Those of us who neatly trim our hair and beards, who feel most comfortable in button down oxford shirts, khakis, and loafers. Those of us who spend the bulk of our lives in the mainstream dealing with those who might or might not accept us, who might or might not hate us, who might or might not know us only through that narrative which precedes us.

Bi-racial individuals and African Americans share the same quandary although in differing degrees and contexts. But in all of this I must ask you, how do we reconcile between the two halves, the two selves? In all of this, how can we develop the half into a whole or is it even possible?

And it all starts with the trailer and the brief sentiments expressed therein.

[A. Spence uses the same video in positing a separate and different argument on her site, Blackology. Click the link and go over and check it out.]

16 comments:

md20737 said...

I do not consider myself African American. I am black. I consider our president Obama to be African American because he is able to trace his roots and still has family and ties to the African culutre.

I am black because I can not trace my roots past my great great grandma born in the early 1900's. Her mother most likely a slave or first decedent of a slave. I have idea who I derive from. My father has hispanic features & middle name (Jose) but my mother is chocolate like a snikers bar.

My father has never met his father, or family of the father. All the history we know and can relate to is post slavery, and the civil right movement in the US. We have no traditions that we have not created or accepted ourselves. Without knowing where you come creates a void & sensitivity. I prefer to be called black but if someone mistakes me for a hispanic I tend to get upset I dont know why. Its very likely that I am very much hispanic but without proof calling me one will get me heated lol

I dont know how to solve that otherwise I would be ok!

msladydeborah said...

soulbrother,

This is a topic that I can comment on. I am a Black member of a bi-racial family. I have one white sibling and we have four bi-racial siblings. Our ages range from 57-44. I mention this because our family grew up in a different era of America.

I could write several posts on growing up in a bi-racial family during the sixties. It was an eye opening experience. Because we were exposed to the best and worst of both cultures.

All of my grandchildren are bi-racial. Only one has color on her complexion. One looks like a mini Sophia Loren. The other two look bi-racial but not necessarily Black.

I think that this documentary may be one of the most important films on the subject of race to date. Because bi-racial people are lending their voices to the conversation in a frank and honest manner.

People use to believe that my oldest sib and I did not get along because there was so much friction between Black and White people in the general society. That was not true. But out of all of us, he is the one who had to really struggle with identifying with being a white male. Because we lived between two ethnic groups he often found himself at odds with other white males on one hand, and accepted by black males on the other hand.

No one has ever really asked us how it was to grow up in this type of family. Our experience was different due to the era of time that we were children and teens.

I think that this film is going to open up the conversation on the subject of race. And move it in a direction that just might help many people begin to see different ways to define racial/cultural identity.

uglyblackjohn said...

One of the problems with being bi-racial is the need for some to be "More Black" than the Blacks which they are around.
This happened with my younger siblings. They were always trying to prove how "down" they were which lead to their incarceration(s).

In the winter, I am assumed to be Arab, Mexican or Black.
In the summer - I get golden brown like the pancakes on the Bisquick box and people can tell that I am Black.
Depending on the time of year, I get treated differnetly by different people.

But really, I don't care what people call me.
They can call me whatever it is they hate.
It just makes winning more fun.

KST said...

I'm going to be all over the place on this one...

First, I strongly believe people should be able to identify however they choose. Unfortunately, this is America and we are a long ways away from Utopia. That said, no one should have to hide, deny, or downplay who they are. Nor should they have to bow down to majority rule and claim to fully something they are not.

If you can trace your roots back to slaves in America - you have African ancestors. If you are Amercian, and have family that has lived here for more than a few years - part of your culture is African. Contrary to popular belief, African slaves did not lose all of their cultural identity. Many of their language, music, religion, stories, cultural norms - survived and have been infused into U.S. culture.

As someone who is often asked by other African American's what I am or what am I mixed with etc., I find this all thought provoking. Until the black power movement, black was not the thing to be. In a lot of cases (good hair anyone?)it is still not the thing to be, although we disguise it a little better.

The "anything but black movement" (I got Indian in me!) has been around even longer. This leads a lot of black people to roll their eyes at the bi/multi ethnic movement. So, Max, you do (as W.E.B. would say) have the two souls warring with one another.

Is it the fight against the one drop rule? The fight to recognize both parents equally? The fight to celebrate ones blackness? A political and socio-economic fight? Let's not forget that how we identify ourselves on the U.S. Census has a profound effect on communities and the money they receive.

Also, Brazil and Cuba are prime examples of countries that have splintered racial categories. Who's at the bottom of the caste (shh - we're supposed to pretend this does not exist) system? Black people.

Max Reddick said...

@ md20737

"I do not consider myself African American. I am black."

Interesting. I have, in the past, perferred the term "black." But more recently, I have begun to embrace African American more and more. I do see somewhat of a distinction between the two. When I think of the term "black," I imagine a more revolutionary definition of African American subjectivity. When I think of the term "African American," I think of a connection, a link, to a great history.

And when I deploy the terms while writing, I choose whichever best suits the writing purpose.

@ msladydeborah

Do you think the effect is felt more acutely by bi-racial males or females?

I have bi-racial cousins. Their mom is white and their dad is black. The two girls identified as black, married black men, and are living normal, stable lives. It is not an issue to them that I know of. But their brother has had problems his entire life. He clings to us, his black relatives, but he always speaks wistfully of his white relatives who he barely knows. And at other times, I have noted many bi-racial males attempting to out black their peers.

Also, take a look at uglyblackjohn's comment.

@ KST

All very real.

I recognize and acknowledge my slave heritage. This is a matter of pride. It allows me to say we have come from there here. Look at the obstacles we have overcome.

In addition, you are correct in pointing out that race or color based caste systems exist in other places. South Africa at one time went so far as subdivide the darker races into categories.

Lyn Marie said...

For me my comfort with my biracial status has been a long journey of self discovery. As a teenager I did the "Black than Now" thing. I read everything Black, I wanted to join the Nation of Islam to connect my Blackness. In fact I came home at age 15 and told my White mother she was a Blue-eyed devil. We can laugh about this now and I often reference that moment when discussing race with my students. But it was a process and everything about the process helped me to become the person I am today.

Today I can be biracial, I can be both without apologizing. I think that is a sign of my growth but also our countries growth. I was born in 1967, at that time there real was discussion about being biracial, you were Black. Now you can be biracial and it is more accepted.

The one thing that does bother me still is when people assume what I am based on my complexion or speech, or say you don't look Black (maybe because that's not the only thing I am). If people ask that's cool but telling me what I am based on a limited assessment of my outer appearance is just annoying!

Let me add that I also joke about being a "half-breed", in fact the running joke with my friends is... The half breeds are taking over first the presidency, next the world!! LOL!

El Nuyorican said...

Man! I can go about this like no tomorrow.

As a Latino of Puerto Rican descent, I think we have much we can contribute to the "race" dialog in the US. the bottom line is how race is defined in this country. I refuse to comply with that definition, which is essentially the "one-drop" rule. My upbringing taught me to think of race in completely different terms (and I was born and raised in the US AND PRs are US citizens for the ill-informed).

I have so much to add to this, and I really appreciate your comments, which I think are insightful and cut to the essence of the matter. But still: we're adhering to a definition of race that has no grounding in biology and that was defined by those who were the oppressors.

I am in the midst of doing a series on racism and towards the end, I'm going to present some ideas that I think will piss some off and intrigue others.

thanks for this post, bro.

Eddie

Charles J said...

I watched the clip, I read the post and I am glad that Max brought up the comparison of Multi-Ethnic people and African-American people. There are two major dynamics going on here (1) privelege and (2)oppression.

Americans have much privelege over those in other countries especially third world countries. Historically those of mixed race (especially Black/White mixed race people) and lighter skinned Black people have experienced the privelege of being able to "pass" as well as some luxuries that comes with being light and close to the mainstream skin tone which is White.

As an African-American man, I do not think that mixed race people should have to identify as one race over an other, but just as I have to accept that I have privelege when it comes to being born a man in America. , Mixed Race people and lighter skinned Blacks are gonna have to step up to the plate and understand that they are in a place of dominance period, when it comes to skin tone,, but still in a place of oppression when it comes to be a person of color.

As an a darker African American man. The only way to mend our community is having a conversation about our own self hate. Because there is no reason for one person of color to hate another person of color when they are basically in the same boat.

Lyn Marie said...

"Mixed Race people and lighter skinned Blacks are gonna have to step up to the plate and understand that they are in a place of dominance period, when it comes to skin tone."

How exactly are mixed race people supposed to step up, step like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, WEB Du Bois, Barack Obama?

This idea of privilege because of skin tone, now in theory I understand where you may be becoming from but reality is different. First the idea that I have to apologize for my skin tone, something I have no control over, is like apologizing for being born in a poor family. Just what IS the privilege? Being called a bitch for walking into a room, being told I think I'm all that because of my complexion? Or being told that I have to work extra hard to prove my dedication to my race (or at least part of it)as I watch so called darker individual talking some sexist bull, participating in some sideshow, for money. You mean the privilege of being told I'm not Black enough but White people because I don't speak slang or follow some stereotype? Or are we talking some historical privilege of being in the "house"? Oh that's right being in the house was better, being at the beckon call of the master of the house to be used anyway he saw fit? Really?

So if we are in the same boat what's up with this notion of some how having a better position? I'm just sayin' if we are in the same boat then let's stop with this idea of privilege.

missincognegro said...

"When I think of the term "black," I imagine a more revolutionary definition of African American subjectivity. When I think of the term "African American," I think of a connection, a link, to a great history."

I self-identify as a Black American, which recognizes the achievements and contributions of Black people in the United States. Beyond the slavery connection, I claim or acknowledge no other connection to the continent of Africa. Home is the United States, and for me and my ancestors, for several centuries, before there ever was a United States.

"Mixed Race people and lighter skinned Blacks are gonna have to step up to the plate and understand that they are in a place of dominance period, when it comes to skin tone, but still in a place of oppression when it comes to be a person of color."
@Charles J Do you mean dominance, or privilege?
Either way, to demand that anyone has to "step" up is spicious and filled with self-righteous indignation, at least to me. I also think you contradict yourself in your comment. I agree with Lyn Marie when she says, in response to your comment, Charles J:

"So if we are in the same boat what's up with this notion of some how having a better position? I'm just sayin' if we are in the same boat then let's stop with this idea of privilege."

KST said...

@Charles J: I read what you wrote, know what you meant, but it came off as a scolding. A very out of pocket one. Demanding people "step up" is a pretty loaded thing to do. It implies they haven't done anything other than accept the perks of being lightskinned. I;m not going to debate who in Lynn Marie's list is bi-racial as oppossed to multi-racial, but I will add Mr. Fredrick Douglass. Step up indeed.

@ Lynn Marie: I understand and agree with 99% of what you wrote. Your experienced are yours and no one can deny that. I attended an HBCU for two quarters and felt the, ahem, sisterly love from fellow students. Being called "half-breed bitch" based on my skin tone and length of my hair was a treat. Assumptions are always fun.

However, if we are going to be intellectually honest, and historically accurate - lighter skinned people of African descent in this country have had advantages with regards to perceptions of intelligence, ability, honesty, beauty, class etc.

As for house negroes - not all of them were of a lighter hue. Darker skinned people who speak as if they went to school are also on the receiving end of the speaking white vitriol. Just saying...

Charles J said...

@Lyn Marie ,

I am not asking anyone to apologize for being born who they are. Mixed race/Lighter skinned etc but when I say step up I mean exactly this, the only way for us (the Black community) to have a converstaion about inner race relations is for us to hold each other accountable for our actions and acknowledge that there is a system of oppression that has been operating in our community since we were brought to this country. The statement: If you are black get back, if you're brown stick around and if your light you're alright has been operating in our community for years.

So I acknowlege the names you have been called and the pain you have been suffered as a person of color but please please acknowledge as a group lighter skinned people receive skin color preference of darker skinned people.

KST listed many lists of privelges...

KST

... - lighter skinned people of African descent in this country have had advantages with regards to perceptions of intelligence, ability, honesty, beauty, class etc.

Lyn Marie this is precisely what I meant when I say privelege.

@ , Lyn Marie ,
, So if we are in the same boat what's up with this notion of some how having a better position? I'm just sayin' if we are in the same boat then let's stop with this idea of privilege ,

We can all be on the same boat of being oppressed as people of color, but darker people are in on the bottom floor and those whose have lighter skinned tones have historically been at least one floor above when it comes to skin tone preference.

A. Spence said...

How unfair is it that they are made to feel like they have to choose a race. As if one race is more important to the other.

Max Reddick said...

@ Lynn Marie

"In fact I came home at age 15 and told my White mother she was a Blue-eyed devil."

You really bought into it! LOL

But I do think it is a process of growing into what we are--a long arduous journey. I find myself being a black male always surrounded by whites. A long time ago I was uncomfortable and always trying to prove my worth. But I know I am comfortable with who I am and confident in my abilities, so it doesn't matter so much anymore.

@ El Nuy

No problem and thanks for stopping by.

@ Charles J.

"Mixed Race people and lighter skinned Blacks are gonna have to step up to the plate and understand that they are in a place of dominance period, when it comes to skin tone."

Do you really think that skin tone is that much of a factor still? I do realize that at one time, skin tone played a huge part in determining who or what you were. But now I don't think skin tone is that recognized anymore.

Charles J said...

@Max

"Do you really think that skin tone is that much of a factor still? I do realize that at one time, skin tone played a huge part in determining who or what you were. But now I don't think skin tone is that recognized anymore.",

Yes today skin tone preference and colorism still exists in the Black community and in mainstream society, especially when it comes to Black women and their skin tone. I can turn to almost any rap video now and see the lighter skinned sister as the love interest and the darker sisters as the "side pieces" or eye candy shaking their body parts for the camera. I can turn on commericials and see lighter skin women advertise for make up or get the leading roles in movies more so than the darker women. Both Beyonce and Rihanna have makeup commericals for leading companies right now.

I still hear within my family and friends, , "She is cute for a dark skinned girl" or "he is handsome to be so light".. What?!! Why can't somebody just look good period?

I was with a group of guys last weekend playing Xbox and they got into an argument about who was better off during slave times. Of course the light skinned dude said well at least I was in the house! LOL as if being a slave of any kind is better than the other.

Max skin tone at least in my age group in is still very recognized.

Lyn Marie said...

@ Charles J
Using video girls as an example of skin tone. To be honest I see a majority of those women being treated as eye candy or sexual objects, light, dark or some where in the middle!

Let me give another example outside of the Black community. White people often suffer from this skin tone confusion, they spend hours tanning to become darker. Being to White is a concern within the White community as well. Now throw in the blonde v. brunette hair thing and you have quite a few White girls feeling inadequate.

In some African regions people that are relatively the same complexion, are killing each other because they are from different tribe, or religion. Man inhumanity to man goes far beyond skin tone.

The fact of the matter is you can tell me all you want that my complexion has given me some status that you have not been bestowed that doesn't change my color or yours. I'm not going to have someone who hasn't walked in my shoes condense my experience into a small limited category. Just like I don't want to limit you to some category that limits who you are.

I am more than my complexion. My achievements are more than my complexion and my intelligence is more than my complexion.

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