Identities are fluid and in a constant state of motion. Danzy Senna calls it the “age of fluidity” and children of mixed race – people who have one parent who is black, while the other white, Asian any combination of the three – have a unique perspective on race, racial identity and most naturally, personal racial identification. American society has a shameful and recent legacy of slavery and is a country stratified by race, gender and class. For some, like renowned African American author, scholar and social activist, bell hooks, the United States is a country with a strong tradition of institutionalized racism which permeates all aspects of modern America society (see hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, 1981). For many in America racism is an ever-present aspect of the social condition and is built upon a rigid social code, a white/black binary which has its roots in early American settlement and the shameful tradition of slavery in the New World.
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The binary logic of race is inherently hierarchical and people of mixed racial parentage or individuals who are bi-racial are somewhere in-between the artificial and socially constructed binary so pervasive in modern American society. How do mulatto people identify within the rigid constraints of the racial binary? How is racial identity redefined by individuals who, through no fault of the own, do not fit into the supposedly neat and compact racial categories society seeks to impose on them? Most importantly, how are people who are mulatto freed from the binary concept of race and how do these people define their own unique racial identities?
Seeking to answer these questions and further analyze the social construction of identity in America today, this essay will discuss readings from Reddy, Walker, Senna and Williams with an eye to the social construction of race and racial identity. The specific focus will be on how the artificial binaries of race and race hierarchy are navigated and explored by each author.
In “One Drop of Black Blood” from Crossing the Color Line, Maureen T. Reddy affectionately describes the identity formation of her eldest son Sean, an 8-year old with a keen sense of racial identity and a desire to be different. As a child growing up in a biracial family with a white mother and black father, young Sean negotiates the hierarchical nature of racial classification and contrary to the expectations of his parents, he seeks to create his own racial identity. Although growing up in a household which promoted African-American culture and the virtues of one day becoming a black man, Maureen T. Reedy, an Irish-American woman, is shocked when she sees her son rejects the racial binary in favor of a new identity, something that she now calls his “biracial revelation”. In fact, she was initially ashamed of this revelation, feeling as though she had failed as a mother to properly instruct her son on how to “be”.
Understanding that “race is a social construct, not a scientific one”, Maureen T. Reddy examines the hierarchy of race within her culture through the beliefs of Sean, her 8-year-old son. Reddy posits that Sean’s future is based on preconceived notions: the binary logic of race. Reddy further claims that, “people not only cling to rigid racial classifications, but they are made uneasy by people who don’t appear to fit neatly into the category in which they belong in ordinary social usage.” Reddy’s assertion that the desire to fix race “is not just white either,” epitomizes that racism is not a product of binary logic, rather, it is a learned behavior: as cleverly stated by Sean’s beliefs, “I’m both.” Sean doesn’t need to understand binary logic to understand how he identifies himself. Sean clearly sees himself as a separate entity, one that is neither black nor white, he’s mulatto.
In Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Rebecca Walker was born in the segregated South to an African-American mother and a white Jewish father. Growing up as a “Movement Child”, Rebecca Walker quickly discovers the dualities of her biracial family. Although her parents married in contravention of the law of the land because they believed in “justice, equality and freedom”, Rebecca feels disjointedness between her parents and their respective families. Reminiscing fondly of her days at her paternal Uncle Jackie’s house, she later realizes that there is a real disconnect between the black and Jewish sides of her family. Her mother does not ever visit Uncle Jackie, where her Jewish grandmother frequently moans about her father marrying a shiksa or non-Jew, and she feels out of place and unable to connect with her cousins. The binary also exists when she visits her Uncle Bobby – her mother’s brother – as she recalls that her father also does not visit this home. Her sense of disconnectedness is heightened when her cousins and her uncle use the word “cracker” – a derogatory racial term for white people – and that she’s got the “crackers” when she bursts out laughing.
Rebecca Walker’s mulatto identity is heightened by the fact that she does not feel at home, either amongst her Jewish relatives or her black relatives. Accordingly ”my little copper-colored body that held so much promise and broke so many rules. I no longer make sense. I am a remnant, a throwaway, a painful reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimately unsustainable time.” Interestingly though, Rebecca has developed a conception of her mulatto identity and consciously refers to herself as a mulatta, thereby feminizing the term to make it work for her. This is an excellent example of her navigation of the racial classifications imposed on society.
Danzy Senna describes the emergence of “mulatto-pride” and what she sees as the contemporary obsession with people who are biracial. Using humor, vivid imagery and fiction to get her points across she flaunts her “mixedness” and explores her “coming out” as a biracial person while the radio plays the latest hits from just a few of the more famous mulatto Americans like Lenny Kravitz, Sade, and Mariah Carey. Growing up in an age of racial ambiguity, Senna describes internalizing her experiences within the racial binary and clinging to the one identity that seemed to fit her: that of a black woman. She internalized the static racial classifications and recalls a genuine dislike for those who rejected the binary and described themselves as something in-between. Accordingly, “the words “A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white!” could be heard echoing from schoolyards during recess. You were either white or black. No checking “Other.” No halvsies. No in-between”. Confronted with the binary, Danzy Senna chose to self-identify with the group that seemed most accepting of difference, the black community, who were at the bottom of Boston’s social totem pole in the mid1970s.
Although she grew up with a strong belief in the racial binary, Danzy Senna came to negotiate her biracial identity and confront the socially constructed nature of race in America. She emphatically states that her experience as a mulatto ”was difficult not because things were confusing, but rather because things were so painfully clear. Racism, as well as the absurdity of race, were obvious to me in ways that they perhaps weren’t to those whose racial classification was a given.” Nonetheless, she criticizes the word “multiracial” as being an overarching identity which lacks substance for most people and humorously offers new racial classifications in this mullato-centric world including the Jewlatto, the Gelatto, the Negratto, the Fauxlatto and the Tomatto. Poking fun at these classifications, Danzy Senna does an excellent job at showing us just how ridiculous racial classifications can be.
In “Uncommon Ground”, Patricia J. Williams discusses the descriptive use of race in personal ads and the implications for such descriptions in the United States. She uses the example of a classified ad obtained from a friend in Paris who was shocked at she perceived to be the American obsession with race and the implicit reference to the racial binary contained within that supposedly humorous personal ad. What this friend from Paris could not understand was why race was even mentioned and adroitly thought that it was completely out of place in a personal ad. The French legacy with racism is different from that of the United States and Patricia J. Williams persuasively points out that anti-miscegenation laws were struck from the books only in 1967, just over forty years ago while the American experience with race has been fraught with social disharmony, institutionalized discrimination and endemic violence.
Understanding that race is a social construction, Patricia J. Williams utilizes the case of former US Senator Strom Thurmond: a virulent and unapologetic racist, and the “emergence” of his black/mulatto/biracial daughter after his death. The racial binary is further explored as Essie Mae Washington-Williams, “illegitimate” daughter of the white Senator Thurmond is variously described in the media as “black”, “mixed-race,” “half-black” and “biracial”. Seeing the binary as a polarizing aspect of modern American society, Williams further asserts that the term “biracial” is only applied after formal approval is gained from white society or when Senator Thurmond’s white descendents acknowledge the parentage of Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Furthermore, the racial binary is applied to the case of Marcus Dixon, a black man charged with aggravated child molestation for having sexual relations with his underage white girlfriend. This is a charge, the writer asserts, which would not be applied to a white man in a similar circumstance with a black woman and certainly wasn’t applied to Strom Thurmond, who as a young man, fathered Essie Mae Washington-Williams with a black girl, likely below the age of consent.
People who are biracial or mulatto are in a unique position to challenge the artificial racial binary imposed on American society and are free to explore their own identities. Identities are fluid and forced racial identities expose just how fluid identities can be. As a scholar of African-American studies and as a woman who promoted the virtues of black identity in her home, Maureen T. Reddy was initially shocked and saddened when her eight year old Sean no longer identified as black but as a biracial boy. Sean’s “biracial revelation” occurred at a young age and helped Mrs. Reddy and her husband reevaluate their own conceptions of race and racial identity. Conversely, Rebecca Walker never felt quite at home among the Jewish and black wings of her family and subsequently appropriated the term “mulatta” to describe herself as a biracial female. Danzy Senna pokes fun at racial classifications and argues emphatically for the fluidity of race-based identity in the 21st century. In “Uncommon Ground”, Patricia J. Williams uses the case of US Senator Strom Thurmond’s “illegitimate” child, Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, to show the double standards inherent in a society in which the racial binary is applied. She argues that America is in fact, race obsessed. Each of the authors above has successfully redefined the terms of racial identity from a binary concept of race. The mulatto/mulatta identities they have created allow them to negotiate the rough racial terrain of modern American society. In a globalized world and in an era of multiculturalism, the rigid and constricting black/white duality is increasingly out of touch with reality and the lives of real people today. This hierarchical binary is being challenged and mulattos are fortunate to be in a unique position to help tear down the socially constructed and inherently inhibiting walls of racial identity in America.