I was going to leave this as a comment on The Black Snob's site, but decided that if I was going to ramble out my thoughts at such length, I'd better share it here on the ITYC blog instead.
In her post, "Census Says There Are More Biracial People, But That Depends On Your Definition of Mixed," Belton wonders whether the increased number of people identifying as multi/biracial on the census has more to do with increased societal and governmental acceptance rather than an actual physical increase in biracial/multiracial people. After outlining a condensed history of white/black mixing in America, she goes onto recall a moment when a possibly foreign born black woman mistakes her for being mixed because of her long hair. Belton says of the exchange:
But how could I explain in a few minutes that my father was darker, but used to be lighter, but his father was very dark but his mother came from people who were a variety of colors, some very, very light and some almost light enough to pass and that my mother, despite having black parents, has slanted eyes and looks Southeast Asian to almost everyone when her hair is straight, and that her mother is a little lighter and taller and slimmer and her father was shorter and much darker, and she has more his features than hers, but got her mother's coloring and that they, in turn, came from another bunch or randomly colored people because everyone was living in the same rural area, together, fussing and fighting and loving and birthing babies and whatever white people had come into our lives had come into them long ago and no one liked to talk about it because they were not the loving relationships of choice, but the shame of being property and rape.
The other side of this (and was implicit in the old lady's surprise that I considered myself to be black), was that I wouldn't want to be anything other than black. That I'm proud of my culture, family, community and ancestry. That even with all the constant bad news, there is a lot of joy there -- from summers in Arkansas with my grandmother, to the smells of a Soul Food Christmas, to the sounds of an old blues song or a modern pop ditty. Being part of a sisterhood that includes both Harriet Tubman and Michelle Obama. Being part of a culture that produced both Dr. Charles Drew and Dr. Joycelyn Elders. That I'm proud of my family and my history and the people who made me, and even though there is pain in that history the joy found in having a community to call home far surpassed it.
And that's truly what the "mixed is, mixed ain't" contradiction boils down to -- who you are and how you feel about who you are. I'm not a racial purist, forcing people into boxes, demanding that they pick a side. I don't feel like someone should have to be "forced" to be part of the culture I love, anymore than I'd want to see someone be denied their identity because it doesn't fit our personal definitions. This is about reality. Of living in a world where someone of a different culture will see a mixed person and someone in America will just see a black person. Where if Tiger Woods goes missing tomorrow, no one in America is going to tell the police to look for a guy from Thailand. But Tiger Woods shouldn't have to act like he doesn't love, share and participate in the culture and religion of his Thai mother. This is about what makes one comfortable and where one feels most at home. America is always going to be ground zero for identity politics, but those politics don't have to rule your conscious or heart.
To preface, after reading Belton's piece three times, I believe that we would both agree on the importance of the freedom to define oneself even in the face of our country's fraught racial history (past and present). Yet, while I think that it's true that people feel freer to identify as mixed, I don't think that everyone who has done so falls into the category of those trying to reach way on back in the family tree to claim that white or Indian ancestor. More specifically, I don't think that the everyone who identified as mixed "black/white and other" on the census, were multi-generationally mixed black people suddenly jumping on the booming, biracial bandwagon. The notion of officially, (i.e. in the eyes of the federal government) claiming oneself as mixed through past centuries of miscegenation (because that's what it would have been called back then), reminds me of the a similar scenario which occurs in Indian Country. Many people come into tribal nations (or go ahead an create their own tribes, but that's a whole other post) to officially claim a recovered Indian ancestry from their family's deep past. With no ties to the tribal nation they claim or even to Indian Country in general, these folks will go ahead and check that multi-racial box or just check Indian.
The problem with this process of ancestry reclamation and recovery is that it fails to acknowledge current or immediate kinship (or any other kind of engagement) with said reclaimed community. For many Native communities, kinship ties are based upon a real level of engagement and investment in that community- a tie that manifests as some sort of lived reality as part of that community through mutual recognition. So folks who roll up on Indian Country out of the blue on some "Hey Cuz!" tip, are rightly viewed with the side-eye for a variety of reasons. My reading of Belton's piece leaves me with the impression that she believes many of the mixed people on the census, especially the ones who are mixed black, have engaged in this not so straightforward process of remaking their identity. For her, those people almost negate the concept of being mixed wholesale, relegating it to a subjective space based on feelings rather than actual cultural and kinship ties. Conversely, when I think of all those folks who've identified as mixed on the census, I tend to believe that many of them are not only exercising their right to self-identify but also their right to embrace and claim the communities that they know and that know them.
In listing her reasons for not identifying as mixed, Belton, even though she "technically could" identify as mixed, implicitly outlines the reasons why someone would rightly claim one or more cultural realities they've lived their whole lives. For some mixed people, their home is in two or more cultures just as Belton's home is in one culture. For all those people who are embraced by their Japanese or Korean community on their dad's side, for all those people who are embraced by and active in their Kiowa or Choctaw communities on their mom's side (or their grandparents side, depending on their particular family structure) as well as their black communities, it is very possible that they've finally been allowed the beauracratic space to choose an identity that they've been living their whole lives. (By the same token, there may have been mixed people who have only been loved, embraced and identified by the black community, so that's the box they felt comfortable checking.)
So while I agree with what I think is Belton's assertion that there is room for choosing identity based on an individual, lived micro reality in the face of the contradictory, macro societal reality of race, I don't think that every person who checked the mutli-racial box did so based on some nebulous geneological, calculus. Rather, the increase in the multi/biracial population seems to have more to do with many people finally being afforded the societal (sort of) and governmental room to acknowledge, real, lived, multiple cultural realities with actual kinship and community connections, just as tangible and real as Belton's singular one. Just to give a few hypothetical examples, the enka singer Jero, a black man for all reality-based intents and purposes, who's found success singing the songs his Japanese grandmother shared with him in his childhood. If Jero did check the multi-racial/biracial box on the census, it is possible that he did so in acknowlegement of the connection to the Japanese community he maintained through his grandmother and continues to maintain, through his Japanese audience. In a different way, my own child will have the experience of potentially choosing to forge a mixed identity based on her ties to Scottish and Italian culture on her dad's side and the Geechee/Southern culture on her mom's side. Both cultural identities are marked by specific traditions, cultural practices and language that will connect her to those communities.
Engaging in this conversation about what mixed is and is not, we can all get tripped up by failing to recognize that being multi-generationally mixed can be drastically different from being mixed through the first-generation (if that makes sense). Just as I discussed above, multi-generationally mixed people don't tend to have the same cultural, kinship and community ties to the heritage which makes them "multi" in the same way that first-gen mixed people do. When we're discussing black people who are multi-generationally mixed with white, that mixture was borne out of a particular legacy of sexual exploitation. Where most first generation mixed black/white people are the products of loving, consensual, unions, folks who are mixed white/black through multiple generations, are (not always) the products of this legacy of rape and sexual exploitation. That line of comparison to me is pretty offensive. How can you tell someone who has one black and one white parent who came together in a relationship of mutual consent and love that their identification as mixed is some how the same as someone who can claim to be mixed multi-generationally through ancestors who were raped and forced into "relationships" with their slave masters without consent?
Yes, we do have to acknowledge that history of exploitation, but to tell someone whose parents created their life out of love and consent: "I don't identify as mixed just because some white man raped my Great-Great-Grannie" is pretty f---ed up. Furthermore, the "we've always been mixed" argument has typically been used as a bludgeon of sorts to keep (mainly first-generation) mixed people in their proverbial place, to remind them just how not special or unique they are and how in society's eyes they will always be "just black." Again, when we apply this to present-day, first-gen, mixed people who may in fact identify as black but not look phenotypically black, their experience of the kind of blackness that I know and that Belton no doubt knows, will not be the same. No matter how down for the black political struggle my little girl grows up to be, she will walk through a world where people will not readily identify her as black unless they identify me as her mother.
So while I do agree with Belton that this mixing has been going on for a very long time, I think that we need to seriously examine what it means to be multi-generationally mixed vs. being "first-generation" mixed, and how community, kinship and culture affect a person's decision to "check all that apply."