Black and White and Read All Over: If you’re mixed-race, they never stop asking ‘What are you?’

Black and White and Read All Over: If you’re mixed-race, they never stop asking ‘What are you?’

Village Voice
Tuesday, 2006-01-24
Naomi Pabst, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and American Studies
Yale University

It’s back in the ’90s in San Francisco. I’m undergoing a wisdom tooth extraction, hovering happily in nitrous oxide–land, when I vaguely hear a voice beam in. The dentist has asked me something. I attempt to focus—has my blissed-out fog really been penetrated by that question, that dreaded demand of the racially ambiguous: “What are you”?.

“Ummm, uhhhh,” I mumble in universal dental garble. “Well, one thing I am is not so high anymore.”

As the product of extensive mixing and moving, I hardly know where to begin or end in alleviating people’s curiosity (even yours, dear reader). Let’s just say that if you appear racially indeterminable, you are read all over. As in from head to toe, as in wherever you go. Like any other unstraightforward or indecipherable text, ambiguous bodies are given a close reading, between the lines. And if that fails to clarify matters, any serious reader will consult a primary source: you. You become an informant, other people’s resource for more information. It’s an intervention into your everyday existence that can happen anyplace, anytime, by anyone. You are interpreted, your body a sign, forever decoded and discerned…

…But what exactly is this so-called “Generation Mix” and this would-be “mixed-heritage baby boom”? Kelley suggests that while there have of course been mixed-race people for as long as different races have resided together, we now see the first critical mass of adamantly multiracial people in America—teens and twentysomethings like these. I agree that race mixing, and not just in the well-known crime of white-on-black rape, has been more prevalent than is generally acknowledged, and that at first glance mixing seems to be a common enough occurrence these days. It is true that intermixing is on the rise, especially in places like New England and more so on the West Coast. But once talk turns to population “booms” and “generations,” we need to note that the numbers remain much smaller than one might think.

This is especially true for black and white mixing. Currently, approximately 5 percent of all American marriages are between people of different races. And since 1967, the year the Supreme Court legalized marriage between blacks and whites, rates of black-white intermarriage have jumped radically indeed, from 1 percent to around 5 percent of all marriages involving a black person. The relatively small numbers don’t take away from the social significance of race mixing, but rather add to it. That the overwhelming majority of people still stick to “their own” makes the exceptions stand out and seem more common than they actually are, while also exacerbating the widespread fetishization of all things interracial…

Read the entire article here.

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