Race, Biraciality, and Mixed Race—in Theory

Race, Biraciality, and Mixed Race—in Theory

Chapter in: Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age

Rowman & Littlefield
288 pages
August 1997
Size: 6 1/4 x 9 1/4
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-8476-8447-2
eBook ISBN: 978-0-585-20172-6
pages 51-71

Lewis R. Gordon, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and Director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies
Temple University

“You, who are a doctor,” said I to my [American] interlocutor, “you do not believe, however, that the blood of blacks has some specific qualities?”

He shrugged his shoulders: “There are three blood types,” he responded to me, “which one finds nearly equally in blacks and whites.”


“It is not safe for black blood to circulate in our veins.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Return from the United States”

An African American couple found themselves taking their child, a few months of age, to a physician for an ear infection. Since their regular physician was out, an attending physician took their care. Opening the baby girl’s files, he was caught by some vital information. The charts revealed a diagnosis of “H level” alpha thalassemia, a genetic disease that is known to afflict 2 percent of northeast Asian populations. He looked at the couple. The father of the child, noticing the reticence and awkwardness of the physician, instantly spotted a behavior that he had experienced on many occasions.

“It’s from me,” he said. “She’s got the disease from me.”

“Now, how could she get the disease from you?” the physician asked with some irritation.

“My grandmother is Chinese,” the father explained.

The physician’s face suddenly shifted to an air of both surprise and relief. Then he made another remark. “Whew!” he said. “I was about to say, ‘But—you’re black.'”

The couple was not amused.

Realizing his error, the physician continued. “I mean, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I know Hispanics who are also Asians, so why not African Americans?”

Yes. Why not?

The expression “mixed race” has achieved some popularity in contemporary discussions of racial significations in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is significant that these three countries are marked by the dominance of an Anglo-cultural standpoint. In other countries, particularly with Spanish, Portuguese, and French influences, the question of racial mixture has enjoyed some specificity and simultaneous plurality. For the Anglos, however, the general matrix has been in terms of “whites” and” all others,” the consequence of which has been the rigid binary of whites and nonwhites. It can easily be shown, however, that the specific designations in Latin and Latin American countries are, for the most part, a dodge and that, ultimately, the primary distinctions focus on being either white or at least not being black.

We find in the contemporary Anglophone context, however, a movement that is not entirely based on the question of racial mixture per se. The current articulation of racial mixture focuses primarily upon the concerns of biracial people. Biracial mixture pertains to a specific group within the general matrix of racial mixing, for a biracial identity can only work once, as it were. If the biracial person has children with, say, a person of a supposedly pure race, the “mixture,” if you will, will be between a biracial “race” and a pure one. But it is unclear what race the child will then designate (a mixture of biraciality and X, perhaps, which means being a new biracial formation?).

To understand both mixed race and its biracial specification and some of the critical race theoretical problems raised by both, we need first to understand both race and racism in contemporary race discourse…

…But blackness also points to a history of mixed racialization that, although always acknowledged among blacks, is rarely understood or seen among other groups. I have argued elsewhere, for instance, that to add the claim of “mixture” to blacks in both American continents would be redundant, because blacks are their primary “mixed” populations to begin with. Mixture among blacks, in particular, functions as an organizing aesthetic, as well as a tragic history. On the aesthetic level, it signifies the divide between beauty and ugliness. On the social level, the divide is between being just and unjust, virtuous and vicious; “fair skin” is no accidental, alternative term for “light skin.” And on the historical level, the divide signifies concerns that often are denied…

Read the entire chapter here.

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