The Fluid Symbol of Mixed Race

The Fluid Symbol of Mixed Race

Volume 25, Issue 4 (Fall, 2010)
pages 875-890
DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.2010.01121.x

Naomi Zack, Professor of Philosophy
University of Oregon

Philosophers have little to lose in making practical proposals. If the proposals are enacted, the power of ideas to change the world is affirmed. If the proposals are rejected, there is new material for theoretical reflection. During the 1990s, I believed that broad public recognition of mixed race, particularly black and white mixed race, would contribute to an undoing of rigid and racist, socially constructed racial categories. I argued for such recognition in my first book, Race and Mixed Race (Zack 1993), a follow-through anthology, American Mixed Race (Zack 1995), and numerous articles, especially the essay, “Mixed Black and White Race and Public Policy,” which appeared first in Hypatia in 1995. I also delivered scores of public and academic lectures and presentations on this subject, all of which expressed the following in varied forms and formats: Race is an idea that lacks the biological foundation it is commonly assumed to have. There is need for broad education about this absence of foundation; mixed-race identities should be recognized, especially black–white identities.

Given some of the discussion of my work on race and mixed race, I should reiterate that my position was neither a denial of the existence of race nor advocacy of the elimination of race as a category. That is, while I believe that the elimination of race as a category would be a good thing in many contexts,  I have never advocated for such elimination as a next step for a society that is as entangled with ideas of race as ours is. And furthermore, I am wary of the delusional aspect of any philosopher believing that she has the authority, much less the power, to wield an idea like a magic wand over the world.  Race exists insofar as people use race to identify themselves and others racially. What does not exist is a biological foundation for human races or human racial divisions. It is an empirical question whether broad public understanding of this lack of foundation, in a society where many think that such a foundation in biological science exists, would result in an “elimination” of race terms and practices.

The recognition of mixed race that I have advocated would proceed from where we are now, in a society where many people continue to think that human racial taxonomy has a biological foundation. Recognition of mixed race would be fair, because if racially “pure” people are entitled to distinct racial identities, then so are racially mixed people.  Also, the false belief in biological races logically entails a belief in mixed biological races. But, of course, in true biological taxonomic terms, if pure races do not exist, then neither do mixed races (Zack 1997, 183-84; Zack 2002, chap. 7).

However, by the time I finished writing Philosophy of Science and Race (Zack 2002), I had come to the conclusion that broad understanding of the absence of a biological foundation for “race,” beginning with philosophers, was more urgent than mixed-race recognition or identity rights. Against that needed shift away from the false racialisms to which many liberatory race theorists still clung, advocacy of mixed-race recognition seemed self-serving, if not petty. And I think that the shift is still a work in progress. But still, the ongoing historical phenomena of mixed race and the distinctive experiences of mixed-race people continue to merit consideration, and I am grateful for this opportunity to revisit my earlier confidence and enthusiasm that mixed-race recognition was on the near horizon, with the full-scale undoing of race soon to dawn.

The twenty-first century has so far supported greater recognition of mixed race, but not as a distinct or stand-alone racial category, which was what I had hoped to see happen.  Biracial black and white Americans continue to voluntarily identify and be identified by others as black. This is surprising because the efforts of several overlapping multiracial “movements” culminated in the  U.S. Census 2000 allowance for more than one box to be checked for race. In response to that opportunity for new self-identification, 6.9 million respondents, or 2.4% of all respondents, designated themselves as members of “two or more races,” while 16 million, or 5.5 percent, indicated that they were “some other race” (Zack 2001). However, these substantial figures are rarely disaggregated as statistics pertaining to specific racial mixtures.  Based on recent political events and a current unscientific sense of contemporary culture, it’s now safe to say that the black–white distinction is as sharp as it ever has been in the United States. And mixed race, despite more robust acknowledgment, seems to have passed from a possibly viable independent identity into a variable or fluid symbol of not only this or that presumptively pure race, but a symbol of race relations as well. I think that if we carefully examine this symbolic condition of mixed race, we might learn or relearn something about the nature of our ongoing social, racial categories. Such an examination of mixed race and race would be a project of what has come to be accepted as critical race theory.  Maybe these terms should be defined before proceeding further…


The term race refers to a system of human typology or a classification scheme in modern Western history that is believed to be based on real and important biological differences among groups. In addition to its presumed, but false, biological foundation, race has a real genealogical foundation that connects the race of an individual with the race of his or her parents and ancestors. However, children have the same race as their parents and ancestors only if those forebears are of the same race. If forebears are of different races, offspring are “mixed.” In the U.S., racial mixture usually results in assignment to the ancestral group of lower “racial” status, a practice known as hypodescent. For example, biracial black and white Americans are classified as black, according to the “one-drop rule” of black racial identity.  This “one drop” has become almost completely metaphorical, since educated people no longer believe, as they did in the nineteenth century, that racial inheritance is a matter of the intergenerational transmission of racial blood types; indeed, it’s unlikely that anyone still knowingly subscribes to pre-Mendelian hereditary theories of this nature. Also, hypodescent is not applied rigorously and literally; for example, few if any believe that one remote black ancestor automatically means that an individual is black. Rather, black racial identity is based largely on how others identify the person, which is in turn based mainly on appearance. Individuals are assumed to be black and likely to identify as black if their appearance conforms to broad expectations of what black people look like. But this rule has never been symmetrical. If a person looks white, but has recent known black ancestry, many may still consider her identification as white to be an instance of “passing,” and passing is generally regarded as a kind of inauthenticity—whatever that may be…

…Overall, the term mixed race refers to a variable characteristic of individuals whose parents or ancestors are of different races. If race lacks a biological foundation as a system of human types, then so does mixed race, which would derive its foundation from that of the races in any given mixture. Culturally, mixed race has been more of a highly variable property of individuals than a stable property of groups, because mixed-race groups do not have the same extended, intra-group shared history as their members’ variable ancestry in presumptively pure racial groups. Self-identified intergenerational, mixed-race groups have nonetheless existed in quasi-isolated communities throughout the U.S., particularly in the mid-Atlantic region. But such groups have remained largely invisible to the broad population, are small in number, and do not have any political clout or distinctive entitlements. These small, intergenerational communities of multiracial Americans are primarily attended to as subjects of specialized study for anthropologists and sociologists (Reginald 2002). By contrast, the multiracial “movements” of the late twentieth century consisted largely of first-generation, mixed-race individuals, who to varying degrees continue to study themselves and their situations, in virtual communities…


…The dangers of insisting on black and white mixed-race political recognition in a system in which blacks are disadvantaged is that a mixed-race group could act as a buffer between blacks and whites and re-inscribe that disadvantage. It is interesting to note that under apartheid in South Africa, there was not only a robust mixed population known as “colored,” but individuals were able to change their race as their life circumstances changed (Goldberg 1995).  From the perspective of mixed-race individuals, this example may seem as though even South Africa was more liberatory on the grounds of race than the one-drop-rule-governed U.S. (This is not to say that South African coloreds had full civil liberties under apartheid, but only that they were better off than many blacks.)  But from a more broad perspective, in terms of white–black relations, recognition of mixed-race identity, while it may advantage mixed-race individuals and add sophistication to a black and white imaginary of race, does little to dislodge white supremacy overall. The public and political recognition of mixed-race identities could be quite dangerous to white–black race relations overall if the position of blacks remained unchanged (Spencer 1999).  But continued obliviousness about mixed-race identities holds the immediate danger of denying the existence of injustice for some presumptively pure blacks who do not have the advantages of white parentage…

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