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Coloring and identity, Part 2: Some bizarre ideas about “race”

March 30, 2011

Part 1: Coloring and identity: Intro

I had intended to go into the very mixed experience of privilege as a lightish multiracial person next (pun definitely intended!), but a lot of what I was going to say makes more sense with more context: the weird and frequently false colonialism-formed ideas about how skin (and eye, and hair…) phenotypes really work–and how they relate to the ideas of race–that we’ve learned from mainstream American culture.

Note: I am not being US-centric through assuming that this is the only way to look at things–a pretty nasty symptom of all the freaky universalism, actually–but because that’s where I originated, and spent the first 28 years of my life, as a “mixed” person. And it really is a distinctive system, which gets applied to how we look at and deal with the rest of the world. As a later quote illustrates very nicely.

The foundation of this is the idea that race is a valid biological construct, and that you can clearly tell what race someone is by eyeballing them. That rests on the idea that there are people of “pure” “racial” descent out there in the first place, in some kind of objective way. (I am not even linking to explanations of how the biological construction is absurd in so many ways here; there’s too much to choose from.) This is set up in a binary, with literally black or white options in the popular imagination. Eventually, this turned into a belief that one drop of “black blood” (see why I hate this “blood” terminology?) makes a person Black. In the last post, I linked to one piece about how the American (presumed universal and timeless) color line developed in the first place; Frank Sweet has a lot of other good essays on the color line up at Backintyme.

To great extent, the concept of “race” has become synonymous with White vs. Black (definitely oppositional by default) in the US; other people frequently don’t even get mentioned. Everyone else is an afterthought, and in the case of Latin Americans (and other “mixed” people) in particular, I suspect there is extra hostility at their not fitting neatly into either category.

A bit of an illustration: I come from Virginia, where in the 20th century, Walter Ashby Plecker concluded that anyone claiming to be Native was really Black, and a threat to the continued survival of the White race and civilization itself. I am not exaggerating; he wrote extensively about this, was a firm Nazi supporter, and all of this was fairly well accepted at the time. Native people did not exist. This wouldn’t have been much of a problem, if this eugenicist hadn’t been registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics. He made documentary genocide (“killing people off on paper, when they are not in fact dead”#) his life’s mission, and people are still getting their birth certificates corrected free of charge, as damage control for all the earlier fuckery. Not only did he refuse to issue any new ones marked “Indian” and threaten to have midwives who continued to tell the truth jailed, he went back and changed existing records based on as little as rumors that a whole surname’s worth of people might not be White enough for his taste. In his spare time, he went through colonial records to try to find people listed as Free People of Color (which, under Virginia’s developing binary, included Indians or any “mixed” people who looked dark enough), so he could track down their descendents and, erm, blacklist them.

Probably 75% of my extended family’s were on his infamous list, since you keep finding the same Native-associated surnames pretty much statewide and beyond, but we mostly managed to slide under the radar; he did not have much information on Western Virginia in general. Some of my family still tends to dodge the Census and just make up stuff to put in their little boxes. (ISTR my White stepdad described himself as a Fiji Islander and the rest of us as totally different “races” on the 2000 one, just because it’s so nosy. That was after a census worker caught someone at home.) Just this one historical episode–just the latest and most spectacular in a history of documentary genocide–has greatly added to the difficulties of Virginia Native people getting taken seriously, even by Western Natives. Here I have to throw in another pitch for Barbara Mann’s Slow Runners.

And this kind of official policy led to the absurdity of trying to figure out whether to legally classify every other kind of people in the world as Black or White. When my mom was in college after official desegregation, it was still a big deal when one of her friends from India–officially “Caucasian“–got misclassified as Colored on his driver’s license, and it turned out almost as difficult to get changed as the gender classifier is now. These are just a couple of  examples of how this binary construction has hurt people. And Plecker, while an extreme example, was just reflecting common societal attitudes which still exist. (As if you couldn’t tell, I still occasionally get urges to dig him up and kick his skeleton around, for all the harm he did people.😐 )

In the US in particular, thanks to the peculiar colonial history and the mythology resulting from it, we are still raised to think that we have not just a right but a responsibility to define other people for them–and “correct” them if we think their self-description is wrong. Racial ambiguity makes us very uncomfortable, as a group. (And no, I am not exempting myself; in some cases, we “ambiguous” and other “minority” people have internalized this to a truly horrific extent. Divide and conquer…)

What application of this kind of binary can get you:

What are the chances? Mixed race sisters have one black and one white child each by the same fathers

This gem is actually from the (British) Daily Mail, which is a great place to go for sensationalistic racist tripe.  Not only are the children of mothers described as “mixed race” crammed into Black or White boxes based mostly on coloring and hair texture, they’re “[a] rare genetic fluke”. Once the article has grabbed your attention with this train wreck, it goes on to admit near the bottom:

Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London, said the siblings were different colours simply because Paige and Cameron had inherited more of their mothers’ genes, while Kayleigh and Kyle had inherited more of their fathers’ genes.

He added: ‘It is a surprisingly common phenomenon.’

Nah… You mean it’s not just some kind of magical Essence of Blackness attaching to one kid and not the other? *headdesk* (A bit of an improvement over the One Drop version, actually, for bigots. Here, you are still mostly called whatever “race” eyeballing suggests.) And, as we’ll see shortly, the genetic reality is a lot more complicated still than that media-friendly version.

I'm the one the Daily Mail warned you about t-shirt design

"Are you an asylum seeker? An immigrant? A gypsy? A republican? Jewish? Homosexual? Bisexual? A socialist? An atheist? Perhaps your skin colour is a few shades darker than the accepted norm? Do you even, heaven forbid, hold liberal views? Then burn in hell for all eternity for the self-appointed voice of middle England has passed judgement on you."

I have actually been tempted to get me one of these. Though I’d still probably just get read as some kind of White hipster, like with the indigenist-themed t-shirts I keep wearing anyway out of bloody-mindedness. (No, I’m not making the point you think I’m trying to make.)

This also reminds me of how, when my family was living in that odd island of not so many visibly darker Native people, my mother kept getting read as coalfields Italian (endnote here)–and my Melungeon Mullins biodad went along with it (says a lot about his comfort levels with his own heritage). And, especially before my hair started darkening up, a lot of people out and about would assume that any lighter-colored person in the vicinity was my Real Parent. That’s more understandable with my paternal aunt, since we do look a lot alike, but some people would assume that friends or even other total strangers standing near us were my mother or father. People have been encouraged to pick up some strange ideas.

A lot of people honestly seem to think that “mixed-race” children will inevitably turn out halfway between their parents in coloration–based on some really flawed intersection of ideology and the simplistic way the genetics are still presented in schools. (Reduction of polygenetic additive traits to straight dominant/recessive single-allele Punnet squares is somehow less confusing to the kiddies?!) And are most comfortable (if you can describe it that way, at all) with the idea of first-generation, “pure” White and Black “mixes”.

I hope that readers here can tell that reality does not fit so neatly into little binary boxes. And that it’s not right to lop bits off of people to try to cram them into said metaphorical boxes. (Or, even better, convince them it’s their own idea to maim themselves.)

No, Racial Identity Cannot be Determined by Casual Bystanders. Really. Chally also did an excellent series, at Feministe: Cultural Constructions, Part 1, 2, and 3. I will probably be coming back to these at some point, having meant to respond some before. She raises some excellent points in Cultural Constructions: An Interlude; bear in mind that she’d been very upfront about being a non-White Australian in earlier posts:

But there’s something that bothered me even more than the loudmouthed attempts to shut down anything and everything I wrote about race using those played out tropes. I’ve been writing here since October 2009 and it’s now December 2010. In that time, I’ve been called white more times than I can stand to recall, because commenters have expected to find white writers. (I guess white people are supposed to be the ones doing all the writing, telling all the stories, speaking all the English, doing all the work.) When I point out that I’m not white, the response sometimes is to assume that I’m African American. And that set of assumptions about who writes, who exists and who one (a white “one” from the United States) might expect to find on the Internet was really telling.

The other thing was that any time I tried to talk about race, here or in the feminist blogosphere in general, I had to refigure everything I wanted to say according to US logics of what race is. It can be really painful to engage with writing about racism such that only acknowledges only two or three racial identities, and assumes that race is constructed in US ways the world over. I shouldn’t have to separate out the things that form my racialisation and my understanding of race in order to have a conversation on a dominant culture’s terms.

This helped bring home to me just how fucked-up the cultural programming we’ve gotten really is. When the topic of race comes up, I want to say that people suddenly turn stupid or hard of thinking, but that would be seriously insulting people with intellectual disabilities! Critical thinking ability goes straight out the window, and much oppositional-binary-thinking, zero-sum ugliness ensues. We’ve been trained that way, growing up in the US–yes, even those of us who get lumped into the POC category. (Elsewhere in the series, Chally talks about how, compared to say Australia, very limited groups of people even get mentioned at all–and indigenous people get erased.) “Race” in the US is viewed in terms of Black or White, in so many ways. It’s all very ideological and politicized, and so ubiquitous that very few people can even think about this anymore without all kinds of cognitive dissonance. Seriously.

So, how does skin color (and eye, and hair, and…) inheritance actually work? The “How it Really Doesn’t Work Outside Dangerous Fantasies” part has turned so long, that I’m splitting that off into Part 2.5. Plus, I need to go and start cooking supper.😉

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 2:56 am

    There’s also the issues with twins where one is “white” and one is “black”. It’s a “One in a million” occurence~! Actually, not terribly uncommon.

    I remember a graph from biology, I *believe* that a very pale white person and a very dark black person could have pretty much anywhere on the “color scale” between them, including white and black. I don’t know if any is more likely than any other, it mght’ve been a bell curve, but it’s all possible. This is remembering a graph I saw a few years ago, though.

    • urocyon permalink
      March 31, 2011 3:15 am

      *nods* When you’ve got at least seven genes (I don’t remember the exact number known now) controlling eumelanin, and they act in an additive way, you can end up with anything in between the parents’ skin tones. Or darker, or even lighter in some cases, depending on which allele copy each parent contributes and how things line up at random.

      With any luck, I’ll get the next post up tomorrow, looking more at the genetic reality.

      Thanks for commenting, BTW.🙂

    • March 31, 2011 8:58 am

      It’s why I argue that the word “abnormal” or acting like trans or gayness is so odd is genetically quite probable, and thus natural. We see blindness and other things in nature, along with genitalia fluidity and gay/bisexual behavior in wildlife. I think humans’ need to be better than animals is what causes this sort of strife and whatnot.

      • urocyon permalink
        April 6, 2011 6:57 pm

        I think humans’ need to be better than animals is what causes this sort of strife and whatnot.

        Excellent point. Setting humans up as somehow unique leads to a lot of problems.

  2. April 4, 2011 12:25 pm

    Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London, said the siblings were different colours simply because Paige and Cameron had inherited more of their mothers’ genes, while Kayleigh and Kyle had inherited more of their fathers’ genes.

    Um. I sure hope that’s a misquotation.

    • urocyon permalink
      April 6, 2011 6:56 pm

      Yep. Great, isn’t it? *facepalm*

    • Andrea S. permalink
      April 4, 2013 7:58 pm

      And this is a professor of genetics? Oy!

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