A dialogue on Biracial Identity

Friday, February 18, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

This week's show  is a rebroadcast of our show about biracial identity, first aired back in 2009.   You can think of it as our contribution to Black History Month, I guess.   I wrote the following little dialogue as a way of getting the juices flowing on this issue.  I republish it here pretty much without change.  

 A Black Guy (BG)  and a White Guy  (WG)  are in a bar, having drinks.  You may be tempted to think that they are John Perry and Ken Taylor -- but since I'm putting words in both people's mouths,  don't hold John responsible for any of this. 
 
BG:      I've been thinking a lot about biracial identities,  lately because I see that my favorite radio show,  Philosophy Talk  is about to do an episode on it.     
 
WG:   I wonder what they'll talk about.  I mean  thanks to Obama,  biracial is the new cool, BG.   But  I don't really see that there are  deep philosophical questions connected with the  topic of bi-racial identities raise.  Do you? 
 
BG:  Yeah ,  I do.   Biracial identities challenge our old understanding of race.   I think  biracial people and their struggles to constitute their identities  are beginning to push our old concepts of race to the breaking point.
 
WG:    This is America, dude.  Race is a reality and race isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  As a black guy, you should know that. 
 
BG:   Whatever do you mean by that remark?   
 
WG:  I mean black people experience the reality of race everyday.   White guys, like me,  tend to think of ourselves as non-racialized, as if we don't have a race.   That's a form of white privilege that you black guys don't enjoy in our racialized society.    Of course,  I'm not saying that white people are right to think of themselves as non-racialized.   It's, in fact,  part of our racial consciousness to think of ourselves as non-racialized, if that makes any sense.  
 
BG:  It makes lots of sense.   In America,   white is racially "unmarked."  Black is racially "marked."    if you are a member of the unmarked race, you entitle yourself to think of yourself as somehow free of race and you entitle yourself to think of  the other as the racialized other.  On other hand,  if you are part of racially marked group, you aren't so free to deny race.    And if you are one of the racially marked "others"  you are sort of confronted with your racial difference, your racial markedness at every turn.   And that gives you a distinctive form of racial consciousness.   
 
WG:  Er, well, something like that  -- I think.    But back to biracial people.   You said that they somehow  challenge  our old understanding of race.   But I don't see it.  Think of animal and plant species.    You can cross breed animal and plant species to produce hybrids -- sometimes stable and fertile hybrids.  But that doesn't challenge our ideas about species, does it?   In the same vein,  you  can cross breed races to produce people of biracial ancestry.   Where’s the challenge to our understanding of race in that?  I don't get it.  
 
BG:  But you're thinking of race as if it were analogous to biological species.   But it just isn't.   Once upon a time, people did believe that there were such things as biologically grounded racial essences.   And racial essences were supposed to distinguish people from each other in socially and morally relevant ways.  But modern biology will have none of that.
 
WG:  Dude,  are you really suggesting that there are no races?   Let's follow the logic of that out a little.   If there are no races, then you are not a black man, I am  not a white man, and Obama is not a man of bi-racial ancestry.  But that’s absurd isn't it?    Let me put the question to you directly.  Dude, are you now, or have you ever been,  a black man?
 
BG:     Of course,  I am a black man.   And you are a white man, and Barack Obama  is – well, he’s something more complicated.    Everybody thinks of him as our first black president.  But isn't he  really as much and no more a white man than he is a black man?  Why isn't he thought of as our first biracial president or even just another in a long line of white presidents?   What really makes Obama black, anyway? 
 
WG: Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  You're going too fast for me.   I'm confused.    You seem to want to claim that races aren’t really real.   But you defiantly – or was it reluctantly    -- admitted  to being a black man.    What gives?  You can't have it both ways.  Either there are no races,  and you are not a black man.  Or there are races and you are a black man.  
 
BG:  I didn't say races aren't real.  I said they aren't biologically real.   The fact that races aren’t biologically real, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the concept of race.  National identities aren’t biologically real, either.    But national identities can matter quite a lot in human affairs.
 
WG:    So you think that  race is a social reality, even if it isn't a biological reality.  I can buy that.    But then I don’t see how biracial identities push our concepts of race to the breaking point, as you claim.    Think about ethnic identities.  Does the fact of people of multiple ethnicities  push our old concepts of ethnicity to the breaking point? 
 
BG: Well,  I'm not sure.  But race and ethnicity are different in some ways and similar in others.    I think we need a distinction.   Let's  distinguish between race and racial identifications.  I'd like to  reserve concept of race for something that pretends to be  biologically grounded and  reserve racial identifications for something socially and culturally grounded. When I acknowledged  being a black man – and I was doing that proudly, by the way --  I wasn’t  making any claim about my biology.  I was making a claim about my social and cultural heritage. 
 
WG:    Now it just sounds like racial identifications, as you are construing them,  are very much akin to ethnic identifications or national identifications.   You seem to think we've got two things going on without being very clear about them.  We've got a set of ethnicity like racial identifications and a set of would be biological racial categories.    Is there a problem with that? 
 
BG:    I think there is.  I think you're finally starting to get my point.     Go back to what I was saying earlier about biology and race.  Even though we now know that racial categories are biologically empty, we still have this deeply ingrained, cultural habit of identifying ourselves in racial terms.  But it turns out that our racial identifications are anchored in, well, nothing really.  Or at least they aren't anchored in the kind of thing we once thought they were.    And I think our struggle to make sense of biracial identities helps us to see that.  
 
WG:  I'm not sure  I'm following this.   But let me try something out to see if I catch your drift here.  Take Barack Obama, again.    What race does he belong to?   And why exactly does he belong to that race?  Is he black?  White?  Or is he something else entirely?  In the old days,   the one-drop rule told us the answer.   If you had one drop of “black blood,” then you were ipso facto black.   But that's clearly non-sensical,  especially if we're thinking of racial categories as biologically grounded.   But suppose we let culture and stuff like that be our guide.    Given Obama's quite distinctive upbringing,  you  wouldn't be wrong to think that from a social/cultural perspective he's much more of a white dude than a black dude.  
 
BG:  Of course,  neither blacks as a whole nor whites as a whole are cultural monoliths.   But if Obama's life story represent some strand of some typical American subculture, it's certainly not a paradigmatically black strand of the plethora of American subcultures.   I don't think anybody would deny that. 
 
WG:  So what makes this guy a black dude?
 
BG:   He's decided that he's black and his decision counts as authentic,  I think, because he's got one black parent.  
 
WG:  That seems right, as far as it goes.  But it doesn't go far enough.  Ask yourself,  could Obama just decide that he is a white man, rather than a black man or a biracial man?
 
BG:    I think you're onto something important here.  It seems to me that   Obama’s got two, and only two socially acceptable options for his racial self-identification.    Like a rare but growing number of people who think of themselves as  a sort of multi-racial vanguard, he could  permissibly identify himself as a biracial person – full stop.   Or he could permissibly  do the more standard and  less culturally threatening thing and self-identify as black – full stop.  But we’re not yet at the point where Barack Obama is socially allowed to self-identify as white, rather than black. 
 
WG:    What do you mean by "permissibly"  here?    He’s the goddamn  President of the United States.  He’s free to self- identify as whatever he chooses.  Remember George Bush I and his refusal to eat broccoli? 
 
BG:    You and I both know that Obama isn't free to self-identify as white and deny the black part of himself. First it would so radically change his political narrative that it  would be political suicide.   But politics aside, there's a much, much broader point here that gets us right to the heart of things.   Old fashioned  white people and old fahisoned black people  have a perhaps not fully conscious,  but deeply ingrained  cultural investment in  maintaining the racial status quo.  They, in effect,  try to  force biracial people into the  old comfortable and familiar  racial categories.    For some reason -- I'm not sure why -- we pigeon-hole biracial people into the socially “marked” race – in the case of black and white in America that's  the black race  --  rather than allow them into the socially unmarked race –  the white race (at least in America from its beginning until now).   
 
WG:   Now I finally see why you think the struggles of biracial people to constitute their identities -- racialized and non-racialized -- is a threat to our old ways of thinking.   They just don't fit.   And our attempts to make them fit distorts many things.   
 
BG:  That's one reason I referred to old-fashioned white people and black people.   I think maybe some younger people are beginning to see things differently.    They are willing to allow racial identifications to be as fluid and multiple as ethnic identifications. 
 
WG:  You're talking about the harbingers of a post-racial age.  I think I think that's a fantasy and isn't coming anytime soon.   But  this is tough stuff and my head is beginning to spin.   I think I need to listen to the upcoming episode of Philosophy Talk to get this all straightened out.  

Comments (14)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 27, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I am biracial, Japanese and white. The classes I t

I am biracial, Japanese and white. The classes I take on identity have brought me to believe that while my teachers have important history to share, we don't overlap as much as one might think. Rather, I have come to believe the new generation sooner than later will see the colors of human skin just as we see the colors of the sky.
I am very aware of my racial identity and claim it with as much pride as I can, as that is my defense as a minority and female. Also, I know that I have less prejudices towards other ethnicities than my ancestors from either side.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 27, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Hi, Ken, and thanks for the not-so-sneak preview v

Hi, Ken, and thanks for the not-so-sneak preview version of your upcoming show. I think that your point here: "we pigeon-hole biracial people into the socially 'marked' race ? in the case of black and white in America that's the black race -- rather than allow them into the socially unmarked race ? the white race (at least in America from its beginning until now)" is hard to deny, at least about men who have one black parent and one white one. But I don't know how true it is for women with similar parentage, and I think that it's very questionable when we look at people whose "marked" parent is East Asian, or Latino, or American Indian. (But then I get confused about whether those kinds of identity are biracial rather than bi/multi-ethnic, etc.) I hope that your guests and/or commenters can shed more light on those other kinds of biracial identities.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 28, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

In your blog, you identify the two guys as WG and

In your blog, you identify the two guys as WG and BG. That's their names for purposes of the dialog. As such, they are equal to using "Bill" and "Sam." Or "Mary" and "Martha." Or "X" and "Y." One of the problems with naming is that we have just as strong a subconscious tendency to stereotype or connote meanings from names as we do any other particular labels. For instance, if you had used "Buffy" and "Leroy." Or "Jim Chee" and "Nancy Drew."
I am a 70 year old white male named David. Your use of WG as a name led me to identify more strongly with him (or with that character, maybe it's a female WG, who knows? I was making an assumption.)
In my family of origin, my father claimed to be a "Heinz 57" but predominantly Scotch-Irish, and my mother was a child of two Norwegian immigrants.
Her skin tone was light tan and her hair was black, but she had blue eyes.
My dad did look "Irish" or "Scot," having pasty white skin, reddish hair, and blue eyes. He would not tan in the sun, just sunburn. I'm like that.
But none of us, me, or my two parents, are white. We're more pinkish. I almost said "flesh tone," but what is that? What if your flesh is tinted with dark brown?
Here's an anecdote based on a chance encounter in an airport terminal waiting room. My wife and I were chatting with a fellow passenger, also white. She was also a grandmother. Call her Shirley for now. Shirley was talking about her precocious kindergartner granddaughter, little Janie. Shirley said Janie watches the news and keeps up with politics. This conversation took place last fall right after the presidential election.
Shirley said she asked Janie what was significant about Barack Obama getting elected president.
Janie said, "What does significant mean?"
Shirley said, "Well, it means that Barack Obama is the first Black to be elected president in history."
Then Janie asked, "What does Black mean?"
Turns out that Janie's preschool class is multicultural. All different races and colors. But Janie never noticed. She thought Black was merely one of the crayons in the box.
By the way, my son, who is white, married a black woman. Her skin is very dark. They have a son who is now a mixed race child. He attends a predominantly black middle school.
The two parents are now divorced and my son has remarried to a woman from South America, with olive complexion. My son has custody, but the grandson spends significant time shuttling back and forth between his parents each week. His mother has two more children, both black, from different men. There's been several in and out of her house.
His step-mother loves him and treats him like a son, but there's always step-issues; besides, she speaks almost no English, which really hurts their communication within the family.
My grandson has some confused feelings about his racial identity. I can't say I blame him. By the same token, given his chaotic family situation, I also fear that he will grow up with some real difficulty knowing how to relate to women intimately, particularly, with a wife or significant other. In his experience, such things have looked pretty temporary, and conflicted.
But that's another philosophical topic, I suppose.
Good luck with this discussion. I hope it will raise consciousness, and possibly, help us with our human relationships regardless of race, ethnic, or other linguistic and social stereotypes that make up our mental categories about others.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 4, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

If anyone is still tracking this discussion, I wan

If anyone is still tracking this discussion, I want to add that the movie Australia has an excellent subtext about a biracial child that comprises the narrative thread that holds the whole sprawling story together. Check it out.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I wanted to pick up just a little on the comments

I wanted to pick up just a little on the comments of kids. My daughter (white and 6) was trying to describe which of her friends she was talking about. She said that her friend had dark skin and black hair. I thought, of course she has black hair, and then realized that my daughter doesn't see that. Good for her and I look forward to seeing what she notices over time.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 6, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Dear President Obama: First and foremost, congr

Dear President Obama:
First and foremost, congratulations on being our 44th President of the United States of America.
During your campaign, I agreed with your call for change and I still do; a change in our economy and a change in how things are done in Washington.
You are the epitome of what positive things can happen from change. A change from the racial divide of miscegenation that so deeply swept our country decades ago to a country known today for accepting people of all cultures, backgrounds and colors. However, I am waiting for one big change?to accept who you truly are?the God made biracial man, our President of the United States. I and my family have been disappointed about the message you give to millions of people throughout our great country by saying if you are biracial you can choose to be of ?one? race.
Those who believe that a person who is one part black should identify ONLY with that race support the intolerant one-drop rule created by a racially prejudiced government at a particular point in history. Despite that rule being held illegal (U.S. Supreme Court outlawed Virginia's ban on inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), it declared Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act and the one-drop rule unconstitutional) there are some who want to hold to that fanatical and discriminatory rule.
This close minded thinking underlies the attack often faced by biracial people that they are trying to deny or are ashamed of who they are. Being biracial does not mean denying the colorful heritages we possess. Personally, I understand the difficulty you may have encountered growing up as a biracial young man, especially having a brown complexion.
Yes, biracial people from the time they are born to the time they die are constantly asked to choose their "primary" race, or others will do it for them. We are called offensive names like; yellow banana, oreo, mutt, etc., all meant to hurt who we truly represent, a nation of one blood. However, this is a new day, a changed day where we can finally embrace who we really are.
To be the 44th President of the United States, who is biracial, should be a proud statement of equality that exemplifies and represents what the United States is known for; a nation that embraces all shades, colors, and cultures of people.
Other well-known people, who are biracial, have expressed their sentiments when asked the question, what are you; Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees said ?I?m not black or white but both of these things.? Vin Diesel refuses to segregate himself to one race and identifies himself as biracial. Growing up, he had many questions about his ethnic origins and what they made him. Although most people guess he's part Italian and African-American, he said "I'm hoping I can show kids where you came from isn't as important as what you can make of yourself."
Like you President Obama, I am the blending of two races. My mother is black and my father is white. As with your mother and father, my parents were able to see and experience a love that bridged racial divides.
Throughout the years, as I got older and like you, I faced some extremely difficult and joyful times. Early in my life, I experienced both the harsh reality of my mother and father divorcing and then I witnessed the wonderful blending of new stepparents.
As a biracial child, I remember telling my father about a time when I was in the third grade my teacher asked for the children to stand up based upon their race. When she told all the white kids to stand up, I stood up. When she told all the Hispanic kids to stand up, I sat down. Then she told all the Black kids to stand up and I stood up. My father said that was a defining moment for me in being biracial that I still stand up for today.
When I was 15, I saw a movie with Halle Berry and thought the world of her, as did most teenage males my age. However, I saw her as someone like me, biracial. On my sweet-16 birthday, my father arranged for Ms. Berry to surprise me with a telephone call. From that point on the two of us exchanged letters and referred to each other as big sister and little brother. I believed Ms. Berry was a face of hope for biracial people. I looked up to her because she embodied the blending of races. However as I got older and much to my dismay, I heard Ms. Berry claim that she was black not biracial. This caused me to see the woman, who I once called my big sister, a runaway from all who are biracial. Then another face of hope showed up, you President Obama, only for me to again experience disappointment.
While you were sworn-in as our 44th President and my Commander and Chief that I am proud for you to be, I am in Afghanistan. For the past 10 years, I have faithfully with love and honor served in our Armed Forces. I serve not for myself but for the love of the United States of America.
On election night, you said ?This victory alone is not the change we seek ? it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you. For that is the true genius of America ? that America can change.?
Therefore, President Obama we cannot go back to the one-drop of black blood rule. With you as President, America has truly come a long way. However as you said, ?there is so much more to do.? As with your children I to want my future children to live to see the next century and be as fortunate as the woman you spoke about, Ann Nixon Cooper; to see a change for all races of people including those of us who are biracial.
The question for you President Obama is what progress will we have made? Identifying to one race, clouds the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wished for 45 years ago when he said; ?I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation that will not judge them by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?.
In your speech "A More Perfect Union" you said that race is an issue that you believed this nation could not afford to ignore right now and I agree. I am part of that next generation of young people you spoke to who possesses the attitude, belief and openness to change that gives you the greatest hope.
I can only ask that during your administration you renew the discussion about race and stand up for me and all of us who are biracial as I stood-up in the 3rd grade. President Obama, now is your chance for your children and all of us who are biracial to clear the clouds about race by answering the call. This is your moment. This is your time.
Respectively,
SPC. Eric C J,
U.S. Army

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, May 7, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

A multiracial background is going to be increasing

A multiracial background is going to be increasingly common as our world moves forward and embraces the essential oneness of humanity. In the United States, examples of beautiful exemplary Americans of multiracial background abound and in my opinion break down artificial barriers between human beings of all backgrounds. In Portland, OR where I live, there is even a blog in the Examiner that focuses on biracial issues http://www.examiner.com/x-9288-Portland-Biracial-Family-Issues-Examiner.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 19, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Everybody and I mean everybody has called Barack a

Everybody and I mean everybody has called Barack a "black man" but I have yet to hear him call himself a "black man." He makes references to being black but to my limited knowledge, he falls short of placing the hat on his head. I've been wrong before, but I'd like to know when he called himself, "black."

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

When I first entered university, I was living on m

When I first entered university, I was living on my own and had to pay my own bills.
So for two years I got by working the night shift in a factory. Athough study during the day and work during the night took a toll on my body, it was a great time in my life and I remember those days with great fondness.
On my first day on the job I was taken around by the Supervisor and introduced to the other guys on the shift.
The machinary was loud and everyone wore ear plugs, so the initial introductions were brief and relied mostly on a few loudly spoken words, and some facial gestures.
I clearly remember the first guy I was introduced to that night, being a young man called Adam.
Now Adam looked for the most part to be Chinese, but like many eurasians, something about him looked different. When I was first introduced to him I could not hear him speak because of the noise, and his features were partly obscured by the safety gear he had on.
I later found out that he was born in the US, spoke with an American accent, and had a Polish father.
As time moved on, I realised, as all the other guys on the shift knew only too well, that Adam never mentioned his mother, nor his self-evident part-chinese lineage.
Because of this, during our mealtimes Adam bore the brunt of many sarcastic comments about his background.
Some guys would ask:
"Adam, are you Chinese?"
To which he would respond by saying that "No, I am an American with a Polish father"
When asked if his mother was Chinese, Adam would often use profanities, get up and leave the table in a huff.
Everyone would chuckle as a result, because it was clear that Adam had an issue with being referred to as Chinese.
I remember feeling quite embarassed for him, and wondered how his mother would have felt knowing the extent he would go to hide his Chinese background.
Well, things sometimes go full circle, and here I am now the father of a bi-racial child.
For me, it would be a nightmare magnified ten-fold if my son ever behaved like he was embarassed of his Chinese or Anglo lineage.
Although at the end of the day I hope that my son sees himself as an Australian first and foremost, I hope he always recognises how lucky he is to come from two proud, enriched and admirable cultures.
I hope that he can embrace both parts of his identity equally, and take from them what he need to carve his own identity in this world.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 19, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Interesting slant! Obama is allowed to call himse

Interesting slant! Obama is allowed to call himself his choice of black or mixed-race, but he's not allowed to call himself white. Several years ago I attended a symposium on racism, and I realized I'm not innocent of the offense. Trying to pretend all races are equal is racist because it ignores the unfortunate chapter in American history that forces races to be unequal.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

If I were Mr. Obama I would paint the white house

If I were Mr. Obama I would paint the white house black, the trim white and the doors brownish red just to test the equity or identity of our nation.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The white baby with a black head is tacky. Or is i

The white baby with a black head is tacky. Or is it a black baby's head with a white body? I can never get that straight. In either case, the icon offends---and if it doesn't, your post is meaningless. History is never unfortunate,Mr. Gross. It merely unfolds and we who are alive at the time get to observe and critique.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 8, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I am at least bi-racial; multi-racial if you count

I am at least bi-racial; multi-racial if you count the possibility that my ancestry includes an African or two, somewhere along the line---a plausibility I would neither discount nor disdain. But, I am at least caucasian(?) and American(?) Indian. Caucasian implies whiteness; American Indian signifies redness although the red part might be more tracible to Sino-Soviet origins, if we conclude that American Indians were not from America at all.
It is so difficult to sort this out because none of us were there when all these things happened. Dawkins thinks he has it sussed and before him Stephen J. Gould, RIP, thought he had figured it out. Maybe so, maybe not so much. If recent history is any indication, race will not matter in about 100 years. And that eventuality would have occurred, civil rights movement and legislation, notwithstanding.
Could it be that God DOES play dice, for his amusement and at our ignorant expense? Anything that does not kill you does make you stronger. To a point, anyway. Please think about these musings before you dismiss them because they are unconventional.I don't make pronouncements lightly.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, June 25, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I had a hard time dealing with my biracial life.

I had a hard time dealing with my biracial life. Ai first I felt white, but growing up with white kids who at times thought I was too radical and pro black was weird. Then in college a few black friends thought I was whitewashed. And then the big issue...what was my hair? A halfro? Ahhh, so I relaxed it. My brother told me I looked Latin...which was cool but I don't speak a lick of Spanish, so it was lame...and then it burned my scalp! Now I just use Mixed Chicks products.... http://www.mixedchicks.net/his-mix.html ... And I am getting more comfortable in the middle of the races. Maybe multiracial will become it's own classification? Or maybe one day our great grand kids just won't care...maybe.

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March