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.