Mixed Identity: A Mixtory
In the first installment of our Mixtory series, we explore the history of mixed identity.
Mixed identity: A mixtory
by ANITA SENGUPTA
JUNE 2016 // Introducing our Mixtory series, where we explore the history of all things mixed. In our first installment, we get a little meta and explore the history of mixedness itself.
A couple days ago I was on my daily Internet scroll when I stumbled upon a book that’s about to go up for a reprint: Breeding Between The Lines: Why Interracial People are Healthier and More Attractive [cue eye roll]. The title might be a clickbait exaggeration, but it reflects a common conception of mixed people: we’re ushering in a post-racial, harmonious, globalized world with a parade of light-eyed, caramel cuteness. Which led me to wonder: how exactly did this happen? When did mixedness become a thing?
Quick answer: the beginning of time. “Mixed people have always existed,” write the authors of Global Mixed Race, a book about, well, mixed race around the globe. “What is new is the expanding populations of mixed people, as well as the increasing recognition and visibility of mixed people and identities.” So as long as there have been people there have been social groups, and as long as there have been social groups, people haven’t stuck to them. It’s just that now there are billions of us and we all have Instagram (#mixedgirl).
But mixing didn’t always look so—ahem—pretty. According to Global Mixed Race, mixing “reflects patterns of power, migration, conquest, and colonization.” So wherever there were oppressors and oppressed, mixing—be it cultural, religious, linguistic, and/or racial—was sure to happen. À la Rihanna, “we found love in hopeless place,” except probably less love and more oppression in the form of sexual violence. The resulting offspring were usually subsumed into one identity or the other and their mixedness was generally ignored.
Today, according to our friend Mirriam Webster, “mixed” means “made up of or involving persons differing in race, national origin, religion, or class,” which is so close to being a reasonable definition for a mixed individual, except that it’s referring to a group of “persons” (who uses that word anyway?), like a mixed crowd. For a mixed individual, Mirriam Webster’s closest approximation is “deriving from two or more races or breeds”—their example: “a stallion of mixed blood”—which feels kind of pseudo-scientific, questionably applicable to humans, and replicates the shady origins of contemporary racialized mixedness. You guessed it: colonialism.
As we all know, and the Encyclopedia Britannica confirms, “the idea of race was invented to magnify the differences between people of European origin in the United States and those of African descent.” And from the invention of race followed the invention of mixed race, though what exactly that meant varied by region. And each region has its own super complicated, long, dramatic history of mixedness worthy of books, but for a 1,000 word article: the 101.
In South and Central America, mixed people of Native, European, and African descent became their own group. Mestizos, an umbrella term with varying connotations and usage, became the majority and laid the foundation for today’s societies. In Canada, the West Indies, India, and South Africa, mixed people (métis, gens du colour, Anglo-Indians, and Coloured people, respectively) formed semi-privileged minorities that existed in a limbo between Africans, native groups, and Europeans. In the United States, where race is historically talked about in black and white, mulattos were categorized as such: either they were just black or “passed” as white. And while the story that’s always told focuses on Europeans, Africans, and natives, colonialism opened up a new era of global migration, driven by labor opportunities and resulting in global diasporas with—surprise—more mixing.
So mixedness has a long and not-so-harmonious history. But its current form, in which a person can identify as mixed and as a part of all their constituent groups, is super recent—like, 1960s recent. In 1967, riding the wave of the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. Supreme Court shut down laws against racial intermarriage. And once mixed families were a certifiable social construct, mixed babies were too. “In an age of relativism, ethnic identity, like other choices, became partly a matter of individual preference,” wrote historian Paul Spickard in Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. “If one came from multiple ethnic strains, increasingly one had the option of access to them all.”
As the number of mixed kids grew, so did their visibility. In 1980s, multiracial community groups formed around the United States, and by the 1990s, mixed celebrities—like Mariah Carey, Tiger Woods, Naomi Campbell, and Halle Berry—were at the forefront of pop culture. The genre of mixed race portraiture was born, in which a visually jarring person poses unsmiling, begging the viewer to scrutinize for traces of racial lineage. And when seemingly no multiracial model was quite mixed enough, we could produce computer-generated multiracial people, such as the hypothetical woman declared “The New Face of America” on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1993. In a weird twist of history, mixed had suddenly gone from being viewed as impure, animalistic, and fringe to the polar opposite: mixed people were fetishized as beautiful beacons ushering in a post-racial future.
Yet the urge to dump post-racial hopes and dreams onto mixed people is misplaced wishful thinking at best and perpetuated racism at an ironic worst. Mixedness has always had held a unique role in the dialogue between races, and in an era that’s bent on convincing itself of its social progressiveness, mixed people serve as visible contradictions to our flawed social structures. The ahistorical myth of the sudden, organic rise of a post-racial world suggests an easy out, one in which all of our social hierarchies—class, culture, language, religion, gender, sexuality, and so on—will blend to neutral on their own, without our conscious effort, just given enough time.
According to this method of change, we are relieved from blame and responsibility. All one has to do is procreate with a person of a different race and the superhero mixed offspring will take care of the rest. It's an exaggeration, sure, but titles like Between The Lines: Why Interracial People are Healthier and More Attractive prove that it's not too far from the truth. And while this can feel fetishistic for mixed people, it's dangerously naïve for society at large, which has convinced itself that it's getting over problematic understandings of racial categories by creating a new problematic understanding of a racial category. Mixedness might have gotten a new makeover, but it's playing the same role—and it's not so pretty. ✰