Growing up queer, mixed race, and Asian in the American South, my identity often felt like an absence of any identity at all. For a long time I existed in a kind of limbo state, not having a language to describe myself. Until my early twenties, I was unaware the word “mixed race” existed, much less as a term I had the option to identify with.
Because I neither knew nor saw any other mixed race children or people around me, for a long time my sense of self was only defined as a negation: I was certainly not white, and certainly not Japanese (at least by the standards of ethnic purity operative within my Japanese family and community). But as to what I was, actually, no one could really say.
So it was more than a breath of fresh air — more like a sense of psychic and spiritual relief — when I learned that such a thing as a mixed race identity existed, and that it was something I could identify as, with no other qualifications or explanations. When I finally encountered a community of other mixed race people during my twenties, I felt I was able to inhabit my body and experiences more fully and comfortably.
Through my conversations and relationships with other mixed race people, I felt joy in the sense that I wasn’t so completely alone, so completely odd, so completely not anything. And, simultaneous with that sense of joy also came the realization that certain kinds of mixed race people seemed to take up much more space and attention than others.
As time went on, I realized that many of the conversations I was hearing about mixed race identity were implicitly about our relationship to whiteness — our anxieties about “passing” or “not passing” as white, how to navigate light-skinned privilege, how to navigate our relationships with white family members — and that these conversations implicitly left out mixed race folks who did not have a direct relationship to whiteness at all.
These conversations were leaving out folks with mixed Black and Asian ancestry, for example. Or Black and Indigenous ancestry, folks of mixed South and East Asian descent, folks of mixed East and Central Asian descent, folks of Black and South Asian descent, or mixed Afro-Latinx folks, for example.
There were so many narratives and experiences of mixed race identities that, I came to realize, had almost no visual or verbal representation in our culture, even among the queer and activist communities I inhabited. Their faces, stories, and complexions were not the ones being pictured when people talked about “mixed race” identity.
In so many ways, the dominant images and stories around mixed race identities in the U.S. revolve around folks who are half white, and/or whose mixed race identity gives them a proximity to whiteness that other mixed race folks and people of color don’t have. And while it’s important to talk about the complexities of being mixed race in a white supremacist society, it’s also important that we don’t default to re-centering whiteness in those conversations.
This is especially true in light of the fact that mixed race folks (particularly women and femmes) of partial white ancestry are often the ones to grace magazine covers, billboards, and advertisements, and the first ones to be chosen for lead roles in TV shows and movies at large.
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Mixed race folks of partial white ancestry are often used to fulfill neoliberal diversity quotas, wherein they can function as token people of color that don’t make white people too uncomfortable due to their proximity to whiteness.
Similarly, mixed race folks are often held up as proof of America “overcoming” racism, or as proof that racial categories, and by extension, white supremacy, are coming undone altogether. And yet, time and again, the examples used to demonstrate this idea often use the faces and bodies of mixed race folks with partial white ancestry or who have light complexions, thus demonstrating that simply having more mixed race people in the world doesn’t actually do much to dismantle white supremacy.
If anything, it shows that white supremacy and mixed race identities can co-exist quite comfortably.
Whiteness and Anti-Miscegenation Laws
The same might be said for dominant narratives around interracial relationships. In the United States and elsewhere, civil rights and racial justice advocates have fought long and hard to achieve social and legal recognition for interracial relationships. Before the famous Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967), which officially outlawed anti-miscegenation laws, it was federally illegal in the United States to marry across the color line.
While these achievements should of course be celebrated, there is also an insidious way in which the Loving court case — which, tellingly, focused on a Black-white interracial couple — has come to occupy a romanticized “origin point” for mixed race histories in the collective imagination. This tends to erase the fact that the histories of non-white interracial couples actually go back much further in time than 1967, and often didn’t involve a direct relationship to the state.
Last year, I did some research into the history of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, and discovered an important element that is often left out of these mixed race histories: anti-miscegenation laws were not actually about preventing people of different racial backgrounds from marrying each other — instead, they were specifically about protecting whiteness from being tainted by “other” races.
In other words, for most of U.S. history, it mattered little to those in power whether or not people of color from different racial backgrounds intermarried. It was when people of color, specifically Black people, and white people intermarried that there was a problem in the eyes of the law.
So when Loving v. Virginia officially overturned anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, what was being celebrated in that moment was the ability of white people and people of color to intermarry. Meanwhile, for people of color of different racial backgrounds who wanted to marry each other, nothing much had changed. Their love had never been considered a real threat to the status quo because it did not threaten whiteness as such.
The Radical Potential of Non-White Mixed Unions
Although non-white interracial relationships have tended to be overlooked in general histories of mixed race identity in the United States, in many ways theirs is a more radical history that therefore deserves more attention, and more complex representations.
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When we consider the conditions under which Black and Indigenous folks, for example, intermarried and co-existed within the early years of settler colonialism in the Americas, or Asian laborers on the American continent intermarried with Black women in the South, or any number of other interracial relationship configurations, the picture that emerges is not especially one of transgression, but of survival.
Intermarriage among different groups of people of color was often a tactic of solidarity and survival under white supremacy. Under the dual systems of African slavery and Indigenous genocide, Indigenous folks sometimes adopted formerly enslaved people into their tribes to help them escape slavery. At other times Indigenous and Black folks co-created independent settlements called Maroon societies, in which they lived in hiding from white settler societies.
When we talk about mixed race histories, it is paramount that we not only include but highlight these narratives and legacies. As long as mixed race bodies and identities exist under a system of white supremacy, there will always be an implicit racial hierarchy among mixed race people, which celebrates lightness and whiteness and denigrates darkness and blackness.
The question is: will we shift our ideas around mixed race identities and histories in order to dismantle this, too?
[Featured Image: A person with shoulder-length black hair wearing a black t-shirt and denim stands indoors staring solemnly out of a window. Source: Pexels]