Forest for the Trees: Moving Beyond the Mixed Race Individual
JULY 2016 COMMONS
Featured Artist: Rema Tavares
Multidisciplinary Artist | Educator
It is June 13th, 2016, and I am quietly celebrating the fifth anniversary of Mixed in Canada as I sit writing in my office. Mixed in Canada is a national organization where all racialized mixed-race identified Canadians can come to learn, share, and think critically about our identities. In five years we have grown from a strictly online space to a biennial event called the MIXED Art Conference held in Toronto. Five years is an exciting accomplishment, yet it is also but a blip on the radar in the history of “mixed race.” In a theoretical sense, mixed-race people as we know them have existed since the concept of “race” was invented in the 18th century, and has been a topic of fascination and scandal in both academia and pop culture ever since. Starting with ideas around anti-miscegenation and the tragic mulatto, then overcompensating with the pursuit of hybrid vigor and the mixed-race superhero (think Obama), theories around mixed race have been complicated and problematic from the beginning. This is not surprising of course, because the concept of race in and of itself is complicated and problematic. Regardless, race is here to stay for now, and it greatly informs the lives of racialized people around the world. It impacts jail sentences, employment, immigration, wealth, life expectancy—quite literally every aspect of our lives. This is true for mixed-race identified people as well, however there can be a few different variables, such as being read as white-passing or racially ambiguous. As evidenced by pages like “Mixed Race Babies,” with over 250,000 Instagram followers, we are still very much in the throes of the mixed-race superhero. The “superhero” meaning that mixed-race people are more beautiful, healthy, intelligent, etc.; which is a very direct form of anti-Black, Asian, and Indigenous racism. Much of the current focus is on personal narratives, however we don’t exist within a vacuum. By only examining the individual, we create a situation in which we can’t see the forest for the trees. In particular, two “forests” that I feel are overlooked are: the ways in which mixed race people access privilege and; how intersecting social identities can create drastically different “mixed race experiences.” While both still focus on the individual, they at the very least locate them within a larger social context.
Privilege & Mixed Race
“Privilege does not mean you’re rich, a bad person, have had everything handed to you or have never had challenges or struggles. Privilege just means that there are some challenges and struggles you won’t experience because of who you are.”
– Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey
Privilege is a relatively new social theory that has exploded via the social justice community. It is loosely defined as a right, immunity, or benefit experienced by a select group that is not accessible to other marginalized group(s). Even though the term has become increasingly familiar, it is often confused with expectations of guilt and pleasure. In other words, we should feel guilty for the privileges we enjoy. Unfortunately, guilt has nothing to do with acknowledging privilege, and if anything is yet another way to center oneself. Moreover, guilt is rarely a useful emotion for motivation to change the systems from which we access power. With regards to pleasure, not all privileges are ones we “enjoy.” For example, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence are the most virulent forms of racism in North America, so racially ambiguous people who are not racialized as Black or Indigenous experience privilege in that way, even if they have two parents of colour or are not light skinned. So while I might experience racism as a racially ambiguous woman of colour, because I am not necessarily read as Black or Indigenous, this is a privilege I experience. Of course, I do not enjoy experiencing racism, but it is important that I acknowledge the fact that I don’t experience the same degrees of violence as people who are read as Black or Indigenous. Those who have a parent or grandparent of European descent can also experience privilege in other ways, such as: generational wealth, social capital, land ownership, etc. Even something as simple as access to information about who your ancestors are is a privilege, as descendants of the transatlantic African slave trade may never have access to such documents. To me, the key word is immunity. Having access to certain social privileges makes one immune to things that other people face all the time. This immunity can include police violence, glass ceilings, access to housing, access to medical care, safety walking down the street, etc.—the list is almost innumerable. The clincher is that it is usually invisible until someone points it out, if it is ever pointed out at all. This hierarchy is the way that society was set up in North America, via white supremacy, in order to control who has access to generational wealth. While we may not have been the ones to set up our current social systems, and thus needn’t feel guilty, we certainly can reinforce and benefit from them, and therefore ought to use our privilege to push back against them.
Intersectionality & Mixed Race
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives.”
– Audre Lorde
Our identities can include: race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, nationality, status, Indigeneity, class, and many more. Each intersecting identity adds another layer to our lived experience. The experiences of two people who identify as “Hapa,” the controversial term for someone who is mixed-race Asian, can be markedly different. For example:
- Person A identifies as: a Japanese and white, cash-poor, dis/abled, cisgender, and queer immigrant; vs.
- Person B identifies as: an Afro-Canadian and Vietnamese, middle class, heterosexual, and university educated Canadian citizen.
Without stating the obvious, their lived experiences will be quite disparate. The ways that they experience privilege and oppression, for example, will greatly impact the ways they are able to move through the world and access resources. These differences matter, but are often overlooked, and not just within the mixed race community. Similar to focusing on the individual and missing the greater social systems at work; when we focus on a single identity, we lose the picture of the entire person.
Mixed Race Futures
While we haven’t completely moved past the tragic mulatto trope, and certainly haven’t moved past the mixed race superhero, I am intrigued to see what comes next in mixed race discourses. It is nearly impossible to predict exactly where we’ll go next, but I hope that we can move towards a dynamic view of mixed race people, who are neither tragic nor magical, and who exist in a society with many moving parts. Although the elimination of the concept of race would naturally negate any further need to examine mixed race, it is naive to think that we’ll see that in our lifetimes. Instead, if we step back and focus on the things we can change, such as sharpening our critical thinking lenses, and challenging oppression within our circles, we can then make changes that can affect the whole forest.
Rema Tavares is an artist/educator and her work has shown in several exhibitions both nationally and internationally. Rema’s work centres around her Black-mixed identity in Canada, and she draws much of her inspiration from her fellow Afro-Canadian and mixed-race identified communities in all their splendid intersections. She is the Founder of Mixed in Canada, a national critical resource centre for racialized mixed-race identified Canadians, as well as a co-founder of the MIXED Art Conference, a biennial art conference focused around racialized mixed-race identity and intersectionality. She is also an Advisory Board Member of QofG, a grassroots organization and online transnational visibility project, dedicated to affirming and acknowledging the various genders and gender expressions within Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities.
Rema’s piece succinctly grapples with some of the central issues that strike me as familiar clarion calls of my own mixed race musings: how do we see individual, intersectional identity/ies in all its complexity while maintaining some categorization and clarity (by necessity, distilled; hopefully not diluted) for socially-aware identity politics? How do we move away from the tragic versus heroic staging of mixed-race identities in order to just “be”? Not coincidentally, we see these polarized narratives—victim/hero, villain/saint, fool/genius—in stories about most Others, not just those of mixed-race. This seems to me a testament to the complicated placement of mixed-race individuals in terms of both privilege, as Rema explores, and othering—sometimes other, sometimes not, sometimes doubly- or triply- othered.
The invocation of immunity stuck out to me especially, in part because I wasn’t sure how it was intended. We can define it as an invulnerability, as an exemption, or as a form of protection. Some forms of privilege, I think, do make one invulnerable or exempt from discrimination, attack, bias; however, mixed-race identity as a specific form of privilege always seems a little more tenuous to me. So maybe it fits the last definition of immunity—a protection, but not a guarantee inviolability.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn is currently an Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, with a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. Most recently, she co-edited a digital reader on Gender, Race, and Class in partnership with Ms. Magazine. She is also serving in an ex-officio capacity on the Board of Directors of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and is a Contributing Editor for the Ms. Scholars’ Writing Program.