Yesterday, a picture of my girlfriend, Arlyn, and me got picked up off of the Tumblr she runs for our band, Cilantro, (http://cilantromusic.tumblr.com/) and blogged around, thanks in large part to another Tumblr focused on interracial couples dating. Often, when people see us on the street, that is the assumption they make, especially when she’s rocking her ‘fro. This got me thinking about how complicated race is, especially in the 21st Century, how seemingly strict categories are actually very fungible, and how the history of racial mixing in this country is still largely misunderstood.
When I got home from work last night, Arlyn told me about our photos being picked up, and the name of the Tumblr (http://blackgirlswhiteboys.tumblr.com/), and we had a good laugh about it. Looking at photos, it may not be as obvious, but my girlfriend and I actually have a very similar racial make-up. The fact that it is as close as it is, is a bit astonishing to us, considering we grew up in different parts of the world.
Dominican-born, and raised between Puerto Rico and the DR, Arlyn straddles an identity somewhere between Latina and “light-skinned” African American. Her mom looks “white”, while her dad looks “black.” The family speaks Spanish, cooks Caribbean food, and listens to salsa and bachata music. Not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks “African American,” is it? Most of Latin America has a similar history of using kidnapped Africans for slavery, they just didn’t need to fight a civil war to end it. Despite this, when we are out together, folks never expect my girlfriend to have a Latin-sounding accent, and when we are in Mexican parts of town, people often actually speak Spanish to me, first, assuming I might be Latino (not so much), and assuming she doesn’t speak any Spanish, even though it’s actually her first language. Since moving to California, she has gravitated more toward “black” culture, and spends little time with other native Spanish speakers, because she feels like she doesn’t belong with Mexicans and Salvadorans, since that isn’t her culture. (African American isn’t a very accurate category either, however, but other Latino/as do not treat her as openly as other African Americans often do.)
And then there’s me. According to the Instagram page, I am the “white” guy dating the “black” girl, which they see as something to celebrate. Here, I am in total agreement, as I love to call our generation the “Miscegenation Generation,” because we are the most colorful, mixed-race generation in American History. The “browning” of America is well underway, and the fact that there are blogs or Tumblrs devoted to promoting mixed race coupling is a great sign. (Like Warren Beatty’s character suggests in the severely under-remembered Bulworth: the best way to get rid of racism is making love with each other until everyone is a lovely light shade of brown and we can no longer tell who belongs to which race.) Besides, mixed race kids tend to be really good looking.
I am a product of mixed race union. My dad appears “black” and my mom appears “white,” and that is how the world treats them (the reason, my brother and I were told, that we have never been to Disney World in Florida, only Disneyland in California). In reality, of course, things are more complicated than that. My mother has blonde hair and green eyes. She traces most of her history back to Western Europe (Britain, England, Ireland, with maybe a little German or Scottish in there, for good measure). She is an 8th Choctaw Indian, however, a secret that had been hidden from the generation before hers, due to the shame mixed race couplings once bore. My dad is mixed race, but according to American society, he has always been “black.” His mother was half Afro-Caribbean, and half Czechoslovakian. Her brothers spoke fluent Spanish and she grew up learning about Cuba, Eastern Europe and even Jewish culture (despite not being at all Jewish).
So, what does that make me? Am I white because people in California assume I’m white? When I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, people always told me I looked “Mexican” (because that’s literally how white Portland is—the little bit of melanin in my skin is enough to set me apart. In Cali they seem to just assume I’m a white guy with a perennial LA tan.) There is Caribbean blood in me, and I also speak fluent Spanish. Does that make me a Latino? Mixed race is yet to be considered a viable identity, and I generally have to mark “other” on school and work forms, or try to check two or three boxes. (This used to drive my mom to write notes on school forms, like “Which set of grandparents would you prefer I offend?”)
In high school, my college counselor decided to settle the debate, and had me start marking “black” on all my standardized testing forms and college applications. So, am I black? The world doesn’t look at me and see a black man, so I am safe from some of the stereotypes and profiling black men in America face on a regular basis. Because of how I look, though, I also have the joy of biting my tongue (or, more often than not, letting loose on some ignorant fool) when people assume I’m white, so that must mean I’m “Ok” to make racist comments and tell racist jokes in front of, because, you know, the only problem with racism is that sometimes colored people get offended, right? So it’s totally fine to perpetuate, as long as colored people aren’t around to complain, right? One of the problems with this brand of logic, besides just being ludicrous and ignoring history and lasting forms of oppression, is that there are a lot of people like me, who do consider “person of color” an important part of our identity. I tend to just let people react to me without knowing anything about my parents, and then watch, curiously. how markedly their demeanor or commentary often change they know my background.
This story is becoming more and more common in America these days, but many people don’t realize that racial mixture is actually a part of our history going back to the founding of the nation. We’ve all heard of Thomas Jefferson’s supposed illegitimate slave children, and he was not the only early American getting down with miscegenation. The simple variety of shades of “black” Americans is a testament to this fact. When our photos were picked up, I was immediately reminded of these photos:
(Before I tell you, ask yourself why I chose to show these photos. What do you think is significant about them? Does it help you to know they were both taken around the end of the Civil War?)
What did you conclude? Is this an example of black and white kids getting along back in the day? Maybe telling us that Jim Crow didn’t keep everyone separate after all? Are these pictures of people working together to build a “post-racial” future, more than a hundred years before Obama?
Actually, all the people pictured in these photos were recently emancipated slaves. Frederick Douglas used to utilize them when teaching about the complications of race in America. That is how fungible a category like race, which is purely a social construct, has been throughout this nation’s history. How do you think these white looking former slaves identified? White? Black? Mixed? How do you think society saw them?
Race is not a straightforward, black and white issue, and it never will be. It was invented and promoted as an idea in order to excuse robbery, kidnapping, torture and murder by defining some people as more “human” than others. As we continue moving into the second decade of this already turbulent century, the future looks bright for mixed race people like my girlfriend and me. Interracial couples are becoming much more normal, and no one pulls out the Bible to try and condemn them any more (except maybe in Mississippi, but no one with Federal power). America is becoming more and more diverse and people are more open-minded about race than ever before. I mean, we do have our first mixed race president. And while that is just the beginning of a serious conversation on race, not the end of it, this is certainly going to be a century to watch. I suppose, if there’s a take-away from this post, the lesson is this: mixed race kids are the best-looking, and that’s why the photos got picked up.
The infamous photo set http://cilantromusic.tumblr.com/post/67318037784