Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mixed Race Women and Beauty Politics: A Critical Commentary

It almost goes without saying that when you are mixed race and especially if you are a woman, you have to confront the issue of skin color privilege, exoticism and beauty politics.  So much of American social relations is wrapped up in a color grading system by which we are placed on a racial ladder by our physical complexion.  Whiteness most certainly goes to the top of the food chain all the way down to blackness.  Everything else is stuffed somewhere in between these two poles which ironically lends itself to those in the middle being less visible in the wider society.  Hell, we even have a way to describe the absence of those in the middle through the "black/white racial binary paradigm".  So, if you are brown (Chicano/a, Latino/a), yellow (Asian), red (American Indian) or rainbow (mixed race), you are generally absent from the conversation UNTIL the issue of beauty, body politics and attraction become the main topics.  Likewise, since much of our conversation about objectifying bodies is about women's bodies, it makes sense that a discussion about beauty and physical appearance includes talk about being mixed race.

Interestingly, the only time it is "good" to be mixed race in U.S. society is when it comes to discussing beauty and the body, especially if one is mixed with white and another race.  While whiteness sets the beauty standard by which all of us are judged, being mixed race affords women the opportunity to be both beautiful AND sexual.  In her essay, "I See the Same Ho: Video Vixens, Beauty Culture and Diasporic Sex Tourism", author Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues that the hip hop and beauty industries together promote a particular type of femininity in which women are expected to be hyper-sexual, fair skinned and ethnically mixed.  She goes onto say that hip hop music videos, particularly with the increase of black male sex tourism to Brazil, promotes the idea that being mixed race is the "best of both worlds" for a woman (at least from a beauty perspective).  A mixed race woman (particularly those who are white and black) is seen as beautiful for her whiteness and sexual due her blackness. Therefore she is prized over her black counterparts.  She isn't more prized than her white counterparts but is fetishsized as an acceptable alternative to a white woman. 

Whiteness and thinness have long been held as the yardstick by which women's beauty and bodies are judged. On the opposite end of the spectrum, black women have been viewed, as author Janelle Hobson puts it in her book, Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, as "simultaneously grotesque and sexually gratifying".  A black woman is grotesque not only for her dark skin but also for the size of her breasts and butt.  Yet, the same things which are viewed as grotesque on black women's bodies have also been viewed as sexually titillating and even used as a rationale for white male rape of black slave women's bodies.  The presence of whiteness in a mixed race woman's body is supposed to somehow erase black women's grotesqueness while maintaining their sexual allure. 

This presumed "attractiveness" of mixed race women, whether intentional or not, creates tensions between mixed race women and mono-racially identified black women (particularly those with darker complexions).  I have always found it ironic that black men can say some of the most incredibly ignorant and hateful bullshit about darker skinned black women but mixed race and/or lighter complexion women bear the brunt of black women's rage. I have been accused of "stealing their men" (Wait, what? So I'm not black now?), accused of using my light skin to make white folks feel comfortable about black people and generally viewed as a barrier to black women finding a good black men by luring them away into my "Mixed Race Light Skinned Lair" (okay, so I made up the lair part but you get my point).

Below is a sampling of some of misogynistic and ignorantly color struck comments from some Black male celebrities to give you a sense of what I'm referring to (click to enlarge):

While I cannot speak for all mixed race women, who wants to be with a man who shows such utter contempt for women who may share similar complexions to their mothers?  Granted, these men don't represent all black men but I have encountered a fair share who hold similar beliefs and are primarily interested in me because I'm a "redbone" or "high yella". WTF, am I a damn dog or something?  Ugh! I recall going to a record store (oooh, dating myself) and the owner was so color struck that he refused to ring up my order until I told him my racial mix.  We went back and forth for at least 5 minutes with me saying "I'm Black" over and over again and he refusing to accept my answer.  He even went as far as to tell me, "I bet you have some serious Indian in you."  Actually, I have less than 0.01 percent of Native American ancestry but my complexion fascinated him for some reason.  When I finally relented and said I was 1/8th Filipina, he responded "I knew you had to be mixed to be this pretty."  Deep exasperated sigh.

Comments like those always bothered me even as a teen.  I didn't want to be preferred because of my complexion, hair texture or ancestry. There is no relationship between my lighter skin and my worthiness as a mate. Likewise, it is annoying and quite frankly insulting when I hear other black women assume I'm dumb or easy because of my lighter skin.  My racial background nor my complexion are indicators of my sexuality or my intelligence and it's high time that we address the fundamental problems of ethnic sexist stereotypes which affect all women of color at some point in our lives. There is a litany of these ethnic sexist stereotypes that are used against Asian women (Dragon Lady or Suzie Wong), African American women (Mammy, Welfare Queen, Sapphire), Native American women (Squaw or Princess) and Latinas (Spitfires).  While there isn't a formal name for an ethnic sexist stereotype of mixed race women, the sentiment is similar to all the others: these women are sexually lascivious because of their race and shall be used for male pleasure because of their gender.  Sadly, I don't see these stereotypes being disrupted anytime soon and in fact, if reality television is any indicator, these stereotypes will only worsen over time.

The Mixed Race Feminist

Friday, May 16, 2014

Defining Mixed Race Feminism

Disclaimer: This post might not make much sense as it is totally based on lived experiences and educated guesses.

Question of the Day: What is mixed race feminism?   Good question given mixed race and gender issues aren't often brought in conversation together even with the academic use of intersectionality theory.

Let's start with some basic terminology.  I define feminism as a critique on male power with efforts to change it.  In essence, for me, feminism is both a theory and a form of activism.  This means that feminism is for everyday folks; not just folks with degrees or lots of titles. Unfortunately, over the years, feminism has become a negatively charged term in which people often have a visceral reaction of nodding heads in support or shaking their heads in disgust.  These polar opposite reactions often come from a general misunderstanding of what feminism is and what feminists hope to achieve.  In her book, Feminism for Everybody, feminist theorist and cultural critic bell hooks talks about the ways in which people are eager to hear about her analysis of movies and other forms of popular culture, "But feminist theory - that is where the questions stop. Instead I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how "they" hate men; how "they" want to go against god; how "they" are all lesbians; and how "they" are taking all the jobs  and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance" (hooks, p.vii, 2000).  In my teaching in women and gender studies, I am constantly attempting to educate my students on what feminism actually means beyond salacious headlines from Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh crowds.  Feminism means being observant and critical of the way in which power is manifested, concentrated in the hands of a few and used against those deemed minority or "other".  But feminism also means being active in community uplift, fighting for social justice and using one's voice to combat sexism and other forms of oppression.

I view one's claim of being mixed race as a personal choice at self-definition; not simply a matter of DNA.   I object to "one-droppist" logic in which a person with any non-white ancestry can not claim to be of Caucasian/European descent.  I find it totally illogical that people of color (anyone who is non-white) often play the role of "one-drop" police when the policy and practice of "one-dropping" originated while African Americans were still enslaved and continued through the period of Jim Crow segregation.  Why would oppressed people use the oppressors terminology to limit our self-definition is beyond me.  I also object to the relative silence from the mixed race community (most prominently found via online forums) in calling out white racism which often forbids mixed race persons from claiming their white ancestry.  It is like whiteness is reserved for only "pure bloods" or "mono-racial" white people. Many mixed race people I have encountered say nothing about their experiences with racism from their "white side" but can give you time, date, place and even weather reports when they experience discrimination from non-whites.  I am  black AND Filipina AND white. I am not one or the other simply because the average American can't deal with multiplicity.  I belong to all of those groups and I have experienced acceptance and rejection from each group. Some more so than others (in the rejection department).

Thus, my mixed race feminism considers all of these gender and racial contours.  The confusion and complexity, the diversity and denial, the multiplicity and the misunderstandings.  In essence, I see mixed race feminism as a simultaneous critique of gendered and racialized standards of being and behaving with efforts to dismantle gender and racial scripts that limit our range of expression, our life chances and our ability to live free of "boxes" which says we must be "either/or" instead of more fully as "both/and".  I am mixed race AND black; feminist AND Filipina; white AND multicultural.

In my view, mixed race feminism challenges essentialism as well.  Originating out of philosophy, essentialism is the idea that certain entities must have or share a similar set of attributes to be recognized as belonging to that entity.  So for example, to be Mexican, one must speak Spanish.  Are you not Mexican if you don't?  Mixed race feminism challenges essentialism by accepting the diverse ways in which  men and women experience gender and gender discrimination while also challenging essentialist notions of race and culture that says you must choose one race even as you may feel uncomfortable taking sides against an important part of who you are.

My mixed race feminism goes beyond theory as well.  I am active in several mixed race online communities (mostly scholarly or social issue based), work in women's volunteer organizations which have been historically predominantly black or formerly all-white and some that are multi-racial.  I work closely and have even published research with colleagues in Asian American Studies about our experiences with race, class and gender growing up in Compton.  I live mixed race feminism as an academic, an activist and as a human being.  Thus, mixed race feminism is both theory and practice....a way to challenge our limited conventions in how we view, discuss and deal with gender and race.

Friday, May 2, 2014

There, I Said It: Reflections on Identity by a Feminist Racial Hybrid

When I first proclaimed myself as a feminist in 1993 through my campus' Black student-run newspaper, I had only a few months prior started reading and researching anything I could get my hands on by and about black feminist activists and scholars.  My mind was completely blown when I first read Deborah King's "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness" about the triple oppressions of racism, sexism and classism that black women faced..  From there, I read bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and several others.  Like a sponge, I absorbed as much as I could until I felt a strong urge to share with the world that I was a black feminist.

I wrote my article, "There, I Said It" as an act of defiance to the sexism I was experiencing within the Black Student Union at my university. I was tired of sitting in meetings to be told that I have undermined black men by not allowing them to have other women without complaint because that's what our ancestors did in Africa.  I wanted folks to know I wasn't someone who was going to stand for none of that "The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman" bullshit which advised black men, "When she crosses this line and becomes viciously insulting it is time for the Blackman to soundly slap her in the mouth."  Naw, partner, even at the tender age of 20, I knew better than to fall for that okey-doke which many black men I encountered at my school liked to quote from.

But I was naively unprepared for the backlash against my feminist proclamation even as I explained that black women have had a long history of feminist activism (even in pre-colonial Africa).  Nope, feminism was for white women and since I was already so light (in complexion), I must be confused about my racial identity.  Up to that point, I had a only a handful of incidents where my skin color was an issue and because my mixed race mother and maternal grandmother experienced much of the same thing growing up, they prepared me with a type of "psychic armor" to deflect alot of hostility from folks because of my complexion or the length of my hair.  But my feminist "coming out" became completely undermined and overshadowed by questions of my racial identity and racial allegiance.  While I didn't learn the terminology to describe what I was experiencing until years later, the question of political intersectionality - being forced to choose one identity over the other - was a major turning point for me.

I was always militantly black until I had my blackness questioned for my "dalliance" with feminism.  I formed my high school's first black student union, attended statewide black student union conferences and immediately got involved with black student organizations at my university.  I never thought of myself as anything other than black, publicly.  Privately, we were black and Filipino.  Raised by Filipina great grandmother, black, white and Filipina grandmother and mother, we learned how to "identity switch" (sort of like code-switching) as a way to protect ourselves for ignorant backlash.  I could be all of who I was at home but outside of the safety of our home, I was black and I might even curse you out if you called me something else.

But my article not only struck a nerve with readers who were in opposition to my public declaration as a feminist, it forced me to decide whether I was willing to risk handing over my "Black Pass" in order to stay true to my new found feminist identity.   I refused to give up feminism in order to make folks feel comfortable and lost a number of friends along the way.

I was elected president of the Black Student Union the following year but the outgoing president gave keys to the campus office and BSU files to someone who wasn't elected - a Black male student.  The guy I went out with a date with and who was trying his damnedest to have sex with me, now treated me like pariah, even going as far as calling me "a race traitor" because I was running errands with a white male co-worker from my work study gig.  Once again, I had to find that "psychic armor" that was instilled in me by my mother and grandmother and keep moving.  It would take 12 years later before I was ready, however, to embrace my mixed-race identity and proclaim it publicly.  As with all racial-cultural identity development theories, everything is a process....

The Mixed Race Feminist