Thursday, April 30, 2015

One-Dropping and Multi-Dropping: Embracing Contradictions of the Racialized Self (A Personal Journey)

My exploration of my mixed race identity began in my early 20's after an incident I describe in my blog post entitled "There I Said It: Reflections on Identity from a Feminist Racial Hybrid". But I didn't exactly get thrown out of the Black community on Monday and proclaim myself as "mixed race" by Thursday.

My process for coming into my mixed race identity was slow because though I was socially ostracized from many Black peers by my junior year in college for outing myself as a "feminist",  I was still embraced by other Black people who didn't feel threatened by my public declaration.  Likewise, in my neighborhood which was predominantly Black but had a good number of Filipinos who settled in the area post World War II, people knew we were a mixed family.  I don't recall there ever being a situation where people treated me like anyone but a full member of that community.  I think why I experienced this ease was due to the fact that I was raised to be Black with Filipino traditions passed on by my Filipina great-gram. My great-gram placed more emphasis on us keeping her cultural traditions alive rather than insisting we call ourselves Filipino because she was acutely aware of how her mixed race children, grands, and great-grams were judged as Black.  So, I didn't go around saying I was "part this, or part that" which might have led to harassment or ostracism from the Black community.  I just said I was Black in public and in private, I could be both or neither if I wanted. 

It wasn't until I had taken a comparative Asian American history course in my first year of my MA program doing research for my project on Filipino Americans' differing practices of Catholicism based on region that I found myself wanting to learn more about the culture I practiced through ritual handed down to me by my great-gram.  I started purchasing Filipino cultural artifacts, books, and religious items from Filipino-owned shops.  I began reading, attending Filipino cultural events, attended mass more frequently, even hired a tutor to learn Tagalog (ran out of money before I could really learn much) and a host of other things so I could take it all in.  This period of "cultural immersion" lasted at least five years until I went to Ohio to work on my Ph.D. But I never stopped being Black....I simply wanted to embrace all aspects of my identity that I could.

When I went to Ohio to work on my Ph.D., I found easy acceptance in the Black graduate student community whereas the Asian presence was limited to mostly foreign-born Asians who viewed me with a great deal of skepticism.  So I was active in the Black Grad Student Association and socialized mostly with Black friends and the mixed group of friends from my Ph.D. cohort.   Most people in grad school didn't realize I was also Asian until a situation occurred where the College of Education had created a Ph.D. mentoring program for underrepresented racial minorities and some Black students got upset that Asian Americans were being considered "underrepresented" and included in the program.  A Black classmate of mine asked angrily "Why do they need mentoring? They are the model minority, right?"  I promptly explained the problem with her logic while informing her that I was a mixed Asian and Black person to which she replied "I don't see you as mixed race." Sigh.  I can't win for losing, I thought, reflecting on my undergraduate experience where I was told I wasn't Black enough.  Now, I'm too Black to be considered mixed race. Gah!!!!

From that incident for the remainder of my time in Ohio, I had to grapple with folks trying to guess my racial identity that I never really encountered in California.  It made me really uneasy because this fascination came predictably with me having to field 1,001 questions that prolong the conversation as people tried to wrap their heads around my answers:

"So what is your mom? She's the Filipino one, right? Wait, you mean that you're only 1/8 Filipino? How can that be if you are so light? Do you consider yourself Black, White or Filipino? Why do you act so Black? How can you consider yourself black if you are mixed?"

Fast forward about 3-4 years when I met my now-husband, a Black Brit from Manchester, England, in Ohio of all places.  On the flight to England to meet his family for the first time, I was asked by a random white Englishman the "what are you?" question.  This particular fellow assumed I was bi-racial Black and White and the conversation went something like this:

Him: "So which one of your parents is white?".  
Me: "Neither"
Him: "Really? Aren't you mixed race?" 
Me: "Yes but both of my parents are black. "
Him: "How can you be mixed race with two black parents?" 
Me: "If you live in a country which relies on old ideas of racial purity (one drop) and you were raised in Black neighborhoods, it is indeed possible to be mixed race with two black parents."
Him: "Why is everything so complicated in America?" 
Me: "Good question." 
Him: "So what are you?" 
Me: A multiracial Black woman.

The man appeared flustered by my embrace of what I now see as a cultural-political identity as opposed to solely a racialized one.  I am multiracial and Black.  I see myself as culturally Black and Filipino and racially Black, Filipino and White but more important for me is to both one-drop and "multi-drop" simultaneously.  I do this as a reminder to others of white Americans' insistence in relying on the "one-drop" rule to determine race status while feeling a sense of solidarity culturally and politically with the Black community.  I "multi-drop" because my Filipino identity informs who I am as well although maybe to a lesser extent than my Black identity because I came to fully accept myself as Filipino later in life and I multi-drop because although my White ancestry doesn't inform my cultural or political identity that ancestry is written on my body through my skin color, hair color, freckles, etc.  

It was during that exchange on that flight to England that I had finally felt a sense of "identity achievement" because I found a way to describe who I was on my own terms.  My identity as a multiracial Black woman is intentionally complicated and contradictory because I want others to see the utter insanity of forcing people into racialized boxes for convenience but also to tell others that I do see myself as part of the Black community and that my mixed identity doesn't take away from me feeling both/and instead of either/or.  I find calling myself mixed or multiracial to be insufficient because it doesn't connect me to a specific community but also feel uncomfortable in not acknowledging and embracing the culture of the women who raised me. So I embrace my contradictory racialized self even if others can't or won't.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mixed Race in Manchester - Intersections of Class and Mixed Race Identity

I spent the last three months of 2014 living in Manchester, England helping my mother-in-law through chemotherapy and navigating the National Health Services bureaucratic red tape to secure caregiver support and the like.  While I wasn't able to keep up with this blog, I did manage to work on my first novel and make note of how I was perceived differently than I normally am in the U.S.  Now these perceptions draw on my specific interactions so my observations are certainly not generalizable to all but I found the comparisons revealing.

Longsight Market

In the African and South Asian (think Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian) community of Longsight, being mixed race (as determined by skin color, hair texture and physical markers of mixed race identity) was not as common as in other parts of Manchester which were predominantly white.  In Longsight, I felt like the odd person out and though I have traveled to England many times before (mostly London and Manchester), I was not cognizant of being one of the few mixed folks in the bunch until I stayed more than a week in the area.  Home to mostly first generation immigrants to the U.K., Longsight appeared to demonstrate a kind of "racial insularity" that I had not experienced in other parts of the city.  Mixed race couples were, in fact, quite rare to find.  Africans stuck with Africans and Arab-Asians stuck with Arab-Asians.  Very rarely did I see interracial couples or children in this part of the city.  Simple conversations between Africans and South Asians weren't common either. Shops catered to either African/Caribbean folk or South Asians and only one vegetable grocer catered to both groups.  After several weeks of enduring stares because of my appearance and folks being fascinated or confused by my American accent, I wanted to find out if being in Longsight specifically had any bearing on my experiences.

Part of my bus commute route through Longsight

So when possible, I started venturing out of Longsight into different parts of the city including Manchester City Centre, Deansgate, Salford and Wythenshawe.  In these areas I saw more white English, East Asians, Jewish folk, and what I like to call "2nd Generation Black and Asian Brits".  These "2nd Generation Black and Asian Brits" tended to be in their 20's and 30's.  These Black and Asian Brits spoke English with proficiency, talked about football (soccer), shopped on the High Street, were well connected to technology and in many cases looked to be coming and going to professional jobs.  What stood out more than anything about these Black and Asian Brits, away from Longsight, was that they interacted socially with people of different races unlike the twenty and thirty year olds I saw in Longsight.  Whether on the bus, at the gym, walking near University of Manchester, younger generations of Brits interacted and conversed with people of different ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds with an ease that just wasn't in Longsight. 

Now, it might be easy to simply say this was a function of younger people being more open and inclusive of difference which I'm sure plays an important role here.  But what I observed and later shared with my cousin-in-law and husband (both originally from Longsight) was that socio-economics or class played a significant function in shaping interracial interactions than one might expect.  I saw more interracial couples and groups of friends in more affluent parts of town.  My cousin-in-law who is married to a white English woman and has three bi-racial children lives in the suburbs and said that as a family they felt more uncomfortable in Longsight than they did in predominantly white, affluent parts of town.  Conventional wisdom, at least from a U.S. perspective, would assume that a mixed race family might be more accepted in the "Black" part of town regardless of socio-economic circumstances.  Yet, in a more racially insular place like Longsight, socio-economics may play a key role in determining one's educational level and exposure to different cultures.  Could Longsight's African and Asian communities be less tolerant of mixed race couples and families due to a lack of economic mobility making them cling to their culture and traditions to the exclusion of embracing difference in others?

My experiences in Longsight contrasted with other parts of Manchester seem to bear this out.  I traveled to Salford, an area that was once known for racial intolerance of Blacks, to get my hair done on two different occasions.  In both instances, I had to walk a few miles along a main road to/from the bus stop and at no time did I experience stares or was made to feel uncomfortable in any way.  I saw people of all different races and went into an African/Caribbean shop for ginger beer, a fish and chips restaurant (chippy) owned by Chinese and a mini mart owned by an Indian family. I saw mixed race couples and when I went to this "Black" hair salon, I wasn't the only mixed race Black woman getting services.  But as soon as I traveled back to Longsight, the East Asians got off the bus just outside of "Longsight" Proper and few whites even got on the bus and I was often the sole mixed race person on the bus for the remainder of the journey.  The difference between the two communities apart from the demographics?  Clear indicators of higher income in Salford (which is a working class community by UK standards) from bigger homes, cleaner streets, wider variety of shops and slightly higher prices for goods and services (including my hairdo).  

In most mixed race studies, the obvious emphasis is placed on race but based on what I observed, an argument can be made that we need to study the intersections between class and mixed race identity to see how the former shapes the latter.  Are mixed race identities more accepted in more economically affluent areas?  Do the children of immigrants feel safer to interact with different races intimately and socially in areas where residents have higher class statuses than areas with less economic influence?  How does class shape or affect interactions between mixed race and mono-racial folks?  Could a mixed race person's perception of hostility from monoracial people be more of a function of perceived economic mobility of mixed race people versus their monoracial counterparts?

Lately, I find myself wondering if my experience would be different in the U.S. with regards to mixed race identity and class.  And of course, this naturally leads to me to wonder if this will have any bearing on my feminist identity as well.  Until that extended stay in England, I never really gave class much thought to how I might be perceived as a mixed person.  Does my lighter skin automatically suggest an economic advantage, real or imagined, which affects how I am treated on a daily basis?  I certainly can recall a moment in high school when a fellow classmate, a dark skinned girl, said "Not all of us can be light and smart."  Honestly, I think I focused more on being called light that I forgot until recently how she might have conflated my mixed race identity and lighter skin as an economic advantage.  If that is indeed what is happening, then we need to explore the "currency" provided in mixed race advantage where Light or Mixed=beautiful+smart+wealthy.  Scary, it doesn't seem like we're ever really moving forward.

It's not enough that light skin Black folks in the U.S. have a distinct economic and social advantage over their darker skinned counterparts.  Now the light vs. dark skin debate has been misappropriated for capital gain (I'll leave the obvious ethnic sexism alone this time).