By Lindsay C. Harris
The Color of Colorblind: Addressing the History of Racial Classification and Mixed Racial Identity in the U.S.
Like 60 million other Americans, I cast my ballot to reelect our first black president last month. I endorsed a man whose accomplishments are certainly emblematic of progress in the fight for civil rights in this country, but who’s multiracial heritage, identity, and “degree of blackness” under constant scrutiny represents a long and complicated history of racial classification in the United States.
I understand why it may be easy for some to call this the age of colorblindness; why it may seem like “colorblind” is what we should aspire to; and why some might even think we have finally reached this elusive goal as we wave around our newest trophy--the Obamas on Capitol Hill. However, before we pat ourselves on the back and walk away thinking job well done, it’s important to examine a few realities that make our society certainly not post-race – because we could be on the verge of setting ourselves backward under the guise of progress if we don’t.
Like Obama, I am born of a black father and a white mother. Like many children of mixed parentage, I had my share of struggles to find myself and my community. Moreover, like any adolescent I struggled to feel comfortable with myself and with my body. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend some great schools and to have mentors who have helped me find my voice, critically and artistically. I identify as black and of mixed race – I am of African American, Norwegian and Native American heritage. I acknowledge that calling myself mixed race is a distinct privilege afforded to my generation, and moreover a privilege afford to me because of the way that I look (lighter skinned) and the environment in which I live (New York City). It is with this criticality that I approach not only my own identity, but my artistic body of work surrounding mixed race and complicating identity.
In October of last year, Susan Saulny wrote an article as part of the New York Times series Race Remixed, about three generations of one mixed race family, aptly titled “For Mixed Family, Old Racial Tensions Remain Part of Life.” Saulny’s portrayal of a multigenerational family from New Jersey is essentialist at best and harmful at worst. It spotlights the struggles of being a multiracial family, thus flattening the experience and reiterating the Tragic Mulatto stereotype of 19th century literature and films like Imitation of Life. Similarly, the recent Kraft MilkBite commercials have caused controversy as they unabashedly invoke the same biracial stereotype with Mel, the part milk, part granola cereal bar who doesn’t know where he belongs. While Mel may seem harmless (afterall, it’s just a cereal bar), getting a good laugh at the expense of the trials of the Other is anything but.
Mrs. Greenwood, the mixed race woman featured in Saulny’s article, “feels as though the world is forcing race into her home, which has been a respite from race ever since she was a little girl herself.” This separation of race and identity, private and public life in the long run is not only not healthy but also not healing for our society if we are to eradicate racial injustice and promote freedom of identity. As Michelle Alexander so succinctly addresses in her book The New Jim Crow with regard to the extreme racial disparity in the criminal justice system, colorblind is more often lethal ignorance, not progress. I understand why parents would want to shield their children from the cruel outside world, but we all have to live in it, so until it really is a place were equal opportunity is given to all, why not give them the tools to understand themselves and the workings of the world around them?
I believe that identity is two-fold – how we view ourselves and how others view us. And these views are informed by the racialized and sexualized violence of our past. To talk about contemporary identity also involves talking about the history of race in this country. There is a reason that Obama identifies as black not biracial, much of it has to do with society seeing him as first and foremost a black man. How can we understand and move this country toward real progress if we ignore race, and how as mixed race individuals can we deconstruct categories all together, rather than just create new ones?
Miscegenation (the nasty word for interracial unions) was first legally criminalized in 1661 Maryland and for three hundred years anti-miscegenation laws were thriving in the US. Such laws were finally deemed unconstitutional in 1967 as a result of Loving v. Virginia. “Mulatto” -- meaning a cross between a horse and a mule -- was a cruel name applied to the children of black and white parents. The long held one-drop rule, which has legally defined anyone with any percentage of African ancestry as being classified as black, was formally abolished in 1983 as a result of Jane Doe v. State of Louisiana, which still had a one-thirty second statute. This part of American history is very recent, with a social legacy that influences how racial identity forms and moves in the United States today.
As a multidisciplinary artist, I am exploring what it means to be mixed race in contemporary society within and beyond this legacy. I desire to present a complexity of identity, a multifaceted portrait that both gives agency to take hold of our identities and to acknowledge the many societal restraints on our bodies. I use the word mulatto not as a reclamation, but as a citation--a way of calling attention to this violent history.
Race may be a construct, but it is because of its implementation throughout history that it very much exists today. I believe the way to address it is not to ignore it and hope that it will go away, or not to highlight the struggles of being mixed race, hoping for sympathy. Rather, I believe we can complicate (for identity is anything but simple) race and identity by tackling it head on, examining it, and deconstructing it through humor, criticality and art. These are the tools I have as an artist and by exploring racial identity in respect to these legacies, I hope it can blossom into a broader discussion on our society’s humanity, the right to our own bodies and our own identities.
Lindsay C. Harris is an interdisciplinary artist living in New York City. Her multimedia project, Evoking the Mulatto, explores black mixed identity in the 21st century, through the lens of the history of racial classification in the United States, utilizing filmed interviews with young artists and activists, photographic portraits, and historical mappings. Harris is also an arts educator, writer, and performer who has performed and/or exhibited in the United States, Ghana, and Scotland. She has a B.A. in Africana Studies & Art from Vassar College and M.A. in Arts Politics from New York University. Sign up for updates about the project here.
Image via Evoking the Mulatto