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On Growing up Mexican Italian American

[This piece was originally published in January 2018 by The Parent Voice, an online journal that no longer exists. The layout and some of the photos in this version are different.]

I became aware of the world around me during the Reagan era in a middle-class, conservative, predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles. Growing up Mexican Italian American in this context was difficult and dissonant for me. If I had grown up in a different place or class, my mixed experience might have been very different, but then I would not have this story to tell.

Phillipe, Elvira & Tia Dora

My mother is the youngest daughter of immigrants from Mexico, the first in the Chavez-Rios family to graduate from high school. Her father Philippe Rios crossed the border as a boy with his family in the late 19th century. They settled in South El Paso, Texas. Phillipe migrated to Los Angeles as a young man and worked his way up in the steam laundry industry. Years later, he married Elvira Chavez whose path to America was far easier than his was. In the 1920s, she simply boarded a train from Parral, Chihuahua to Los Angeles Union Station and moved in with a relative.

My father Gino, the son of Clinio Pellegrini and Edda Dal Bianco, was born during WWII in Lugo di Vicenza, Veneto. At seventeen, he immigrated to America to work and to pursue a career in the arts. He studied at various arts colleges in Los Angeles. He then attempted to obtain US citizenship by being legally adopted by his hosts, the Markham family. This attempt was unsuccessful, but he continued to use their name, feeling that Italian immigrants were still targets for discrimination and that he could secure more work in Hollywood with an Anglo-Saxon last name.      

My mother was engaged in a dance career and working full-time when my father came into her life. He was working in crews that prepared sets and painted backdrops for television shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. When they married in 1968, both appeared to be in pursuit of the American Dream. He was making good money. He would become a US citizen, move forward in Hollywood, and be credited for the work that he did. They bought a house in the suburbs, one with a family den and a detached two-car garage in which he could do his art.

My father, however, grew tired of his life in Los Angeles and of the idea of working for Hollywood capitalists that would continue to dictate the form and content of his art. So, my parents rented the house and moved to Italy so that he could create artworks that were more socially conscious and committed. Unfortunately, art projects that paid well were few and far between, and the lack of money increased family tensions. The family fell apart in 1972 when I was one.  My mother returned to Los Angeles with me. I am the product of this failed international, multiethnic marriage.

Back in Los Angeles, we lived in various apartments in the Mid-Wilshire district because the city was where my mother could find full-time work. I was happy living in the city. However, when it was time for me to start kindergarten, my mother decided to move back to the house in the suburbs for presumed better schools in a safer, cleaner, whiter neighborhood.

My best friend in kindergarten came from a somewhat similar mixed background as I. His mother was an immigrant from Argentina, and his father came from Sicily. We played on a few soccer teams together, and remained friends through the fourth grade. I liked to go over their house for playdates and holiday get-togethers. They had MTV, Atari, and a large backyard. The biggest problem with this friendship, from my perspective, was his older brother (three years older) who was totally into Duran Duran, and, for a short while, Mein Kampf. In my eyes, he was about a foot taller than me with thick, wavy, sandy-brown hair, a light complexion, and a bad case of acne. He wanted to be on team white, and he did not like to be reminded that he was part Hispanic and the son of a dark-skinned southern Italian. Spic and beaner were words that he casually used, and when he became annoyed by my presence and appearance, he did not hesitate to call me an ugly and stupid beaner too.

Growing up, I sometimes needed to explain to curious classmates and adults why my physical appearance did not match up with my Anglo-Saxon last name. Questions that they asked included: Do you have a stepdad? Were you adopted? Where are your parents from? If asked respectfully, I was happy to explain that my father was an artist and lived in Italy and that my mother’s parents came from Mexico, but my honest explanation typically generated expressions of miscomprehension, doubt, and an occasional that’s cool. In this time and place, the custom or norm was to [identify] others and oneself in monoracial, monoethnic or national terms. Hence, for want of others in this context willing to model or validate mixed and multiracial identities, the notion that I could publicly claim a mixed identity remained cloudy in my adolescent mind. I tended to vacillate in silence between the established monoracial, monoethnic, and national terms that were applicable to me.

As a kid, I yearned to spend more time with my Mexican and Italian relatives, however the money needed to travel was almost always lacking. Unlike some international, multiethnic Third Culture Kids (TCK) with professional-class parents, I was a latchkey kid with an absent Italian father and a mother who often needed to work two jobs to pay the mortgage and utilities. My Mexican grandparents unfortunately had passed away before I was born. Relatives from Mexico visited us every now or then, or we would meet them in between. Besides these few encounters, my knowledge of my Mexican family came from family photo albums, artifacts, and stories told by mother about her parents, aunts, and uncles. Regarding my Italian family, my father did not have much money, and he did little to help me stay connected. Worse, when I was in the third grade, he stopped writing letters, calling, and sending postcards altogether. Fortunately, my Italian grandparents called and wrote to me regularly, and I stayed in touch by phone with my uncle, aunt, and cousins. More significantly, my grandmother travelled to Los Angeles a few times to spend time with me. Her love and consistent communication with me via phone, letters, and photos helped me sustain a sense of also being Italian.

In middle school, I played on the basketball team, but I was also friends, not with the punk rockers, mod revivalists, heavy metal kids, Madonna wannabes, born-again Christians, or student leadership kids, but with the break-dancing crew. I sucked at break dancing, but I was good at carrying a boom box and at cheering on my friends who were good break dancers. The kids in this group, like my other few close friends after the third grade, were my complexion or darker. I liked being friends with these kids, especially when we would ride our bikes far away to parks and schools in neighborhoods far more diverse than ours to challenge other break dancers, play hoops, or to just hang out. 

In high school, I gradually withdrew socially as I became more aware and resentful of the ramifications of growing up poor with an absent father within the conservative, white, middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles. In my freshmen year, I accepted the view that the burly, Germanic-looking white men in positions of authority—coaches and administrators—were models of good American citizenship. However, I became fed up with their careless, condescending, or chauvinistic comportment toward minorities. Most of these white men became objects of my derision in my final two years of high school. I swore to myself that I would never become like them. Unhappy and angry about my situation, I continued to play basketball and run distance, but I was absent from school more and more. I did not want to be there that last year; I barely passed my required classes. Skipping my high school graduation ceremony was my final act of social withdrawal.

Fortunately, my desire to investigate and reclaim my entire heritage also grew exponentially during my final two years of high school. I was hungry for culture, and I was determined to embark on a personal journey of cultural reclamation by first tracking down my father and spending time with him and my other Italian relatives. Of course, I had to work as a temp for about six months after high school to earn the money that was needed to travel to Italy. The time I spent with my family and my father in Italy showed me that it was possible to develop an international, multiethnic sense of self.  Back in Los Angeles, I started college with this possibility in mind, expunging my old Anglo-Saxon last name from all official records, and starting down the path of forging a public mixed identity.  

Ivan Dall-Igna, mio cugino

Much has changed in the world since I was an ambivalent and angry mixed kid growing up in the conservative white suburbs of Los Angeles during the Regan years. For one, these suburbs are now predominantly Asian. Today I am totally at peace with the circumstances of my upbringing and my difficult mixed experiences growing up. I might not be in the good place that I am today without them. More importantly, they gave me purpose and motivation to create a mixed identity that has also been a means for me to engage and to have a public voice on issues such as monoracialism, white normativity, colorism, institutional racism, and other effects of the history of white supremacy. Moreover, I am now a professional-class parent with my own very mixed child who also has an Israeli grandmother and cousins. I feel privileged to be in a position to support her as she navigates through her own identity challenges in this age of Trump. My hope for the future is that as more people cross established lines of race, ethnicity, and nation to form unions with their loved ones, more communities, institutions, and nations will choose to validate and support the lived realities and identities of emergent multiethnic/multiracial families and individuals.


It sucks to wake up and realize that you’re back out of style–viewed as a promising development in one decade, viewed as an impediment to racial justice in the next.

It was the 1990s. Racial pure breeds were fading to beige, and ethnic ambiguity was starting to matter. The public was interested in topics like the biracial baby boom, the browning of America, and Tiger “Cablinasian” Woods. Time magazine issued its “New Face of America.” Maria Root published her “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.” And multiracial grassroots activists were lobbying the state to account for the growing multiracial population via a new multiracial identifier for Census 2000.

Many in the old vanguard of the US Civil Rights Movement were troubled by this development. They responded by propagating new sayings about the new mixed people: “I’m mixed is another way of saying that you want to be white” and “the multiracial movement is anti-black.”

A high yellow Civil Rights Movement child, Danzy Senna expressed her consternation about the sudden rise to relevance of the new mixed people in her widely-read article, “The Mulatto Millennium.” Her article inspired many more critics of the multiracial movement, and before anyone could say President Obama, defining oneself as mixed had become a new social justice faux pas. Before long, ethnically ambiguous bodies that once signified new racial types and emergent third cultures came to be viewed in academia, in the media, and in the social justice field as a potential threat to the gains, memory, and morality of the US Civil Rights Movement.

All of which was so disheartening to those of us who realized that what was also being pushed into oblivion was a common postmodern sensibility that helped in creating multiracial identities of various ethnic and racial combinations in addition to black and white. Far from being a ploy of systemic racism, the corporate media, or conservative post-racial politics, creating and asserting a multiracial identity was about rebelling in postmodern fashion against the classic laws of thought. It was about saying FU to the one-drop rule, and to other traditions of hypodescent, and to all the powerful institutions that suppress multiraciality; it was about saying NO to the tradition of racial passing, and demonstrating that race is always already constructed, unstable, and permeable.

Asserting a multiracial identity was also about performing and writing your mixed self into existence. It was about telling your own messy mixed up stories, and believing in the capacity of personality and imagination to forge unique forms of expression that resist the superimposition of prefab racial and ethnic identities, images, and scripts.

Asserting a multiracial identity was also about seeing and treating race as a toxic, addictive concoction that can be interrogated, deconstructed, and damaged to the point where all racial misfits would feel at home in the world.

But alas…

The possibility of an imminent mulatto millennium led to the founding of the Alliance for Racial and Ethnic Stability–ARES for short. The primary mission of ARES is to un-blur established racial and ethnic lines so that the 21st century will be remembered as the first century of the monoracial millennium.

To achieve this outcome, ARES and the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) implemented Educational Directive 15 (ED 15) to manage the possibility of unruly Census data and other unintended consequences following the strategic adoption of the check-more-than-one-race option for Census 2000. Couched in the language of respect for the dignity of individuals to choose and name their own identities, ED 15 promotes an alternative agenda: re-suppress, degrade, intimidate, confound, and monoracialize the growing multiracial-identified population—that is, re-educate mixed folk so that they will eventually choose to align their personal identities with official, corporate-approved, state-designated racial/ethnic identifications.

Those who continue to identify as mixed or multiracial as if this were 1999 are monitored by ARES affiliates comprising traditional civil rights organizations, neoliberal think tanks, racial justice social media activists, AA activists, and avowedly white liberal allies like Tim Wise—collectively known as the Professional Social Justice Activist Class (PSJAC). Rather than disregard the existence of mixed folks like in the past, the PSJAC happily acknowledges them so that they can be more easily managed and encouraged to publicly present multiracial identities and stories that advance, rather than undermine, the moral authority of ARES.

Academic members of the PSJAC were successful in their efforts to rewrite the history of the US multiracial movement as symptomatic of white supremacy. The Interracial Voice, a popular online hub of the movement in the 1990s, was renamed the Inter-racist Voice, and Charles Byrd, its editor, is now known as that naïve, racist tool of post-racial, colorblind ideologues like Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly. Pro-multiracial identity advocates from the 1990s, Susan Graham and Francis Wardle (a father and a husband) were conflated into the stereotypical white woman in an interracial marriage who feels more than entitled to transfer her white privilege to her biracial black children. College students interested in the multiracial movement now learn that Maria Root and Ward Connerly were political allies united in their desire to demoralize and dilute POC communities.

Former pro-mixed-identity scholars from the nineties who remain in academia find themselves obligated to worship at the altar of Eduardo Bonilla Silva. Once they sang Kumbaya at pan-multiracial collegiate conferences alongside hapas and other mixies of various backgrounds, but now they join the chorus of conference-going white liberal academics that seems to never grow tired of condemning the media for constantly trying to lynch President Obama. They nod in agreement with those who say that white supremacy works through the hearts and souls of foolish, confused, and misguided mixed folks. They join other antiracist academic activists in chanting: Ah, Whiteness—thou art the primum mobile, the blinding overhang, material and essential—race and racial projects, always and forever, until, and only until, that day comes when all the official races of the world have achieved balance, justice and equality. Amen!

Those mixed-identified scholars who flat out refuse to admit that they had been aspiring to whiteness all along typically find themselves on the fringe of academia, or outside of academia altogether. Some have moved to Greece, Albania, Bahrain, Belize, Kurdistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Slovenia, Slovakia, and South Africa to study, live, or work. Some have gone on to teach in public high schools and in private boarding schools. The practical ones went into different fields altogether like cyber security, software design, accounting, flipping houses, or driving for Uber. Some are very happy to have left academia for good.

Indeed…in this Age of Obama, it just doesn’t pay to be racially or ethnically fluid anymore. It pays to assert a monoracial identity and to pledge your allegiance to ARES.

In other words, in the Age of Obama:

And/both and neither/nor came to be known as sophisticated forms of whitesplaining.

Mixed became a wrongheaded, backward-looking descriptor.

Mixed chicks became light-skinned black chicks once again.

Pan-ethnic multiracial idealism was classified as a new form of white coveting.

Mixed folks are no longer One-Dropped; they are Yaba or Zeba Blay-Dropped.

But these victories were deemed inadequate by the pragmatic faction of ARES, which maintained that additional measures were needed to permanently seal the Pandora’s Box of mixed race.

In response this concern, ARES partnered with the Obama Administration and the Clinton Foundation to launch the Ethnic DNA Global Initiative, awarding an initial 1.2 billion dollar contract to Skip Gates Inc. to market and administer Ethnic DNA tests in all free-market countries, so that by 2050 people will no longer be confused about their racial identity, thanks to science.

In phase 2150, after more than a century of world-wide Ethnic DNA testing, ARES and the UN Global Census Bureau will fabricate a new set of Ethnic Quantum Rules (EQR) that will effectively re-aggregate all peoples of the world back into four quantifiable race cultures: Black, White, Asian, and Indigenous.

ARES predicts that by 2250 it will achieve its primary mission–one world under race indivisible with liberty, justice, and equality for all official races.

However, the Age of Obama is now coming to an end. Could mixed folks outperform in the future? Could an upsurge in the meeting and mixing of various peoples from all over the world destabilize the global-capitalist-mono-racializing agenda of ARES? Will there emerge a new generation of hard-to-exploit mixed folks that will shout out to the global establishment: NO to Ethnic DNA marketing, NO to race addiction, and NO to the vision of ARES?

Perhaps. But in the meantime…

Let us invoke the spirit of Jean Toomer and pray to the Gods of Change for the becoming of a new generation of world mixed folks that is difficult to commodify, analyze, control, and consume–a new generation that LOVES in-external racial-ethnic ambiguity; a new generation that says YES to knowing History; YES to communicating in languages besides English; YES to fighting for the oppressed, silenced, and impoverished; YES to a universal basic income; and YES to the long and patient collective labor of creating a new IDEA of TRANS-national-racial-ethnic democratic humanity.

Cultural Diversity to the Nth Degree While Teaching in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is known by many as a city divided into brown, black, white, and yellow communities, a city with a long history of ethnic group tensions, gang fights, race riots, and racist cops.

Los Angeles is also a cosmopolitan city of incredible wealth and poverty, a city where peoples from all over the world speaking various languages interact and often clash, a city of disparate and shifting valuations, a city where peoples mix creating new cultural identities, products, and traditions.

In all, Los Angeles does more than complicate received understandings of multicultural diversity. That is to say, Los Angeles is the mecca of cultural diversity to the nth degree.

Los Angeles is also the city where I grew up, live, and teach English. Simply put, I help students (high school and college) become better readers, writers, and critical thinkers. This unassuming work, I would argue, is very important—even a form of social activism—insofar as in helping students become more literate I also develop their capabilities to participate effectively in public debates regarding social issues that they might care deeply about, now or in the future. In other words, to have an intelligible public voice, or to be an effective social activist, you need to be fully literate in English like the affluent and highly educated are—which is where I come in as an educator who cultivates writing, reading, rhetorical, and thinking capabilities in individual students.

As a teacher in Los Angeles, I experience cultural diversity to the nth degree anew every time I start a new class. In the first four or five class meetings, I like to number out students many times over, creating groups of various sizes that allow students to both collaborate and to become more familiar with the knowledge, experience, and lived diversity of each other. I start my classes with a no-pressure, ice-breaker activity that literally provides students in groups of six with a script of sentence stems that prompt them to share basic information about themselves (as much or as little as they want) regarding topics such as what they do for work, where they grew up and live, why they’re here in college, where they see themselves in five years, and what social justice issue they care most about.IMG_2725 Stems for this script activity can be customized for different types of classes, and the scripting strategy can be used for various purposes as a means to focus small groups on particular questions, issues, or topics.

This scripting activity also helps me become more familiar with the knowledge and diverse cultural backgrounds of my students as I walk around the classroom listening to and participating in group conversations. This summer and fall I decided to take a few notes during this activity:

  • Students from Van Nuys, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sun Valley, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills, West Hills, Santa Monica, and Reseda
  • High school students from Calabasas, Taft, Reseda, and El Camino Real HS
  • A virtual high school student who is also an actress
  • A student who just graduated from Options for Youth
  • A student recently out of jail, not sure for what crime
  • Students who are recovering addicts back to school
  • Students who work in hospitals
  • Students with kids and full-time jobs
  • Students who work in hotels
  • Students who work at CVS, Starbucks, and Subway
  • Students in their fifties or sixties back to school
  • Students who work as medical billers and telemarketers
  • Students from Iran (one is Zoroastrian), Syria, Pakistan, India, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines
  • Second-generation Armenian, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American students
  • Six or seven African American students
  • Six or seven unambiguous white students
  • A few Hispanic/Latino students who say that they are often mistaken for white
  • A few mixed -identified students who are reluctant to divulge their ethnic or racial mix
  • A black-identified student who does not subscribe to stereotypic black culture in his personal life
  • A mixed race student about six five (Mexican, black, white) who has learned to laugh off racial stereotypes, telling inquisitive strangers that he sucks at basketball and isn’t very athletic
  • Students who say that racism is the most important social justice issue today
  • Students who think that police brutality is an important social justice issue
  • Students who say that species survival and how we treat one another in our daily lives are the social justice issues that matter most
  • Students who think that female body shape discrimination is an important social justice issue
  • Students who believe that poverty is the greatest social justice issue

This is just a glimpse of what cultural diversity to the nth degree typically sounds like in the classes that I teach. If you want to experience cultural diversity that overflows standard categories, definitions, and understandings of multicultural diversity then you might love teaching in Los Angeles public schools. If you want to live in a city that is a fluid composite of established cultures, fading cultures, evolving cultures, indistinct cultures, and cultures in making then Los Angeles might be the place for you.

An Introduction: Egalitarian Humanist and Cosmopolitan Approaches to Mixed Race

A Panel at the 2014 Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference at Depaul University: November 15, 3:15 pm – 4:45 pm in the Depaul Student Center, RM 314 A/B

In introducing this interdisciplinary panel, I also want to tell about how it came together and explain its rationale.  But first I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to two world-class philosophers, Professors Naomi Zack and Jason Hill, for accepting my invitation to present.

Professor Zack is also one of the foundational scholars of our emergent academic discipline, Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS). I include myself among the many second-wave mixed-race scholars, activists, and artists who have been challenged and inspired by her writings on race and mixed race.  I invited her to join this panel so that we can all learn about her latest thinking on mixed race, and more specifically about how mixed-race identity fits into her current project of developing an ethics of race.

Professor Hill is well known in the world for his critique of multiculturalism and for his radical, post-human cosmopolitanism. I invited him to join this panel because I think that his version of cosmopolitanism could be a viable identity option and path of inquiry for some multiracials who want to evolve beyond established notions of ethnicity and race in their personal lives.

To explain how this panel came together I need to account for the absence of another first-wave CMRS scholar, Rainier Spencer. Indeed, my idea for this panel was motivated by a Facebook group discussion that I had with Rainier, Mark James, Steven Riley, and a stubborn, mixed-race-identified Englishman named Adrian Baillie. This discussion, which occurred in the CMRS Facebook group in the summer of 2013, focused on Rainier’s metatheoretical approach to mixed race in relation to mainstream media celebrations and depictions of multiracials. Rainier’s metatheoretical approach prescribes radical skepticism toward the longstanding collective belief that race is real, and by extension toward the growing false belief in the existence of mixed-race individuals, families, and cultural products that are worthy of recognition and respect. Rainier had agreed to deliver a paper on this panel developing his notion of racial suicide for mixed-race persons, but unfortunately had to drop out.

Influenced by this Facebook discussion, the rationale for this panel rests on the presumption that recent history has witnessed a steady increase in the number of multiracial-identified individuals of various mixes and backgrounds in the US and abroad, an increase that has accelerated in the age of Obama and social media. Furthermore, in proposing this panel I presumed the likelihood that going forward more and more children of mixed ethnic and racial unions will choose to identify themselves as mixed.

But are these presumptions false? Put differently, is the purported growth of the multiracial-identified population a mirage?

This panel will also consider and give voice to the opposing view that it is still very difficult for individuals to sustain and cultivate a mixed-race identity in public spheres insofar as mixed-race identities lack adequate recognition and support from state institutions and our legal system. In other words, individuals who choose to identify themselves as mixed race in public or in academia are also adopting a socially and politically vulnerable identity—one that is susceptible to the beliefs, anxieties, commitments, and objectives of established ethnic and racial groups, state institutions, politicians, marketers, activists, and academics.

In synthesizing these divergent views, it just might be the case that racially mixed individuals have become in recent history more socially visible and more at liberty to publicly assert mixed identities that, in most contexts, are still vulnerable and difficult to maintain. In other words, it would seem to be the case that multiracials of various mixes and backgrounds are now recognized and celebrated in the mainstream media and in the society at large, yet the individual act of publicly asserting, performing, and cultivating a mixed-race identity is still risky and difficult to sustain.

That is to say, multiracials are socially visible today, yet they continue to be politically and socially contested and up for grabs. For instance, in celebrating multiracials, the mainstream media tends to depict them in ways that perpetuate the notion that races and ethnicities are static and durable. Mixed-race families and children often are presented as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of a forthcoming post-racial America. Additionally, the children of mixed unions are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their assumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents, which are assumptions that also perpetuate the heteronormative social myth that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help democratic societies evolve beyond race and racism. Added to this, multiracial college students are now presented with competing conceptions of mixed-race identity and with specific demands by activists and academics about how they should think and act as progressive multiracials.

I also proposed this panel because I am deeply concerned about the personal wellbeing of the current generation of multiracial-identified individuals who need to negotiate social contexts in which they are targeted, contested, and saddled with various competing demands and conceptions. In light of this concern, I think that CMRS should also embrace and develop alternative approaches to mixed race that emphasize individual rights, harms, and possibilities—hence my idea to put together this panel on egalitarian humanist, cosmopolitan, and metatheoretical approaches to mixed race.

But what exactly are egalitarian humanist, cosmopolitan and metatheoretical approaches to mixed race? What are their key themes and assumptions? Hopefully, the presentations and subsequent discussion will help answer these questions.

I would like to conclude however with a few brief comments about what these approaches have in common. All three approaches are skeptical of biological race. All see race as an illogical and harmful social construct. To various degrees, all frown on notions of ethnic or racial group pride, and on the politics of conserving the culture and identity of particular ethnic or racial groups. Yet, all view as justifiable the provisional use of racial or ethnic identities and narratives for strategic, political purposes—so as to counteract racist beliefs and practices, and other forms of social injustice that target oppressed groups. Finally, all highlight individual harms, rights, justice, and duties vis-a-vis racialization, the politics of identity, and the history of white supremacy.

Panel Announcement: Egalitarian Humanist and Cosmopolitan Approaches to Mixed Race

I am excited to announce that I will be chairing this groundbreaking panel at the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference at Depaul University in Chicago on Saturday, November 15 from 3:15-4:45 in Room 314 A/B (Depaul Student Center)

Gino Michael Pellegrini, Pierce College

“Where Do We Go From Here? From Mixed-Race Identity to Mixed Cosmopolitanism”

Jason D. Hill, DePaul University

“Who is Afraid of Racial and Ethnic Self-Cleansing? In Defense of the Virtuous Cosmopolitan”

Naomi Zack (via Videoconferencing), University of Oregon

“What Race Is and Is Not and that Mixed Race Should Be Set Free”

On My Mixed Experience with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

I have this peculiar, twofold, scrambled-egg relationship with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the oft-quoted, seminal article written by Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s.

That is to say, I have been a student in college classes where McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed, classes in which I was perceived and treated as a white male oppressor. Conversely, I have assigned or cited McIntosh’s article in classes where most of my students perceived and treated me as nonwhite, classes in which I identified myself as mixed race and a person of color—Mexican, Italian, White, Native American.

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege” (McIntosh).

You should know that I exist phenotypically somewhere in a range between olive and brown. So much about my look depends on the season, how much sun I have been exposed to, the length of my hair, lighting, and place—whether I’m in Los Angeles, Indiana, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oklahoma, or Seattle–whether I’m talking academic, street, or just standing around.

You should also know that I grew up hopeful, angry, and comparatively poor in the middle class racist culture of my Los Angeles east valley suburban town. Growing up in the 1980s I was exposed to a typical All-American medley of racist, sexist, and homophobic shit that circulated in the schools, in the streets, and on the playgrounds…

Spic, beaner, wetback, greaser, fag, monkey, chief, nigger, cholo, pussy, jap, chink, redneck, blackie, ornamental, wop…Is your dad in the mafia? Did your granddad swim across the Rio Grande? Do you eat Spaghettios for dinner every night?

I learned to throw a potent left-right combo in response to blatant racist remarks directed at me and at friends, but by high school I had become a lone sponge on the sidelines that listened, observed, took mental notes, walked away from fights, disengaged socially, and raged internally afterwards for days, weeks, and years.

Some of you might assume then that my initial encounters in college with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” must have been revelatory and life changing. The answer is yes with the proviso that my education about race, white supremacy, and white privilege actually started in high school while watching Charlie Rose interview activists, politicians, and scholars very late at night.

I first became acquainted with Peggy McIntosh in the early 1990s. I was an English major at CSULA who believed that the world could be changed for the better through ideas, art, and literature. Admittedly, I was more than a little naïve and idealistic…even volunteered for the “We the People” campaign believing that Jerry Brown was going to beat Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr.

“I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make” (McIntosh).

At CSULA I took more than a few general education and English classes in which McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed. White privilege, patriarchy, multiculturalism, postmodernism, literary theory, Eurocentrism, and dead white males were hot topics of discussion back then, and most humanities professors were more than happy to express their opinions about them.

These lectures and discussions helped me make better sense of my own experiences with race, white privilege, and white supremacy growing up. But, I was usually a quiet participant, especially in classes where I was perceived and encouraged to come out as white by overzealous, self-proclaimed white progressive professors and students:

“Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way” (McIntosh).

In the context of most of these discussions, and in the larger political context of CSULA in the 1990s, to be Mexican, Italian, White and a person of color at the same time was wrongheaded. Put differently, CSULA was not a nurturing social environment for Mexican Italians, Mexican Whites, political nonconformists, and brown cosmopolites.

“Professor X is white man with a Hispanic last name. We tried to tell the hiring committee that there are white people from Mexico. They said that hiring a Hispanic medievalist who works in Old English was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We should have hired someone else. He doesn’t really fit in here.”

“Richard Rodriguez is a whitewashed coconut. It’s even more of a shame that as a homosexual he chooses not to help that community either.”

Within this particular academic environment, I felt too intimidated and insecure to speak out in public about my mixed background and experiences. It was far easier to conform to the wishes of the professor: listen, observe, nod in agreement, take mental notes, and do whatever was required to pass the class with a good grade.

To be fair, I’m talking about CSULA in the 1990s—and my name on the official roster did signify in the era of Clinton multiculturalism descendant of European-American male oppressors, and still does. The academic culture wars were national and omnipresent. Multiculturalism had become synonymous with cultural group identity politics. Talk of the mixed experience was nascent and indistinct.

Furthermore, most English professors had bifurcated themselves into two opposing camps: the dinosaurs or traditional humanist liberal types; and the new professors or progressive cultural pluralist types. Too many in both camps were second raters who wasted time, taxpayer money, and alienated students by hurling labels and insults at each other in front of captive student audiences…

…whitewashed, balkanist, humanist, deconstructionist, imperialist, feminist, sexist, nihilist, dead white male, cultural separatist, American exceptionalist, hypocrite, romanticist, postmodernist, elitist, anti-foundationalist, Eurocentric, anti-individualist, racist, ghettoizer, discursive colonialist, relativist…

Different Modes of Racial Perception and Performance: West Lafayette, Indiana

I want to be absolutely clear here that I firmly believe that we need to continue to educate the public about race, racism, and white privilege. I also believe that citizens need to know that color blindness is a pernicious myth rather than an ideal, and that race–though an utterly bogus and unhealthy concept– will continue to be relevant into the unforeseeable future given the democratic-free-market right of social groups, businesses, and corporations to utilize concepts of race and ethnicity when they conclude that it is in their collective best interest to do so.

It should come as no surprise then that I have assigned or cited “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in various college classes that I have taught over the years, and particularly in classes that I taught as a doctoral student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

At Purdue, I was perceived and treated as nonwhite by most of my white students, many of whom can be fairly described as future neoconservatives on training wheels, future supporters of Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, students who resented being asked to talk about race and white privilege.

“Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the US think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity” (McIntosh).

I thought that it was a good idea for my students—like it or not–to read, discuss, and respond in writing to a few articles each semester that pertained to race, white privilege, and white supremacy–given Purdue’s history of institutional racism. Typical responses…

“We already have diversity here in Indiana. How is this discussion going to make me a better writer or critical thinker? Why do so many liberals hate white men? This is reverse discrimination. How am I responsible for what happened before I was born?”

Within this longstanding white/black social environment, I quickly came to see most of the students before me as white, black or international. Racially and ethnically ambiguous students, who might have identified as mixed in their private lives, were lost in a sea of white faces juxtaposed against an archipelago of black bodies–especially if these students were taciturn and had white names.

For instance, I recall one of my seemingly white male students who came up to me at the Viena Coffee House wanting to talk. He wanted to tell me that he not only liked my literature class, but that he was also part Mexican like me, and thought it was so cool that I had talked about my mixed race background in front of the class.

This incident gave me pause in 2000 and still does today in that I was thoughtlessly certain that this student was just another Indiana white boy until he reached out to me in private to tell me otherwise. He was actually an Indiana Mexican white boy with a white name, a reality that hit very close to home for me.

I continued to exchange emails with this student for a few years after I left Purdue to finish writing my dissertation in absentia back in Los Angeles. I learned that besides being mixed and partly-assimilated like me, he was from a poor family and had to drop out of Purdue and work full time. In his last email, he stated that he was working the graveyard shift in a bottling factory, trying to save up enough money to return to college.

That I first perceived him as a typical Indiana white boy had much to do with the white/black social environment at Purdue, as well as with my efforts at the time to see and identify myself and others in racial and ethnic terms. Put differently, while at Purdue I tended to see students before me more as representatives of racial and ethnic groups rather than as individuals with unique personal stories.

However, it was also the case that my relationship with this student unfolded in the way that it did because I had become resolved at that point in my life to identity myself as mixed and mixed race and to talk openly to my students and to others about my mixed experiences with race, class, multiculturalism, and white privilege.

In closing, I want to repeat the point that the task of educating students and citizens at large about race, racism, and white privilege is crucial for the development of American democracy–so much so that I believe that we need to reconsider the ways in which these topics have been typically taught. Accordingly, in a subsequent piece I want to mull over the following question: How can we teach students about race and white privilege without ascribing established racial and/or ethnic identities to them?

Complicating Race or Reproducing Whiteness? Heidi Durrow and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

[This is an excerpt from a paper (currently being revised) that I presented last month at the 2014 MELUS Conference in Oklahoma City.]

[…] Heidi Durrow is also the latest member of the mixed-experience generation to achieve widespread recognition following the publication of her deeply autobiographical first novel. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was published in 2010 after winning the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for a first novel that addresses social justice issues. It became a national bestseller in 2011, and is now available in French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a book that was repeatedly rejected by the traditional publishing industry.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky recounts the racialization, alienation, coming of age, and coming to multiracial consciousness of Durrow’s fictional intermediary, Rachel Morse. Rachel is the sole survivor of a heartbreaking tragedy: her Danish mother Nella jumps from a rooftop in Chicago with all her biracial children. After recovering, Rachel is sent to live with her paternal grandmother who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Her alcoholic father, an airman stationed overseas, has disappeared from her life. The year is 1982. Rachel is seen as a light-skinned black girl by her new family and by the surrounding community. From the 5th grade onward, she identifies herself as black, but is still ridiculed for talking white; she is both resented and desired for her good hair and blue eyes. In short, Durrow’s novel recounts from multiple perspectives how Rachel comes to understand the tragedy that claimed her mother and siblings, and in the process reclaim her Danish cultural memory, becoming Afro-Viking like Durrow.

Some commentators are troubled by Rachel’s evolution from light-skinned black girl to Afro-Viking and by the great deal of uncritical attention that Durrow has received from the mainstream media. They say that Durrow’s work implements and promotes the politics of the American Multiracial Movement. In other words, they see her as a multiracial activist who also happens to write fiction. Or, as Summer McDonald puts it in her article “Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity,” Durrow’s novel “is a fictional rendering of her real life politics.” In particular, McDonald and other commentators such as Rainier Spencer, Jared Sexton, and Steven F. Riley disagree with a central message conveyed by multiracial advocates and apparently by Durrow—namely, that asserting a mixed-race identity is a socially just and progressive act. In McDonald’s words, “mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness.” Put differently, mixed-race identity, and Durrow’s in particular, “…reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness—which it knows it can never access—and definitely above blackness.” Riley, who was a frequent contributor to Mixed Chicks Chat, agrees with McDonald; he adds that Durrow’s work reflects “her desire to be identified as ‘not black’” (“Canon” Responses).

Excuse the pun and my use of a template from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, but I have mixed feelings about Durrow’s work, which includes her novel, her festivals, her blog, podcasts, as well as her interviews in print and on YouTube. On the one hand, I think it is fair and useful for commentators to ask how Durrow’s work relates to white privilege and to the history of white supremacy. On the other hand, I think that Durrow’s novel (and other work) defies the limits of black/white America and ruptures the tradition of black/white passing narratives.

That said, many of the criticisms that commentators levy against multiracial advocates and mixed-race identity are spot on. Simply asserting a mixed-race identity in light of the popular formula “I’m not black, I’m not white; I’m both or mixed” is far from progressive or revolutionary. I concur with David Theo Goldberg’s point in “Made in the USA: Racial Mixing ‘N Matching” that “…the challenge to the project of racial purity in the celebration of mixed-race identities is at best ambiguous, (re)fixing the premises of the racializing project in place as it challenges that project’s very terms of articulation” (Racial Subjects 61). Put differently, popular versions of mixed-race identity generally work to reproduce race, rather than challenge and complicate it, insofar as most people who assert and/or celebrate mixed-race identities assume that races are real and that ethnic and racial group identities, histories, and cultures are stable and durable.

I also agree with the point that the mainstream media extends “the racializing project” when it presents interracial families, mixed-race children, and generation mixed as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of an impending post-racial America. As Jared Sexton (Amalgamation Schemes) and others have shown, the recent celebration of multiracials in the mainstream media assumes and privileges heterosexual unions between members of different races or ethnicities. The mixed children of these unions then are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their presumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents. This presumption about the transformative capacity of mixed-race children privileges heteronormativity, and also promotes the myth, which is not at all new to our era or country, that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help societies evolve beyond race and racism.

It is also the case that powerful political and corporate entities can easily co-opt and redeploy multiracials in ways that both sustain conventional racial taxonomies and divert public attention away from blackness, white privilege, and the work of anti-racist scholars and activists. In other words, multiracials can be (and have been) used by powerful entities, often in conjunction with the mainstream media, to reinforce and propagate the popular sentiment that America is moving beyond the race problem and by extension beyond the need to educate the public about blackness and the history of white supremacy.

The above-mentioned criticisms of multiracials certainly cast doubt on the goals that Durrow sets for her work, and specifically on her oft-repeated statement that her work aims to complicate race and dismantle racism. Put differently, her belief in the transformative potential of individuals like her asserting mixed-race identities and telling their complex mixed-roots stories might seem unfounded, confused, or even disingenuous after taking into consideration past uses and abuses of mixed race. At best, then, these stories might help to educate the public about racism, blackness, white supremacy, and other social justice issues. At worst, rather than helping to heal racial divisions within the individual and American society as Durrow hopes, these stories reinscribe and exacerbate them; rather than complicating race and dismantling racism, these stories work in the service of power to divert public attention away from blackness and white privilege. At any rate, these are the main conclusions that McDonald, Riley, and others have reached about Durrow’s work.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it is fair and accurate to cast Durrow as a spokesperson for American multiracial identity politics, and to claim that her Afro-Viking identity is a facsimile of mainstream media and advocacy versions of mixed-race identity. Do the creative goals of her work mirror the political goals of Susan Graham and other multiracial advocates? Does her conception of Afro-Viking identity match the conception of mixed-race identity that journalist Susan Saulny foregrounds in her Race Remixed series in the New York Times? Is Durrow clinging to the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable? How wedded is she to her Afro-Viking identity?

Let’s delve deeper.

When it comes to asserting her Afro-Viking identity in public, Durrow has been consistently playful and mercurial. She usually qualifies her commentary about her Afro-Viking identity with the assertions that she is also a story, and that she is constantly learning and changing. In other words, she stipulates that her identity changes from day to day. Some days she likes to call herself African American and Danish; other days Afro-Viking, a story, or just Heidi. She sometimes also says that she is not trying to be glib about her identity, and then makes the caveat that to her knowledge there are only twelve other Afro-Vikings in existence. Altogether, these comments imply that Afro-Viking is one facet of a larger personal identity that is compound and shifting.

Her comments about her Afro-Viking identity also imply that, unlike many multiracial activists and journalists, she does not buy into the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable. Though she uses racial and ethnic categories in asserting her Afro-Viking identity and personal narrative, her use of the categories is creative, witty, and particular to her, and, if we take her word for it, twelve other individuals. Hence, her conception and deployment of mixed-race identity would not provide useful support for a politics of identity on behalf of the purported new multiracial group. Indeed, her Afro-Viking identity with its emphasis on variability, creativity, and individuality defies conventional racial and ethnic group identity politics that obligate individual members to show pride in and conform to the cultural histories, beliefs, and mores of their particular groups. That is to say, when Durrow states that she is a proud Afro-Viking or proud mixed chick she is also being tongue-in-cheek.

[…] To conclude, McDonald’s move to limit Durrow’s work to the black/white framework is a fair one. However, this move diverts attention away from the fact that Durrow seems to want her work to also be about trying to move beyond the black/white framework—to discover/discuss/and tell of common experiences and perceptions amongst mixed individuals of various hues, backgrounds, and ethnic-racial mixes. In other words, Durrow seems to be interested in creating and supporting work that pursues and develops the possibility of a common mixed-experience aesthetic—or to borrow a term from artist/critic Wei Ming Dariotis—a “kin-aesthetic” among people of mixed heritage. Regarding this possibility, Durrow needs to write and say so much more. Hence, the work that she produces (or fails to produce) in the next decade or two should be telling in regard to her artistic vision and its relationship to whiteness and white privilege.



Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

[This short paper was originally written for “Jean Toomer and Politics,” a Special Session Roundtable at the 2012 MLA Conference in Seattle. I have made a few edits.]

In disagreeing with Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr., I will not directly critique their support and rhetorical strategies. Instead, I will put forth my own interpretation of Toomer’s political vision. Toomer saw literature as his means to address socioeconomic inequalities, transform himself, and influence people in a manner that would advance the promise of democracy in America. We should ask then, not whether he identified as black or white, but what his political vision is, what it is not, and what it entails. Specifically, I argue that his political vision conflicts with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank, and anticipates some postethnic, cosmopolitan, and multiracial perspectives that have emerged in recent history in strong opposition to the limitations and problems of multiculturalism.

photo (11)

Winold Reiss’ portrait of Jean Toomer in The New Negro An Interpretation (1925) edited by Alain Locke

Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne are usually given credit as the founders of American cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. Between 1915 and 1916, both published influential articles in which they attributed the rise of segregation, nativism, and assimilation during WWI to the dominant Anglo-Saxon group. Both derided the notion of the melting pot as harmful and ineffective, harmful in that it promoted Anglo-Saxon homogeneity, ineffective in that some immigrant groups refused to be melted. In response, both articulated similar political visions of America as a harmonious federation of distinct national, ethnic, and cultural groups. In place of the melting pot, Kallen envisioned America as an “orchestra” of distinct and “autonomous” ethnic and cultural groups, with each group entitled to perfect its respective differences (“Democracy”). Bourne envisioned America more broadly as a trans-national, cosmopolitan “federation of cultures” that would recognize “dual-citizenship” and grant immigrants “free and mobile passage” between America and their countries of descent (“Trans-national”). He believed that “a younger intelligentsia” could do the work necessary to transform Anglo-Saxon America into a cosmopolitan American “tapestry” made up of “distinctive” cultural strands.

In 1916, Bourne also collaborated with Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and others on Seven Arts, a short-lived literary magazine that published and promoted the creative, intellectual, and transformative work of the young American intelligentsia. In 1919, Frank contributed further to the realization of Bourne’s cosmopolitan vision with the publication of Our America, which recorded and discussed “adumbrated groups” and “buried cultures” in relation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. Like Kallen and Bourne, Frank did not account for the Negro as a distinct cultural strand within the American tapestry. This omission created an opportunity for Toomer to re-present himself to Frank in his well-known letter from 1922 as an artist of black and white ancestry who could account for the Negro. That is, Toomer stated to Frank that he “missed” the inclusion of the Negro in Our America, and that he had included some of his own writings that were “attempts at an artistic record of Negro and mixed-blood America” (“Letters” 32). From 1922 through 1923, Frank would become Toomer’s close friend, mentor, editor, promoter, and have great influence over the content and structure of Cane.

Toomer’s attempt to account for the Negro was influenced by the cultural pluralist philosophy of his other mentor, Alain Locke. Locke became Toomer’s friend in 1919, and probably advised the young Toomer to lead a study group of prominent Washington Negro intellectuals, artists, and educators whose purpose in Toomer’s words “…[was] an historical study of slavery and the Negro…”(“Letters” 19). Known later as the Saturday Nighters, this study group interested Locke insofar as its purpose aligned with his cultural pluralist political goals. In his 1916 lectures on race, published in 1992 as Race Contacts and Interracial Relations, Locke sketched out on behalf of the Negro his own “doctrine” to counter segregation, nativism, and assimilation.

Like Kallen and Bourne, Locke believed that assimilation stimulated the Negro and other submerged groups to imitate and conform to the standards and values of the predominant Anglo-Saxon civilization type (Locke 90). To stem the “assimilative” tendencies of the Negro, Locke thought it was necessary to “make” and “promulgate” a “doctrine” of race pride, culture, and solidarity. That is, he proposed a politics that would “[dam] up the social stream” and “stop the egress” of Negro talent and cultural products by “harnessing” partly-assimilated Negro individuals and classes “to the submerged group” until such a time in the future where the Negro race would be recognized and respected as a distinct cultural group on par with other cultural groups within a democratic cosmopolitan federation (97-98). According to Locke’s cosmopolitan political vision, the Negro group, having attained “culture-citizenship,” would then be able to contribute its own representative cultural products “in terms of the group’s own estimate” (99).

Toomer and his mentors embraced opposing views of amalgamation. In Locke’s view, amalgamation hastened the pace of social assimilation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon type, and necessitated a politics that would inhibit amalgamation by creating an “artificial barrier” and by educating the new Negro group (Locke 98). Likewise, Bourne viewed amalgamation as a threat to ethnic and cultural groups insofar as it created “…masses of people who are cultural half-breeds, neither assimilated Anglo-Saxons, nor nationals of another culture” (“Trans-national”). Though Frank was more optimistic about the prospects of “cultural half-breeds,” he also envisioned America’s ideal future through cultural pluralist terms and assumptions.

In contrast, Toomer resisted the cultural pluralist dictate that amalgamation means assimilation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon group. He also questioned the cultural pluralist assumption that amalgamation sustains Anglo-Saxon values, interests, and standards. In his 1929 essay, “Race Problems and Modern Society,” he suggested that “big business” and social-political institutions, not the Anglo-Saxon group per se, had already changed the American nation into “…a social form containing racial, national, and cultural groups…” (69). He viewed this development as “a social trap” for “all Americans…the white no less than the black, the black no more than the red, the Jew no more than the gentile” (72). He predicted correctly that established group divisions, distinctions, and antagonisms would become more pervasive and intense as “big business” and “American institutions” continued to grow and extend their reach (72).

In further contrast to his mentors, Toomer believed that amalgamation actually might help reconcile racial group divisions and antagonisms, and thus contribute to the making of a new America. His attempt to foreground amalgamation anticipates the postethnic perspective of historian David Hollinger, and specifically Hollinger’s point that amalgamation needs to be recognized as a major theme in the history of the United States (“Postethnic” 33). Toomer believed that a growing solidarity of new Americans conscious of the historical and empirical reality of amalgamation could do the work necessary to renew American democracy.

Toomer’s new America would uphold Hollinger’s principle of affiliation by revocable consent, so that Locke’s value imperatives of respect and intercultural reciprocity would apply not just to ethnic and racial groups and their membership, but also to individuals who wanted to identify and affiliate themselves concurrently with multiple descent groups and with larger collectives such as the American citizenry and the human species.

Byrd, Gates, and other naysayers have dismissed Toomer’s vision as mystical, self-centered, and wrongheaded. Their interpretative strategies typically involve associating him with what Hollinger calls the “fantasy of amalgamation,” which is the general idea that an increase in the number of interracial marriages and mixed-race people will solve the race problem and advance humanity.

In actuality, Toomer was not that naïve. His post-Cane writings evidence that, even during the Gurdjieff years, he did not waver from his subtle, complex, and socialistic view that “existing economic, political, and social systems” in America render cultural, ethnic, and racial groups “divided and repellent” (“Race Problems” 69), and compel citizens to “…put value upon, their hearsay descents, their groupistic affiliations” (“Wayward” 121).

In conclusion, his ugly breakup from Locke and Frank does not indicate his ingratitude and arrogance, but rather his eventual realization that their pluralist sensibilities and politics were at odds with his vision for a new America. In other words, he realized that a solidarity of new American individuals would ultimately need to disaffiliate from “…the old terms for old races,” and no longer view itself as “part white, part black, and so on” (Rusch 107-108)—then perhaps over time the American state might evolve into what Josiah Royce termed a beloved democratic community—which would entail a great deal more social and institutional respect for individual differences and rights versus the politics of perpetually dividing and classifying individuals within racial and ethnic groups to advance the interests of group leaders, big business, and politicians.

Works Cited

Bourne, Randolph S. “Trans-national America.” The Atlantic, 01 July 1916. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Frank, Waldo David. Our America. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919. Print.

Harris, Leonard and Charles Molesworth. Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2008. Print.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.1995. 10th anniversary ed. New York: Basic, 2005. Print.

Kallen, Horace. “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot.” The Nation (1915): n. pag. Pluralism and   Unity. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Locke, Alain. Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Race. Ed. Jeffrey C. Stewart. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1992. Print.

Toomer, Jean. Cane: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. Print.

Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism. Ed. Robert B. Jones. Knoxville:   Tennessee UP, 1996. Print.

… The Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919-1924. Ed. Mark Whalan. Knoxville: Tennessee UP, 2006. Print.

The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. Washington: Howard UP, 1980. Print.

Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism

Full Citation: Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism 
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2013; doi: 10.1093/melus/mlt053

Gino Michael Pellegrini

Americans of multiracial descent recently have become noticeable, respectable, marketable, and, in the case of Barack Obama, presidential. In the last two decades, a growing body of creative and critical work about multiracial lives and issues has materialized.1 This social and historical development has become an ideological battleground for advocates, politicians, scholars, journalists, and marketers who have appropriated and interpreted its products and personalities in relation to their own beliefs, objectives, and commitments. According to many popular and political accounts, the growing number of interracial marriages and self-identified multiracials indicates that American society quickly is becoming post-racial. Scholars of this development, however, have been mostly skeptical of accounts that claim or assume that race-mixing leads to post-racial societies. Among scholars, there is ongoing debate over the precise impact that the emergent self-identified multiracial population is having on race, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy. Many scholars agree with G. Reginald Daniel, who claims that self-identified multiracials challenge race and racial hierarchy. However, Rainier Spencer and others argue the opposite: self-identified multiracials maintain racial hierarchy and reproduce race insofar as they rely on established racial categories to articulate their experiences and identities. Hence, this debate is at an impasse.2

One way to negotiate this impasse is to shift the focus of the debate from the impact that self-identified multiracials have had on race and racial hierarchy to the conditions that have made mixed-race individuals possible in ethno-racial combinations besides black and white. Of course, scholars who analyze this development through a black/white framework will likely object to this move on the grounds that all other ethno-racial categories must fall between black and white in the racial hierarchy, thus orienting multiracial identities, old and new, toward whiteness and away from blackness. Their objection, however, presumes stable racial categories, groups, and ways of belonging; scholars thus conclude that self-identified multiracials are confused, contradictory, naïve, or duplicitous and selfish in their pursuit of white privilege. This dismissal of multiracials fails to explain fairly and adequately the ongoing collectivization of multiracials of various mixes and backgrounds.3 As Kimberly McClain DaCosta suggests, “[S]ome multiracials are indeed inventing a collective vision of themselves,” and “rather than chastise them for it, [her] goal [is] to understand both why and in what ways they are doing so” (152). I would add that we need to delve deeper than the 1967 US Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia and the Census 2000 debates to come to a more complete understanding of the specific historical and ideological conditions that have enabled individuals of diverse racial and ethnic mixtures, skin colors, genders, and sexualities to envision their multiracial experiences in similar ways…

Read my entire article at the Oxford MELUS page.

If you do not have access, a link to the article is accessible in my list of scholarly articles.

A Review of One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval

Gino Pellegrini

Is Fanshen a noun, a verb, or an adjective? Is it a who or a what? What does it have to do with the history of race and racism? Or, as Grandma Cynthia puts it, “De next time you talk to your mommy an’ your daddy, ahsk dem for me – what in God’s name is a Fanshen?…Why dem give you dat name?”

These are some of the central questions that Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni addresses in her brilliant and timely one-woman show, One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval.

I am present for Fanshen’s debut performance on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at the Arena Theater on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. The Arena is small, intimate, packed, and a few people have traveled across the country to see this debut. I sit in the front row with my good friend Rocco Robinson, and we notice right away that the audience is relaxed, friendly, and excited; the set is simple, arousing, and well thought out.

Fanshen is an educator, a writer, a film maker, and an accomplished actor who recently played a part in Argo, the Academy’s Best Picture for 2012. Fanshen is also well known within the nascent multiracial community for being the co-creator and co-host (with Heidi Durrow) of the award-winning podcast series, Mixed Chicks Chat (2007-2012) and of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival (2008-2012). Both projects have been instrumental in making the public more aware of the so-called mixed experience, and of the growing number of critical and creative works about multiracial lives and issues.

Both collaborative projects have also been a means for Fanshen and Heidi to come to a deeper understanding of their own mixed experiences and identities, which, in turn, has facilitated the development of their own creative works. Heidi was the first Mixed Chick to gain national recognition for her bestselling novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010). Now it is Fanshen’s turn to deconstruct longstanding racial assumptions, traditions, and allegiances with her own hybrid, experimental work.

One Drop of Love emphasizes the history of the construct of race from the 1700s to the present. More specifically, the interrelated American history of race and the decennial Census constitutes the factual and visual backdrop against which Fanshen performs her own personal history and evolution. Fanshen plays herself at different junctures in her life and, using multiple dialects and gestures, fifteen other characters (including her family) of different ages, genders, nationalities, and ethno-racial-cultural backgrounds. Though the subject matter is difficult, her acting ability helps her engage, entertain, touch, and enthrall her audience. Considered altogether, her multiple character depictions and interactions expose into view how the history of race–in conjunction with a shared belief in static racial categories, values, identities, and traditions–impacts intimate relationships, social opportunities, self-perception, and personal growth.

One Drop of Love is also a compelling story that conveys many universal themes such as love, forgiveness, doubt, determination, and the daughter-father bond. The main conflict of the story is Fanshen’s misperception of her father’s failure in 2005 to come to her wedding in Jamaica. This painful event prompts her to reassess her relationship with him and to investigate her entire family history. This event also motivates her to think critically about her own complex and debilitating experiences with race and racism, and about the implications and possibilities of becoming multiracial.

Why does Fanshen need to reveal her painful and complicated multiracial experiences? The first answer has to do with education. Fanshen is an educator who cares deeply about others, and through her show she wants to challenge her audience to think anew about the history of race and its lasting influence on society, families, and individuals. Moreover, Fanshen wants to counter the widespread notion that multiracials like her are representative of an emergent post-racial America. In actuality, her multiracial experiences and the ways in which others read her ambiguous body evidence the evolution and continued presence of race and racism in American culture.

The second answer has to do with Fanshen’s struggle to assert, define, and develop her own unique mixed persona. This particular aspect of One Drop of Love correlates with the work of Rebecca Walker, the author of Black, White, and Jewish (2001) and Baby Love (2007), and specifically with a statement that she makes in a Conversation from the Cullman Center with writer Danzy Senna. Walker states “that [she] had to write the books that [she] did…to claim [her] own subjectivity…[and] to create a self-defining beinghood…” that breaks from the expectations and “mythologies” of the Civil Rights Movement that were “projected” upon her by her parents and by society (21:30-25:55).

Like Walker and Senna, Fanshen is a Movement child, the product of a 1960s interracial marriage between two socially conscious, liberal, idealistic, and well-intended individuals who resisted the racist culture of the black-white color line to be together. In the 1960s, they believed that through their interracial union, social activism, and mixed race children (Fanshen and her brother) they were helping to overcome race and racism, and helping to transform society for the better.

As Mama Trudy puts it, “And Fanshen. Don’t Forget. Your father and I made you on purpose.”

In light of their shared purpose, they named Fanshen after the title of William Hinton’s 1966 classic book about the Communist Revolution in China. This is one of the more surprising and thought-provoking moments in the show. Fanshen is a Mandarin word that literally means to turn over, free oneself, and stand up. Hinton’s book documents the redistribution of property, wealth, and resources to the Chinese peasantry, and examines the collective efforts among leaders to create new villages unburdened by racial and class beliefs, divisions, and antagonisms.

In naming their daughter after the book Fanshen, her parents projected upon her being and body their own Movement ideals and wishes. In other words, Fanshen was supposed to be a symbol of her parent’s late-1960s notion of a Civil Rights Movement Xanadu…By the mid-1970s they were divorced.

Unaware of the impact that race was having on her sense of self and belonging, Fanshen unknowingly followed in her father’s footsteps to gain his racial approval. In the 1970s, her father became a committed Pan-Africanist who believed in the idea of an authentic Pan-African Black identity. In parallel fashion, Fanshen, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, joined the Black Student Union and asserted herself racially as Black. After college, 1993 Fanshen, like her father two decades earlier, felt the need to travel to Africa to reconnect with her African roots. She joined the Peace Corps and taught English to high-school age students in the Cape Verdean Islands, West Africa.

To her surprise, the local Cape Verdeans did not really recognize her Black identity. They were unfamiliar with the American history of race and with the one-drop rule, which defines an individual with any amount of African ancestry as Black. Indeed, she recounts an incident where one of her Cape Verdean students mistook the pictures of Malcolm, Martin, and Maya Angelou on the walls of her home for her father, brother, and mother.

Instead of leaving her with a stronger sense of racial certitude, belonging, and identity, Fanshen’s African homecoming rendered her more racially wounded and confused. Her actual interactions with the Cape Verdean locals exposed her and her father’s shared belief in the narrative of Pan-Africanism and in the notion of an authentic Pan-African Black identity as flawed and overly romantic.

In a like manner to Walker and Senna, Fanshen has come to realize after much reflection from 2005 to the present that her experiential lived life and ambiguous body have often been at odds with the narratives (integrationist and cultural pluralist) of the Civil Rights Movement which shaped the racial identities, values, goals, and practices of her parents and of countless other groups, personas, and institutions. Similar to the works of Walker and Senna, One Drop of Love exposes into view shortcomings and ruptures in these narratives.

Fanshen has also come to realize that racial identities are fluid, contingent, variable, and performed. Racial categories, meanings, values, and images are also subject to social, historical, and economic changes. Fanshen demonstrates that individuals can study and negotiate the construct of race, and work on its limits and meanings. For instance, Fanshen critiques and alters the established meaning of the one drop rule, which is based on racial hate, by replacing “rule” with love.

In conclusion, Fanshen and One Drop of Love are evolving from one performance to the next. She plans to take her show on the road to colleges, universities, and to other venues across the country. Her most recent performance was on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. One Drop of Love will also become a documentary that will include clips from her various performances and of audience members who share their thoughts on race and racism right after the show. Of minor import, the production team now includes Ben Affleck, Chay Carter, and Matt Damon. Don’t miss it. One Drop of Love is major.

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