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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.

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?

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