Covering Multiracial America Requires Historical Perspective
Author:Nadra Kareem Nittle
November 14, 2012
Although people of mixed races have lived in the United States for centuries, authorities on multiracial identity say mainstream media continue to report on these people as if they are a new phenomenon.
In 1619, the first slaves were brought to Britain’s North American colonies. The following year, says Audrey Smedley, professor emerita of anthropology and African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, the first “mulatto” child was born. Thus, mixed-race people have a long history in this country, disproving the notion often mentioned today that miscegenation will somehow magically cure racism.
Most major stereotypes about multiracial people in America historically involved individuals whose heritage was black and white or Native American and white. Such people were largely thought to yearn for the same advantages as whites but found them off-limits because of the “one-drop rule,” which originated in the South and mandated that just a drop of black blood meant they were of color.
In the 21st century, newer stereotypes about multiracial people have gained popularity. Rainier Spencer, founder and director of the Afro-American Studies Program and senior adviser to the president at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says contemporary media coverage of mixed-race people isn’t filled with tragic mulattoes but with docile symbols of a colorblind America yet to reach fruition.
“Multiracial people are infantilized,” Spencer says. “They [the media] don’t treat them as fully capable agents. Mixed-race people are quiet and happy, and they don’t complain. They’re our postracial future.”
Spencer, author of “Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix,” cautions that these notions are dangerous. The stereotype that multiracial people represent a bridge between races that will soon eradicate bigotry ignores the fact that such people were in North America more than a century before U.S. independence and that racism remains a reality.
This idea also lets the establishment off the hook, he says. “If mixed-race people are going to take us to a postracial destiny, then the power structure doesn’t have to worry about it. It’s very convenient.”
Spencer says he first read news stories about multiracial people framed in this light in the early to mid-1990s amid great debate about whether the federal government should allow Americans to identify themselves on the U.S. census form as multiracial. Increasing popularity of multiracial athletes and entertainers such as Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey during that time further shone a spotlight on mixed-race people.
In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau permitted declaring more than one race on census forms. In the subsequent decade, several published articles reported that the mixed-race population was increasing, especially among young people.
But Heidi W. Durrow, who grew up as the only daughter of an African-American father and a Danish mother, would like to see news stories about multiracial people that don’t revolve around census figures.
In 2008, Durrow was a founder of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, described on her website as “an annual free public event, to celebrate storytelling of the Mixed racial and cultural experience . . . .” She is the author of “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” a fictional tale of a biracial girl growing up in the 1980s as the sole survivor of a family tragedy.
“The growing demographic of the mixed-race population is a consistent headline grabber, but what are the stories behind the numbers?” Durrow asks. “What is the truth of what I call the mixed experience? And let’s talk about the fact that it’s not just the number of mixed-race individuals that is interesting. Let’s talk about who they are connected to. There are more and more people connected across race and culture.”
Durrow recalls, for example, doing a reading before a Vermont audience that she viewed as “all white.” Then she learned that many of those in attendance were siblings of biracial people or their grandparents. She’s interested in what whiteness means in that context and in new narratives, in part because the media hasn’t changed its discussion of multiracial identity in years, she says.
“I recently spoke at Brown University, and it was interesting to share a series of quotes of mixed-race people from various media organizations and ask them to guess when the articles were published,” Durrow says. “The quotes were nearly identical but were published over the course of the last 20 years. I think what is happening is that we haven’t had a sustained conversation about the mixed experience, so every generation seems to ‘discover’ it, and we don’t advance the conversation.”
Laura Kina, a founding member of the Critical Mixed Race Studies biennial conference and associate professor of Art, Media and Design at DePaul University, has similar concerns. She considers the idea that mixed-race people are new to be a stereotype. “They go back a very long ways,” she says.
Kina is the daughter of an Okinawan father from Hawaii and a Spanish-Basque/Anglo mother, according to her website.
Kina says that when newspapers such as The New York Times make mixed-race young people the focus of articles on multiracial identity, they perpetuate the idea that such people are a recent development. She says consulting historians rather than college students about mixed-race identity would likely reveal the length and scope of the multiracial experience in America. Kina also says the types of multiracial families presented in articles on mixed-race identity tend to be the same.
“There are always images of happy interracial families, hetero-normative images, middle-class families like it’s a new, hip type of thing,” she says. “Some of my friends come from working-class backgrounds. Many people who are mixed aren’t from the demographic pictured in the media.”
Dominique DiPrima, host of Los Angeles radio show “The Front Page,” takes issue with the concept of multiracialism because she disputes the concept of race. “I think the media should differentiate between culture, ethnicity and race,” says DiPrima, daughter of Italian-American poet Diane di Prima and African-American writer Amiri Baraka.
“People think race is scientific, that race is a real thing, and it’s not. It’s a construct,” Dominique DiPrima says. When people ask about her racial mix, she poses the same question to them because “most people don’t know what the heck they are.”
She says some of the focus on multiracial identity has not been historical because the media haven’t acknowledged that traditionally mixed-race people lived where they were welcomed — in communities of color — and suffered discrimination like any other minority group. She says bigotry experienced by Barack Obama as president points to that history.
“The racist tea party people, they don’t come at him halfway because his mama is white,” she says. “All these people treating him with more disrespect than other presidents, they don’t do it halfway. That’s not how America functions.”
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