Week 2 Reflections
This week I read “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” by Maria P. P. Root, Paul R. Spickard’s “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” and “Race as Process: Reassessing the ‘What are you?’ Encounters of Biracial Individuals” by Teresa Kay Williams, in that order, and experienced a succession of feelings.
I had come across Root’s Bill of Rights once before. As an angsty teenager I often turned to my Internet-connected laptop as a source of comfort in the middle of the night when I was pondering the things of existence. The World Wide Web always seemed the proper place to go when I craved solidarity that couldn’t be found anywhere else, and on one of these late-night Google binges I found a basic list of Root’s “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” on hapavoice.com, a site on which any multiracial individual can post a self-portrait and talk about his or her specific multiracial experience. The barebones Bill of Rights listed on the site was also linked to Root’s “50 Experiences of Racially Mixed People,” which interested me more at the time.
Many of these 50 I hadn’t experienced, and the rest I hadn’t identified as being directly linked to my biracial makeup. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the self-conscious nature of the site’s posts or how these articles almost came off as check-off lists for the mixed race experience. I was intrigued, though, that the Mixed Race Experience was considered exceptional enough to have a Bill of Rights. Seeing such thoughts evidently legitimatized by the authority of the Internet also affirmed me in being self-conscious about race, something I’d been taught I ought to be blind to but felt keenly all the same.
This second time reading the Bill of Rights, and with Root’s commentary included, actually made me feel pretty empowered. I have rights unique to my biracial situation! Rights that were listed in a keynote address at UC Santa Barbara! For the Second Annual California Statewide Multiracial Conference! Seriously, being affiliated with an annual conference makes things legitimate, right? I’d often gone through life feeling responsible for people’s discomfort when they didn’t know what to make of me, but this Bill of Rights assured me that I have no need to be hindered by others’ problematic reliance on racial category.
Moving on to Spickard and to some extent Williams, though, took away this newfound confidence in my freedom from the construct of race. Spickard discusses in “The Illogic of Racial Categories” how race is one of the largest ways that society categorizes an individual, and society’s categorization of an individual is the largest contributor to the definition of race. If race is a projection other people cast onto me, then, how can I control my freedom from it? Sure, I don’t need to include race in my idea of my own identity, but Williams reminded me that “one’s assignment into a sociopolitically defined single racial group is necessary in order to be a socially recognized, functional member of society” (Williams 193). This straightforward statement expresses what I think I’ve been in denial about my whole life. Actually, most people exist in a state of denial about this—that, at least in the communities I’ve been exposed to in the United States, it’s impossible to function with other people if they cannot categorize you racially.
This is a tough claim to make—I wouldn’t say every interaction I’ve had with another person has been fully governed by race—but when it comes to joining groups and communities, race rules. I’m half Asian American and half European American (put simply), but to many I look completely white. How many times have I worked with a classmate who happens to be Asian and have he or she suddenly become much friendlier once told I have an Asian parent? I prefer not to count, and prefer not to invest too much in those friendships, but I can’t go through life shunning every classmate and co-worker who treats me differently upon finding out that I am not the racial mix they previously assumed. I’ve actually found some of these individuals to be good friends in the long run.
On a related note, Williams also talks in length about the question What are you? This query is often posed to individuals with external racial ambiguity and is generally considered offensive, and I can understand why. Why does anyone need to know what I am? Is this going to be another instance of someone who can’t decide how to interact with me until I am fixed into a slot on his or her hierarchy of race? Or on another level, is it just not that apparent that I am fully human?
As Williams says, though, having a racial assignment in someone’s mind is often unavoidable. I personally appreciate someone admitting to my external racial ambiguity rather than drawing assumptions and as a result deciding to exclude me from certain things. Maybe that’s me giving in to the racialization of the communities I’ve interacted with. Or maybe it’s me expressing my right to carve my own space into others’ narrow categories of types of people.
Root, Maria P. P. “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People.”
Spickard, Paul R. “The Illogic of American Racial Categories.”
Williams, Teresa Kay. “Race as Process: Reassessing the “What Are You?”