What are you? For many people, this question elicits a variety of responses: student, sister, brother, dancer, mother, sports enthusiast. For ethnically ambiguous people, however, the question usually refers to what race they are — or whether they identify as mixed race. Implicit in such a question is the notion that mixed race people have a choice, a choice to decide how they racially identify.
This view of choice implies that America has arrived in a post-race society. For the first time since its origin in 1790, the U.S. Census in 2000 gave respondents the choice to mark more than one race. Many view the "mark one or more races" (MOOM) option as validation that mixed race people can freely choose their racial identities. In a recent talk at the Clayman Institute, race scholar Michele Elam challenged the notion of unconstrained choice for mixed race people and offered a nuanced view of the relationship between race, art and social justice in the 21st century.
Elam’s research questions the current glamorization of mixed race as the enshrinement of choice. Elam instead suggests that mixed race — as with all racial identifications — is a form of social negotiation. That is, racial self-identification as a continuum that is part social ascription and part choice. Her work examines mixed race art — from traditional plays to popular culture — to showcase the ways in which mixed race choices are not free and unrestrained, but embedded in a social context.
The idea of free choice contrasts starkly with the nation’s one-drop legacy that ruled before the 2000 Census’ MOOM. Under the one-drop rule, any person with discernible black ancestry — no matter how remote — would be classified as black. There was little room to legitimately identify as non-black, aside from the light-skinned black person “passing” as white. The Loving v. Virginia decision that declared laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional in 1967 officially recognized interracial families and paved the way for the contemporary dialogue on defining mixed race in popular culture.
With the legitimation of mixed race identities, some argue that we have moved to the opposite end of the spectrum: from rigid single-race categories toward a celebration of mixed race identity as a political solution to the thorny issue of race. Elam used a 1993 cover of Time magazine as one such example. The computer-generated face featured on the cover (the supposed result of a compilation of several faces from different races) resulted in a beautiful, ethnically ambiguous face, suggesting a future of racial mixture and harmony. This image oversimplified mixed race as a seamless blend.
Elam discussed works that offer more critical engagements with mixed race and invite questions about its meaning. Lezley Saar’s Baby Halfie Brown Head, a plastic doll with a white body and black head, challenges the notion that mixed race is a perfect blending of races. Instead, the dark head and light body might suggest that the two races do not perfectly blend into the “beige.” They remain distinct, and as Elam notes, do not invite a mother’s embrace.
Skits from Dave Chappelle’s The Chappelle Show also invoke questions about the tensions around mixed race identity. Elam showed a video clip from Chappelle’s “Racial Draft” — which mocks a sports draft with representatives from various racial groups jockeying to claim mixed race individuals for one sole racial group. The clip not only raises questions about the importance of the larger context for individuals’ freedom to choose mixed race identities, but also about the social consequences of identifying one way over another.
While early popular media embraced mixed race as ideal combinations etched in beauty, current artists work to expand our conception of mixed race people and mixed race lives. Elam opened a conversation on what mixed race does and doesn’t mean. As Saar’s and Chapelle’s works demonstrate, mixed race identity is not necessarily a “choice” free of constraint. Instead of leaving us with a sense of less, a complex view of mixed race identity enables us to discover what we do not know by raising questions about assumptions that we typically take for granted. Thus, instead of forcing mixed race people into a box, perhaps the “what are you?” question can be viewed as the starting point for a deeper investigation.