Thomas Jefferson, the main architect of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, maintained a long relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, a mixed-race woman. Some of their children identified as white, some as black. Professor Annette Gordon-Reed explains why:
Half a century later, Frederick Douglass, a mixed-race former slave, became a leading abolitionist. His writings and speeches helped set the stage for the abolition of slavery in the United States.
In 1883 Cali Leung, the mixed-race protagonist of The Second Promise, knew the perils of racial identification and discrimination all too well. After her Chinese Godmother Xiao-Ying died, Xiao-Ying’s friend Nellie Young offered to adopt Cali.
“You can’t,” Cali said, still staring down. “I’m Chinese and you’re white.”
Nellie narrowed her eyes. “Well, you’re half white, and ever since we came to Bodie, you’ve been going to school as a Young. Nobody has stopped you yet, because you look just as white as Will and Martin. I don’t see why you can’t just continue being white. If you were really part of our family, it would be even easier than before.”
Cali was already shaking her head. No it wouldn’t, she thought. It’s not easy for me to keep pretending. I have to pretend to be a Young when I’m really a Leung. I have to pretend not to mind when people say hateful things about the Chinese, calling them filthy and criminal and dishonest. I have to pretend not to notice the signs on Main Street businesses promising that they only hire white men to cook there or repair shoes there. And pretend not to notice the disapproving look on Mr. Young’s face that time he asked Mrs. Nellie why she doesn’t belong to the Ladies’ Auxiliary and she explained that her friend Mrs. Lee Xiao-Ying is a real lady, while the Ladies’ Auxiliary is full of counterfeit ladies. What it felt like to hear the chants coming from the political meetings at the Miners’ Hall. “The Chinese Must Go!” the men shouted, louder and louder, and Gohn-Pa would lock the door and douse the kerosene lantern, so the house would be dark when the men spilled out of the meeting and looked for some Chinese to beat up.
The Second Promise, Chapter 1.
Thankfully, some things have changed since 1883. David, my youngest son, was born a century later. He and his bi-racial cronies call themselves “mixties”. That’s a cute name; there have been many harsh ones. Mongrel. Half-breed. Mulatto. Mestizo. Mud people. Even today, some people of all races deplore what they see as dilution of racial purity. (Racial purity is, of course, a myth, as proved by Henry Louis Gates in his famous study of the DNA of Oprah and other celebrities.) Traditionally, “mixties” were assumed to be mixed up psychologically as well as racially, unable to fit in to either society. Today, at least in the Bay Area, race seems to have faded as a primary source of identity for bi-racial people. It’s been fascinating to watch my three children grow up, each with a different point of view, all points of view differing from those of their father and me.
In today’s America, all children have to learn the rules of racial behavior. It’s just a little more complicated for mixties. If their black friends call each other “Nigga” in a friendly way, can a black-white mixtie do the same? Where some school friends are ABC’s (American Born Chinese) who make fun of FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) immigrant classmates, should the Chinese-Caucasian mixtie chime in? What if you’re half Filipino and half black, and your black friends ridicule you for chatting in Tagalog with your Filipino classmates?
I believe that racial identity is really cultural identity, and it seems to me that more and more often, bi-racial young people are defining their own culture. I see them no longer basing their identity on the traditional markers of skin color and ethnic origin, but instead, cherry-picking their cultural preferences from their broader experience.
Despite the code of silence that still prevails in most of white American culture, everyone is assumed to have an opinion about race. And I think that some of the most informed, thoughtful and nuanced opinions are held by Americans of mixed race.
(Check out Barack Obama’s famous speech about race at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/03/18/us/politics/20080318_OBAMA_GRAPHIC.html#)
If you’re a “mixtie”, either because your parents are of different races or you’re part of a multi-racial family, I’d love to hear your point of view. Please comment and share your experiences about the effect and importance of race in your own family. How are you received and treated by the different cultures in your family? In your school or workplace?
Meanwhile, take a moment to appreciate the talents and beauty of some famous mixed-race American women.