Mixed Feelings: Politics of Identity
Part 1: Politics of Identity
“I don’t want to pass because I can’t stand insincerities and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race.” – Fredi Washington (Fay M. Jackson, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Apr 14, 1934.)
“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race.” In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.” – Fredi Washington (The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jan 19, 1935)
Fredi Washington was a black/biracial actress who played the “tragic mulatto” role of Peola in the 1934 film “Imitation of Life”. Tragic mulatto is a fictional role stereotype in 19th and 20th Century American Literature.
Author Sumiko Saulson with her brother Scott (1974)
Mixed Feelings is a three part series on my personal and political feelings about being a person of multi-ethnic parentage in the United States of America. I don’t claim to speak for and represent every Black/and/Whatever kid in the United States, I’m just saying I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it means to be mixed like me.
There are two of us and we are one year and two weeks apart. When we were little kids growing up in Los Angeles – back in those early days before our parents divorced – when we still lived in Southern California and were both always tan – everyone thought we were twins, because they saw us together with one, or both of our parents, and Scott (who is these days 6 foot 3 inches tall, towering above me at 5’6) was always tall. We aren’t twins, but as I have said, there are only the two of us – we have no siblings – and we are very close in age. We were very close until puberty set in and we wandered off into our respective gender related social groupings (his as it turns out – much more social than mine). From Los Angeles, CA to Kaneohe, HI to Hilo, HI to Honolulu, HI, and finally to San Francisco, CA – we spent our formative years navigating through the West Coast version of Color Conscious America together.
Gina, Sumiko, Michael & Scott Saulson (Hawaii, 1983)
Truthfully, I had no idea back then how truly lucky, fortunate, and blessed the both of us were. Although both ethnic bias and “race” mixing prejudice in California and in Hawaii, after comparing notes with both my age contemporaries in other areas and younger folks who are mixed – it’s much worse in many other parts of the United States. There are a lot of things a woman does not want to discuss: such as her weight, and her age, but for the purposes of this article it’s important: my brother and I were born in the late 60s, and I’ve seen a lot of change here in California, especially. When we were little kids in the 70s, people used to stop us on the street and ask to touch our hair, or hover over us acting weird, like they’d just come across some purple aliens. That began to change in the 1990s: by the mid 90s, it was pretty common to see black/mixed kids.
The 1970s were different times. I remember waiting for them to show people-like-me on television. When Lenny Kravitz’ mother Roxie Roker played Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, she and Frank Cover (as Tom Willis) broke barriers by portraying half of television’s first black/white interracial couple. Even then, I remember my brother and I asking our parents why their children did not appear to be mixed, but seemed to be one white and one black child. When Lenny Kravitz came out with “Let Love Rule” back in 1989, I nearly keeled over with excitement. We had come a long way then….
And so now, we’ve come full circle.
Sumiko, with her brother Scott, and his girlfriend (center) 2010
Like most mixed black/other people of my age in the United States, I do identify primarily as black. Up until fairly recently, that was never anything people would take issue with; but over the past decade, increasingly, I find some people objecting – and I have noted these people are always white. That is not to say that black people don’t host prejudices against mixed people ever, it’s to say that black people usually have more or less the same kinds of prejudices as against light skinned non-mixed people, or, even when the prejudices differ, they would not argue that I wasn’t black. The black magazines even came out to claim Vin Diesel, and he’s a pretty Anglo-looking part black fellow. Black people will claim other black people good, bad, or indifferent. But if you happen to get written on a police report as white such as in the Zimmerman/Martin case generally, white people are going to distance themselves from you.
People trying to claim you as one of them is not something I have a problem with. A lot of Jewish American females used to tell me that I acted like one – and I’ve been called a Jewish American Princess more than once. That’s alright. I am a Jewish American Princess, and a Black Queen, and I figure that has to be good. It’s the people telling you that you are NOT the other thing that bothers me. I am the other thing. I’m just as black as the President, whether you like it or not. Deal with it.
Preteen Sumiko and Scott flanking their father Robert (1979)
My parents are also both people who were young adults in the 1960s and 1970s – they have a very good understanding of voting blocks and political power for groups, have lived to see redistricting and other efforts to diminish the political power of ethnic group voting blocks, and the wisdom to teach me to think for myself well enough so that when I first received something in the mail from a group of mixed people who wanted to declare themselves a different race, my “aw hell naw” flag flew. Although multiethnic people have a commonality of experience, convincing people not to identify with their ethnic group is a way to dilute political power. In fact, that would be the start of a system of colorism such as what is experienced in Brazil, where people of mixed African/European/Amerindian heritage are being categorized in a system where privilege is associated with the lightest color of mixed person. Not that we are entirely free of colorism in the USA – it definitely exists here, but why begin endorsing the institutionalized acceptance of such a system?
Some people seem to experience real difficulty with letting other people racially self-identity, and there is a political reason behind it in the U.S.A.: voting blocks are powerful here. Either consciously or unconsciously, people are aware of the power that has been wielded by organized demographic groups including women, and senior citizens. They are aware of the power of civil rights groups to achieve as a group the liberation of like peoples. One’s perceived racial and ethnic identities are a different animal entirely than one’s self-identity, with the first being assigned to you in the mind of someone else regarding you, the second assigned to yourself by yourself.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses self-reporting.
Sumiko and Scott with Scott’s newborn daughter (2000)
Something interesting happened near the end of the 90s: non-white groups seemed to be ready to outnumber white groups, especially here in the State of California, which has a very large Latino population. Something even more interesting happened in the 00s: the Census and a number of government forms suddenly started to list Latino separately, as something other than race. Latinos were forced to list something else as race. If this happened in a more enlightened country than the United States, somewhere south of here in the Americas, where people of Native American/Caucasian/possibly African heritage knew their roots, if this happened where the Indio peoples knew they were Indio, you wouldn’t have tons of people putting down Hispanic/White or Hispanic/Other because they would know who they were. But by the magic of political identity restructuring, suddenly we now have California and some other less liberal states not having to worry about white people becoming a minority – because most of the politically unaware Indio people have been re-zoned as White here and in other parts of the USA. That brown color some Mexican people have comes from Amerindian blood, and Mexican people like many South American peoples, are a multiethnic culture. Every invader of the two American continents didn’t wipe out the native peoples with the vigor of the founders of the USA and Canada.
This kind of think (as I mentioned in the other article) is now backfiring in some other states such as Florida, where in the case of the George Zimmerman shooting of Treyvon Martin, police listed Zimmerman as white, the media repeatedly reported him as white, and many white people and some not-so-white people began to refer to Zimmerman as non-white and this as a brown-on-black crime. I even saw one lady apologize on behalf of the Latino community for, Zimmerman is half Peruvian. Peru is a multethnic country with a majority Amerindian or mixed Amerindian population.
Yet he is listed as white on the police report, so he has been reported that way on the news.
How do you think he was listed on the Census?
My brother Scott and I have traveled through the same Color Conscious West Coast together for over 40 years. We have endured the annoying questions about whether or not we are half siblings (no – we are not), whether or not his light-skinned daughters are my daughters (no – they are not. Scott and I have the exact same genetic history just like any other pair of siblings and like any other siblings, I am no more likely to produce lighter skinned children than he is).
Author Sumiko (center) with parents Robert and Carolyn (2009)
We have traveled through all this together, but only he has been stopped for Driving While Black in unpleasant Pleasanton. We have traveled through this together, but our experiences are not the same. However, it is only an accident of a genetic lottery that made my parent’s genetic contributions manifest in a pastier skin in my case.
Because of his darker color of brown, my brother has experienced things I have not. Because of my complexion which falls more to the orange side of the sale, my color which, should I purchase makeup, would be far from the palest of the foundation colors for African Americans but would be either the darkest or second darkest of the foundation colors for white people, depending on whether or not I have a suntan that day – my color, which when I have no tan and no tan line on my body is a make up shade called “suntan” – and a flesh color pantyhose for me will be called “suntan” – that color of orange I am causes me to have to deal with Stupid Questions People Ask Mixed Black People.
Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington
There was the woman – whose son I was dating – who asked me back in the late 90s if O.J. Simpson’s biracial kids were going to be “traumatized” by being raised by their white grandparents. I said, “I rather think their father being arrested for allegedly killing their mother would be more traumatic than being biracial and raised by white grandparents.” Or… the woman who stopped me on the street (yes, a literal stranger – and this in Liberal San Francisco, in 2005) and started asking me what I thought about Tragic Mulatto Syndrome and An Imitation of Life. My browner skinned brother was able to escape many of these questions because unless his (very wavy) hair was long he did not appear to be what obnoxious inquiring white strangers and semi-strangers consider “mulatto”, so he rather got the anti-black prejudice without the weird mulatto thing. I should call it the weird “Tragic Mulatto” thing. And here… is the crux of it.
These questions are all the same as the question some anti-race mixing teen asked me when I was about 20: has my life been “ruined” by being mixed. Is being a mulatto “tragic”?
I want to point out a single, simple fact: we are indeed, all the same race. We are of one race, which is human. The fact that we can procreate together demonstrates that: people like me couldn’t even exist if we were not the same species, and race means species. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are dealing with a geopolitical system of perception based upon personal reaction to differences, in essence, there is xenophobia based upon perceived race. As long as there is, we can not simply pretend that these distinctions have been erased. I keep talking about it because it still matters but: the truth of the matter is, the only “tragic” thing there could be is a societal reaction. Other than that, it is both as significant and insignificant as having an eye color like blue or green when the majority has brown eyes, or having the minority hair color of red. Statistically, biracial kids in the US are more likely to be suicidal, but there is a strong possibility that is related to the same reason gay and lesbian teens are more likely suicidal: bullying and being hassled over identity.
The quote at the beginning of this article is by Fredi Washington. Here are some links to the movie Imitation of Life on IMDB, Fredi on Wiki, and Tragic Mulatto on Wiki, that I referred to when writing the blog, and the quotes above are from the Wiki article on Fredi.
Do you know what I told the woman who asked me if I was a “tragic mulatto” like in “Imitation of Life”? I said “You know I never tried to pass or deny who my mother was like the girl in that movie. I love my mother.” I think that’s a good enough answer but I have to wonder: where was the question coming from?