|By Frank H. Wu, Howard University2000 Archives – Asian American Village – The future of race relations is mixed – literally and figuratively. Increasingly, interracial relationships will be normal rather than exceptional, and individuals will be accepted instead of rejected for their multiple ancestries. However, the rates of intermarriage and the multiplication of our diversity will represent progress only if we welcome daily life as complex and ambiguous, turning away from abstract rules that are simple but unjust. Asian Americans know that the question “Where are you from?” can be something other than a polite inquiry; they ought to understand that the question “What are you?” is less subtle and much worse.
The mixed race movement may be new as a matter of political empowerment, but transgressing the taboo of miscegenation is ancient as a matter of sexual supremacy. Thousands of ordinary folks, including many who assume that they are white without any doubt about their identity, would be surprised by the results of genetic testing. Thomas Jefferson and his many descendants are only the most recent though perhaps also the least scandalous example of the secret of slavery. As rumored since his era but confirmed only in our own time, the President carried on an affair for years with his late wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemmings, who was black only by virtue of the “one drop” rule that rendered white blood contaminated by any contact with black blood.
Optimists have held that love which crosses the color line will be the ultimate assimilation. Yet it was illegal until only a generation ago. The Supreme Court struck down criminal codes that were still enforced in the South, in the aptly-titled Loving case, in 1967.
The phenomenon is still debated as if there were an objection that could be sustained in good faith. A declining but sizeable portion of the public would not approve of the unions; a few racial minorities worry that their distinct group will be embraced out of existence; and civil rights activists wonder whether the crucial data that shows gross disparities will be rendered useless by allowing people to check off additional boxes.
To be absolutely clear on the central principle: every person should have the right to follow their heart in romance. Opposition to the mixed marriage is no better if it comes from the Asian side of the aisle than it would be from the white in-laws. The term “hapa” has been rightfully appropriated. It is a name claimed with pride, not a label to be applied in denigration.
Climbing Hierarchies, Not Tearing them Down
Another note should be added on the strong pattern: the choices of mates also may be coerced by culture, or they may be an effort to climb hierarchies, not tear them down. People of color who prefer to date someone who is white can hardly be called color-blind in their tastes, and the white men who compliment the exotic eroticism of Suzy Wong are pursuing a stereotyped fetish more than a particular female. We have mail-order brides, but not husbands; the trade relies on the economic desperation of ethnic women and caters to prospective purchasers who are white men. Asian Americans tend to out-marry with whites, not Blacks (indeed, the great surge in mixed marriages can be attributed to white-Asian couples more than anyone else).
The risk is that the mixed race movement will increase the range of prejudices rather than decrease the importance of color. That possibility has been a reality in the past and remains true elsewhere today. In areas with large numbers of individuals who are both black and white, such as nineteenth-century New Orleans or contemporary Brazil, the gradations among hues can be much finer in distinction but no better in discrimination. The separate terms for every ancestral combination – for example, “high yellow” – are no less offensive for being archaic.
The problem is that as much as we might proclaim enthusiastically that “there is only one race, the human race,” enough of us nonetheless manage to make judgments that divide us among ourselves. We may be hateful or we may be subtle. Our society will perform the task for us even if we are reluctant to do so.
Schemes that would classify us according to descent have in common the placement of whites at the top and the further ordering of everyone else from swarthy to tawny. Passing is a phenomenon that reflects the pecking order. Its course runs in only one direction, upward toward the lighter. An individual who can successfully become part of white society can gain tangible benefits, at the painful personal cost of assimilating to the degree of denying themselves contact with their family and their past.
Thus it turns out that Keanu Reeves can become white, but Tiger Woods must remain black. The case of the star golfer shows how our own confidence in our identity matters not in the face of the social construction imposed on every individual. As he became a celebrity, he also became a reluctant poster boy for the mixed race movement, the single person coming, once again, to represent a whole group — and inspiring a bitter competition rather than the building of a coalition, as Asian Americans and African Americans both tried to claim Tiger as one of their own, and on an exclusive basis.
Even though Tiger appeared on the Oprah Winfrey talk show, as close as our popular culture has to a high-tech town square, to announce that as a child he had created his own name for himself, a “Cablinasian” – literally combining “Caucasian,” “Black,” and “Asian” – his competitor Fuzzy Zoeller unmistakably identified him as nothing more nor less than a black man. Although Tiger himself credited Zoeller’s apology, the point is even stronger if Zoeller is assumed to be a decent person acting in good faith: He cannot help himself. In joking to the television cameras about the champion’s prerogative of choosing the dinner menu, Zoeller remarked that they ought to tell Tiger not to serve fried chicken and collard greens. What is worse than the allusion to race is the selective consciousness. It would have made as much sense, especially after Tiger’s declaration, to have said curry chicken and lemongrass soup. But that would have acknowledged an uncomfortable reality.
The time is coming when Tiger can say who he is or better yet lead a life without any need for doing so. We can be sanguine about the prospect of a country that has no racial majority within its population because it has no racial majority within each person. We should be aware that the process, like the birth and development of any individual and any idea, will involve labor pains and lead to adolescent anguish.