“No, Really, Where Are You From?”

race“Race” is such a problematic, complex term, no? We use it as if it refers to some stable thing (like when we complete a government form) but as soon as we look at its use more closely we realize it is a vague designation for a variety that spans a limitless continuum with no clear internal boundaries. “Race” — as in “What race are you?” — is thus our way of creating the impression of managing what may in fact be unbridled human difference, as if it has nicely defined internal compartments.

Case in point: the fellow above — Alex Sugiura — was featured in a story recently (and another a little before that), on the increasingly mixed race nature of American culture. He’s from Brooklyn but, of course, that’s not where he’s really from, right?

Just as with some prior Edge posts, the fascination with (even, as in these stories, a multicultural celebration of) the marginal serves, ironically perhaps, to normalize the central — i.e., the peripheral is always a particular center’s edge (and there’s innumerable centers all competing for the right to be where the compass point gets planted when drawing a circumference). Although virtually no one asks me where I’m from just because they looked at me (though, being from Canada and living in the U.S. south, as soon as I talk people will sometimes ask me that very question), my ancestry is — like everyone’s, and that’s the point here — a complex mix of prior elements: Scottish, Irish, English, French, and, judging from the features of some of my own recent ancestors (e.g., great uncles on my dad’s side) and the region of Canada where they settled, there’s likely some Native Canadian in there too. But, of course, each of these identity designators that we use today so casually refers to but an abstract, generalized tip of yet prior mixes — for it’s not as if those regions/peoples that I just mentioned were all somehow locked in amber, leaving them pure and pristine. (For example. viewed from another vantage point, “Native Canadian” is itself a troublesome taxon that groups together diverse people who likely had little or no affinity for each other prior to being classed as homogeneously Other by, yes, people like my own ancestors who arrived here from Europe.) That is, I assume I’d look kind’a, well, different and ambiguous if I bumped into a 17th century McCutcheon roaming around the highlands (to name but one lineage that I could draw upon today if answering the “Where are you from?” question).

But while I understand that the elements of this particular genetic cocktail, the one that produced people who happen to look like me in certain ways, has by now become economically and politically dominant in parts of the world, through a series of very specific historical events, I also happen to think that one of those techniques of normalization is the naming of something as mixed or ambiguous. For this focus on their difference does nothing other than to overlook local variety, thereby normalizing the no less mixed position from which the interest in the Other comes, a central position portrayed as pure, unambiguous, and thus ahistorical. While this may be evident if the focus is meant to ostracize the Other (like calling someone “half breed”), it is no less present in efforts on the left to celebrate diversity — for difference is always relational, something is always different from something else, some presumed standard, something that (upon closer examination) is itself different from yet some of normative center.

And so on, and so on….

So, much like calling only some languages creoles, and only some codes “codes,” the very designation of someone else as “mixed race” is itself a strategy of dominance; it deserves our critical attention because it not only reflects the existence of an unspoken, normative center but re-inscribes it as well.

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