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Double Blood

September 17th, 2008

   

Like many biracial Americans of my generation, my parents met in the
tumultous cultural revolution of the 1960s. They married when it was
illegal for people of different races to do so, and continued to challenge
entrenched assumptions about race by having me. It was dangerous work.
The Klan threatened our interracial family in Mississippi often. My father's
Jewish mother disowned him for marrying a black woman.

Thirty-something years later, my copper-colored self has navigated
bar mitzvahs, barbeques, inner city public schools, the Ivy League, and
a host of other wildly divergent worlds. I've been romantic and
platonic with mono- and multiracial people in half a dozen American
cities. And because of the memoir I wrote in my late twenties about
being biracial, I've spoken intimately with multiracial individuals all
over the world.

The pliability of racial and cultural identity can be a tremendous
gift. In Kenya, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt, Morocco, and several countries
in between, I am embraced as a daughter, sister, mother, or potential
wife. Rarely, if ever, am I perceived as a foreigner. "Ah," the
shopkeeper, teacher, or taxi driver will say, "You come from America?
But you are like us!" I laugh and shake my head. "No matter," the
person will say, "now you are home." And I will feel at home, too. Even
if I cannot speak the language, I easily absorb the mannerisms and
rhythm of daily life.

Multiracial friends share similar experiences. Within hours, even
minutes, of being immersed in another culture, our "own" ethnicity
seems to disappear. A Swedish-Nigerian woman I spoke to recently told
me her biracial identity made her a border crosser and, as she put it,
a "walking heart."

The not so fabulous part of being multiracial is the tremendous
anxiety often felt as a result of belonging to several racial and
cultural groups, each demanding almost lockstep allegiance. Should hair
be straightened or twisted into dreadlocks? What slang is to be used,
literary legacy privileged, political candidate supported? A decision
as simple as which neighborhood to live in can be a minefield for a
multiracial person pressured to embrace one race or culture.

In recent years, researchers have started to focus on the
multiracial experience in all its complexity. Their work has documented
the particular breeds of prejudice and anxiety we can face. But it also
offers hope that as the next generation of multiracial families makes
its way in the world, they're developing new strategies to meet these
challenges—strategies that the pioneers of previous generations never
quite figured out.

Perhaps because I know the biracial predicament intimately, much of
this research rings especially true for me. In one study, sociologist
Kimberly Brackett and her colleagues found that multiracial people
experience more racism than our monoracial counterparts. In another,
Yoonsun Choi at the University of Chicago found multiracial youth at
greater risk for substance abuse and violent behavior than monoracial
youth of the same socioeconomic backgrounds.

These findings reflect my own experience precisely. Always too black
or too white, I was privy to the prejudices of both racial groups, and
I was used as a screen onto which each projected their idea of the
Other. Though I had to countermand white racism, I endured slights from
African Americans as well. My mannerisms were labeled snobby and
standoffish. Even today within African-American academic and
intellectual circles my credentials are often in question. The
"privilege" of being half-white is perceived as a kind of "pass," a
disqualifier of true intellectual merit.

When I was a teenager, I used drugs to bridge the gaps between
communities and to numb the pain of their judgment. Marijuana and
ecstasy were great equalizers, a common language allowing for a
temporary suspension of superficial differences. As a woman, I also

found solace through sexual activity in which my skin color meant less
than my viability as a sexual partner.

I know that many biracial and multiracial men use physical
aggression and other forms of self-destructive behavior to prove their
worth, a pattern that transcends racial categories. Several of the
multiracial men I knew in high school, especially those from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds, are now in prison. Another is dead.

But there is promising news from the multiracial front. In the last
few years, biracial and multiracial people have begun to tell me in no
uncertain terms about their growing ease with their dual or triple
heritages. Though the number of Americans of "two or more races" is
still below five million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's
Population Estimate Program, this population grew by 25 percent from
2000 to 2007; the total U.S. population grew by just seven percent over
the same period. As the mixed race population expands—and certainly as
a biracial candidate for president gains popularity—feelings of
alienation and invisibility seem to be declining, often replaced by
unabashed pride. I've been especially taken with the number of
multiracial groups on college campuses. I struggled mightily to forge
cross-cultural allegiances at Yale during my undergraduate years.
Fifteen years later, I find cohesive student groups of biracial and
multiracial people on every campus visit.

In addition to external supports, it appears parents are slowly
gaining the facility to discuss these issues at home. A study by
psychologist Barbra Fletcher Stephens has found that biracial couples
are starting to acknowledge the importance of talking to their children
about their biracial identity, and of "passing on the positive as well
as the negative attitudes of both sides of their family in support of
helping their children to develop a cohesive personal identity." In
other words, it is important for parents to disclose both the pretty
and not-so-pretty aspects of their cultural histories, rather than
censoring or minimizing less appealing aspects. Fletcher's study
concludes that biracial and multiracial children with parents who
present this kind of complex view of their family culture have less
core identity conflict, and are thus better equipped to manage social
environments still mired in prejudice and divisiveness.

As pioneers, the parents of my biracial and multiracial peers had
few real studies, and even less popular discourse, on the subject from
which to draw. As a result, they often discounted, minimized, or were
completely unaware of their children's struggles with identity and
prejudice. This new research brings good news—and proven problem-
solving techniques—to this next generation of parents, who then have a
better chance of identifying and avoiding the potential pitfalls
awaiting their children. Growing familiarity with the topic also
provides validation and visibility to biracial and multiracial children
who may not yet be ready to speak about the prejudice they face in the
classroom and on the playground. This is exceptionally good news for
these children.

A detailed study of biracial families nationwide, published last
year in the American Journal of Sociology, offers further evidence of
the progress multiracial families are making, while also pointing to
the challenges they still confront. Sociologists Simon Cheng and Brian
Powell determined that parents in biracial families usually allocate
more financial and cultural resources, such as music lessons and museum
trips, to their children's education than do parents in corresponding

monoracial families. However, the researchers also conclude that deeply
entrenched social prejudices against interracial marriage, especially
marriages between black men and white women, may leave these families
socially isolated. Cheng and Powell surmise that, though these biracial
families do not necessarily have more money, they might invest more
resources in their children's education in an effort to compensate for
their marginalized social position.

This study highlights a tension—between the evolving attitudes of
multiracial families and individuals, and the prejudices that still
persist in society at large—that I also recognized in an older study,
one that struck me as particularly relevant for the future of biracial
identity. In the early '90s, Stanford University psychologist Teresa
LaFramboise and colleagues explored several approaches people take to
resolve the psychological dissonance of their multicultural experience.
These approaches range from assimilation, where people try to blend in
completely with the culture they see as most desirable, to fusion,
where they try to merge different cultures to form a new one. But the
researchers saw special promise in what's called the "alternation"
model, in which a biracial or bicultural person is able to fully
function within two cultures without losing his or her identity, or
having to choose one culture over the other.

I can see the allure of this model—the biracial person as masterful
toggler, able to switch back and forth at the speed of light and remain
unscathed by the transition. It's a model I employ successfully at
times and find inspiring to observe in others. I spoke recently at an
arts festival in Amsterdam, for example, and found myself in deep
discussion with my Dutch-Surinamese counterparts. When I stumbled over
appropriate terminology, they emphatically shared what they've come to.
"Double Blood," they told me. "That's what we are. Neither one nor the
other, neither better nor worse. We are both, we are proud, and we are
beautiful." I was literally almost knocked over by the sheer force of
their self-certainty, and adopted the term immediately.
I am still concerned, though, that even this most reasonable of
solutions places the burden of psychological transformation on biracial
people themselves rather than on the society at large. Biracial and
multiracial people are expected to find a way to mediate a world seen
as inherently and irreversibly divided. They must learn to walk
skillfully between worlds deemed multiple, rather than peaceably
through a world they experience as one.

This may serve as a useful coping strategy, but it isn't a
sustainable long-term plan for ending prejudice in our society. That
will come only once all human beings reckon with the good and bad of
their ancestral legacy and work to transform the rhetoric of separate
and unequal into one of united and open to all.

Luckily, through this new research on biracial and multiracial
families, we are that much closer to a road map for making this
cultural shift. It will require that all parents talk to their children
about their cultural legacy—both positive and appalling. Only once
they're so informed, can children begin to reconcile age-old racial
conflicts, including conflicts in their own identity.

Moving in this way, we teach our children that the past is known,
but the future is free, unwritten, and dependent upon them. This idea
alone can shape a generation, and make prejudice a thing of the past.

 


Comments:

Comment #1 by Kahlil Crawford on February 16, 2009 - 2:49pm

Artist Betty Saar, in her visual work, often alludes to "our tangled roots" and detangles hers via the conjuring of her forebearers by Indigenous Afroceltic Spiritual Expression..

Comment #2 by rebecca on February 20, 2009 - 9:58am

I've always appreciated her daughter's work, too:

The work of Alison Saar addresses humanity in the broadest sense. Through the use of archetypal images, Saar reaches out to audiences from backgrounds as culturally and ethnically diverse as her own. Her mother, well-known artist Betye Saar, has European, Native American, and African American ancestors; her father, Richard Saar, painter turned conservator, is of German and Scottish origin. Fragments of lore, myth and legend as well as the practices of the everyday, rooted in these cultural backgrounds, are woven into Saar's powerful images, where contemporary expression enshrines centuries of man's spiritual evolution.

— Compton Nocturne, 1999 —
Compton Nocturne
wood, tin, bottles, paint, tar
33 x 80 x 28 inches

Alison Saar was born in 1956 and grew up in Laurel Canyon, California. She sees her upbringing as rural and her understanding and love of nature are rooted in that experience. Both parents encouraged their three talented daughters, all artists, to look at a wide range of art. They were given books on art and were taken to area museums. They also saw Outsider Art, such as the visionary artist Simon Rodia's famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a group of three monumental structures of pottery-encrusted steel tubing reaching 100 feet, and Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, a complex of buildings with walls from discarded bottles joined with cement. Alison's fascination with vernacular folk art and the visionary artist's ability to build an oasis of beauty from cast-off objects had a profound and lasting influence on her.

During high school, Alison began assisting her father in his restoration work. Dealing with artifacts from different cultures — Chinese frescoes, Egyptian mummies, and Precolumbian and African art — taught Alison about properties of various materials, techniques, and aesthetics. At Scripps College, Saar studied with Dr. Samella Lewis, a noted scholar in the field of African and Caribbean art. Having taken more art history courses than studio classes, she graduated with a thesis on Southern African American Folk Art. Saar did graduate work at Otis-Parsons Institute.

 

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