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July 20, 2006

Hybridity vs. Colorblindness and Cultural Appropriation

See? For my main International Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW) post I'm bringing aaaaalllllll the catchphrases into my title.

First, some definitions (caveat: these terms have been used in many different ways in many different contexts. I'm just defining these for me, and for this blog post. You may disagree and use them otherwise.):

Race: 1) biologically based group status denoted by phenotype; i.e. the idea that people who all bear the same or similar phenotype markers (physical size and shape, skin and hair color and texture, shape and size of facial features) all belong to a particular group (and the phenotype markers, such as skin color, can be so faint or conceptually-based as to be nearly imaginary). 2) the idea that people from the same region (usually a continent or half-continental region) bear the same phenotypical markers. 3) this is different from "ethnicity" since race bases itself on biological realities (yes, people from sub-Saharan Africa do tend to have darker skin), although in practice these realities are stretched so thin as to become transparent. 4) this also differentiates from "ethnicity" in that a taxonomy is created where race is a more general grouping and ethnicity more specific. E.g.: "Asian" is the race and "Chinese" is the ethnicity; "African" or "black" is the race and "Bantu" the ethnicity; "Latino" is the race and "Colombian" the ethnicity.

Ethnicity: 1) culturally based group status denoted by common cultural markers and often by racial characteristics; i.e. the idea that people from the same region or culture will behave distinctively, including language, dress, gesture, values and uses. 2) ethnicity tends to be more specific than race (although not always) and gets much nitty-grittier about specific cultural uses and how these differentiate one group from another, even in the same region. 3) usually used to refer to cultural groups who are in the minority in a certain culture; i.e. the idea that a non-dominant culture is "ethnic", or has a special cultural quality that the dominant or mainstream culture or ethnicity does not; the idea that dominant or mainstream ethnicities are not "ethnic" at all.

Nationality: although usually used interchangeably with race or ethnicity (many people think it's a nicer or more pc term than race or ethnicity), I actually use it only to refer to a person's national status, i.e. what country you are a citizen of. This has more cultural and ethnic relevance than Americans like to think.

EXAMPLE: In terms of race I am multiracial Asian and white; In terms of ethnicity I am multiethnic Chinese and white; my nationality is American.

Melting Pot: This is an American concept from the first half of the century that has all racial/ethnic identities melting together like a metallic alloy, each losing its distinctive characteristics and becoming a new whole that everyone shares from equally. This is debunked and continues to become more problematic with each passing year. Why? The melting pot ignores the integrity of culture as well as how cultures actually mix. It ignores the importance of identity to "minorities" and ignores the impossibility of equally mixing privileged and non-privileged identities (because privilege would have to be given up to achieve this.) Ignores the human fear of losing one's identity. The Borg are the ultimate melting pot type. 'Nuff said.

Multiculturalism: This is a concept from the 70s and 80s that has races and ethnicities mixing not like a soup in the melting pot, under heat and pressure, but like a salad, cold and easy, where each identity maintains its cultural integrity but exists, piece by piece, side by side with all the others. A patchwork quilt. A mosaic. This concept ignores that to maintain absolute cultural integrity, cultures must be isolated from one another, because cultures inevitably syncretize when they come into contact. Multiculti assumes that "respect", "understanding" and "celebration" of other cultures will result in the integrity of each and the happy forward motion of all. It doesn't take into account that the inequality of cultures will result in the dominant culture raiding and exploiting the minority cultures, which then lose integrity without gaining validity in the process. It ignores that minority cultures will either adopt aspects of the dominant culture for the sake of the privileges it offers, or harden their borders with the dominant culture to express their displeasure at the lack of privilege. The display of integral cultures on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation is the perfect example of what multiculit looks like. But have you ever seen this in real life?

EXAMPLE: Under the melting pot regime, I am to ignore particularities of both of my heritages and assimilate to American mainstream culture. Also, I am a salutary step toward the full melding of all cultures (and races). I am to be viewed as an undifferentiated "American", and not to claim any ethnic identity at all. Under multiculti I'm a bit problematic. I am simultaneously evidence that multiculti works (my parents living harmoniously side by side) and a threat to cultural cohesion. Under multiculti I'm either a third category, multiracial, or two things simultaneously (at all times) Asian and white.

Colorblindness: Refusal to acknowledge racial (and by extension, ethnic) difference. Runs against both melting pot and multiculti. It is a fear of noticing color/racial/ethnic-based differences because in noticing them you might notice 1) that things are not as they should be and 2) that you are occupying a privileged position. Colorblindness is in itself a privilege. You never hear people of color claiming color blindness unless they have been raised in mostly white communities or now inhabit and wish to continue to inhabit mostly white spaces.

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture (neighboring in the salad sense), and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.


All of which brings us, finally, to "hybridity". It's not yet a term being used with any sort of common consciousness, with any consciousness of it's being a term for a new idea about race or ethnicity. So it's still free, still amorphous, still ambiguous in meaning and value. Which is exactly what it means to me and exactly the way I like it.

I present "hybridity" as an anodyne, an antidote, and antithesis and synthesis and thesis, against and after all of the previous ones. Hybridity is none of the above and partakes of none of the above. It is about neither melting together and losing all sense of original differences, nor existing side-by-side without cultural "bleed".

It is, instead, a way of proceeding in knowledge, thoughtfulness, and awareness. It is a combination of knowing the history of all of your cultural sources, understanding the dynamics among different groups, accepting and honoring both your disadvantages and privileges, and -- and here's the most important part -- allowing cultural mixing and progress then to happen the way it happens, without prescription, and with understanding of the mechanics, aesthetics and feel of it.

Hybridity is about fascination with culture, about studying people and how they become themselves, and how this becoming changes when they come into contact with other people. It's about the joy of being human and how we express this in our various ways, and how we take joy in others' expressions and let those influence us. It's about being open to others and also letting yourself flow outwards to them.

Hybridity requires flexibility in the observer. It requires, more than anything, comfort with ambiguity. You must be able to recognize that human identity is ultimately mysterious and that you can only grasp a small corner of anyone's identity at any given moment. You have to let go of your need for hard-lined categories.

You also have to recognize the ambiguity in yourself. This is more difficult for whites than for anyone else. Whites like to try to understand hybridity in ethnic terms ("Well, I'm Swedish, Dutch, and French, so I'm hybrid, too!"), which is false and misleading. White America was a hybrid identity before mid-century. Now it's monolithic in its self-conception. Also, if you're white, your ethnic integrity is not affected by the minor appropriation of small cultural objects from "other" identities, becuase "white" is a culturally absorptive identity, not an orthodox one.

If you're white, your hybridity can be best understood in terms of gender, sexuality, familial roles and social/professional roles. You are both daughter and lover, mother and employee. You are both volunteer and boss, annoyance and hero, father and brother. To different people at different times and in different situations, of course.

There are times when your love for your best friend takes on the intensity of romance. There are times when you choose to walk like a man, or listen like a woman, and secretly enjoy it. There are times you masturbate to the thought that you are of the opposite sex, receiving from someone like yourself. Every time you get bored with life, you do something that surprises you about yourself, and usually it is something that scares you. You didn't know you could drink that much. You didn't know you could behave that recklessly around the kids. You didn't know you were such an asshole. You didn't know you thought that way. You didn't know you'd leap so quickly into action. You didn't know it would be so easy to say no. You didn't know it would be so hard to be happy.

That's what it's like.

EXAMPLE: Hybridity simply acknowledges that I am what I am when I am it. It's the simplest concept for identity because it has no problem with complexity and does not try to organize complexity into something simpler and easier to grasp. It just lets things be and become. If one week I talk about being multiracial, another week I can emphasize being biracial, and the next day I can speak for all Asians, and later that day be specifically Chinese, and then wake up the next morning white and privileged --- and all these things are consistent and coherent with who I am and require no accounting or schema.

I just made this all up, but we need a new way to think about race, so here's mine.


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nice new way, claire. !!hear, hear!!

I love the hybridity analysis and *really* look forward to playing with it on issues of cultural appropriation and propertization of information. You nailed it when you talked about the mixing of cultures and the stultification/freezing. Hybridization is exactly what happens with cultures, knowledge, traditions, and why propertization is difficult theoretically (as well as practically). I can't wait to get back to tinkering with these ideas! Really exciting post, Claire.

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