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March 26, 2006

Multiraciality 101

This is cross-posted at Other magazine's staff blog.

Other magazine staffer Gregory Dicum linked to this article on his website in the Other magazine blog last week. It's an overview of the situation of multiraciality in the United States today, general attitudes, and multiracials' response to general attitudes. Check it out.

It's a solid overview, but, once you've read it, I want to add some arguments/complications. The article was written in 2003 and, in the short space between then and now, some things may have changed. (I also realize that he may not have addressed some of my concerns simply because they fell outside the scope of his article.)

Dicum identifies a number of responses to multiraciality:
1. multiraciality will end race and racial divisions -- an approach typified by Interracial Voice
2. multiracials create a solid, fixed "multiracial" identity that is other than the monoracial identities from which they derive -- an approach typified, according to Dicum, by "The Hapa Movement".
3. the mobile paradox/code switching at will -- an approach impossible to codify in an organization

Firstly, I'd like to add some critical distance in the discussion of each of these approaches.

As I noted in my othermag/blog post on interracial families, the "multiraciality will end race" approach is extremely problematic. The Interracial Voice community that typifies this approach supports the politics of Ward Connerly, who helped end affirmative action at a number of universities all over the country, and tried to outlaw the collection of racial data in California -- including data on the race of people drawn into the justice system, and data on the race of people treated for certain diseases. (He failed, thank gods.) The idea of using multiraciality to end racial divisions is compelling. But because, according to the Interracial Voice community, multiracials will inevitably end race, they declare racial abolition a fait accompli. Often these advocates claim that the vestiges of racism we still find in our country are caused by identity politics, rather than identity politics being a response to lingering racism. I think these attitudes need to be noted in any discussion of this approach.

Regarding "hapa nation": the idea that a discrete "third" or other multiracial identity can, or should be created (and I dispute that that's what the "hapa movement" is about below) needs to be critically examined. Dicum touches on the absurdity of creating an ethnic identity out of ethnic diversity. He doesn't, however, discuss how creating yet another racial or ethnic identity for multiracials actually reifies multiracial outsider status, as well as the racial taxonomy that gave rise to it. A new "multiracial" or (especially) "hapa" racial category would let a lot of racists off the hook, offering them a new group of "people of color" to interact with; a group they might find to be more comfortable than monoracial people of color. This would create yet another model minority to buffer the privileged from the underprivileged. In this discussion, therefore, it would be not just be useful, but crucial to measure the amount of energy and resources that would be expended creating and acquiring recognition for a new racial category against the energy and resources used to combat racism and ignorance from the vantage point of multiple identities.

Regarding the "mobile paradox" approach, where multiracials take on whatever identity is most convenient in a given situation (also known as "code switching", which you might have heard used by African Americans to refer to changing their idiom depending upon their context), Dicum gives as examples a person inventing identities, or falsely agreeing with the wrong identities attributed to her by strangers. While lying about your identity can be fun for some and makes for amusing stories (always amusing at the ignorant stranger's expense) I'd really like to hear more discussion about why no one should be forced into a false position apropos his identity.

To be direct: I don't want to lie about who or what I am. I've had to fight so hard, for so long, to have my self-definition recognized and validated -- even by friends and sometimes even by family -- that I am not eager to give up that hard-won identity to my own whims, much less those of strangers. The mobile paradox is not always (and for some of us, not ever) the "playground of identities" that Dicum makes it out to be. It is often absolutely necessary for social survival to be able to take on a particular fixed identity that makes converse between you and those around you possible, and then to switch that identity for the next context. It may be empowering for some to view this situation as a playground, but beyond the playful level of sociable small talk, if you want to make friends, be lovers, get a job, or become politically effective, you can't build your house on sand.

Recognizing and performing the reality of an ambiguous racial identity will always, at some point, become deadly serious. It is in the shallow interactions with boorish, questioning strangers that multiracials practice their responses and rehearse identities. Some, like Dicum apparently, use these situations to relieve tension. This is perfectly legitimate, if condescending to strangers (who risk being condescended to by intruding on others.) Others (like me) don't, because the underlying seriousness is always present, and because we (or at least I) believe that it is better, or more instructive, or more honest, or more just, to simply refuse to allow myself to be engaged by strangers about my race. Rather than being forced into some position -- true or false -- by a stranger, I force that stranger to deal with me and my racial ambiguity without my cooperation. This is, in fact, a fourth distinct approach, but one which, by its very nature, is impossible to codify as a trend, or even to discuss with those who use it, unless they choose on their own (like I have here) to address it.

(Note: the term "mobile paradox" itself encodes a problematic atttitude: discomfort with ambiguity. If racial categories really were unmixable, then code switching would be a paradox. But racial categories are not unmixable, and code switching is not a paradox. You can be two things at once, or three, or four.)

Secondly, what Dicum calls "the Hapa Movement" or "Hapa Nation" (with a capitalized "hapa") may not actually exist. I was closely involved with Hapa Issues Forum between 1999 and 2002. At that time, and I think, still, Hapa Issues Forum (HIF) was the only national organization created around the Asian/Pacific Islander part of multiracial identities. (There has been, starting in the mid-nineties, an increasing number of API or hapa-based multiracial groups on campuses. Some are started by HIF, some start themselves and join HIF as a chapter, and some maintain their independence. There have also been a few community-based hapa orgs. As far as I know, all of these are now fallow.)

The need for "hapa", as opposed to general, non-API-specific multiraciality, arose from the fact that mixed race Asians/Pacific Islanders in the US (mainland, of course) were only a small proportion of the overall multiracial population. Many of those hapas who joined multiracial organizations found their voices and concerns overwhelmed by the majority, who were black/white. Black/white multiraciality is fraught with the history of slavery, the "one drop rule" and the severe stigma of being of African descent in our society. API multiraciality doesn't always contend with these issues, and furthermore, has to deal with immigrant, colonization, and foreign language/culture issues. Not falling into the black/white dichotomy meant hapas had little to contribute to the largest discussions, and that few had anything to contribute to hapa discussions. So creating a space around not just multiraciality but primarily around API multiraciality privileged the API aspect for the first time. It also gave hapas a power base from which to negotiate entrée and membership into Asian and Asian American groups who often dismissed them -- a very important consideration.

All of this is to say that the promotion of the term "hapa" wasn't necessarily a group effort to create a "third" or other identity separate from the monoracial identities from which hapas derive. It was rather a term that needed to be invented: 1) to distinguish the issues around API multiraciality from general multiracial, or black/white multiracial issues, and 2) to honor and distinguish API multiracials within their monoracial API communities.

The "hapa" in "hapa community" is not capitalized because "hapa" is a noun, adjective, or complement, and not a proper noun, nationality, or ethnic designation; "hapa" is grammatically like "white" or "black", and not like "African" or "Asian". The "hapa movement" is not called such by most of those involved, because of our awareness that there was no common mission among all hapas, and that the word "hapa" needs to be protected as something that anyone can use without declaring a political stance. (Naturally, this means that some hapas do capitalize it, and use it as an ethnic designation.) Rather, those involved called it the "hapa community", recognizing that a community shares certain things while tolerating a great deal of difference.

That is what the organization of Hapa Issues Forum was about: not a new, monolithic "hapa" identity, but rather creating a space for discussion around issues of multiraciality. At the time that I was involved, the very idea of the organization was to protect every participant from being coerced into a particular stance by someone else's racial agenda. Wei Ming Dariotis, whom Dicum quotes in the "hapa nation" segment of his article, has dedicated her career to examining this issue, and her ideas should be listened to. But her "new hapa identity" approach is different from mine, and when I helped her run the San Francisco chapter of Hapa Issues Forum, there was plenty of room for both of our approaches therein.

Additionally, in the past three years or so, the community (adults and families) chapters of HIF seem to have collapsed or gone fallow, while the energy and emphasis has returned to the student chapters. When adults and parents do take an interest in multiracial organizing, it seems more often to be with general multiracial organizations, which (with the coming of age of post-1965 Immigration Act hapas) are much more diverse now than they were 15 years ago. This would seem to argue for the failure of the idea of a discrete hapa identity, if that was ever a ruling idea.


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