In studying mixed race identities, the historical focus has been on the individual, but speakers at Monday’s roundtable conversation “What’s Radical About Mixed Race?” aimed to reframe discussion in a way that allows for more nuanced understanding of racial identity.
Speakers at the event, which was hosted by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, included Minelle Mahtani, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and Jared Sexton, an associate professor and director of African American studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Sexton said hypodescent, a condition in which people with multiple race identities are automatically classified according to their non-white race, is one of the concerns researchers of mixed race have had in the past. Sexton said he wants researchers to re-examine this issue in a larger framework of racial stereotypes.
“Some of the preoccupations are the issue of hypodescent and challenging its reflexive use, but in challenging hypodescent, multiracial studies also runs the risk of re-stigmatizing the very identities that it claims to combine,” Sexton said.
Mahtani said some mixed raced individuals try to fuse their various identities, but often reinforce white supremacy by ignoring their non-white ancestry. Mahtani added that the media often takes advantage of people of mixed race, using their perceived racial ambiguity to appeal to several demographics at once.
“Working at CBC, the producers told me ‘We’d like you to be on camera,’” Mahtani said. “They told me ‘It’d be easy for you to look like what the audience wants you to look like and you’d appeal to a large cross section of racial groups in the process.”
Mahtani said to progress, mixed race studies must rethink its focus.
“We need to ask new questions,” Mahtani said. “Not ‘What is mixed race?’ but ‘How does the meaning of mixed race change over time?’”
University of Washington student Na’quel Walker, who attended the event, said she often had trouble with her identity as a child.
“When I was younger, for me to say ‘I’m mixed,’ was to denounce blackness,” Walker said. “I was trying to elevate myself because I wanted to feel special or different, but I was running away from my blackness.”
Nicole Holliday, a doctoral student at NYU in linguistics who is studying the speech patterns of people of mixed race, agreed that research into mixed race culture needs to take a new approach.
“The problem is that in a lot of social science literature, it seems like the end goal is to prove that multi-racial people who are multiracial, either people who identify themselves as multiracial or who are identified by a researcher as multiracial, are somehow special or exceptional,” Holliday said. “I’m interested in how can we study this population of people who identify as multiracial in a more nuanced way, without putting them on a pedestal.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 21 print edition. Email Amanda Morris at [email protected]