Below is an excerpt from Shades of Gray: Writing the New American Multiracialism by Molly Littlewood McKibbin (December 2018). This book is the newest title in the Borderlands and Transcultural Studies series.
From Chapter Three
“Black Like Me”: Negotiating Blackness
The value of black pride cannot be overstated in its role of providing hope, dignity, and political strength to a population that has long existed within a racist white supremacist nation.1 After centuries of American history that have consistently made it difficult to be anything but black (via hypodescent) and made black pride the most effective tool for combating white racism and discrimination, it is understandable why an African American might prefer that those with black ancestry identify themselves similarly. Certainly, racial solidarity is the chief objection to multiracial identity in contemporary discourse about multiracialness. Many commentators argue that multiracialism poses a potential threat to the continued struggles of African Americans by reducing the numbers of African Americans or distracting black multiracials from being wholly committed to African American causes. While this may be a problem in relation to some multiracial individuals (as well as some white multiracial-activist parents), for many Americans who identify as black–white, their multiracial identification does not detract from their black pride or their commitment to black political struggle. Even if hypodescent is no longer enforced, its effects remain. That is, the legacy of the one-drop rule—black pride—is undiminished for many who identify as multiracial even if the rule itself no longer legally dictates how they identify themselves.
Furthermore, if it is the case, as Renee C. Romano contends in Race Mixing, that mixed children born before the 1970s were raised to identify as black whereas mixed children born in and after the 1970s have been frequently raised as multiracial, and if it is the case, as many commentators worry, that the (white) leadership of multiracial advocacy groups is leading new generations away from identifying as black, then it is important that contemporary literature is imagining multiracialness as containing black pride and respect. Danzy Senna asks a deceptively simple question of multiracial advocates: “Why is it so important for many mixed people not to be defined as black?”2 These sentiments are worked through in her writing and that of her peers; as a group, contemporary writers affirm rather than avoid the blackness of multiraciality. As Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins points out in Crossing B(l)ack, the black consciousness of so many contemporary literary characters “offers possibilities for identity that remain historically grounded in blackness without being [monoracially] imprisoning.”3 In this sense, the texts explored in this chapter depict figures who embrace black pride but find alternatives to the monoracial blackness that such loyalty necessitated in the past. In so doing, they demonstrate that past racial practices are insufficient to encompass contemporary multiracial identities.
I will be using the phrases “black political struggle” and “black political allegiance” throughout this discussion. These phrases are meant to evoke the political orientation that supports a progressive, antiracist, social equality agenda. As Manning Marable points out in his discussion of Clarence Thomas, it is a mistake to assume that all black people will exhibit this kind of “black political allegiance.” Marable argues that in our post–civil rights era, in contrast to the Jim Crow era, black “racial identity doesn’t tell us anything significant about a person’s political beliefs, voting behavior, or cultural values.”4 Marable’s comments are helpful in complicating the black–nonblack political opposition that some black monoracialists seem invested in. As I, like Marable, am interested in challenging the conflation of racial identity and political orientation, my approach is not unlike that of Tommie Shelby. In We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Shelby proposes “a conception of black solidarity that is not only, or even primarily, concerned with questions of identity, but that urges a joint commitment to defeating racism, to eliminating unjust racial inequalities, and to improving the material life prospects of those racialized as ‘black,’ especially the most disadvantaged.”5 Shelby’s interest in separating politics from identity reflects his study of black nationalism and the way in which identity has come to stand in for political stance. It is this conflation of identity and political allegiance that can dominate objections to multiracial identity, stifle the examination of multiracialness itself, and evade meaningful discussion of solidarity across differences of racial identity. I agree with Shelby when he says that “it is possible to dispense with the idea of race as a biological essence and to agree with the critics of identity politics about many of its dangers and limitations, while nevertheless continuing to embrace a form of blackness as an emancipatory tool. . . . This approach shifts the focus away from questions of social identity as such and toward the various dimensions of racial injustice.”6
In other words, instead of seeing identity as the site of one’s political allegiance or a sign of one’s interest in social justice, we must stop considering black political solidarity as necessarily tied to racial identity. As Lisa Lowe argues, depending too much on one particular facet of identity—what she terms an “exclusive cultural identity”—means that we might not perceive other shared qualities between people and therefore might not form potential alliances. That is, using race as an “exclusive identity” not only makes identity rigid and ethnoracial identity a dominant identity (as opposed to class, gender, sexuality, nationality, or age, for instance) but also makes it difficult for people to consider themselves or others outside the confines of such identification. As Marable points out, it leads us to make false assumptions about people’s political commitments. Angela Davis—who had to make a famous choice between groups in which her race stood for all (the Black Panthers) or nothing (the Communists)—proposes that political commitment is most effective when it bases “identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.”7 In this vein, my discussion explores how multiracial identity might readily coincide with black political solidarity.
1. Birdie says twice that a mixed person is “black like me.” Senna, Caucasia, 189, 353.
2. Senna, “Passing and the Problematic,” 86.
3. Dagbovie-Mullins, Crossing B(l)ack, 76.
4. Marable, “Race, Identity, and Political Culture,” 295.
5. Shelby, We Who Are Dark, 3-4.
6. Shelby, We Who Are Dark, 4.
7. Quoted in Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 75.