This is a photo of Rex Jarrett, member of the Multiracial/Biracial Students Association (MBSA) at University of Maryland, College Park, taken from the New York Times web site. That's right. This brother identifies as "multiracial." You shouldn't refer to him as a mere black, like many of us are. Mr. Jarrett lists his identity as "black/German," thereby justifying his membership in MBSA. I can hear you saying, "That's some bullshit," or maybe that was just me. But maybe we should ask whether this isn't so unreasonable. Lots of us do things to get away from our blackness-- things like buying something we can't really afford because it's something black people don't usually get, ordering fish instead of chicken, not being seen to purchase or eat watermelon, straightening our hair, pursuing a PhD, dating/marrying nonblack people because at some level, we think being with them will make things easier on us. No judgment. Escaping blackness is the only thing that many people have to prove they are alive. And, who knows? Maybe that move away from blackness is really all it takes. Maybe if we all abandoned the category of blackness, the structure of antiblack racism would have no choice but to deal with us "as people." After all, Fanon did say, "Simple enough. One has only not to be a nigger." Maybe it really all just starts with a wack, incongruous mixture like "black/German" appended to one's name. (I say incongruous because "black," which was not an ethno-national identity last time I checked but a racial one, gets paired with "German," which, of course, is an ethno-national identity.) Okay, seriously, though, I'm not doubting that Mr. Jarrett does have German ancestry. Lots of black people do. But that's the point: Why the need to assert oneself as something other than "just" black when blackness is already a category of people of many different ethnicities and genotypes? I mean, really? What might be a good reason to start an organization just so that people can say to each other, as a couple of commenters on the New York Times article said, "I have tan skin, millions of freckles, brownish lips, curly reddish brown hair with reddish/brown eyes with gray flecks and high checkbones. You can't tell what I am except maybe Latina - I've been asked am I Egyptian, Morrocan, Middle Eastern, Palestinian, Tunisian, Lebannese, and the list goes on" or "I am multi-racial/ethnic Austrian/Hungarian/Bohemian/German=dad/Mexican-Spanish-with Moorish influences-SW American Indian=mom. so I have European/N African and Asian-American Indian genetics"? The truth of all that is not reason enough to say it, and I'm not buying those who say that there is nothing suspect about the impulse to do so. There has to be more that's going unsaid, something that shows up in the kinds of slippages in logic that make one identify oneself as "black/German." Hortense Spillers has an idea about this in the Quote of the Week below.
We very much doubt that the fury here is that there are not enough boxes on the census form, or a deficit of classificatory items, or the prohibition to check more than one, or even the thwarted desire to express racial pride, but, rather, the dictates of a muted self-interest that wishes to carve its own material and political successes out of another’s hide. To that degree, these celebratory, otiose gestures are very American!
Hortense Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's, Too"
writing critically about the multiracial movement, as discussed in a series by Susan Saulny of the New York Times.
Spillers knows what time it is. People don't get riled up about what to call themselves unless something else beyond mere names is in play. By Saulny's own admission, the multiracial census option only resulted "after years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by white mothers of biracial children who objected to their children being allowed to check only one race." So Spillers is right to say the following in the last few sentences of her article:
Students at Maryland, or anywhere else, for that matter, have every right to freely associate on whatever basis they wish. They may even do so stupidly, but it strikes my mind as the rankest of vanities that in this new century the herald of mixed-race is taking us backward into the latest avatar of the reification of race.
Jared Sexton says it differently:
[Multiracialism's] target is not race per se, since multiracialism is still very much a politics of racial identity..., but rather the categorical sprawl of blackness in particular and the insatiable political demand it presents to a nominally postemancipation society.
"The sprawl of blackness"-- that's what people are really upset about. I wish they would just say that so we could get on with it.
People will call themselves what they want, and what I think doesn't matter. In an ethico-political sense, what matters is how we align ourselves to address the unique constellation of problems that constitute blackness. To that degree, what I am really asking of Rex Jarrett is where he stands when the police start shooting us down in the streets. They already have.