Saturday, April 25, 2009

Living Outside of the Boxes

Here's a little piece I wrote for an anthropology class called "Writing Culture," during the Spring 2008 semester.


Living Outside of the Boxes

On “Rethinking Race: Examining the Multiracial Experience”
A Guest Lecture and Discussion with Dr. Kelly Jackson
Sponsored by the University of Arizona Social Justice Leadership Center

Growing up, when I was in middle school and high school we didn’t have the option of checking more than one box. And in that town and in that, you know, place where I grew up, if you were black you were black. You know, ‘one drop, you’re black.’ So, I identified as black. That’s how I identified, that’s what I checked on forms. Um, and that was who I was. And then in college, kind of understanding this idea of you can be alll different pieces of yourself, and not wanting to—reject that part of me that was my mom’s side, which was the white side, I identified as biracial. And that wasn’t really cool then.
-Dr. Kelly Jackson

Dr. Kelly Jackson is a visiting speaker from the ASU School of Social Work. She stands in the center of the Kiva Room at the UA Student Union, slim and stylish in a red pencil skirt and pointed green flats. There is an air of friendly self-assurance about her, in the way she holds her shoulders straight back but doesn’t refrain from leaning into one hip at times, and in the readiness of her smile. She speaks in conversational, yet passionate tones—a vibrant young professional. Her hair falls just above her collarbone, in tight ringlets much like my own, except hers are a lighter brown. Her eyes might be blue or green or hazel, it’s hard to tell from where I’m sitting, two rows back in the center of the semicircular audience area. For her dissertation, she “asked multiracial people about their identity,” using the question “Who are you culturally?” Asking about culture, she felt, “encapsulates more” than focusing on categories like race, and allows for more “fluid” responses.

She begins her talk by going over five basic thematic areas that her respondents seemed to veer towards: “Transforming self,” being “ethnically ambiguous,” being “racially defiant,” “feeling like an outsider,” and “seeking community.” She discusses the way that people tend to want to “box” each other, and the often unpleasant What are you? question.

“As I’ve gotten older,” she says, “I joke that I’ve gotten whiter—looking. [Scattered laughs break out across the room] People, you know, they don’t understand, they’re like, ‘Oh, why are you interested in this topic?’ and I say ‘Well, I’m biracial,’ and they’re like ‘Really? I can’t believe it!’”

Heavy chuckling ensues. I identify with what she is saying. There are about twenty of us in the audience, maybe less, there appear to be a few more women than men. We seem like a relatively ethnically diverse group, more so than is often usual in a classroom at the U of A. As a person of biracial/ethnic/cultural heritage myself (my father is Somali and my mother is Armenian—according to the conventional US racial binary, he is black and she is white), I’m never quite comfortable with applying racial labels to other people.

So here, of all places, I prefer to refrain from “boxing” people into racial categories based on their physical features. I wait for people to speak for themselves. During the discussion session, audience members begin to self-identify: black/African American, white/Caucasian, black and white, Korean and white, Native American and black, white mother of biracial children, white and transgender/gender ambiguous, and more. At one point Dr. Jackson suggests that multiracial/ethnic/cultural people and people who identify as GLBTQ often seem to relate to each other, as somehow ‘falling outside of the boxes’ drawn by US society. Many of us start to nod our heads, perhaps sensing a commonality there—a “shared experience,” as one audience member will put it.

She recalls a college experience that many audience members seem to sympathize (and/or empathize) with:

I took this class I remember, with a prominent African American lecturer, and he was trying to make a point about race relations, and he said, "I want all my white students to go on this side of the room, and I want all my black students to go on this side." [...] I raised my hand and I said, “What if you’re both?” And he looked at me, with so much disdain, that I will never forget, he looked at me like I was, you know, pretty much an abomination, and said "Choose."

In the audience, some of us gasp, others shake their heads with mouths open, or lean back in their seats and sigh, eyebrows knotted. Audience members start talking about their own experiences. This pressure to “choose” one category to identify with seems to be a common, as does the urge to defy that pressure and define oneself on one’s own terms. Some people want all of the parts of their heritage to be recognized and feel left out when this doesn’t happen because of the way they look, some talk about fears regarding loss of identity for their children unless they marry someone of the/a minority part of their heritage, others argue that such fears are unfounded. Many people just keep echoing this sentiment: “I just want to be around people who get it.” And, Dr. Jackson asks, “Don’t we all just want that?”

“Even though race isn’t real, we experience race,” Dr Jackson says, and heads nod. That, she argues, is why the idea of “color-blindness” can be dangerous—when it’s used to deny the existence of racial inequality and injustice in our society.

Dr. Jackson reads a poem by a 14 year-old boy, including the line, “race is just a very small part of me,” and tears fill my own eyes. When I look around I see a few other people sniffling, too. Dr. Jackson’s voice breaks before she’s finished reading it.

“It gets blurry for me,” she says. “In a sense, guys, we’re all really multiracial.” Audience members talk excitedly about the idea of our generation becoming increasingly “mixed,” at the idea that we might be the “rainbow generation.” In a way, a sense of community seems to have been built right here in this room, over the course of this discussion. People respond to one another with encouraging tones, nodding heads, open eyes. In discussing a shared experience of alienation, a feeling of connection seems to have been reached.

But “Change will only happen if everyone gets onboard,” Dr. Jackson adds.

“So, you know, we all need to have this conversation, not just if you can identify with a minority culture.”

When it’s time to go, everyone in the room starts clapping.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


"D.S.W.G. (Dark Skinned White Girls)"

From Murray's Revenge,
album by Murs & producer 9th Wonder

[Verse 1:]

She got that mocha-chino baby on the back of the bus
If you close your eyes and listen she would be one of us

Never did trust her family at home
So she kicked it in the hood, raised herself on her own

She talk with that tone, but she white to the bone
You would swear she was black if you spoke on the phone

Some say it's overblown, but she don't give a damn
All the black girls think that she want they man

But it's not your fault that they attracted to you
That you blessed and got as much back as you do

Some white boys say that you're way too thick
And some brothers might say, you're the number one pick

You say [psh], "Girrrl," roll your eyes, twist your neck
But it comes from the soul, you don't mean no disrespect

And even when they check you, you just keep it moving
Cuz in your heart you feel you ain't got nothing to be proving


[Chorus x2:]

Whether chocolate or vanilla, or you're somewhere in between
A cappuccino, mocha or a caramel queen

Rejected by the black, not accepted by the white world
And this is dedicated to them dark skinned white girls


[Verse 2:]

Now she like The Smiths, The Cure, really into Morrisey
Heavy on the rock, never fooled with the Jodeci

You would notice she was never really welcomed by the others
Hard to find a date when there was only ten brothers
In the whole damn school, and they thought she was weird
Cuz she wore her hair different, and she never joined cheer

A melancholy dolly with a Polly-wanna syndrome
White stepfather, black daddy never been home

And when on the quad she could hear 'em say
"Look at how she walks, why she talk that way?"

But girl it's okay, your black is beautiful
No matter how you dress, or no matter what music you like

Forget what they say, you're doing it right
No more grabbing on your pillow as you cry through the night

Stand strong, hold your ground at any cost
and know that everyone who tries to put you down is lost

[Chorus x2]

[Verse 3:]

Now for you half-and-half and mixed girls,
I know what the battle be

Every time you go out, it's "What's your nationality?"

Everybody always wanna dig up in your background---
"You don't look _____," now how does that sound?

"I couldn't tell you were _____." (Tell you were...)
Oh, is that right?
Do you take it as a compliment or start up a fight?

Venezuelan and Indian, 'Rican and Dominican
Japanese or Portuguese, quarter a' Brazilian and
White and Korean, Black and Pinay
I could find out later it don't matter you're fly

It really don't make a difference to most of us guys
We just need an excuse to get close and say hi

I know they call you stuck up, say you think you're too pretty
Spreading rumors about you, all throughout the city

So much attention, so many haters
But don't be bitter, you'll be better for it later and...

[Chorus x2]

lyrics from
(punctuation modified/errors corrected here)


Here's the song:

This next one is live, but doesn't include the third verse about being mixed.

: skip ahead to 20 seconds if you want to avoid some iffy language at the beginning.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


What is a "social construct?"

Here is a brief introduction, excerpted from "Race As a Social Construct," an article at, a site by Kambiz Kamrani.

Often times the word social construct is thrown around in various theoretical and general works without ever being defined or discussed. However, understanding what is meant by race as a social construct is vital to understanding the capacity race has to intersect and affect other aspects and domains of life and society, as well as how to dismantle it.

To begin, a social construct is ontologically subjective, but epistemologically objective. It is ontologically subjective in that the construction and continued existence of social constructs are contingent on social groups and their collective agreement, imposition, and acceptance of such constructions (for more on the notion of social constructions see The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle). There is nothing absolute or real about social constructions in the same way as there is something absolute and real about rocks, rivers, mountains, and in general the objects examined by physics. For example, the existence of a mountain is not contingent on collective acceptance, imposition, or agreement. A mountain will exist regardless of people thinking, agreeing or accepting that it does exist. Unlike a mountain, the existence of race requires that people collectively agree and accept that it does exist. Franz Boas, a physicist by training, supports this view of race best in his work Race, Language, and Culture where he observes that there is nothing biologically real about race. There is nothing that we have identified as race that exists apart from our collective agreement, acceptance, and imposition of its existence.

Race, although it does not exist in the world in any ontologically objective way, it still is real in society (as opposed to nature). Race is a social construction that has real consequences and effects. These effects, consequences and the notion that race is ontologically subjective is epistemologically objective. We know that race is something that is real in society, and that it shapes the way we see ourselves and others. Many rightly claim that race is conceptually unstable. However, this should not lead us to skepticism about race, i.e. that we cannot have any objective knowledge about race. We can know what race is and how it works regardless of the various shifts in meaning that have occurred through history and occur geographically.


50 Experiences of Racially Mixed People

by Maria P.P. Root, PhD

The 50 questions or comments and experiences evolved from a questionnaire I developed for a study on biracial siblings I conducted from 1996 to 1997. These questions and comments provide an introduction to the way in which race consciousness is brought up directly, sideways, and from all sides for people of mixed heritage. These comments and questions, though not an exhaustive list, provide a window into how this country internalizes assumption about race, belonging, and identity. They socialize the mixed race person to understand as well as question race American style. It is a monoracial system; one race per person. Not everyone experiences these questions or comments the similarly. One person might enjoy being asked, “What are you?” whereas their sibling might dread and resent the question. This list provides a launching point for sharing, discussing, laughing, debriefing, and educating.

1. You have been told, “You have to choose; you can’t be both.”

2. Your ethnicity was mistakenly identified.

3. People assumed your race to be different by phone than in person.

4. You are accused of not acting or wanting to be Latino, Asian, Black…

5. You have been told, “Mixed race people are so beautiful or handsome.”

6. Strangers looked between you and your parent(s) to figure out if you were related.

7. You have been told, “You don’t look Native, Black, Latino…”

8. You have been asked, “What are you?”

9. People say things they might not otherwise say if they knew how you identified racially.

10. You have been asked, “Where are you from?”

11. You have repeatedly been the recipient of stares or longer than passing glances from strangers.

12. You have been told, “You look exotic.”

13. Your choice of friends has been interpreted as your “selling out” or not being authentic.

14. You have been accused of “acting or wanting to be white.”

15. Judgments of your racial authenticity have been based upon your boyfriend/s or girlfriend’s (partner’s) race.

16. Comments are made about your hair or hairstyle, skin color, eye shape etc.

17. You have been subjected to jokes about mixed race people.

18. You have been told, “You think you’re too good for your own kind.”

19. Grandparent(s) or relatives don’t accept you because of your parents’ interracial relationship.

20. Your parents or relatives compete to “claim” you for their own racial or ethnic group.

21. You have been told, “You have the best of both worlds.”

22. You have been asked about your racial or ethnic heritage as an object of curiosity.

23. Upon meeting you, people seem confused by your last name. They do not think it “matches” you.

24. People assume you are confused about your racial identity or have had a hard time figuring it out.

25. People speak to you in foreign languages because of how they interpret your physical appearance.

26. You have been told, “Society doesn’t recognize mixed race.”

27. You have been told, “You aren’t really Black, Latino, Asian…”

28. You have been mistaken for another person of mixed heritage who does not resemble you.

29. You have been told you must be full of self-loathing or hatred because of how you racially identify yourself.

30. You have been told, “You are a mistake.”

31. Different people perceive your race differently based upon the company you keep.

32. The race people assign you varies in different parts of the U.S.A.

33. You have difficulty filling out forms asking for a single race.

34. You identify your race differently than others identify you.

35. You are told, “You aren’t like other Indians, Asians, Latinos…”

36. Your siblings identify their race differently than you do yours.

37. You have been called racial slurs of groups with which you do not share heritage.

38. Friends suggest that you date someone based upon the race or ethnicity with which they think you should identify.

39. Your parents identify your race differently than you identify.

40. You are told, “You aren’t Black, Latino, Asian…enough”

41. Your mother was assumed to be your nanny or babysitter.

42. A stranger assumes that your father is your “older boyfriend” or your mother is the “older woman.”

43. You were treated differently by relatives or your parents than a sibling on the basis of racial features.

44. You were well liked by peers but were not asked for dates.

45. You wish you were darker and try to get as much sun as possible.

46. People assume your father was in the military.

47. You have enrolled in Spanish language classes in order to develop the ability to say “Yes” to the question, “Do you speak the language?” and remove one of the blocks to authenticity.

48. Your otherwise friends become more distant when they think associating with you will make their racial authenticity or popularity questionable.

49. You have been knowingly approached and asked, “Your mother’s white (black, Asian), huh?”

50. You have tried to hide one or both parents from view of people who know you but are not your closest friends because you anticipate they will treat you differently.

© 1996, Maria P. P. Root, Ph.D. Racial Experiences Questionnaire and 2003 In The Multiracial Child Resource Book. Seattle, WA: Mavin Foundation.


Multiracial Oath of Social Responsibility

by Maria P.P. Root, PhD

I want to make a difference in this world. Therefore:

I strive to improve race relations.

I know that race and ethnicity are not solely defined by one’s genetic heritage;
I refuse to confine my choices in love or loyalty to a single race;
I make efforts to increase my knowledge of U.S. racial history;
I know that race and ethnicity can be used as political, economic, and social tools of

I recognize the people who have made it possible for me to affirm my multiracial identity.

They are my relatives, friends, and mentors;
They are people who have crossed color lines to fight discrimination;
They are people who identified as multiracial before this choice was recognized;
They are people who have exposed and explained the suppression of multiraciality.

I must fight all forms of oppression as the oppression of one is the oppression of all.

I recognize that oppression thrives on fear and ignorance;
I seek to recognize my prejudices and change them;
I know that it is neither helpful nor productive to argue over who is more oppressed;
I recognize that my life interconnects with all other lives.

I will make a difference!

© 2004, Maria P. P. Root


Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage

Maria P.P. Root, PhD


Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with
my physical or ethnic ambiguity.


To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.


To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multiethnic.
To change my identity over my lifetime--and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

© Maria P. P. Root, PhD, 1993, 1994