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Cultural Diversity to the Nth Degree While Teaching in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is known by many as a city divided into brown, black, white, and yellow communities, a city with a long history of ethnic group tensions, gang fights, race riots, and racist cops.

Los Angeles is also a cosmopolitan city of incredible wealth and poverty, a city where peoples from all over the world speaking various languages interact and often clash, a city of disparate and shifting valuations, a city where peoples mix creating new cultural identities, products, and traditions.

In all, Los Angeles does more than complicate received understandings of multicultural diversity. That is to say, Los Angeles is the mecca of cultural diversity to the nth degree.

Los Angeles is also the city where I grew up, live, and teach English. Simply put, I help students (high school and college) become better readers, writers, and critical thinkers. This unassuming work, I would argue, is very important—even a form of social activism—insofar as in helping students become more literate I also develop their capabilities to participate effectively in public debates regarding social issues that they might care deeply about, now or in the future. In other words, to have an intelligible public voice, or to be an effective social activist, you need to be fully literate in English like the affluent and highly educated are—which is where I come in as an educator who cultivates writing, reading, rhetorical, and thinking capabilities in individual students.

As a teacher in Los Angeles, I experience cultural diversity to the nth degree anew every time I start a new class. In the first four or five class meetings, I like to number out students many times over, creating groups of various sizes that allow students to both collaborate and to become more familiar with the knowledge, experience, and lived diversity of each other. I start my classes with a no-pressure, ice-breaker activity that literally provides students in groups of six with a script of sentence stems that prompt them to share basic information about themselves (as much or as little as they want) regarding topics such as what they do for work, where they grew up and live, why they’re here in college, where they see themselves in five years, and what social justice issue they care most about.IMG_2725 Stems for this script activity can be customized for different types of classes, and the scripting strategy can be used for various purposes as a means to focus small groups on particular questions, issues, or topics.

This scripting activity also helps me become more familiar with the knowledge and diverse cultural backgrounds of my students as I walk around the classroom listening to and participating in group conversations. This summer and fall I decided to take a few notes during this activity:

  • Students from Van Nuys, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sun Valley, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills, West Hills, Santa Monica, and Reseda
  • High school students from Calabasas, Taft, Reseda, and El Camino Real HS
  • A virtual high school student who is also an actress
  • A student who just graduated from Options for Youth
  • A student recently out of jail, not sure for what crime
  • Students who are recovering addicts back to school
  • Students who work in hospitals
  • Students with kids and full-time jobs
  • Students who work in hotels
  • Students who work at CVS, Starbucks, and Subway
  • Students in their fifties or sixties back to school
  • Students who work as medical billers and telemarketers
  • Students from Iran (one is Zoroastrian), Syria, Pakistan, India, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines
  • Second-generation Armenian, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American students
  • Six or seven African American students
  • Six or seven unambiguous white students
  • A few Hispanic/Latino students who say that they are often mistaken for white
  • A few mixed -identified students who are reluctant to divulge their ethnic or racial mix
  • A black-identified student who does not subscribe to stereotypic black culture in his personal life
  • A mixed race student about six five (Mexican, black, white) who has learned to laugh off racial stereotypes, telling inquisitive strangers that he sucks at basketball and isn’t very athletic
  • Students who say that racism is the most important social justice issue today
  • Students who think that police brutality is an important social justice issue
  • Students who say that species survival and how we treat one another in our daily lives are the social justice issues that matter most
  • Students who think that female body shape discrimination is an important social justice issue
  • Students who believe that poverty is the greatest social justice issue

This is just a glimpse of what cultural diversity to the nth degree typically sounds like in the classes that I teach. If you want to experience cultural diversity that overflows standard categories, definitions, and understandings of multicultural diversity then you might love teaching in Los Angeles public schools. If you want to live in a city that is a fluid composite of established cultures, fading cultures, evolving cultures, indistinct cultures, and cultures in making then Los Angeles might be the place for you.

An Introduction: Egalitarian Humanist and Cosmopolitan Approaches to Mixed Race

A Panel at the 2014 Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference at Depaul University: November 15, 3:15 pm – 4:45 pm in the Depaul Student Center, RM 314 A/B

In introducing this interdisciplinary panel, I also want to tell about how it came together and explain its rationale.  But first I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to two world-class philosophers, Professors Naomi Zack and Jason Hill, for accepting my invitation to present.

Professor Zack is also one of the foundational scholars of our emergent academic discipline, Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS). I include myself among the many second-wave mixed-race scholars, activists, and artists who have been challenged and inspired by her writings on race and mixed race.  I invited her to join this panel so that we can all learn about her latest thinking on mixed race, and more specifically about how mixed-race identity fits into her current project of developing an ethics of race.

Professor Hill is well known in the world for his critique of multiculturalism and for his radical, post-human cosmopolitanism. I invited him to join this panel because I think that his version of cosmopolitanism could be a viable identity option and path of inquiry for some multiracials who want to evolve beyond established notions of ethnicity and race in their personal lives.

To explain how this panel came together I need to account for the absence of another first-wave CMRS scholar, Rainier Spencer. Indeed, my idea for this panel was motivated by a Facebook group discussion that I had with Rainier, Mark James, Steven Riley, and a stubborn, mixed-race-identified Englishman named Adrian Baillie. This discussion, which occurred in the CMRS Facebook group in the summer of 2013, focused on Rainier’s metatheoretical approach to mixed race in relation to mainstream media celebrations and depictions of multiracials. Rainier’s metatheoretical approach prescribes radical skepticism toward the longstanding collective belief that race is real, and by extension toward the growing false belief in the existence of mixed-race individuals, families, and cultural products that are worthy of recognition and respect. Rainier had agreed to deliver a paper on this panel developing his notion of racial suicide for mixed-race persons, but unfortunately had to drop out.

Influenced by this Facebook discussion, the rationale for this panel rests on the presumption that recent history has witnessed a steady increase in the number of multiracial-identified individuals of various mixes and backgrounds in the US and abroad, an increase that has accelerated in the age of Obama and social media. Furthermore, in proposing this panel I presumed the likelihood that going forward more and more children of mixed ethnic and racial unions will choose to identify themselves as mixed.

But are these presumptions false? Put differently, is the purported growth of the multiracial-identified population a mirage?

This panel will also consider and give voice to the opposing view that it is still very difficult for individuals to sustain and cultivate a mixed-race identity in public spheres insofar as mixed-race identities lack adequate recognition and support from state institutions and our legal system. In other words, individuals who choose to identify themselves as mixed race in public or in academia are also adopting a socially and politically vulnerable identity—one that is susceptible to the beliefs, anxieties, commitments, and objectives of established ethnic and racial groups, state institutions, politicians, marketers, activists, and academics.

In synthesizing these divergent views, it just might be the case that racially mixed individuals have become in recent history more socially visible and more at liberty to publicly assert mixed identities that, in most contexts, are still vulnerable and difficult to maintain. In other words, it would seem to be the case that multiracials of various mixes and backgrounds are now recognized and celebrated in the mainstream media and in the society at large, yet the individual act of publicly asserting, performing, and cultivating a mixed-race identity is still risky and difficult to sustain.

That is to say, multiracials are socially visible today, yet they continue to be politically and socially contested and up for grabs. For instance, in celebrating multiracials, the mainstream media tends to depict them in ways that perpetuate the notion that races and ethnicities are static and durable. Mixed-race families and children often are presented as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of a forthcoming post-racial America. Additionally, the children of mixed unions are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their assumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents, which are assumptions that also perpetuate the heteronormative social myth that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help democratic societies evolve beyond race and racism. Added to this, multiracial college students are now presented with competing conceptions of mixed-race identity and with specific demands by activists and academics about how they should think and act as progressive multiracials.

I also proposed this panel because I am deeply concerned about the personal wellbeing of the current generation of multiracial-identified individuals who need to negotiate social contexts in which they are targeted, contested, and saddled with various competing demands and conceptions. In light of this concern, I think that CMRS should also embrace and develop alternative approaches to mixed race that emphasize individual rights, harms, and possibilities—hence my idea to put together this panel on egalitarian humanist, cosmopolitan, and metatheoretical approaches to mixed race.

But what exactly are egalitarian humanist, cosmopolitan and metatheoretical approaches to mixed race? What are their key themes and assumptions? Hopefully, the presentations and subsequent discussion will help answer these questions.

I would like to conclude however with a few brief comments about what these approaches have in common. All three approaches are skeptical of biological race. All see race as an illogical and harmful social construct. To various degrees, all frown on notions of ethnic or racial group pride, and on the politics of conserving the culture and identity of particular ethnic or racial groups. Yet, all view as justifiable the provisional use of racial or ethnic identities and narratives for strategic, political purposes—so as to counteract racist beliefs and practices, and other forms of social injustice that target oppressed groups. Finally, all highlight individual harms, rights, justice, and duties vis-a-vis racialization, the politics of identity, and the history of white supremacy.

Panel Announcement: Egalitarian Humanist and Cosmopolitan Approaches to Mixed Race

I am excited to announce that I will be chairing this groundbreaking panel at the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference at Depaul University in Chicago on Saturday, November 15 from 3:15-4:45 in Room 314 A/B (Depaul Student Center)

Gino Michael Pellegrini, Pierce College

“Where Do We Go From Here? From Mixed-Race Identity to Mixed Cosmopolitanism”

Jason D. Hill, DePaul University

“Who is Afraid of Racial and Ethnic Self-Cleansing? In Defense of the Virtuous Cosmopolitan”

Naomi Zack (via Videoconferencing), University of Oregon

“What Race Is and Is Not and that Mixed Race Should Be Set Free”

On My Mixed Experience with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

I have this peculiar, twofold, scrambled-egg relationship with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the oft-quoted, seminal article written by Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s.

That is to say, I have been a student in college classes where McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed, classes in which I was perceived and treated as a white male oppressor. Conversely, I have assigned or cited McIntosh’s article in classes where most of my students perceived and treated me as nonwhite, classes in which I identified myself as mixed race and a person of color—Mexican, Italian, White, Native American.

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege” (McIntosh).

You should know that I exist phenotypically somewhere in a range between olive and brown. So much about my look depends on the season, how much sun I have been exposed to, the length of my hair, lighting, and place—whether I’m in Los Angeles, Indiana, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oklahoma, or Seattle–whether I’m talking academic, street, or just standing around.

You should also know that I grew up hopeful, angry, and comparatively poor in the middle class racist culture of my Los Angeles east valley suburban town. Growing up in the 1980s I was exposed to a typical All-American medley of racist, sexist, and homophobic shit that circulated in the schools, in the streets, and on the playgrounds…

Spic, beaner, wetback, greaser, fag, monkey, chief, nigger, cholo, pussy, jap, chink, redneck, blackie, ornamental, wop…Is your dad in the mafia? Did your granddad swim across the Rio Grande? Do you eat Spaghettios for dinner every night?

I learned to throw a potent left-right combo in response to blatant racist remarks directed at me and at friends, but by high school I had become a lone sponge on the sidelines that listened, observed, took mental notes, walked away from fights, disengaged socially, and raged internally afterwards for days, weeks, and years.

Some of you might assume then that my initial encounters in college with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” must have been revelatory and life changing. The answer is yes with the proviso that my education about race, white supremacy, and white privilege actually started in high school while watching Charlie Rose interview activists, politicians, and scholars very late at night.

I first became acquainted with Peggy McIntosh in the early 1990s. I was an English major at CSULA who believed that the world could be changed for the better through ideas, art, and literature. Admittedly, I was more than a little naïve and idealistic…even volunteered for the “We the People” campaign believing that Jerry Brown was going to beat Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr.

“I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make” (McIntosh).

At CSULA I took more than a few general education and English classes in which McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed. White privilege, patriarchy, multiculturalism, postmodernism, literary theory, Eurocentrism, and dead white males were hot topics of discussion back then, and most humanities professors were more than happy to express their opinions about them.

These lectures and discussions helped me make better sense of my own experiences with race, white privilege, and white supremacy growing up. But, I was usually a quiet participant, especially in classes where I was perceived and encouraged to come out as white by overzealous, self-proclaimed white progressive professors and students:

“Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way” (McIntosh).

In the context of most of these discussions, and in the larger political context of CSULA in the 1990s, to be Mexican, Italian, White and a person of color at the same time was wrongheaded. Put differently, CSULA was not a nurturing social environment for Mexican Italians, Mexican Whites, political nonconformists, and brown cosmopolites.

“Professor X is white man with a Hispanic last name. We tried to tell the hiring committee that there are white people from Mexico. They said that hiring a Hispanic medievalist who works in Old English was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We should have hired someone else. He doesn’t really fit in here.”

“Richard Rodriguez is a whitewashed coconut. It’s even more of a shame that as a homosexual he chooses not to help that community either.”

Within this particular academic environment, I felt too intimidated and insecure to speak out in public about my mixed background and experiences. It was far easier to conform to the wishes of the professor: listen, observe, nod in agreement, take mental notes, and do whatever was required to pass the class with a good grade.

To be fair, I’m talking about CSULA in the 1990s—and my name on the official roster did signify in the era of Clinton multiculturalism descendant of European-American male oppressors, and still does. The academic culture wars were national and omnipresent. Multiculturalism had become synonymous with cultural group identity politics. Talk of the mixed experience was nascent and indistinct.

Furthermore, most English professors had bifurcated themselves into two opposing camps: the dinosaurs or traditional humanist liberal types; and the new professors or progressive cultural pluralist types. Too many in both camps were second raters who wasted time, taxpayer money, and alienated students by hurling labels and insults at each other in front of captive student audiences…

…whitewashed, balkanist, humanist, deconstructionist, imperialist, feminist, sexist, nihilist, dead white male, cultural separatist, American exceptionalist, hypocrite, romanticist, postmodernist, elitist, anti-foundationalist, Eurocentric, anti-individualist, racist, ghettoizer, discursive colonialist, relativist…

Different Modes of Racial Perception and Performance: West Lafayette, Indiana

I want to be absolutely clear here that I firmly believe that we need to continue to educate the public about race, racism, and white privilege. I also believe that citizens need to know that color blindness is a pernicious myth rather than an ideal, and that race–though an utterly bogus and unhealthy concept– will continue to be relevant into the unforeseeable future given the democratic-free-market right of social groups, businesses, and corporations to utilize concepts of race and ethnicity when they conclude that it is in their collective best interest to do so.

It should come as no surprise then that I have assigned or cited “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in various college classes that I have taught over the years, and particularly in classes that I taught as a doctoral student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

At Purdue, I was perceived and treated as nonwhite by most of my white students, many of whom can be fairly described as future neoconservatives on training wheels, future supporters of Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, students who resented being asked to talk about race and white privilege.

“Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the US think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity” (McIntosh).

I thought that it was a good idea for my students—like it or not–to read, discuss, and respond in writing to a few articles each semester that pertained to race, white privilege, and white supremacy–given Purdue’s history of institutional racism. Typical responses…

“We already have diversity here in Indiana. How is this discussion going to make me a better writer or critical thinker? Why do so many liberals hate white men? This is reverse discrimination. How am I responsible for what happened before I was born?”

Within this longstanding white/black social environment, I quickly came to see most of the students before me as white, black or international. Racially and ethnically ambiguous students, who might have identified as mixed in their private lives, were lost in a sea of white faces juxtaposed against an archipelago of black bodies–especially if these students were taciturn and had white names.

For instance, I recall one of my seemingly white male students who came up to me at the Viena Coffee House wanting to talk. He wanted to tell me that he not only liked my literature class, but that he was also part Mexican like me, and thought it was so cool that I had talked about my mixed race background in front of the class.

This incident gave me pause in 2000 and still does today in that I was thoughtlessly certain that this student was just another Indiana white boy until he reached out to me in private to tell me otherwise. He was actually an Indiana Mexican white boy with a white name, a reality that hit very close to home for me.

I continued to exchange emails with this student for a few years after I left Purdue to finish writing my dissertation in absentia back in Los Angeles. I learned that besides being mixed and partly-assimilated like me, he was from a poor family and had to drop out of Purdue and work full time. In his last email, he stated that he was working the graveyard shift in a bottling factory, trying to save up enough money to return to college.

That I first perceived him as a typical Indiana white boy had much to do with the white/black social environment at Purdue, as well as with my efforts at the time to see and identify myself and others in racial and ethnic terms. Put differently, while at Purdue I tended to see students before me more as representatives of racial and ethnic groups rather than as individuals with unique personal stories.

However, it was also the case that my relationship with this student unfolded in the way that it did because I had become resolved at that point in my life to identity myself as mixed and mixed race and to talk openly to my students and to others about my mixed experiences with race, class, multiculturalism, and white privilege.

In closing, I want to repeat the point that the task of educating students and citizens at large about race, racism, and white privilege is crucial for the development of American democracy–so much so that I believe that we need to reconsider the ways in which these topics have been typically taught. Accordingly, in a subsequent piece I want to mull over the following question: How can we teach students about race and white privilege without ascribing established racial and/or ethnic identities to them?

Complicating Race or Reproducing Whiteness? Heidi Durrow and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

[This is an excerpt from a paper (currently being revised) that I presented last month at the 2014 MELUS Conference in Oklahoma City.]

[…] Heidi Durrow is also the latest member of the mixed-experience generation to achieve widespread recognition following the publication of her deeply autobiographical first novel. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was published in 2010 after winning the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for a first novel that addresses social justice issues. It became a national bestseller in 2011, and is now available in French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a book that was repeatedly rejected by the traditional publishing industry.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky recounts the racialization, alienation, coming of age, and coming to multiracial consciousness of Durrow’s fictional intermediary, Rachel Morse. Rachel is the sole survivor of a heartbreaking tragedy: her Danish mother Nella jumps from a rooftop in Chicago with all her biracial children. After recovering, Rachel is sent to live with her paternal grandmother who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Her alcoholic father, an airman stationed overseas, has disappeared from her life. The year is 1982. Rachel is seen as a light-skinned black girl by her new family and by the surrounding community. From the 5th grade onward, she identifies herself as black, but is still ridiculed for talking white; she is both resented and desired for her good hair and blue eyes. In short, Durrow’s novel recounts from multiple perspectives how Rachel comes to understand the tragedy that claimed her mother and siblings, and in the process reclaim her Danish cultural memory, becoming Afro-Viking like Durrow.

Some commentators are troubled by Rachel’s evolution from light-skinned black girl to Afro-Viking and by the great deal of uncritical attention that Durrow has received from the mainstream media. They say that Durrow’s work implements and promotes the politics of the American Multiracial Movement. In other words, they see her as a multiracial activist who also happens to write fiction. Or, as Summer McDonald puts it in her article “Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity,” Durrow’s novel “is a fictional rendering of her real life politics.” In particular, McDonald and other commentators such as Rainier Spencer, Jared Sexton, and Steven F. Riley disagree with a central message conveyed by multiracial advocates and apparently by Durrow—namely, that asserting a mixed-race identity is a socially just and progressive act. In McDonald’s words, “mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness.” Put differently, mixed-race identity, and Durrow’s in particular, “…reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness—which it knows it can never access—and definitely above blackness.” Riley, who was a frequent contributor to Mixed Chicks Chat, agrees with McDonald; he adds that Durrow’s work reflects “her desire to be identified as ‘not black’” (“Canon” Responses).

Excuse the pun and my use of a template from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, but I have mixed feelings about Durrow’s work, which includes her novel, her festivals, her blog, podcasts, as well as her interviews in print and on YouTube. On the one hand, I think it is fair and useful for commentators to ask how Durrow’s work relates to white privilege and to the history of white supremacy. On the other hand, I think that Durrow’s novel (and other work) defies the limits of black/white America and ruptures the tradition of black/white passing narratives.

That said, many of the criticisms that commentators levy against multiracial advocates and mixed-race identity are spot on. Simply asserting a mixed-race identity in light of the popular formula “I’m not black, I’m not white; I’m both or mixed” is far from progressive or revolutionary. I concur with David Theo Goldberg’s point in “Made in the USA: Racial Mixing ‘N Matching” that “…the challenge to the project of racial purity in the celebration of mixed-race identities is at best ambiguous, (re)fixing the premises of the racializing project in place as it challenges that project’s very terms of articulation” (Racial Subjects 61). Put differently, popular versions of mixed-race identity generally work to reproduce race, rather than challenge and complicate it, insofar as most people who assert and/or celebrate mixed-race identities assume that races are real and that ethnic and racial group identities, histories, and cultures are stable and durable.

I also agree with the point that the mainstream media extends “the racializing project” when it presents interracial families, mixed-race children, and generation mixed as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of an impending post-racial America. As Jared Sexton (Amalgamation Schemes) and others have shown, the recent celebration of multiracials in the mainstream media assumes and privileges heterosexual unions between members of different races or ethnicities. The mixed children of these unions then are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their presumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents. This presumption about the transformative capacity of mixed-race children privileges heteronormativity, and also promotes the myth, which is not at all new to our era or country, that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help societies evolve beyond race and racism.

It is also the case that powerful political and corporate entities can easily co-opt and redeploy multiracials in ways that both sustain conventional racial taxonomies and divert public attention away from blackness, white privilege, and the work of anti-racist scholars and activists. In other words, multiracials can be (and have been) used by powerful entities, often in conjunction with the mainstream media, to reinforce and propagate the popular sentiment that America is moving beyond the race problem and by extension beyond the need to educate the public about blackness and the history of white supremacy.

The above-mentioned criticisms of multiracials certainly cast doubt on the goals that Durrow sets for her work, and specifically on her oft-repeated statement that her work aims to complicate race and dismantle racism. Put differently, her belief in the transformative potential of individuals like her asserting mixed-race identities and telling their complex mixed-roots stories might seem unfounded, confused, or even disingenuous after taking into consideration past uses and abuses of mixed race. At best, then, these stories might help to educate the public about racism, blackness, white supremacy, and other social justice issues. At worst, rather than helping to heal racial divisions within the individual and American society as Durrow hopes, these stories reinscribe and exacerbate them; rather than complicating race and dismantling racism, these stories work in the service of power to divert public attention away from blackness and white privilege. At any rate, these are the main conclusions that McDonald, Riley, and others have reached about Durrow’s work.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it is fair and accurate to cast Durrow as a spokesperson for American multiracial identity politics, and to claim that her Afro-Viking identity is a facsimile of mainstream media and advocacy versions of mixed-race identity. Do the creative goals of her work mirror the political goals of Susan Graham and other multiracial advocates? Does her conception of Afro-Viking identity match the conception of mixed-race identity that journalist Susan Saulny foregrounds in her Race Remixed series in the New York Times? Is Durrow clinging to the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable? How wedded is she to her Afro-Viking identity?

Let’s delve deeper.

When it comes to asserting her Afro-Viking identity in public, Durrow has been consistently playful and mercurial. She usually qualifies her commentary about her Afro-Viking identity with the assertions that she is also a story, and that she is constantly learning and changing. In other words, she stipulates that her identity changes from day to day. Some days she likes to call herself African American and Danish; other days Afro-Viking, a story, or just Heidi. She sometimes also says that she is not trying to be glib about her identity, and then makes the caveat that to her knowledge there are only twelve other Afro-Vikings in existence. Altogether, these comments imply that Afro-Viking is one facet of a larger personal identity that is compound and shifting.

Her comments about her Afro-Viking identity also imply that, unlike many multiracial activists and journalists, she does not buy into the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable. Though she uses racial and ethnic categories in asserting her Afro-Viking identity and personal narrative, her use of the categories is creative, witty, and particular to her, and, if we take her word for it, twelve other individuals. Hence, her conception and deployment of mixed-race identity would not provide useful support for a politics of identity on behalf of the purported new multiracial group. Indeed, her Afro-Viking identity with its emphasis on variability, creativity, and individuality defies conventional racial and ethnic group identity politics that obligate individual members to show pride in and conform to the cultural histories, beliefs, and mores of their particular groups. That is to say, when Durrow states that she is a proud Afro-Viking or proud mixed chick she is also being tongue-in-cheek.

[…] To conclude, McDonald’s move to limit Durrow’s work to the black/white framework is a fair one. However, this move diverts attention away from the fact that Durrow seems to want her work to also be about trying to move beyond the black/white framework—to discover/discuss/and tell of common experiences and perceptions amongst mixed individuals of various hues, backgrounds, and ethnic-racial mixes. In other words, Durrow seems to be interested in creating and supporting work that pursues and develops the possibility of a common mixed-experience aesthetic—or to borrow a term from artist/critic Wei Ming Dariotis—a “kin-aesthetic” among people of mixed heritage. Regarding this possibility, Durrow needs to write and say so much more. Hence, the work that she produces (or fails to produce) in the next decade or two should be telling in regard to her artistic vision and its relationship to whiteness and white privilege.

 

 

Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

[This short paper was originally written for “Jean Toomer and Politics,” a Special Session Roundtable at the 2012 MLA Conference in Seattle. I have made a few edits.]

In disagreeing with Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr., I will not directly critique their support and rhetorical strategies. Instead, I will put forth my own interpretation of Toomer’s political vision. Toomer saw literature as his means to address socioeconomic inequalities, transform himself, and influence people in a manner that would advance the promise of democracy in America. We should ask then, not whether he identified as black or white, but what his political vision is, what it is not, and what it entails. Specifically, I argue that his political vision conflicts with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank, and anticipates some postethnic, cosmopolitan, and multiracial perspectives that have emerged in recent history in strong opposition to the limitations and problems of multiculturalism.

photo (11)

Winold Reiss’ portrait of Jean Toomer in The New Negro An Interpretation (1925) edited by Alain Locke

Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne are usually given credit as the founders of American cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. Between 1915 and 1916, both published influential articles in which they attributed the rise of segregation, nativism, and assimilation during WWI to the dominant Anglo-Saxon group. Both derided the notion of the melting pot as harmful and ineffective, harmful in that it promoted Anglo-Saxon homogeneity, ineffective in that some immigrant groups refused to be melted. In response, both articulated similar political visions of America as a harmonious federation of distinct national, ethnic, and cultural groups. In place of the melting pot, Kallen envisioned America as an “orchestra” of distinct and “autonomous” ethnic and cultural groups, with each group entitled to perfect its respective differences (“Democracy”). Bourne envisioned America more broadly as a trans-national, cosmopolitan “federation of cultures” that would recognize “dual-citizenship” and grant immigrants “free and mobile passage” between America and their countries of descent (“Trans-national”). He believed that “a younger intelligentsia” could do the work necessary to transform Anglo-Saxon America into a cosmopolitan American “tapestry” made up of “distinctive” cultural strands.

In 1916, Bourne also collaborated with Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and others on Seven Arts, a short-lived literary magazine that published and promoted the creative, intellectual, and transformative work of the young American intelligentsia. In 1919, Frank contributed further to the realization of Bourne’s cosmopolitan vision with the publication of Our America, which recorded and discussed “adumbrated groups” and “buried cultures” in relation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. Like Kallen and Bourne, Frank did not account for the Negro as a distinct cultural strand within the American tapestry. This omission created an opportunity for Toomer to re-present himself to Frank in his well-known letter from 1922 as an artist of black and white ancestry who could account for the Negro. That is, Toomer stated to Frank that he “missed” the inclusion of the Negro in Our America, and that he had included some of his own writings that were “attempts at an artistic record of Negro and mixed-blood America” (“Letters” 32). From 1922 through 1923, Frank would become Toomer’s close friend, mentor, editor, promoter, and have great influence over the content and structure of Cane.

Toomer’s attempt to account for the Negro was influenced by the cultural pluralist philosophy of his other mentor, Alain Locke. Locke became Toomer’s friend in 1919, and probably advised the young Toomer to lead a study group of prominent Washington Negro intellectuals, artists, and educators whose purpose in Toomer’s words “…[was] an historical study of slavery and the Negro…”(“Letters” 19). Known later as the Saturday Nighters, this study group interested Locke insofar as its purpose aligned with his cultural pluralist political goals. In his 1916 lectures on race, published in 1992 as Race Contacts and Interracial Relations, Locke sketched out on behalf of the Negro his own “doctrine” to counter segregation, nativism, and assimilation.

Like Kallen and Bourne, Locke believed that assimilation stimulated the Negro and other submerged groups to imitate and conform to the standards and values of the predominant Anglo-Saxon civilization type (Locke 90). To stem the “assimilative” tendencies of the Negro, Locke thought it was necessary to “make” and “promulgate” a “doctrine” of race pride, culture, and solidarity. That is, he proposed a politics that would “[dam] up the social stream” and “stop the egress” of Negro talent and cultural products by “harnessing” partly-assimilated Negro individuals and classes “to the submerged group” until such a time in the future where the Negro race would be recognized and respected as a distinct cultural group on par with other cultural groups within a democratic cosmopolitan federation (97-98). According to Locke’s cosmopolitan political vision, the Negro group, having attained “culture-citizenship,” would then be able to contribute its own representative cultural products “in terms of the group’s own estimate” (99).

Toomer and his mentors embraced opposing views of amalgamation. In Locke’s view, amalgamation hastened the pace of social assimilation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon type, and necessitated a politics that would inhibit amalgamation by creating an “artificial barrier” and by educating the new Negro group (Locke 98). Likewise, Bourne viewed amalgamation as a threat to ethnic and cultural groups insofar as it created “…masses of people who are cultural half-breeds, neither assimilated Anglo-Saxons, nor nationals of another culture” (“Trans-national”). Though Frank was more optimistic about the prospects of “cultural half-breeds,” he also envisioned America’s ideal future through cultural pluralist terms and assumptions.

In contrast, Toomer resisted the cultural pluralist dictate that amalgamation means assimilation to the dominant Anglo-Saxon group. He also questioned the cultural pluralist assumption that amalgamation sustains Anglo-Saxon values, interests, and standards. In his 1929 essay, “Race Problems and Modern Society,” he suggested that “big business” and social-political institutions, not the Anglo-Saxon group per se, had already changed the American nation into “…a social form containing racial, national, and cultural groups…” (69). He viewed this development as “a social trap” for “all Americans…the white no less than the black, the black no more than the red, the Jew no more than the gentile” (72). He predicted correctly that established group divisions, distinctions, and antagonisms would become more pervasive and intense as “big business” and “American institutions” continued to grow and extend their reach (72).

In further contrast to his mentors, Toomer believed that amalgamation actually might help reconcile racial group divisions and antagonisms, and thus contribute to the making of a new America. His attempt to foreground amalgamation anticipates the postethnic perspective of historian David Hollinger, and specifically Hollinger’s point that amalgamation needs to be recognized as a major theme in the history of the United States (“Postethnic” 33). Toomer believed that a growing solidarity of new Americans conscious of the historical and empirical reality of amalgamation could do the work necessary to renew American democracy.

Toomer’s new America would uphold Hollinger’s principle of affiliation by revocable consent, so that Locke’s value imperatives of respect and intercultural reciprocity would apply not just to ethnic and racial groups and their membership, but also to individuals who wanted to identify and affiliate themselves concurrently with multiple descent groups and with larger collectives such as the American citizenry and the human species.

Byrd, Gates, and other naysayers have dismissed Toomer’s vision as mystical, self-centered, and wrongheaded. Their interpretative strategies typically involve associating him with what Hollinger calls the “fantasy of amalgamation,” which is the general idea that an increase in the number of interracial marriages and mixed-race people will solve the race problem and advance humanity.

In actuality, Toomer was not that naïve. His post-Cane writings evidence that, even during the Gurdjieff years, he did not waver from his subtle, complex, and socialistic view that “existing economic, political, and social systems” in America render cultural, ethnic, and racial groups “divided and repellent” (“Race Problems” 69), and compel citizens to “…put value upon, their hearsay descents, their groupistic affiliations” (“Wayward” 121).

In conclusion, his ugly breakup from Locke and Frank does not indicate his ingratitude and arrogance, but rather his eventual realization that their pluralist sensibilities and politics were at odds with his vision for a new America. In other words, he realized that a solidarity of new American individuals would ultimately need to disaffiliate from “…the old terms for old races,” and no longer view itself as “part white, part black, and so on” (Rusch 107-108)—then perhaps over time the American state might evolve into what Josiah Royce termed a beloved democratic community—which would entail a great deal more social and institutional respect for individual differences and rights versus the politics of perpetually dividing and classifying individuals within racial and ethnic groups to advance the interests of group leaders, big business, and politicians.

Works Cited

Bourne, Randolph S. “Trans-national America.” The Atlantic, 01 July 1916. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Frank, Waldo David. Our America. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919. Print.

Harris, Leonard and Charles Molesworth. Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2008. Print.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.1995. 10th anniversary ed. New York: Basic, 2005. Print.

Kallen, Horace. “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot.” The Nation (1915): n. pag. Pluralism and   Unity. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Locke, Alain. Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Race. Ed. Jeffrey C. Stewart. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1992. Print.

Toomer, Jean. Cane: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. Print.

Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism. Ed. Robert B. Jones. Knoxville:   Tennessee UP, 1996. Print.

… The Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919-1924. Ed. Mark Whalan. Knoxville: Tennessee UP, 2006. Print.

The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. Washington: Howard UP, 1980. Print.

Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism

Full Citation: Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism 
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2013; doi: 10.1093/melus/mlt053

Gino Michael Pellegrini

Americans of multiracial descent recently have become noticeable, respectable, marketable, and, in the case of Barack Obama, presidential. In the last two decades, a growing body of creative and critical work about multiracial lives and issues has materialized.1 This social and historical development has become an ideological battleground for advocates, politicians, scholars, journalists, and marketers who have appropriated and interpreted its products and personalities in relation to their own beliefs, objectives, and commitments. According to many popular and political accounts, the growing number of interracial marriages and self-identified multiracials indicates that American society quickly is becoming post-racial. Scholars of this development, however, have been mostly skeptical of accounts that claim or assume that race-mixing leads to post-racial societies. Among scholars, there is ongoing debate over the precise impact that the emergent self-identified multiracial population is having on race, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy. Many scholars agree with G. Reginald Daniel, who claims that self-identified multiracials challenge race and racial hierarchy. However, Rainier Spencer and others argue the opposite: self-identified multiracials maintain racial hierarchy and reproduce race insofar as they rely on established racial categories to articulate their experiences and identities. Hence, this debate is at an impasse.2

One way to negotiate this impasse is to shift the focus of the debate from the impact that self-identified multiracials have had on race and racial hierarchy to the conditions that have made mixed-race individuals possible in ethno-racial combinations besides black and white. Of course, scholars who analyze this development through a black/white framework will likely object to this move on the grounds that all other ethno-racial categories must fall between black and white in the racial hierarchy, thus orienting multiracial identities, old and new, toward whiteness and away from blackness. Their objection, however, presumes stable racial categories, groups, and ways of belonging; scholars thus conclude that self-identified multiracials are confused, contradictory, naïve, or duplicitous and selfish in their pursuit of white privilege. This dismissal of multiracials fails to explain fairly and adequately the ongoing collectivization of multiracials of various mixes and backgrounds.3 As Kimberly McClain DaCosta suggests, “[S]ome multiracials are indeed inventing a collective vision of themselves,” and “rather than chastise them for it, [her] goal [is] to understand both why and in what ways they are doing so” (152). I would add that we need to delve deeper than the 1967 US Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia and the Census 2000 debates to come to a more complete understanding of the specific historical and ideological conditions that have enabled individuals of diverse racial and ethnic mixtures, skin colors, genders, and sexualities to envision their multiracial experiences in similar ways…

Read my entire article at the Oxford MELUS page.

If you do not have access, a link to the article is accessible in my list of scholarly articles.

A Review of One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval

Gino Pellegrini

Is Fanshen a noun, a verb, or an adjective? Is it a who or a what? What does it have to do with the history of race and racism? Or, as Grandma Cynthia puts it, “De next time you talk to your mommy an’ your daddy, ahsk dem for me – what in God’s name is a Fanshen?…Why dem give you dat name?”

These are some of the central questions that Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni addresses in her brilliant and timely one-woman show, One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval.

I am present for Fanshen’s debut performance on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at the Arena Theater on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. The Arena is small, intimate, packed, and a few people have traveled across the country to see this debut. I sit in the front row with my good friend Rocco Robinson, and we notice right away that the audience is relaxed, friendly, and excited; the set is simple, arousing, and well thought out.

Fanshen is an educator, a writer, a film maker, and an accomplished actor who recently played a part in Argo, the Academy’s Best Picture for 2012. Fanshen is also well known within the nascent multiracial community for being the co-creator and co-host (with Heidi Durrow) of the award-winning podcast series, Mixed Chicks Chat (2007-2012) and of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival (2008-2012). Both projects have been instrumental in making the public more aware of the so-called mixed experience, and of the growing number of critical and creative works about multiracial lives and issues.

Both collaborative projects have also been a means for Fanshen and Heidi to come to a deeper understanding of their own mixed experiences and identities, which, in turn, has facilitated the development of their own creative works. Heidi was the first Mixed Chick to gain national recognition for her bestselling novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010). Now it is Fanshen’s turn to deconstruct longstanding racial assumptions, traditions, and allegiances with her own hybrid, experimental work.

One Drop of Love emphasizes the history of the construct of race from the 1700s to the present. More specifically, the interrelated American history of race and the decennial Census constitutes the factual and visual backdrop against which Fanshen performs her own personal history and evolution. Fanshen plays herself at different junctures in her life and, using multiple dialects and gestures, fifteen other characters (including her family) of different ages, genders, nationalities, and ethno-racial-cultural backgrounds. Though the subject matter is difficult, her acting ability helps her engage, entertain, touch, and enthrall her audience. Considered altogether, her multiple character depictions and interactions expose into view how the history of race–in conjunction with a shared belief in static racial categories, values, identities, and traditions–impacts intimate relationships, social opportunities, self-perception, and personal growth.

One Drop of Love is also a compelling story that conveys many universal themes such as love, forgiveness, doubt, determination, and the daughter-father bond. The main conflict of the story is Fanshen’s misperception of her father’s failure in 2005 to come to her wedding in Jamaica. This painful event prompts her to reassess her relationship with him and to investigate her entire family history. This event also motivates her to think critically about her own complex and debilitating experiences with race and racism, and about the implications and possibilities of becoming multiracial.

Why does Fanshen need to reveal her painful and complicated multiracial experiences? The first answer has to do with education. Fanshen is an educator who cares deeply about others, and through her show she wants to challenge her audience to think anew about the history of race and its lasting influence on society, families, and individuals. Moreover, Fanshen wants to counter the widespread notion that multiracials like her are representative of an emergent post-racial America. In actuality, her multiracial experiences and the ways in which others read her ambiguous body evidence the evolution and continued presence of race and racism in American culture.

The second answer has to do with Fanshen’s struggle to assert, define, and develop her own unique mixed persona. This particular aspect of One Drop of Love correlates with the work of Rebecca Walker, the author of Black, White, and Jewish (2001) and Baby Love (2007), and specifically with a statement that she makes in a Conversation from the Cullman Center with writer Danzy Senna. Walker states “that [she] had to write the books that [she] did…to claim [her] own subjectivity…[and] to create a self-defining beinghood…” that breaks from the expectations and “mythologies” of the Civil Rights Movement that were “projected” upon her by her parents and by society (21:30-25:55).

Like Walker and Senna, Fanshen is a Movement child, the product of a 1960s interracial marriage between two socially conscious, liberal, idealistic, and well-intended individuals who resisted the racist culture of the black-white color line to be together. In the 1960s, they believed that through their interracial union, social activism, and mixed race children (Fanshen and her brother) they were helping to overcome race and racism, and helping to transform society for the better.

As Mama Trudy puts it, “And Fanshen. Don’t Forget. Your father and I made you on purpose.”

In light of their shared purpose, they named Fanshen after the title of William Hinton’s 1966 classic book about the Communist Revolution in China. This is one of the more surprising and thought-provoking moments in the show. Fanshen is a Mandarin word that literally means to turn over, free oneself, and stand up. Hinton’s book documents the redistribution of property, wealth, and resources to the Chinese peasantry, and examines the collective efforts among leaders to create new villages unburdened by racial and class beliefs, divisions, and antagonisms.

In naming their daughter after the book Fanshen, her parents projected upon her being and body their own Movement ideals and wishes. In other words, Fanshen was supposed to be a symbol of her parent’s late-1960s notion of a Civil Rights Movement Xanadu…By the mid-1970s they were divorced.

Unaware of the impact that race was having on her sense of self and belonging, Fanshen unknowingly followed in her father’s footsteps to gain his racial approval. In the 1970s, her father became a committed Pan-Africanist who believed in the idea of an authentic Pan-African Black identity. In parallel fashion, Fanshen, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, joined the Black Student Union and asserted herself racially as Black. After college, 1993 Fanshen, like her father two decades earlier, felt the need to travel to Africa to reconnect with her African roots. She joined the Peace Corps and taught English to high-school age students in the Cape Verdean Islands, West Africa.

To her surprise, the local Cape Verdeans did not really recognize her Black identity. They were unfamiliar with the American history of race and with the one-drop rule, which defines an individual with any amount of African ancestry as Black. Indeed, she recounts an incident where one of her Cape Verdean students mistook the pictures of Malcolm, Martin, and Maya Angelou on the walls of her home for her father, brother, and mother.

Instead of leaving her with a stronger sense of racial certitude, belonging, and identity, Fanshen’s African homecoming rendered her more racially wounded and confused. Her actual interactions with the Cape Verdean locals exposed her and her father’s shared belief in the narrative of Pan-Africanism and in the notion of an authentic Pan-African Black identity as flawed and overly romantic.

In a like manner to Walker and Senna, Fanshen has come to realize after much reflection from 2005 to the present that her experiential lived life and ambiguous body have often been at odds with the narratives (integrationist and cultural pluralist) of the Civil Rights Movement which shaped the racial identities, values, goals, and practices of her parents and of countless other groups, personas, and institutions. Similar to the works of Walker and Senna, One Drop of Love exposes into view shortcomings and ruptures in these narratives.

Fanshen has also come to realize that racial identities are fluid, contingent, variable, and performed. Racial categories, meanings, values, and images are also subject to social, historical, and economic changes. Fanshen demonstrates that individuals can study and negotiate the construct of race, and work on its limits and meanings. For instance, Fanshen critiques and alters the established meaning of the one drop rule, which is based on racial hate, by replacing “rule” with love.

In conclusion, Fanshen and One Drop of Love are evolving from one performance to the next. She plans to take her show on the road to colleges, universities, and to other venues across the country. Her most recent performance was on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. One Drop of Love will also become a documentary that will include clips from her various performances and of audience members who share their thoughts on race and racism right after the show. Of minor import, the production team now includes Ben Affleck, Chay Carter, and Matt Damon. Don’t miss it. One Drop of Love is major.

America’s Growing Literacy Divide and Neoliberal Education Leaders

Gino Pellegrini

In the age of Obama, functional illiteracy abounds in a society that seems to have forgotten that the right to become fully literate should apply to all individuals, not just the privileged few. Functional illiterates can read, speak, and write well enough in English to function on a job, on a smartphone, and on social media sites. Oftentimes they are high school graduates, but they are far from being fully literate as I think it should be understood.

In my view, a fully literate individual has the ability to read, write, and speak in English at a level of competency where she/he could participate (if motivated) in civic debates in an effective manner, articulate her/his own story in public, mobilize others to address pressing social justice issues, and openly critique leaders, power, and the status quo.

In response to America’s literacy problem, corporate and public education leaders like Melinda & Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, and Exxon (to name a few) say that schools and teachers must be held accountable for producing students who are more literate, numerate, and high-tech so that American businesses can continue to be competitive globally and the US economy continue to grow. Their solutions include corporate-sponsored teacher academies, more electronic devices in classrooms, longer academic terms, more science and technology, more standardized tests, and a national, corporate-approved curriculum.

I am a big fan of tablets, smart phones, talented coders, and the latest computer technologies, and I can even bring myself to believe that Melinda, Bill, Arne, and Rahm mean well, and that Exxon executives believe that they are transforming American education for the better with their teacher academies and “Let’s Solve This” television commercials. I also share their disdain for educators who see tenure and/or union protection as a means to no longer have to care about students and about working on their craft.

However, I also believe that most public and corporate education leaders are peddling solutions for reforming American education that fail to adequately address the related, underlying issues of socioeconomic impoverishment and functional illiteracy. In other words, I believe that these leaders are basically engaged in propagating neoliberal ideology.

To be brief, neoliberal ideology assumes that corporations are rights-bearing individuals, and, at the same time, pins the blame for social problems such as poverty and illiteracy on the backs of the impoverished and the illiterate. From a neoliberal perspective, such individuals are a drain on public resources, and non-contributors to the collective goal of economic growth, which for neoliberals is a fundamental social good within a burgeoning global capitalist society.

Keeping in mind the point that ideology works by concealing opposing viewpoints and realities, it seems perfectly plausible that global neoliberal leaders including Bill, Melinda, Arne, Rahm, and Exxon are quite comfortable with a high degree of poverty and functional illiteracy in America and elsewhere, even though they say the opposite in public spaces like Davos, Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum.

Neoliberal leaders, of course, will point to increases in life expectancy and decreases in famine as evidence that global capitalism is making the world a better place to live. I would say, however, that we are also witnessing the formation of a global capitalist, multicultural, post-racial federation where the values of cultural group tolerance and parity are enforced while economic inequality continues to grow and fester, and where most individuals feel fortunate to have a low-paying service type job that permits them to exist just above the poverty line.

More importantly, within this emergent global neoliberal federation, the ideal that each individual should have the right to become fully literate is becoming both unnecessary and undesirable for the masses, unnecessary for the reason that most service workers do not need to be fully literate to do their jobs and to buy products, undesirable for the reason that functional illiterates are easier to exploit, easier to market to, and easier to control.

Call me cynical, but could it also be the case (and here I am paying homage to Randolph Bourne and his famous line about the State) that functional illiteracy within the masses is the new health of the global economy?

My Day at the 5th Annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival

Gino Pellegrini

Saturday morning, June 16, 2012: I take the Metro from North Hollywood to the Tokyo Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles. My destination is the 5th Annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival at the Japanese American National Museum and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. This is a three-day event, but I can be there for just this one day, and my first goal is to meet Steven Riley, the creator of the website, Mixed Race Studies.

I have not attended an event centered upon the mixed experience in many years. I walk through the glass doors. The volunteer staff is welcoming and energetic. The imagery is colorful, ambiguous, and stimulating. The overall vibe is positive and hopeful, and for a moment I am taken aback to how I felt at my first mixed-experience event, the 2000 Harvard-Wellesley Conference on the Mixed Race Experience.

Skeptics say that this type of event, which brings together individuals of diverse mixes and backgrounds, is unsustainable. Do Hapas, blacklicans, latalians, jewasians, and standard black/white multiracials really have that much in common? Apparently many do, and this Festival holds together amazingly well and continues to grow thanks to the diligence, intelligence, and creativity of its founders, Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow.

The artists/writers whom I see present or talk to this day have strong personal voices and are very talented at what they do. Overall, their work complicates received understandings of multiracial identity, experience, and art.

Eliaichi Kimaro is a visual artist of Tanzanian and Korean descent. She is the creator/director of her own auto-biopic, A Lot Like You: the Truth Has No Borders. In her workshop, she talks about her own creative process over the course of making her film. She also gives advice to the audience about getting into the zone of creativity and about the value of telling one’s own story.

I am also present for readings by Jamie Figueroa, Lauren Loften, and Mat Johnson.

Jamie Figueroa is a creative writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She reads prose poems in a voice that is confident, melodic, and intense. She is Puerto Rican, grew up in Ohio, and then returned to Puerto Rico. The work that she reads conveys her multiracial experiences growing up in Ohio and upon returning to Puerto Rico. White supremacy, white privilege, and the entrapments and contradictions of American consumerism are some the themes that she develops in her work.

Lauren Lofton is both mixed and a member of LBGT community in San Francisco. She is personable, enthusiastic, and sincere. She performs autobiographical sketches in which she reflects upon her experiences growing up mixed, and describes ethnoracial distinctions within the LBGT communities of which she has been a part. She conveys what it feels like to be adept at changing presentations and performances to navigate amongst different groups and inter-group factions. Through her work, creative and professional, she seeks to heal divisions within herself and within the communities in which she interacts.

Mat Johnson is a rising literary star who has already published several novels. His forte is satire, and as I listen to him read he reminds me of Percival Everett in terms of subject matter and style, though Johnson is much more humorous. His latest novel is Pym, a hilarious satire which I am finally in the process of reading. I really like his critique of white liberalism in academia at the start of Pym. His main protagonist/narrator is Chris Jaynes, an Americanist of African descent who is denied tenure at Bard College for refusing to be on the Diversity Committee and for shifting his scholarly focus to Edgar Allen Poe. Bard replaces him with Mosaic Johnson, a hip hop theorist who is more than happy to be on the Diversity Committee. This conflict ends Jaynes’ academic career and makes the novel unfold.

After the readings, I leave the building to get cash to buy Pym, but by the time I return and make it to the front of Johnson’s table all copies have been sold. As he signs copies of Pym and talks to his admirers, I take notice of the man sitting next to him in relative silence with his own book.

That man is poet Neil Aitken, the author of The Lost Country of Sight, an award-winning book of poems. I talk to him about his artistic vision and about how he negotiates racial categories and mixed experiences in his work. He tells me that he does not directly reference them, but that they are present in some of his poems, in the background, abstract, yet noticeable if you read closely. I read his book a few days later, and indeed his poems are purposefully shorn of direct references to national, ethnic, racial, cultural group categories and identities. Aitken is a poet of strong cosmopolitan yearnings, and his poems express ideas such as loss, detachment, forgetting, memory, travelling, and self-becoming.

Some may conclude from this description that Aitken is a white modernist whose work has little to do with race and racism. However, I am of the opinion that his work also sheds oblique light on multiracial experience and identity. Aitken is Chinese and white, and he grew up in Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. So we could call him Hapa, though I think that he is probably uneasy with this designation insofar as it limits the meaning of his work and his evolution as an artist. Hence, he stands in contrast to Hapa artist Kip Fulbeck and other multiracial artists and writers who rely on established ethnic, racial, and cultural categories to create and develop their work. In other words, Aitken stands amongst multiracial artists, writers, activists, and metatheorists (to use Rainer Spencer’s term) who see the need and feel compelled to contemplate and depict mixed experiences and complexities without direct recourse to categories that, historically speaking, undergird forms of collective pathology such as tribalism and racism. 

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