Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feeling My Mind Expanding

I was thinking how old-fashioned the word mulatto seemed. According to Phil Herbst's The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (the book that got me started on this blog; see early entries if you're interested in the origins),  the word comes from the Latin mulus, a "mule" or hybrid. "In early ethnic discourse," he says, "the term loosely meant a person of mixed descent, especially someone half African, or someone half Native American and half black, but typically now and almost always white and black." As with many of the entries in Phil's book, the discussion is extended, and extremely thoughtful (honestly, it's an amazing resource), but I will not present the whole thing here.
     The reason I was thinking about this at all was a recent article in the New York Times about young people who identify as mixed race, noting that the percentage has gone up. As the article notes,
Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle L√≥pez-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”
 This seems to me to be a good thing. Anytime I have an opportunity to resist or overcome or see beyond categories that have been externally invented, I feel that I grow as a human being. I actually do feel my mind expanding. So, one young woman describes herself as Japanese and Irish. A young man, as African-American-Portuguese-Haitian. Another as Ghanaian/Scottish-Norwegian. One as Japanese/Spanish. One as Black/German. You get the picture. These are complex human combinations that I for one might not have ever before imagined. Because of the human genome project and the ability to identify genetic ancestry, we now know (or can know) far more about our hybrid ancestries. Which brings me back to where I began
“Are you mulatto?” asked Paul Skym, another student [mentioned in the Times article], using a word once tinged with shame that is enjoying a comeback in some young circles.

8 comments: said...

While I disagree about discrimination that continues to abound about those of mixed race, there is reason for medical concern for children born of mixed racial couples.

I was employed as a university classroom note taker for deaf and hard-of-hearing students for about five years. A large number of those students were mixed race. There is medical evidence to support the theory that children of mixed race couples may be deaf.

Whether medical evidence is enough reason to avoid mixed race births, however, is a decision best left to those who may be in danger. Deaf children are also born of hearing parents and hearing children are born to deaf parents. That being said, it is viable to consider the life of the innocent child born to mixed race couples.

While a description may be discriminatory, as a hearing aid wearer, born of hearing Caucasian parents, I side with eliminating any possible cause of deafness.

Susan Messer said...

Okay, of course, we don't want to increase the chances of disability, but we also need to be careful of making assumptions without sound scientific research. Certain genetic mutations are common in non-mixed-race couples too (e.g., Tay-Sachs among Ashekenazi Jews; sickle-cell anemia among African Americans). So I just think we have to be really careful in making any claims about health/disability/ethnicity. said...

As part of a note taker's training, we were required to read about causes of deafness. The possibility (not probability) of mixed race deafness is mentioned numerous times in the scientific and cultural literature.

I am a proud parent of one mixed race and one mixed religion marriage.

Our continuing existence depends on our seeing each other through color blinded eyes (if the earth will survive our punishment). If my words regarding mixed race deafness are regarded as a negative judgment about diversity, they are misconstrued and I apologize. I thought I covered that issue by stating my hearing loss although born of single race parents.

I am grateful for your blog and the opportunity to express the negative results of discrimination. Thank you.


Susan Messer said...

I understand. Thanks for the further explanation. It's easy to misconstrue on these sensitive topics. I didn't know about the mixed-race deafness issue. Thanks too for your interest in the blog topic. As I get deeper into the new novel, I feel drawn away from the blog, but then something comes up so I keep going.

Jim Poznak said...

Taking pride in one's known ancestry and ethnicity is fine, but really, we're all, one and the same, part of the human race.

Susan Messer said...

Well, true. There is that. It's all just genetic variations when you think of it that way. No two people exactly the same. All part of the human race.

Margaret P. said...

I don't really feel like I'm part of the same human race as Sarah Palin, though I'm human and a white female, probably of similar genetic ancestry.

Culture/experience/outlook are perhaps even greater causes for our divisions. Perhaps we just need divisions to organize/motivate ourselves.

Susan Messer said...

Hmmm. Now that's an interesting point. You might feel more in common with a Japanese Haitian than with SP. The human mind does tend to categorize in order to make sense of the vast array of stimuli that surround us. The ability to work with categories and labels is how we know that a chihuahua and a great dane are both dogs. The problem comes in when we add something negative to the label and apply it without regard to individual differences.