If there’s one thing tolerant people love, it’s photos of mixed people.
This National Geographic piece and accompanying photo essay made the rounds a couple of months ago, and while it’s well-intentioned, I’m starting to wish that the media could talk about mixed people without exhibiting us.
Every few years the newest census data rolls in and some major news outlet writes or films a trend piece about mixed people and how we sometimes identify as more than one race and how race is changing and the mixed child is going to be the new face of America blah blah blah and inevitably this piece is accompanied by a photo gallery of mixed people, sometimes user-submitted, sometimes taken by a photojournalist on staff, sometimes artistic (see above). These photo galleries are in theory a great way to increase the visibility of mixed people and give voice to their stories, but in practice…I’m not so sure.
Here’s the truth, plain and simple. If you’re a mixed person, people really really care about how you look. Not just like, your friends or your family or whatever, but random people like the store clerk at CVS, the checkout lady at the grocery store, the server at the restaurant, your coworker’s mom or even just strangers who initiate interactions that are based around commenting on the way you look and some combination of the questions where are you from/wait no where are you really from/wait no where are your parents from/wait no what is your ethnicity. People will guess your ethnicity and feel proud of themselves when they get it right, tell you that you are such a interesting combination of features, tell you that their daughter married an Asian/Black/Hispanic/whatever man and how they wonder if their babies will look like you, ask you who you’re dating and what their race is and then calculate the percentage of each race your babies would be, and you know what? IT IS REALLY WEIRD. IT IS SO WEIRD.
I’m all for giving voice to the voiceless and increasing visibility and all that, but when a major microaggression faced by mixed people is constant commentary about their looks, does a photo essay exhibiting mixed people in all of their unexpected-combination-of-features glory accomplish anything more than giving people more examples of unusual physniogamy to gawk at?
I mean, the answer is yes. It is more than that. The version of me that existed ten years ago needed to see mixed faces in media, needed things like the HAPA project to help her feel less alone, to help her realize that there were others out there who looked like her and sometimes felt like her. There are things about these projects that are empowering. It can be empowering to stand up and say, “I am here. This is what I look like. This is who I am” and have people listen.
But the version of me that exists now wonders how many more times the same article is going to be written before something changes other than the date. How many more headlines will be written about the new face of America before people stop sticking the words “new” “change” or “different” in front of my face like it’s a surprise that I’m American? Before people stop contrasting me to the “old” face, whatever that is? Before people stop finding it so damned interesting that my parents had sex? (Just so we’re clear, the only thing that’s new about interracial sex in America is that these days, it’s typically consensual.)
When does my face cease to be a statement? When does it become a statement I can control?
I’m tired of feeling like my existence is curated by someone else. The faces that the media chooses to represent me and people like me are not necessarily representative, because the whole point of doing a photo essay on mixed people is to take and show pictures of people who look “interesting” and “different,” not to show pictures of mixed people who aren’t obviously mixed. You can walk out your door every day and see someone who looks white or who looks black or whatever; you’re here to see something NEW.
But at the same time, you’re here to see something that adheres to a certain aesthetic/ideal of mixedness- the ideal that people have when they stop interracial couples on the street and tell them that their children will be beautiful. There is a comfortable, identifiable version of mixedness that doesn’t challenge expectations or beliefs about race, because you can TELL that they’re mixed and then can project whatever stereotypes upon them that you need to in order to feel comfortable interacting with them, and then there’s my quarterish-Chinese boyfriend who looks white but checks the Asian box and who no one ever believes is what he says he is.
When you look at me or him or anyone else, you’re not color blind.
Despite what you want to believe, the construct of mixedness does not abolish race because mixedness can only exist in a system where there is something to be mixed. Mixed people do not exist outside of racial politics–we do not live in a fairyland where no one will judge us for the shape of our eyes or the color of our skin, and even if we can pass as ambiguously white it hurts us to use a privilege that is denied to our parents or our siblings or our cousins. I do not call for the abolition of race and ethnicity, the erasing of cultures, identity, and history that people claim is evidenced by my skin, my face, my existence, my parents’ love– I call for the abolition of their use as a tool of oppression. I am not particularly interested in the silencing of all of these thoughts and feelings through the appropriation of my body as a symbol for a cause I don’t believe in.
A word or two or three to the people who tell me I’m America:
Mixed people aren’t new; what’s new is that we’re legal. We have existed for as long as people have had feet to walk with and tongues to talk with and hearts to love with but also sometimes hands to grab and hold and take. Biology didn’t make us, society did. We are an American creation insofar as we are the creation of the imperial-capitalist complex that brought our mothers and fathers here sometimes by choice and sometimes by force, but we do not owe our existence to your” tolerance” and “open-mindedness”, although we appreciate real tolerance and open-mindedness where we find it.
Don’t feel good about yourself on my account.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.