a new identity

Of the three articles linked here, I thought the New York Times one, which doesn’t really try to do much more than provide some information about people of mixed racial ancestry, was the most worthwhile.

One of the things I’ve noticed – and this is a more of a general comment rather than a comment on the linked articles – as I’ve come across more and more articles on this subject in the last year or so is that there seems to be a trend towards treating people of mixed ancestry as if they belong in the same broad category regardless of the particularities of their backgrounds. I suppose in some contexts this makes sense – the Loving decision, for example. And categories generally accepted today – like “Asian-American,” which I believe only came into existence as a word in the 1960s – themselves contain quite a bit of diversity.

Still, given the somewhat complex history of race in America (and in the rest of the world, for that matter) the articles I’ve read could use more discussion of this past. The differences, similarities, and relationships between, say, slavery and segregation and immigration exclusion are worth some more attention, at the very least. As well as the fact that some terms formerly used to refer to racial mixture, and which are both offensive and archaic to us today – like “octoroon” or “quadroon” – had real meaning at particular times and places, but not at others.

One of the reasons Homer Plessy got on that train in Louisiana, as I understand it, was to challenge not just segregation, but the way racial categories were determined. Plessy apparently might have been able to pass as white:

…petitioner was a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every recognition, right, privilege, and immunity secured to the citizens of the United States of the white race by its constitution and laws; that on June 7, 1892, he engaged and paid for a first-class passage on the East Louisiana Railway, from New Orleans to Covington, in the same state, and thereupon entered a passenger train, and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated; that such railroad company was incorporated by the laws of Louisiana as a common carrier, and was not authorized to distinguish between citizens according to their race, but, notwithstanding this, petitioner was required by the conductor, under penalty of ejection from said train and imprisonment, to vacate said coach, and occupy another seat, in a coach assigned by said company for persons not of the white race, and for no other reason than that petitioner was of the colored race; that, upon petitioner’s refusal to comply with such order, he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach

; but he was arrested by pre-arrangement. Justice Harlan, in his dissent opposing the segregation of citizens from one another, also objected:

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the state and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race.

Incidentally, two years earlier, Harlan was one of two justices who dissented in the case of Wong Kim Ark, an American born in the United States to Chinese parents, which upheld birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. (The other was Chief Justice Fuller, who authored the dissent.) A few decades later the Supreme Court upheld, in Lum v. Rice, the segregation of the Chinese – who were classified as “colored” – from whites in the Mississippi public schools. (It’s not clear to me whether the decision was also applied to privately operated railroads.)

These are the kinds of things I’m referring to when I say that the history of racial categorization is not a simple one. Are they – not so much the particulars of the cases but the issues they touch on – relevant to how we think about people of mixed ancestry today? I think so, though I admit that finding a way to incorporate them into a newspaper article would not be easy. And if these pasts are not relevant – the different but related pasts of the various groups to which those of mixed ancestry could claim membership, along with the histories of people of mixed ancestry before Loving – that also seems worthy of note.

My impression is that a fair number of people of mixed heritage are embracing “mixed” as a category, so it’s not all being done by “outsiders” examining a phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to do. Occasionally, I see articles where people seem to be trying to push people of mixed ancestry into new categories; this seems to happen in a couple of the things I’ve read about a supposed “hapa” identity – which apparently comes from a Hawaiian term meaning “part white”, but which somehow has been transformed to refer to people who are “part Asian” – but not so much when I read about “mixed race” people, broadly construed.

(On hapa: I learned the term here, which article is mostly restrained about encouraging the adoption of the identity. This, on the other hand, treats it like a category already accepted and even uses the phrase “Hapa Nation.” Whatever.)

I also have the impression that younger people are creating increasing numbers of clubs or organizations for people of mixed ancestry at high schools and colleges (but I don’t keep track of this). A similar club was attempted when I was in high school; I’m not sure it ever came into existence while I was there. I went to the first meeting and could not find a reason to join. It seemed like our backgrounds were too individual, that we didn’t have enough in common to form a group based almost entirely on this aspect of our identities. There was also a question of what exactly do we do now that we’re all in the same room? I don’t seem to remember us having similar interests in other areas; indeed, some were interested in starting the club and others were not.

Still, I have to admit that when I’ve met people of quite similar backgrounds – one side of the family traceable to East Asia, the other traceable to Europe – and of a similar age, I have felt that I do share something significant (meaningful?) with them. Certainly we’ve had a number of similar experiences. Including, in some cases, the experience of feeling like our identities were shaped by so many things particular to ourselves and our personal histories that they do not fit comfortably into larger categories.


  1. there seems to be a trend towards treating people of mixed ancestry as if they belong in the same broad category regardless of the particularities of their backgrounds

    This attitude seems like one extreme on a continuum of possible ways of categorizing people of mixed ancestry, with the other extreme represented by systems like that used in, say, colonial Latin America, with carefully maintained distinctions among a large number of “castes” defined by very specific combinations of ancestries.

  2. I suspect that what I’ve noticed is mostly a result of articles trying to cover everything at once. I would guess that most Americans do consider people of mixed ancestry to be in different categories, but mostly according to general geographical origins.

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