Why A New Mixed Race Generation Will Not Solve Racism
Love may trump hate, but it can’t cure white supremacy.
On January 23, Chrissy Teigen — model, “domestic goddess,” and number one John Legend troll — decided to have some fun with Richard Spencer on Twitter. Now best known as the neo-Nazi who got punched at the January 20 presidential inauguration, Spencer was salving his wounded pride with a “selection of Nelson Mandela quotes. ;-)”. The tweet to which Teigen responded, however, was actually a quote from Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become,” Spencer tweeted. Teigen’s @reply: “you became someone who was punched in the face.”
When Spencer attempted to embarrass Teigen, implying she was not educated enough to recognize a quote from Mandela (while, again, the quote in question was not from Mandela), Teigen responded with “you are a literally a nazi. I don’t even need to come up with a comeback. Thanks, nazi!” Teigen meanwhile tweeted to her followers sans @reply, “Hey guys, just conversing with a literal nazi over here wyd,” followed by “Nothing I could say will piss him off more than the fact I have a black/asian/white baby. Life is grand.”
Teigen emerged triumphant. As she stated plainly, nothing could rile a white supremacist like a child so multiracial her identity requires two forward slashes. Not only is multiraciality the antithesis of racism, the tweet suggests, it’s Nazi kryptonite — and if social engagement is any indication, the general Twittersphere agreed. With over 60,000 retweets and likes, Teigen’s pièce de résistance received more activity than any others in the exchange combined.
A month prior, Ellen Pompeo of Grey’s Anatomy summoned her black husband and mixed children in a similar maneuver, if under slightly different circumstances. Against criticism she received for her usage of brown emojis in a tweet applauding A&E’s decision to revamp its (now canceled) docuseries on the KKK, Pompeo told followers, “You do realize...being married to a black man and having black children can make you a target from racist white people right? That's a thing.” In response to one user’s taunt (“SHUT UP, WHITE LADY”) she tweeted, “That's white lady with a black husband and black children to you babe.”
In their respective contexts, the tweets from Teigen and Pompeo look very different if not completely contradictory. Chrissy Teigen snubs the nose of a professed white supremacist and flounces away with her superstar black husband and multiracial child; Pompeo calls up her black husband and children to deflect criticism. And yet, very similarly, both position interracial relationships — implied in Teigen’s case — and multiracial children as the antidote to racism. That they are both able to invoke this rationale so congruently points to a culture-wide infatuation with interracial relationships and their heteronormative outcome, multiracial children. In advertising, on film, and on TV, there is a common preference for multiracial-looking people, along with the belief that they represent a utopian political future. Why do multiracial children so often function as the antonym for racism? What is the political value of an interracial relationship? The notion that cream-colored babies will save the world is a popular one. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.
Every so often the internet will circulate this photo of a beautiful brown woman with hazel eyes accompanied by some version of the caption “This is what the average American will look like in 2050, and it’s beautiful.” The meme — which has, as memes do, evolved into the silliest iterations — originates from Mic's coverage of a 2013 National Geographic 125th anniversary feature dedicated to America’s multiracial landscape entitled “The Changing Face of America.” The photo is a portrait of Jordan Spencer, a young woman from Grand Prairie, Texas, who identifies, as NatGeo reports, as “black/biracial.”
That America’s self-identifying multiracial population is growing is undeniable, both as evidenced by data from the US Census Bureau — which added a multiple-race option in 2000 — and the hybrid idioms that have sprung up to take into account multiple ethnicities and mixed-raced identities: Blasian, Wasian, Blackanese, Filatino, Korgentinian, Blaxican, etc. An increasingly multiracial America begs a question about how racism will adapt in the face of people who do not fit in neat racial categories. Where does prejudice, antiblackness especially, go in the face of racial ambiguity?
The notion that cream-colored babies will save the world is a popular one. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.
Though Lise Funderburg, who wrote the National Geographic feature and is the author of Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, acknowledges that multiracial identities remain subject to rigid racial categories such as the “one-drop rule” — “ambiguous black-white faces” are generally read as black, for example — she envisions a progressive future ushered by interracial unions. They are “an opportunity,” Funderburg writes. “If we can’t slot people into familiar categories, perhaps we’ll be forced to reconsider existing definitions of race and identity, presumptions about who is us and who is them.” She concludes with a line from a poem by Walt Whitman, a man whose ambivalence toward black people in American manifests in a “vision of an ideal, multiracial republic”: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Interracial couples of “the future” often serve as proof that we are indeed making positive, liberal advancements — particularly when compared with the decades when legislation prohibited sacred unions between white people and people of color. This evidence, of course, relies on the heteronormative assumption that these couples will produce genetically diverse children, and the children really are future. The Race Card Project, a digital collection of six word essays on race, has many submissions on interracial relationships. These submissions often refer to conflict with social attitudes too antiquated to keep pace with a progressive relationship. “Being fearless in an interracial marriage,” one reads; “The consequences of liking black guys,” says another. The subject of multiracedness in turn has a similar theme of being out of time, for better or worse. As one submission declares: “The future belongs to the HYBRIDS.”
The optimism that drives aspirations toward a multiracial future are not just focused on what that means in terms of politics and racial discourse. There’s a lot of emphasis on what a multiracial future will look like, with special investment in it looking a certain way: row after row of bronze people with hazel eyes.
Despite the fact that the children of interracial parents may emerge looking indistinguishable from children born to parents of the same race and many people born to parents of the same race possess traits associated with mixed-race children, the shades of tan and curl patterns associated with multiracialness conflate a political ideal with an aesthetic one. The hope for a future where racial ambiguity outpaces racism, already on shaky ground, also seems like a future where everyone is beautiful for being “exotic” (according to a white standard) yet not “dangerous” (aka nonwhite). A simple search of “mixed babies” or “#mixedbabies” on Twitter overflows with fawning over multiracial children. “Can’t wait to have mixed babies so I can show them off everyday lol,” one tweet reads; “I want to have some cute ass mixed babies,” says another.
The desire for a future filled with tan mixed babies at times looks less like working away racism and more like washing out blackness. And when we closely examine how we talk about multiracial people in comparison to black people, antiblackness certainly seems to be in play. A ready example would be the difference between how Blue Ivy and North West are discussed: two adorable black daughters of celeb royalty, one who most neatly fits a multiracial aesthetic ideal and one who doesn’t. Blue Ivy has been subject to misogynoir since birth — literally — including a Change.org petition against her Afro-textured hair with nearly 6,000 signatures when she was not yet 3 years old. Meanwhile, North, whose mother trades in her own brand of racial ambiguity, has been memed into the Blue Ivy that might have been — adored for her delicate curl pattern in comparison to Blue’s “baby hair and afros.”
If the ultimate goal is to eradicate racism, it does seem rather odd that so many would-be progressives appear preoccupied with looks over, well, the racism itself. As though optimism is transferred onto an aesthetic preference, the race to a multiracial future beckons: Don’t worry about the current political climate because in the future we will be hot, and if everyone’s hot, racism won’t matter.
So, there’s a lot of cultural investment in these couples and children of the future as the future, politically and aesthetically. But not only is interracial babymaking nothing new, it is woven into the very textile that forms the backdrop for this country’s past. When it comes to America, cream-colored babies are as banal as they come.
“Monstrous intimacies” is what Christina Sharpe, professor of English at Tufts University, names the spectacular violences that made and maintained the regime of slavery within ordinary spaces by “ordinary” activities, such as sex. The frequent and permissible rapes of enslaved black women, these endlessly repeated brutalities, have afterlives in the form of transgenerational trauma and the ways we currently talk about race.
While terms like “octoroon” and “mulatto” seem rather archaic (or maybe not), “biracial” and other fractional means of quantifying race (“half white,” “part black,” “31% Eastern European”) are present-day evolutions of a system developed from the need to maintain whiteness amidst miscegenation. This crisis, that white men would fuck themselves into obsolescence, became the creative fodder for liberation in American fiction. In novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The House Behind the Cedars, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, characters use their fractional blackness to escape, survive, and advance undetected. That legacy is still entrenched today in film and TV casting, as such actors as Viola Davis among others, have noted. Mixed-appearing characters get to succeed in fictional America; darker-skinned characters don’t.
Why do multiracial children so often function as the antonym for racism?
But contrary to popular narratives, interracial heterosexual relationships and their result, multiracial children, are not the antithesis of white supremacy, but can be easily co-opted as the glittery mask behind which racism and antiblackness continue to thrive. To be clear, though, interracial relationships themselves are not under critique here. The danger, rather, is in how we value interracial couples as something radical and disruptive to our current racist environment. The future, we assume, can all too easily elide necessities in the present. As Tahirah Hairston writes for Fusion on the subject, “no matter what America will look like in the future, we will still have to address these issues head-on.” If we could fuck away white supremacy, wouldn’t it be gone by now?
Pop culture loves repurposing the aesthetic of a multiracial future, especially during times of political strife. During the Bush administration, visual media became heavily invested in racial ambiguity, a recoil from a ’90s TV renaissance that felt very black by comparison. ''Today what's ethnically neutral, diverse or ambiguous has tremendous appeal,'' Ron Berger told the New York Times in 2003, then-chief executive of the ad agency Euro RSCG (now Havas Worldwide). Multiracial or at least multiracial-looking models and actors represent an “exotic, left-of-center beauty that transcends race or class,” said former Ebony editor-in-chief Amy Barnett.
What began in the Bush years and intensified in the age of Obama now seems banal. Consider recent ads by Abercrombie & Fitch. A&F’s financial woes are no secret, and its latest campaign presents a dramatic rebrand in an effort to make up for lost relevance. “It’s time for a fresh start,” says the video released to accompany the campaign. Though A&F’s new ads retain some classic staples associated with the brand — youthful collegiate-aged models in black and white — their version of “authentic American” has certainly changed. One series of ads features an interracial couple hugging, laughing, and sharing a bite from the same apple. The monotone palette makes her race hard to definitively discern, but the woman’s tan and coiled curls suggest she is a person of color. Her implied romantic partner is white, though even he is a physical departure from the spikey-hair jocks of A&F’s past. It wasn’t too long ago when, under the direction of CEO Mike Jeffries, the brand carefully devoted itself to a very specific set of “all-American” visuals, sending the message that brown and black people needn’t apply. Now Abercrombie’s Instagram is filled with what it probably imagines is a diverse range of models. Meanwhile, all the women of color — in color, this time — mostly look like this.
Noticing ads such as these led Crystal Bedley, a current doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, to begin researching mixed-race persons in media. “It’s a subtle message of inclusion,” she told Rutgers Today. “The companies want consumers to be able to see a lot of different groups within one person.” Like the National Geographic photos, like North West, like this State Farm ad and those Cheerios commercials, multiracial optics succeed because they differ from a white standard, but not too much. These optics animate that warm, feel-good liberal confidence of being on the right side of history. They allow viewers to safely feel antiracist without necessarily venturing into pro-POC territory. The images that surround us in train cars, on television, in film are more multiracial than ever. America is more multiracial than ever. And yet, as demonstrated by the election, the country is far from that dream of eradicating racism forever.
If the Bush-era media popularized multiracialness as a pleasant fiction, what do we have to look forward to in the age of Trump? Given the way white supremacy repeats itself, we have reason to be wary of illusory images that may try to offer interracial love as the solution to various contemporary problems. Two recent films, one set to make its US debut in February, tell the kinds of stories that faith in multiracial futures are made of. Loving, which came out November 4 and scored an Oscar nomination for one of its stars, Ruth Negga, is a fictionalized depiction of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple behind Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. And then there is A United Kingdom, which premieres in the US today and is directed by Amma Asante, who also directed Belle (about an 18th century interracial romance), and just finished shooting Where Hands Touch, about a biracial woman, played by Amandla Stenberg, who falls in love with a Nazi. A United Kingdom tells the story of Seretse Khama, a Bechuanaland royal, whose controversial marriage to a white British woman marks the catalyst for his fight for Botswana’s independence.
Though the two films have been lumped together in previews and press in a “if you like this, you’ll love that” fashion, each director has in their own way expressed their desire to deviate from expected interracial-romance tropes. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t think this is going to be The Help,'” Jeff Nichols, Loving’s director, told the New York Times. “This film doesn’t speak with the histrionics of other potential award contenders.” But as Hairston writes on Fusion, the PR campaign for Loving certainly went the histrionic route. The film’s official Twitter account assembled a slideshow with interracial couples and their children, accompanied by #ThankYouLovings, encouraging other interracial couples to add their photos to the mix. Focus Features even released a Loving-themed emoji app, with “Love-Mojis” showcasing a range of differently melanated pairs.
Critics, mainly white, have praised the film’s quietude, while also wishing that it asserted the political ramifications of the story more vociferously. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody was displeased with the film’s “refinement,” claiming only one half of the couple — Mildred (Ruth Negga) — appears “keenly aware of the historic role that they’ve taken on.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called the film a “insistent, quotidian quiet” where “hard, reverberant stares are about the only hint that the world … is going to falling of its axis.” It is “remarkably subtle,” said the Philadelphia Inquirer, and also “shows that the everyday love shared by this ordinary couple is as meaningful and worthy of attention as the grandest social movement we can imagine.”
If we could fuck away white supremacy, wouldn’t it be gone by now?
American reviews for A United Kingdom have yet to be published as the movie has just been released today, but Asante also cautions against assumptions. “Because, really, what is interesting about being a black man married to a white woman today?” she tells The Guardian. “What’s really interesting,” Asante continues, “is what happened once this couple chose to fall in love, the period in which they fell in love, which was right as South Africa was about to enshrine apartheid into its laws, and the fallout that occurs.”
The sentimentality over the historic milieu these films reimagine makes sense. Our favorite movie love stories — true, true-ish, or fictional — tend toward couples obstructed by sociopolitical forces, like Romeo and Juliet incarnate: West Side Story, Pocahontas, Titanic, The Notebook. These stories give us few applicable lessons for the future, however. When Dargis says of Loving that few movies “speak to the American moment as movingly,” I wonder what American moment she’s referring to: the Lovings’ or ours. Is Loving really a timely lesson for our current landscape? These critics clearly believe it, so unable are they to detach appreciation for the film (or lack thereof) from the supposed political impact of interracial love, period.
That kind of sentimentality is evoked by partners such as Teigen and Pompeo who applaud their own multiracial families, by liberals who’ll defend corporate entities State Farm or General Mills but hesitate to say Black Lives Matter. It explains the success of Allie Dowdle’s “Say No to Racism” fundraiser. After her parents rescinded their support of her education because of her black boyfriend, the high school senior raised $36,000 for tuition by taking her plight to GoFundMe.
Love may trump hate, but it can’t cure racism. The question for 2017’s America and beyond will be whether or not we allow romance to override radical reform. Cream-colored babies won’t save the world, but we can.
Lauren Michele Jackson is a writer and doctoral student living in Chicago. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Point, and Complex, among other places.