As a mixed-race woman, the defining question of my life has not been “Who am I?” but “What are you?” I get it everywhere, from all races. Recently it’s been mostly from Asian immigrants. You Chinese? Last month a black guy walked up to me while I was pumping gas. Man! How do you people do that international thing?
It’s an invasive line of questioning, under the guise of a friendly compliment. “You know how you could look more Asian?” my white boss once asked as I clocked out of work. “If you cut your bangs like this and did your makeup like this...” My acupuncturist, meanwhile, thinks I look more Asian in a ponytail.
Most women are accustomed to having their physical appearance treated like public property up for consumption. But when it comes to mixed-race women, our looks are quantified, measured and divvied up, all the way back to conception. How we were cooked up, what our ingredients are, and why we taste so good — people are entitled to know all of it.
“It's a suitable time to think of all the sexy ladies who’ve come about thanks to people of different races procreating,” wrote Josh Robertson in his preamble to Complex’s “The 50 Hottest Biracial Women,” “And it’s not just blacks and whites. Hispanics with Asians! Asians with blacks! Whites with Hispanics! American Indians with other kind of Indians!” These pairings yielded a slideshow’s worth of unique female flavors. “So here, enjoy these mocha-colored, honey-tinted, caramel-complected babes.”
This is only the cheapest version of a palatably post-racial fantasy that is surprisingly popular. Slate featured Stunning Portraits of Mixed-Race Families, designed to facilitate comparing and contrasting family members’ traits. Last year, National Geographic published photos of mixed-race people to suggest what Americans will look like in 2050. The portraits (some of which were of models shot by a fashion photographer) went viral, sending some readers into paroxysms of horny idealism. “In a matter of years we’ll have Tindered, OkCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race,” Mic writer Zak Cheney-Rice wrote. “2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.”
If 2050 is the year that 400 years of racism ends in one fell, photogenic swoop, then sure, I can’t wait. But forgive me if our collective crushes on Rashida Jones, Lolo Jones, and Norah Jones don’t inspire hope. Beauty is a cultural value whose definition has changed dramatically over time. But science and society have a long history of justifying our shifting tastes when it comes to race. White supremacy has been bolstered through race-based compulsory sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws, and likening people of color to animals.
We know race is not biological and humans are 99.9% similar genetically. Nonetheless, U.K. psychologists recently claimed that mixed-race people are more attractive and successful than nonmixed people. Cross-breeding, the authors of the 2010 study hypothesized, produces people who are more “genetically fit” and beautiful — a matter of Darwinian survival. Guess who else used Darwin to argue their superior, stronger, “better evolved” race was advancing the human species? White people.
In the meantime, for every expression of nonwhite beauty we celebrate in a mixed-race model or actress, there’s still a corresponding set of structural disadvantages affecting the rest of us. Black and Asian? Over-imprisoned and suicidal. Native American and Hispanic? Less likely to finish high school and high rates of discrimination in the workplace. And it shouldn’t escape notice that the most popular presented mixed-race blend, so to speak, trends light or white-passing. If racism were over, nonmixed nonwhite people would also be considered beautiful too, which by and large they’re not.
This is the problem with racialized beauty compliments: Saying mixed-race people are “better” or the “best” because of the way they look hardly breaks from racism’s insidious tradition of “racing” the group at the top at the expense of all others’ humanity. Resistant, antiracist beauty movements do exist, like Black Is Beautiful. Born in the 1960s to counter mainstream beliefs that common African features were inherently undesirable, the movement liberated blacks by empowering collective self-love in the face of widespread discrimination.
By contrast, the future mixed-human look National Geographic anticipates has been leveraged by media and advertising companies to sell movie tickets and lingerie to the broadest demographic possible. Diversity is being compressed into something easier to swallow: pretty, part white, with distinctive features (an eye shape, hair type, or skin tone) that might inspire identification in the nonwhite consumer — and will signal a welcome, “comfortable” worldliness to the white one.
This is where the relentless comparison of mixed-race women to food starts to make a sick kind of sense to me. The more beauty is linked to ambiguous racial identity — to images of women in media we visually consume — the more admiring them feels like guilt-eating: bingeing on mocha-honey-caramel prettiness in order to postpone the hard reality of how much needs to change with regard to race. It’s not that I expect ad campaigns for Old Navy and Verizon to end racism. But it sure would be a nice start if we could stop congratulating ourselves for finding mixed-race women attractive. The progressive back-patting that follows every “You’re beautiful, what are you?” risks making us complacent to the effects of racism today. None of it will matter in 50 years, when we co-exist in sexy racial harmony. For the sake of our offspring — who, as any parent can tell you, are all beautiful — I’d rather not wait around to find out.
Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote about paying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it’s like being brown in a world of white beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.