OPINION: Mixed raced children will not fix racism
Logging onto social media last week, I came across a meme that is frequently posted without interrogation of what it means or implies. 'End Racism. Have mixed babies'. The images that appeared alongside these words are of light-skinned children, with blue eyes or masses of curls. A popular idea of what mixed raced children look like. A popular 'type' that is favoured, because of an appearance that is close to white, yet simultaneously 'exotic' and 'other'.
The problematic idea that we can fix racism through outbreeding it, shares a similar logic with the notion that mixed babies are cuter, and the assumption that if we date, marry or befriend people across racial lines we cannot still be racist. It ignores how we can and often do make exceptions out of people who we are in intimate relationships or friendships with.
As Ella Sackville Adjei points out in her story about her 'racist one night stand', 'racists don't wear badges' and not being racist is not as simple as being intimate with someone of another race to you. But it also ignores the fact that those mixed raced children are born into a world structured by race.
But the idea that we can fix racism through making everyone visibly mixed still has currency. Despite the existence of mixed raced people and race-homogenous societies in the world, where race still matters. Despite evidence that race's logic runs deep. Despite reality.
As multiculturalism and the celebration of unity in diversity became more popular in our democracies, "More and more, it seems that mixed-race people have become the acceptable face of diversity", as Joseph Harker points out. The images that uphold these political projects are similar to the ones that proliferate in memes. They often erase other images of what it looks like to be mixed, or the fact that mixed-raced experiences do not only stem from having black/white parents.
Pointing to the South African experience, Nigerian writer and intellectual Kole Omotoso notes, mixed-raced (or coloured) people's skin colour ranges from 'charcoal black, to bread-crust brown', 'sallow yellow' and 'off-white cream', and a whole range of colours in-between. Mixed-raced people often look profoundly different. But the children represented in these memes are of one type.
The children represented in those images look like me. I share their light skin, light eyes and masses of curls. I share their proximity to whiteness and 'ambiguous' appearance. And like them, and many others who have distinct mixed-raced appearances, I share a mixed-raced raced experience of identity that is complex. It is an experience where walking through the world as a visibly mixed-raced person is often to encounter yourself as a perpetual question.
A friend, who has mixed children, recently shared a story about how people often approach her. Caught between assuming that she is her children's nanny or mother, they tentatively sidle up to her, gesture towards her children and ask: "What's happening here?"
That simple question, "What's happening here?" contains a world of race logic that points to fetishisation, objectification, expectations about parenthood, and a perpetual curiosity about mixed bodies that occurs because we still essentialise race. We want appearances to be black or white, and to be in a space in-between (wherever that is) still hinges on a binary logic - where people are assumed to be perfectly half this and half that, reduced to human fractions, and defined by opposing sides.
It is an experience that is echoed in Don Mattera's idea that to be coloured is to live in 'twilight existence'. And years into our democracy, we are still seeing the echoes of academic Zimitri Erasmus's acknowledgement that colouredness is often still considered as "not only not white, but less than white; not only not black, but better than black". We are still questioning what it means to be coloured.
The presumption that if everyone is the same race, then racism and all race-based issues naturally disappear is at best misguided, and at worst built on the desire to erase blackness in our societies.
As Achal Prabhala points out in an article on Brazil titled 'Neymar and the disappearing donkey', the idea of 'Brazil' as 'a racial democracy' is incorrect, as a race hierarchy still exists, and has roots in a historical political project of whitening Brazilian society. Communities where people are the same race exist, from our own coloured community to the more homogenous societies in the world. Within them, race does not disappear. It just takes on slightly different forms that play by the same rules. The preferred form is often lighter, as colourism (discrimination based on skin colour) often translates into the pursuit of white or Western features like wide eyes, light skin, more pointed noses, and straight hair, or the preferred 'exotic' mixed appearance of lighter skin and curlier hair.
There remains a lot of instability around what it means to be mixed/coloured.
The presence of different bodies, with distinctly different (yet murky) ancestries, appearances, interpretations and experiences of what it means to be coloured or mixed has meant that across our country, in different spaces, places and times, it is clear that "There is no single coloured [or mixed] experience, nor any single voice that speaks in its name", to quote Grunebaum and Robins. The only guarantee is difference.
Yet many seek to dictate what that experience should look like and be named, driven by ideologies and the idea that every mixed person has to identify under one name: from coloured to black, mixed or biracial, Khoisan, and a range of other descriptors. There is little consensus. There are many questions.
Race is deeply entrenched in our lives and communities. Whether we agree with it and accept its logic, or challenge its history, factual basis and presence in our realities, it is an organising principle of societies that determines much of our experiences of ourselves. Having mixed raced children will not end racism and result in a racial utopia, as questions and experiences of race cannot be bred away, but often appear with greater force when mixed bodies appear.
The logic of race is malleable and sophisticated. It has morphed into different forms across time - united around white supremacist ideals and desired appearances, and a vocabulary that leads people to say things like 'End racism. Make mixed babies', 'mixed children are cuter', and even, 'what's happening here?'
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.