Playing Games with Race – The Feminist Wire

Playing Games with Race

"Mulatto" by Jenia Lisunov

by Omar Ricks

NOTE: This article expands on a comment on Prof. Hortense Spillers’ article Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too published on The Feminist Wire on February 25, 2011. Omar Ricks would like to thank Prof. Spillers for inviting his contribution to The Feminist Wire.

At several places in the first article of her New York Times series, Race Remixed, concerning mostly young adult multiracial individuals, Susan Saulny has one woman, Laura Wood, vice president of the University of Maryland Multiracial Biracial Student Association (MBSA), embody much of the human-interest side of what might otherwise be an article about U.S. Census data. In a game at the beginning of the article, an MBSA friend correctly guesses Wood’s genotype: “Are you mulatto?” We learn of Wood’s painful personal journey. Initially given up for adoption by her white mother, later taken back and raised as white until the age of 8, she is rejected by the black family of her father, who she says “can’t see past the color of my skin and accept me even though I share DNA with them.” As Saulny conveys Wood’s story, we do not get a sense of any other problematics of this woman’s multiracial identity besides this one. We are left wondering at the shape that black people and blackness take in the rhetoric of Saulny’s article, if not of the interviewees, like Wood, with whom she speaks.

“If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.” (Saulny, 2011, January 29)

“All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” Ms. Wood says. “I want us to have a say.” (Saulny, 2011, January 29)

Few actual opponents of multiracialism are quoted in the article, but, oddly enough, when opposition to multiracialism is given a face, it is generally not the face of “all society” but a black one. Through such moments as these, this article is not merely reporting on but also typical of multiracial discourse, a diverse and sometimes mutually contentious collection of speeches, writings, and collective actions that broadly assert: (a) the presence of multiracial people as such; (b) the freedom of people to define themselves as their genetic diversity allows; and often (c) the implicit imperative that people (especially, for some reason, President Barack Obama) should choose to identify as multiracial. Time and again in this article, as in much of multiracial discourse, several questions arise when it comes to the ways black people are figuratively deployed. Is the problem really that blacks, more than others, are truly preventing multiracial people from identifying as such? If so, how so? Were one to ask against which real or anticipated threat to this freedom to “have a say” the MBSA students are asserting it, and attend closely to the rhetorical structure of the answers that Saulny articulates, I suspect that one would notice in those answers a structural function that blackness serves within multiracial discourse. This structural function owes to the staying power that comes from blacks’ unique position not just as a group, but also as useful rhetorical figures against which the coherence of an asserted “freedom to identify” might be sustained.

With the new Census data out, the renewed interest in multiracialism in the U.S. media may continue to increase. Articles this year in Ebony and The New York Times have been only the most recent of the successive waves of multiracial discourse. The central claim that Saulny’s article series makes is that “many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity.” The series is really a celebration of multiracial identity as “much more fluid,” and resistive against the dominating will of what “society tells you.”


In places, the series even celebrates the triumph of heteronormative love, as in the third article in the series, where a black woman says, ”I really never thought twice about it,” of her decision to date her now-husband, a white man, when both were students at University of Southern Mississippi (Saulny, 2011, March 20). [Yes, that’s Mississippi—the Magnolia State— where, substantial changes in race relations notwithstanding, a recent Public Policy Polling survey had nearly half of all Mississippi Republicans opining that interracial marriage should be outlawed (Terbush, 2011, April 7).] The problems with multiracial identity, at least according to this article series, are not for the most part problems within the movement or its philosophical foundations. Rather, the problems almost always consist of the failure of others to accept mixed-race people—and those “others” are not those with the power to shape things like media representations or urban geography. For example, Saulny says,

No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.

Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans. (Saulny, 2011, January 29)

This passage is performing some subtle but important ideological work. Those who advocate “the blending of the races” are contrasted with those who oppose “a more powerful multiracial movement.” Considering that one can be in favor of “the blending of the races” and yet opposed to the particular politics of “a more powerful multiracial movement,” this statement is a curious slippage, comparing “apples with oranges.” There is also the laying of the mantle of “optimist” on those who make the questionable juxtaposition between “bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action,” almost as though there is no question that affirmative action is rooted in the bigotry and prejudice that necessitated it. Based on my reading of the article series as a whole, it is unclear to which specific “optimists” Saulny refers here, but, far more important is the way she leaves this equation unpacked. By juxtaposing these terms without critically examining them, Saulny ends up, intentionally or not, echoing a connection that multiracial discourses routinely and uncritically draw: the connection between black freedom struggle (affirmative action in this case, although any of the other political concessions that black freedom struggle has effected would probably suffice) and bigotry by blacks toward non-blacks.

Late in Saulny’s first article, blacks figure yet again as irrational barriers to racial progress and complexity of thought, when, at a campus discussion about President Obama’s racial identity, MBSA students contest the question with the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Ms. Key [the former MBSA president], a senior, remembered someone answering the question without much discussion: “One-drop rule, he’s black.”

“But we were like, ‘Wait!’ ” she said. “That’s offensive to us. We sat there and tried to advocate, but they said, ‘No, he’s black and that’s it.’ Then someone said, ‘Stop taking away our black president.’ I didn’t understand where they were coming from, and they didn’t understand me.” (Saulny, 2011, January 29)

While many things come across in this moment in the article, none of them amount to the kind of prohibitive power assumed by the statement “society tells you that you can’t.” Yet the article often uses black people or those speaking in the interests of African Americans as the closest things to antimultiracialists.

Moves like these might be easily bypassed, if they did not bear a close resemblance to a common trope within multiracial discourse. As analyzed by Jared Sexton in his book Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, the thing that unifies a diverse (left, liberal, conservative, and right) field of discourse around multiracial identity is the singular desire to achieve distance from “certain figures of blackness” that “resurface in each instance of multiracial discourse” and “are generally made to serve as a foil for the contemporary value of multiracialism” (Sexton, 2008). It would require an excessive degree of naïveté or willful disregard to ignore the same symptoms of thought in Saulny’s article series. In Sexton’s words, “what lends [multiracial discourse] its coherence […] is its obdurately unsophisticated understanding of race and sexuality and its conspicuously negative disposition toward what Fanon (1967) terms ‘the lived experience of the black'” (Sexton, 2008).

Most essentially, then, in multiracial discourse, blackness stands in not as an identity or identification to be rejected or worked through but, in the words of Sexton, as a structural position “against which all other subjects take their bearings” (Sexton & Copeland, 2003). In what might otherwise be an incomprehensible world or a movement without a cause, blackness is so serviceable that it can be used to stand in as that with which nobody wants to be associated, even by those who are partly black.

"Mulatto with Bowler Hat"  by Jules Pascin

"Mulatto with Bowler Hat" by Jules Pascin

Even if multiracialism shifts us from the “one-drop rule” to a more graduated mestizaje model of racialization, this changes nothing for black people because blackness is still located at the “undesirable” end of the continuum—or, more accurately, hierarchy. In my view, it is necessary that we first understand the stability of that unethical structural relation before we can say that multiracialism challenges racism by injecting into the racist structure a “more fluid” sense of identity. Rainier Spencer’s 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article (Spencer, 2009, May 19), for example, asked, “how can multiracial identity deconstruct race when it needs the system of racial categorization to even announce itself?” Posing this question as a statement would be to say that one needs for there to be a structure of race in order to call oneself multiracial. Small wonder, then, that so many celebrations of multiracial identity sound antiblack. They are.

From the perspective of one who studies race and subjectivity, there is something not only unsatisfying but also deeply concerning about gestures like Saulny’s, celebrating the supposed novelty of multiracial identity to create a portrait of changing racial dynamics. It is no mean feat that reading Saulny’s lead article caused Hortense Spillers, one of our foremost scholars on the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on black subjectivity, to say, “My head spins and my eyesight grows cock-eyed, trying to figure this one out. In short, I fall down in the dizziness” (Spillers, 2011). The personal question of multiracial identity would be none of “society’s” business if only it could be divorced from the ethico-political question of why one might choose to identify one way instead of another. Why it cannot be is something that we need only look to the rhetorical structure of Saulny’s article series to perceive.

Works Cited

Saulny, S. (2011). Black and white and married in the deep south: A shifting image. New York Times. Retrieved from

Saulny, S. (2011, January 29). Black? White? Asian? More young Americans choose ‘All of the above’. New York Times. Retrieved from

Sexton, J. (2008). Amalgamation schemes: Antiblackness and the critique of multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sexton, J., & Copeland, H. (2003). Raw life: An introduction. Qui Parle, 13(2), 53-62.

Spencer, R. (2009, May 19). Mixed-race chic. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Spillers, H. (2011, February 25). “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too.” Feminist Wire. Retrieved from <’s-baby-papa’s-too/>

Terbush, J. (2011, April 7). Nearly half of Mississippi Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal. Retrieved from


Omar Ricks is a doctoral student in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. His work uses filmic, new media, and literary representations to theorize the performance of black leadership in the twentieth-century United States. He earned his B.A. in History from Johnson C. Smith University, his M.A. in US History from University of Illinois, and his M.F.A. in Drama (Performance) from UC Irvine.



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