When I went to the book-signing for Black, White, Other in Atlanta 20 years ago, I felt like I was joining some underground resistance movement. I didn’t have to give a password or secret handshake for entry, but there was this vibe in the air that biracial people were a persecuted minority fighting for acceptance. The book-signing turned into group therapy – people shared family secrets, pep talks and stories of being perpetual outsiders. It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by people who shared my racial journey. I am not alone; I’m normal, I thought as I scanned the room and looked at all these fascinating faces.
Fast forward to today, and the war seems over. Biracial people are no longer “the other,” the “tragic mulatto” trapped between two racial identities. We are hip. We have Obama in the Oval Office, Tiger Woods on the fairway, and countless biracial comedians, television stars and models who are part of popular culture. For many kids, being biracial is cool. I envy a new generation of biracial kids who will probably never experience the racism I did from both black and whites.
For me, the change is astounding. I tell people I’ve gone from being the “tragic mulatto” to the “magic mulatto” because biracial people are no longer just cool. We’re living totems of the New America. We’re talked about now as the vanguard of a new brown America, a place where there will be so much interracial mixing that racism will inevitably collapse.
It’s an intoxicating idea. Why worry about complex questions about institutional racism – just keep making those pretty brown babies and America will be born again. But I don’t believe in the magic mulatto any more than the tragic one.
I am now 48 years old, and my life still remains the same as it did 20 years ago when I attended Lise’s book reading. I’m a journalist, now with CNN.com, where I often write about race and religion. I still attend the same small interracial church and I still believe, as I told Lise, that my identity is built around my Christian faith, not my parents’ skin color.
Yet my attitudes about race are less optimistic than they were 20 years ago.
The election of President Obama, ironically, has something to do with it. I didn’t realize how entrenched racism was in this country until it elected its first black president. The fabricated “birther” controversy; a congressman calling a president a liar during a nationally televised address to Congress; the coded racial appeals in calling Obama a “Food-Stamp” president – Obama’s biracial heritage did nothing to shield him from those racial attacks.
I used to think that the browning of America would automatically make the nation more tolerant. As people of color became the majority, wouldn’t Americans learn how to be accepting of “the other” because they would no longer have a choice? But now I wonder if the perpetual racial tension that we experienced with Obama will become the new normal for our future.
Maybe the New America embodied by biracial people will increase racial tension, not cause it to evaporate.
I keep thinking about an odd study conducted by one of the nation’s leading sociologists. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, released a study in 2007 that revealed that more diversity actually weakens civic engagement – it makes a community weaker.
He discovered that when a community became more racially diverse, more people withdrew from volunteering, fewer people voted, they gave less to charity and their distrust of neighbors increased. Putnam said as diversity increased, people “hunkered down” – they withdrew from the new neighbors who didn’t look like them.
I now wonder if a large part of America will “hunker down” as this country changes. It’s a gloomy vision of our future, I know, and it doesn’t match what countless surveys show: Americans are more tolerant of not only interracial couples, but gay and lesbians. Tolerance is now expected. Even here in the red state of Georgia, I see so many interracial couples together and no one gives a second look. Isn’t that progress?
There’s no doubt that few interracial couples will go through what my parents went through. My mother’s family disowned my mother and her children when she had two sons with a black man. Still, I wonder if people can become more tolerant in their personal lives, yet remain intolerant in the public lives and with their political choices.
I still remember a conversation I had with Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of George Wallace, the notorious segregationist governor of Alabama who was a vicious racist. She told me her father’s best friend was a black man who he went quail-hunting with – a man who Wallace singled out in his will. Isn’t that one of the insights of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr shared in his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: Individuals can be moral in their personal lives but easily become brutal when they make decisions as part of a group.
So I’m glad to no longer feel like an outsider. We’ve won; we’re normal! For so many years in my youth, I looked within myself, trying to untangle my biracial heritage to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be. Two decades later, I don’t worry so much about who I am and who I will be. I’m more worried now about what this nation will be.