The ‘Heights’ of Anxiety and the Color Line: Racial Ambiguity in a Culture of Absolutes

I once heard the great political philosopher and activist Angela Davis argue that Americans are so obsessed with race as an identifying feature that when we meet racially ambiguous people, we are anxious until we know on which side of the color line they fall. Upon hearing this, I was relieved by the articulation of something I had suspected was at the heart of my experience. It was like experiencing great art, that rush of adrenaline that comes with recognizing what we’ve known all along presented as fantastically new.

I say this because I am extremely racially ambiguous person, particularly in the United States where we traditionally discuss race as an absolute. I am bi-racial, Filipino and white, and I hear, from day-to-day, wildly different interpretations of who I am. I have been recently called “Kaitlin” on the train, and also described as many permutations of light brown people: Latinx, Native American, and Arab. I get Mediterranean, Jewish, and Sicilian and quite often, I am asked if I have some Black ancestry (which coincides also with being Latinx).

I am also regularly disbelieved when I describe this to be my experience. I unquestionably receive white privilege, and I sometimes undergo the same offenses other people of color experience. Much depends on context, how much the sun has hit me, and of course the personal history and beliefs of the onlooker. What I find particularly frustrating is that when I say I’m bi-racial, people often get upset, telling me I don’t look it. Some really seem to think I’m telling some kind of lie, or that I shouldn’t even mention it. At times, my identity feels like an MC Escher lithograph, a thing that cannot be logically coherent as a whole.

I can’t help thinking about my own place in the scheme of things as a discussion of colorism has arisen because the casting of In the Heights did not reflect what the population of Washington Heights truly looks like. There are far more people that look like Dominican American artists Cardi B or Jharrel Jerome than were depicted, and understandably, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu have been brought to task for selecting Latinx leads who are more light-skinned in the continuum of the racial identities of Latin America.

Critics are correct in calling for an analysis and rejection of colorism. Those of us who receive advantage because of white privilege — whether we are white or whitish — need to decry racism and use our privilege where we can to take a stand for human rights and representation that allows all of us to see ourselves in our culture.

Alongside this, I have seen some criticism of racially ambiguous people that pains me. When discussions of Shaun King’s ethical practices trended recently, so did “Talcum X.” This nickname for him has been popular for a while, and is a sneering mockery of his clearly mixed-race identity. I wish this disdain were not part of this necessary discussion. It is important to hold public figures accountable, but we shouldn’t attack them on the basis of their racial identity.

I’ve seen Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anthony Ramos all called white recently, and though, again, criticism of colorism is not only justified but crucial, refusing to recognize that these Latinx artists live a complicated experience where they have been told they’re not American, or not good enough, and have certainly regularly been considered non-white is also a problem.

Industry people told Ramos he should hide his ethnicity, presumably so he can pass for white, play Italians, one supposes. This disdain for Puerto Ricans is rooted in anti-Blackness. For other Latinx people, it may be anti-indigenous racism. So, this fundamental insult to his identity happens because he is part African (and possibly indigenous) and Puerto Rican culture is rooted in many ways in African culture(s).

Many in the US don’t understand that Latinx come from the history of collision of continents, as the US does, and that Latin Americans and Latinx have a range of First Nation, African, and European blood.

People on both the right and the left have argued that Meghan Markle isn’t really Black. This is a double bind that I find painful to witness, a kind of gaslighting. While it is true that colorism allowed her to be the choice of the Duke of Sussex, she was clearly dragged by the British press and otherwise maltreated for being Black. My friend Lynn nicely paraphrased a tweet by @esthergbenz: colorism allowed her in, and racism pushed her out. 

Bruno Mars, who is of Filipino and Puerto Rican descent, gets dragged occasionally for being an R&B singer and appropriating Black culture. This happens to him more than to any white singer I’ve seen. Some of his defense is rooted in how much African ancestry he has as a Puerto Rican. Well, what if he were fully Filipino American? It’s hard not to see some of the lashing out against Mars as treating him as a perpetual foreigner, one who has no right to American traditions.

Has he less right to US musical traditions than the late Amy Winehouse? We should celebrate our musical traditions, indeed our cultural aesthetic: cool, as rooted in African American culture. This needs truth telling and deep respect. In addition, we need to make space for artists who don’t fit easily into traditional ideas of identity.

Sometimes mixed-race people are overtly racist.

George Zimmerman would not be considered white in many contexts in the US, but in his life in Florida, and as a hero of white supremacy, he has been. And as we critique that ambiguous people all-too-often both participate in and perpetuate racism including colorism, we need to let go of the urge to attack the identities of people who cause anxiety because they trouble the color-line.

Seventeen percent of new US marriages are now interracial. Over time, there will be more and more people who are hard to categorize, and we’ll have to combat anti-Blackness and other forms of racism at the same time we tell the truth about how complicated and fluid categories of identity have always been.

4 thoughts on “The ‘Heights’ of Anxiety and the Color Line: Racial Ambiguity in a Culture of Absolutes

  1. Why is this person calling Meghan Markle “black” while being careful not to blacken Latinos who show far more “black blood” than her?

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