“What are you?” Reactions to American Racial Rhetoric among Mixed and Multiracial Caribbeans

Historically, the United States has had tumultuous relationship with mixed and multiracial individuals within its borders; interracial marriage was illegal until 1967, and the one-drop rule continues affect racial discourse. Combined with the hegemonic power of American culture, the effect of this rhetoric is especially evident in neighboring cultures with different social constructions of race. This paper explores the experiences of young adults in the United States and the Caribbean who identify as mixed or multiracial, and their use of social media to publicly identify and affect this conversation.

To be “mixed” is to contain different qualities or elements. Although racial categorizations can differ from culture to culture, much of the literature regarding the identity of mixed individuals has emerged from the United States and Western Europe. In these communities, multiracial individuals are less than 3% of the population and considered to be between groups. Stereotypes like the “tragic mulatto” describe the psychological stress that multiracial individuals can experience as simultaneously ostracized and exoticized anomalies. They are the targets of curiosity, resulting in the common question: “What are you?”

However, the experience of mixed individuals in the Caribbean, where countries frequently report 10-25% of the population as multiracial, with some as high as 90% (CIA), provides a unique perspective on identity and discourse. The history of multiracial Caribbeans is independently robust and dynamic, from mulattoes’ association with Negro slaves and free Whites during colonialism, to Tessanne Chin, an Afro-Anglo-Indo-Sino-Jamaican who won The Voice, a popular American singing competition, in 2013; most importantly, mixed and multiracial individuals have been, and continue to be, a normal, integrated part of Caribbean society and culture.

Tessane Chin on The Voice

These two discursive strategies are in conflict, especially for young adults, whose personal psychological identity is in flux (Erickson, 1959; Kich, 1992; Phinney, 1993). Interviews with participants aged 18-24 reveal that being multiracial was “normal” and “nothing special” in the context of the Caribbean, but American racial rhetoric caused artificial distress; several felt excluded when their multiracial status was an anomaly and subsequently questioned. However, many reported coping with this distress by actively claiming a Caribbean identity when their race or ethnicity is questioned. This rhetorical strategy disrupts the dominant perceptions and stereotypes of mixed and multiracial individuals as disjointed or incomplete. By directing the conversation, they reinforce the importance of cultural mixing as an inherent part of Caribbean identity; as one respondent explained, “I’m Jamaican first.”

According to the United States Census, the percentage of Americans identifying as multiracial is expected to increase dramatically over the coming decades (US Census Bureau, 2012). Understanding how racial rhetoric affects this emerging generation, and how they use technology to affect this discourse, is essential to promoting a diverse American identity within a diverse global community.

Thanks to Raven S. Maragh, Ph.D. Student at University of Iowa, for all of her assistance on this project.

Accepted at the National Communication Association 2014 PreConference: Rhetoric and the Legacies of Race in the US. See you in Chicago in November!

Works Cited

Erikson, E.H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle: Selected papers. Psychological Issues, 1, 1-171.

Kich, G.K. (1992). The developmental process of asserting a biracial, bicultural identity. In M.P.P. Root (Ed.), Racially mixed people in America (pp. 304-317). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Phinney, J.S. (1993). A three-stage model of ethnic identity development in adolescence. In M.E. Bernal & G.P. Knight (Eds.), Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities (pp. 61-80). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
This entry was posted in Intersectional Identities, Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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