Artist, activist and creator of the multimedia comic book Hafrocentric Juliana “Jules” Smith and Dr. Rainier Spencer, author of Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix discuss their various critiques of popular approaches to “multiracial” identity.
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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up world, and welcome back to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. Now, I Mix What I Like will always be an homage to Steve Biko. But in this edition of the program it will also be a pun. Because in this edition of I Mix What I Like we explore concepts of multiracial identity, of being mixed. Over the last year or so the Pew Research Center has seemingly put some numbers behind the more pop cultural references to multiracial experiences, seen for instance in films like Dear White People, and/or in television’s Black-ish. Pew research has looked to explore marriage habits, forms multiracial identities take, who considers themselves multiracial and more. But often missing in such studies or popular references to multiracial experiences is the political impact or context these investigations take place–in which they take place, or the political ranges adopted by those of so-called mixed race backgrounds. To look at this a little bit we have two guests, each with their own distinct and unique approach. First joining us from New York City by way of the Bay is Juliana “Jules” Smith. She is a cultural worker, educator, writer, organizer, and creator of the multimedia comic book Hafrocentric, about which we will talk in just a few minutes. And joining us from Nevada is Dr. Rainier Spencer, professor and associate vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is author of, among other things, Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix. Welcome to you both to I Mix What I Like and the Real News Network. DR. RAINIER SPENCER: Thank you. JULIANA “JULES” SMITH: Thanks for having me, Jared. BALL: So Juliana, let’s start with you, in part because your so-called multiracial shero heroine Naima Pepper begins the latest issue of your Hafrocentric comic book by asking, what would George Jackson do? And I’d like that to be where we start for this conversation about multiracial identity, having you first tell us a little bit about Hafrocentric and your lead character, and why her first question is a reference to what George Jackson would do. SMITH: Yeah. Well, so Hafrocentric, I call it a women’s version of the Boondocks. And the main character is mixed black and white. I loosely based it off of my brother and myself, and our experiences growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. But more than that, Hafrocentric really deals with a lot of grander issues of race. And in the past few issues we’ve looked at gentrification, but done it with a lot of humor. And so I, I actually bring George Jackson, Du Bois, Assata, a lot of different folks become characters in the books. BALL: I mean, Fannie Lou Hamer is a fairy godmother in this latest edition, as well. SMITH: Yes. So Fannie Lou Hamer, actually, she comes back as a fairy to kind of be–you know, like an elder and an ancestor that helps Naima Pepper go through her college experience. So I often use a lot of historical figures to, to push the storyline along. And George Jackson’s just, just one of many kind of black radical figures that I bring into the book. BALL: I mean, one of the reasons why I wanted to start there is because part of my own personal critique about the ways multiracial identity is often carried, you know, conversations are carried in popular or public spaces, it denies the sort of range of political perspective or ideological approach to race, class, liberation struggles, et cetera, as if it’s impossible for someone with a so-called multiracial identity to adopt, as is the case with your lead character, a very black radical perspective or one that is internationalist and revolutionary. Which is of course part of the broader denial of, that mainstream media plays in terms of more broadly denying the ranges of conversation that we have. But I thought that this was of particular importance and interest for this kind of conversation, where you have this so-called mixed race shero heroine adopting that political line. SMITH: Yeah. I mean–well, you know, you know what it’s like to be mixed in this world. You know, oftentimes you may be mixed and you have an experience that allows you to talk about having different cultures, different, different religions, and different experiences. But the way that the world reads you and the way that you experience life is very much through a black lens. At least that’s what the character embodies. And also, you know, really what I was trying to do with some of the main characters. But that’s not a, that’s not a new phenomenon. Like, even if we go back to Frederick Douglass, right, who has a lineage that is, for all intents and purposes, is mixed. And he is approaching the world from, from the experience of what it’s like to be a black person in this world. So it’s, it’s not necessarily like I’m denying these things. But it’s like, hey, this is the reality of the situation. And this is the experience that I’m going to speak to to try to get freedom. And that’s a lot of what the character of Naima Pepper does in Hafrocentric. BALL: Well, it’s also like what I’ve heard dream hampton say, that her adoption of a black identity is no more a rejection of her white mother than her adoption of a feminist identity is a rejection of her male father. But Dr. Spencer, you also have a similar, at least somewhat similar critique of what you call Generation Mixed. And this idea that all this focus, from Pew or popular culture on so-called multiracial identity is somehow new or taking place differently than it has historically. So bringing you into the conversation, if you could talk to us a little bit about that particular critique that you have of what, again, you are calling generation mix. SPENCER: Right, so where do I start. You can start with the fact that the mixed-race sort of nexus in America began in the colonial Chesapeake, with sort of lower-class white women indentured servants getting together, whether marrying or not, African freedmen. Or you could talk about the fact that folks have been mixing ever since that time. I think what sort of bothers me about the, the generation mix movement is the idea that somehow what’s happening today is new, different, and as I put in my writings, also better than what’s gone on before. I mean, you get folks who won’t acknowledge that–[I mean], let’s face it. Just about every black person in the United States who doesn’t, who isn’t an immigrant from Africa or whose parents or grandparents aren’t immigrants from Africa is mixed, period. I mean, there is no getting around that fact. The question is why should we feel that these folk today are any more mixed than the rest of us? And by the way, you know, if I believed in biological race I would say that I’m mixed race as well. I like to say that my mother thinks she’s white, my father thought he was black. BALL: But it’s also something that I, that I at least, maybe this is projecting my own view here that I take from both of your work, that it’s something that I’ve seen other people talk about. Whether it’s, it’s Lisa and Kim Jones famously, the daughter of Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka, but who have made the point that part of what confuses the issue is not the so-called mixed people themselves, but what seems to be an attempt to deny the impact of white supremacy and what ultimately becomes a black experience here in the United States. So Dr. Spencer, for instance, I recall reading in your work, at least in the portions that I read, that you have a critique of this idea that we are moving into some sort of post-racial era, with all this mixing that’s going on. Or that the increase in overall interracial relationships does not mean that there is an increase or an improvement in race relations, generally speaking. And, and that we’re not learning anything new from current, or you know, academic work or popular media conversation about interracial relationships or the offspring produced. SPENCER: Right, exactly. So I mean, one of my big critiques is against media, popular media. I mean, I include in that, you know, everything from New York Times to Time magazine. They want to speak about a particular perspective of mixedness that I think eases the white conscience, if you will. But to get back to what you were saying earlier, it’s interesting that the mixed race movement in the United States is a product of white middle class mothers of black-white children. I mean, that’s something that we, that we know that we’ve, that we’ve studied. And it’s, the dynamic you mentioned of the overall picture of mixedness. So these are the, sort of the progenitors of this mixed race view. However, most mixed race people in the United States, the biggest population is Asian-white and Hispanic-white. And so the black-white view, which often gets represented as, as being the, the biggest one, is actually the smallest view. But it gets the most, it gets the most press. And this press is coming from sort of white middle class mothers of black-white children, which I think is kind of a dangerous thing, really. BALL: So even as you say, with this increase interracial relationships, the, the black component of this racial hierarchy or racial interaction is left out. SPENCER: It is. And I think that really when, when folks talk about we’re, either are post-racial or becoming post-racial, and by the way you just need to look at the latest newsfeed to discover that we certainly are not, whether it’s Missouri, Yale, or Ferguson or anything else. We’ve, we as a nation, right, like to say that we either are post-racial or on the way to becoming post-racial. And mixed race identity is our path there. However, what really, what we want as a nation is not so much to become post-racial, but to become post-black. Which means stepping over the black problem and moving on without actually dealing with it. BALL: Again, to evoke the name, dream hampton has talked about this being the anything but black movement as well. Juliana, could you talk a little bit more about this ends up appearing in your Hafrocentric comic book, which I can’t rave enough about? But not only do you have this, this so-called mixed race protagonist, female protagonist, but engaging in, in very radical internationalist politics. But you also have her through the, the symbolic representation on her t-shirt, raising the standard for what black-white solidarity or interaction would be. Could you, could you say a few words about that? SMITH: Yeah. So it’s actually a t-shirt that I wanted to make a long time ago but never got around to it. So I ended up putting it in the comic book. And it’s a picture of Naima Pepper, and her shirt reads Ally. And under it it has a picture of the abolitionist John Brown. And in my explanation of the characters, I say that, you know, I hearken back to some of Malcolm X’s speeches about the kind of white allies that we need. And when he was talking about that, really what he was talking about is letting, for there to be allyship there needed to be the body, the white body to give up its privileges. And that’s a, that’s like, the most allyship that I think the U.S. has ever seen, right. It’s almost like we can’t even imagine why John Brown would do that. It’s still–he’s still this figure that’s, that’s really, like, not reconcilable with a lot of U.S. history. And the way that we imagine how people should act, especially in movement-building, right, that they should put their bodies on the line. And that’s, that’s something that I wanted to, to kind of–the black and white thing, to bring it up, is really to have this, this ally shirt. You know, what does it really mean to be an ally when anti-black violence is so prevalent, still, in this nation? And I think John Brown really sets the example. BALL: So I think that, as we get ready to unfortunately close this segment, that we could all three maybe agree that solidarity with the conditions of African descendants needs to go beyond, you know, sexual relationships or even marriage, or the production of so-called multiracial offspring. SMITH: Right. SPENCER: It’s more than that. SMITH: Yeah. BALL: Dr. Spencer, Juliana Smith, thank you very much for joining us for this edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News. I appreciate you taking the time to add a little depth to this conversation about multiracial identity. SPENCER: It’s great, thank you. SMITH: Thanks so much for having me again. BALL: And thank you all for joining us here. As always, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying for the entire crew at I Mix What I Like and the Real News, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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