Mind the Gap: Defining whiteness

I recently wrote a column on being mixed race, which received one comment: “If you look white, you ARE white. White can also be multiracial. Stop the whining.” The commenter then linked to an article that argues that people of color perpetuate the one drop rule. I was glad to see this comment, which has since been removed from the Daily website, simply because it now gives me the opportunity to delve into race identity politics even further, for the sake of everyone, but specifically for the mixed-race community.

Race is a social construct. This is a widely accepted fact among academics. In Wendy Roth’s 2010 article “Racial Mismatch,” race is given five distinct characteristics: how you identify, how you tell others how you identify, what you assume others perceive you as, what you are actually perceived as (by appearance and by how you interact or speak) and standardized coded phenotypes or genetic markers.

The thing about all of these characteristics is that they themselves still depend on subjectivity. Things like categories of skin tones and hair are perceived differently to different people. In 2016, writer Matt Thorn conceptualized the question: “Do Manga Characters Look ‘White’? Many white anime fans were confused as to how characters could have pale ‘white’ skin and big eyes and still be ‘Japanese’ in a show. He used the “marked” and “unmarked” dichotomy of Roman Jakobson:

“An ‘unmarked’ category is one that is taken for granted, that is so obvious to both speaker and listener it needs no marking. A ‘marked’ category, by contrast, is one that is seen as deviating from the norm, and therefore requires marking … Americans and others raised in European-dominated societies, regardless of their background, will see a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, free of racial signifiers, as ‘white.'”

Japanese people don’t need to give characters marked characteristics to be Japanese, instead giving foreign characters these signs of otherness (Americans are consistently white with blond hair and blue eyes, etc.). I argue that similarly, people who are not multiracial, especially people who are white, categorize certain attributes with whiteness that mixed people wouldn’t. For instance, whenever I see someone with brown freckles as prominent as mine, I suspect someone is mixed because of the percentage of mixed friends I have who share the trait. I often observe textures of hair (especially when tied up, short or straightened) that white people wouldn’t ‘notice’ as not-white and would therefore passively categorize as white. Often people of color have skin tones lighter than that of a very tanned (or fake tanned) white person.

To the person who commented on my article: Just because mixed people ‘look white’ to you, doesn’t mean they “look white” to everyone, and it definitely doesn’t mean that they are white. People of color look all sorts of ways, and defining race in such narrow terms is historically unhelpful and simply inaccurate. The facets of racial identity are many, and the perception of whiteness has evolved, just as the classification of race has. I can acknowledge the privilege I do have while retaining my identity and the fact that my dad is brown, and I am brown.