Professor Jane Rhodes

Americans are increasingly thinking about their racial identities, says American studies professor Jane Rhodes, with the whole question of mixed race identities getting more attention. “Academia is just starting to catch up with that conversation,” she says, which is one reason why her department is devoting its 15th annual conference to the topic February 27 and 28.

Macalester senior Hannah Johnson (Olympia, Wash.) is equally fascinated by the subject, which led her to write her sociology capstone paper about mixed race and multiracial identities. “We talk a lot at Mac about how we construct gender,” says Johnson, “but I wanted to explore how we construct race. Nobody really knows what mixed race is right now. It’s a great place to be in American history.”

Johnson interviewed 11 people in depth on the topic, and found that her fellow students and others “really want to talk about the issue—I’m still hearing from people excited to talk about mixed race,” she says.

She found that mixed race people have two distinct ways of thinking about their identity: as a combination of two or more racial groups (such as half Chinese, half African American) or as its own separate category. Many interviewees also reported that college was the first time they had really thought of themselves as mixed race.

Another interesting finding, says Johnson, was that all her interviewees asserted that multiracial people are more attractive than others—exotic and beautiful. “They have no physical traits in common, so where does this stereotype come from?” Johnson asks. Interviewees also told her that when acquaintances asked their race, they often wouldn’t accept the answers the mixed-race person gave them. “It was as if they somehow knew better than the person themselves what their race was,” she says.

Although some Americans see multiracial people as a kind of living solution to our nation’s race problem, the Mac senior doesn’t believe the issue will be resolved that easily. “They think inequality will disappear through colorblind interracial love and the creation of beautiful ambiguous babies,” as Johnson puts it. “What we decide race means is really different from what it used to be, but race isn’t going away,” she says.

Rhodes and other American studies faculty hope that conference attendees will come away with a better understanding of what mixed race studies is all about, what the discussions are around it, and what the theories are behind the debates. “We don’t have the language for this yet, how to think about it,” says Rhodes. “We need to grapple with the idea of mixed race more, and we want to share with the campus community the emerging body of scholarship on this topic.”

February 7 2014

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