“What are you?” The question can often comes out of nowhere One can be going about her quotidian activities, or she might have just finished a meeting at work. “What are you?” The question is disorienting for most, but for others who are racially ambiguous it is commonplace. The ostensibly benign question suggests that it is about the person being asked. However, one might argue that it is more about the one who does the asking. In The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millenium (Stanford University Press, 2011), Michele Elam critically discusses the rise of the Mixed Race Studies. To demonstrate the new sub-genre of cultural studies in both art and academia Elam shows elements of what mixed-racedness looks like in the classroom, as well as in the public sphere here at the turn of the 21st century.
One of the contributions of Elam’s Souls makes to Mixed Race Studies is her careful outline of the ways people of mixed biological ancestry have historically worked for the goal of social justice for all oppressed groups; moreover, she shows how those who look at mixed-racedness critically continue to do so. This, despite the trajectory in which some of mixed-race advocates are moving: people of mixed-race backgrounds are a separate group with separate issues, and most importantly, being both black and white—and that is most often the only definition many use of being “mixed”—their experience falls outside the purview of race studies. This notion of being separate and outside is often used to justify a view of race that essentially reifies notions of identity as being defined by blood percentage—a point of view that takes us back, not forward. While those who critically study mixed- raceness see that one’s movement through a society that continues to ask What are you? can result in alternate experiences, many show that the difference can work in a way to help all understand racial oppression. Dr. Michele Elam, Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor in the English Department at Stanford University, falls within the latter group.
And, so do Lezley Saar, Danzy Senna, Philip Roth, Aaron McGruder, and Dave Chappelle, to name but a few. A mixed bag, for sure, Elam examines relevant works of the aforementioned artists as she considers the way in which they challenge what is quickly becoming conventional thought on mixed-racedness from the academic classroom to the public sphere.
Whether one is fascinated with her critical reading of K-12 textbooks focused on mixed race curriculum or with her reading of artist Lezley Saar’s “Baby Halfie Brown Head”; with her insightful readings of Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks comic strips and/or the unforgettable episode “The Racial Draft” from The Dave Chappelle Show; whether one is interested in the ways that author Colson Whitehead and playwright Carl Hancock Rux ask their audiences to think critically about mixed-racedness in the 21st century one thing is clear: Elam first highlights and subsequently knocks down the notion that “fetishizing the box” of the racial categories on census forms or outlining one’s mixed family tree represents progression towards a most just society in the US.