The New York Times' Motherlode blog recently posted a thought-provoking article called, "Mixed Kids Are Always So Beautiful." The author's experiences as a parent to a racially-ambiguous mixed child are proof that beauty and race are concepts societies create that may not actually exist in nature. As a result, beauty and race are associated with and impacted by our experiences and perceptions related to class, immigration, gender, sexuality and marketing. Case in point: Since the Time magazine "New Eve" cover in the 1990s, multiracial individuals are more and more said to be the face of 21st century America and its evolved standard of beauty. But what's less known is that even this image was altered to look less "Hispanic/Latino" (read: brown) and more "European" (read: white) after focus group testing.
The "mixed race faces are prettier" meme is related directly to hybrid vigor, the biological phenomenon that predicts that crossbreeding leads to offspring that are genetically fitter than their parents. Hybrid vigor makes mixed race people somehow biologically different and prettier than non-mixed (non-white) people by nature. Equally dangerous is the added effect that focusing on mixed-race offspring continues to make interracial relationships about sex and heterosexuality and to marginalize those who do not identify as heterosexuals and/or come from same-sex interracial families.
As a professor and author who studies diversity and communication, not to mention a multiracial individual and future parent, I'm interested mostly in what's hiding behind questions like "what are you, exactly?" and the many guess-my-race encounters for which I have served as subject over the years. Hard work allowed me to discover three things. First, I realized that, for me, the difficulty in answering the "what are you" question is not in being perceived as one race or another, whatever that means, but in the unpredictability concerning how the next person I meet will view or communicate with me. Second, I learned that the concern about not having a stable answer about racial identity across social situations was familiar territory for most multiracial individuals over our long and complicated history in the U.S. that gets in the way of in-depth communication and racial progress. One need only look at how our President has navigated these murky waters in the last several years, and what others reportedly say about him, for evidence of a current example. And third, perhaps most important, that racially and ethnically ambiguous faces like mine and your children's force the person asking the actually question to reconsider what he or she actually knows about race. So, the "what are you question" can be translated more precisely as, "what do I really know about race?" and, "Why am I uncomfortable when I see a face whose origins and background I can't seem to pin down?"
Here's the bottom line: Too often, the "what are you, exactly?" question prevents us all from asking ourselves and others the more important "who are you?" and "who am I?" questions. As a multiracial individual who has done the historical homework, I can say that how my parents -- both mixed themselves -- helped me navigate these guess-my-race encounters was critical to my self-development. My parents reminded us that real beauty is measured more accurately by intelligence, interests and healthy relationships rather than by a racially ambiguous appearance and others' reactions to it. They also taught me not to "believe the (racist) hype" that mixed kids are more beautiful than anyone else. As a communication professor and author (of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity), I try to do the same for my students and readers, regardless of racial background. I reinforce my parents' idea that our social worth relies on what we can and do contribute to the world around us, even as we acknowledge our nation's troubled racial history... focusing on who we are rather than what we are.