Now that I’ve grappled on a very surface level with the complicated relationship between race and the digital humanities, naturally I’m thinking about applying DH to the even more complicated area of mixed race studies. Were I to call myself a digital humanist, what would be my contribution? Or what would be helpful to me in the things that I study? What kind of digital humanities project could meaningfully address or make more feasible research in this area.
Now, we all understand that the concept of “mixed race” is a tricky one. Race is a social construct, not a biological fact; it’s not a salient means of categorizing people, should categorization even be a thing we strive to attain; plus, it’s an ever-shifting scale with constantly changing terms and criteria (and that’s without even touching on transnational differences). Add to the controversial concept of race the ambiguity of the “mixed race” individual. There is no way of knowing at a glance whether someone is for sure of mixed racial background [look at the photo above of my PhD cohort and try to identify who’s mixed]. There’s the argument that we’re pretty much all mixed. There’s hypodescent, and then there’s passing. There are awkward census categories. There’s self-identification vs. perception by others, and there’s race vs. culture vs. ethnicity. There’s the tendency of non-mixed people to demand that mixed people identify their heritage, and the understandable reluctance or refusal of mixed people to do so as a result. And of course, there’s the looming question of why it even matters. Does even acknowledging the idea of mixedness only perpetuate the myth of race? The list of complications goes on and on.
Still, there are scholars out there, myself included, who seek to make some sense of mixedness and the mixed experience. We are concerned with identity politics, representations, tropes and stereotypes, terminology and shifting categories. We’re told time and time again that mixed race people say something about America. Even as I type this post, WordPress recommends to me several articles to which I could link, including one entitled, “What Can Mixed-Race People Teach Us About Love?” Sometimes we represent the great melting pot, and sometimes the salad bowl. Sometimes we’re evidence that whiteness is losing power — which, depending on who you are, could be a hopeful idea or a terrifying one. We’re symbols of globalization and we’re evidence of a post-racial society. In simply existing, we mean.
Every mixed race scholar has their thing. Mine happens to be looking at how mixed race audiences respond to mixed race representations on television and in film. The project began in South Africa, as I talked with coloured people in their twenties about portrayals of coloured people in South African media. “Coloured” is not considered a catch-all for mixedness in South Africa, but instead constitutes a race all its own. Being coloured implies a certain ancestral history, whether or not that connotation is entirely accurate. As a half black/half white girl from America, South Africans were hard pressed to tell the difference between me and the average coloured person; ironically, this inaccurate interpretation saved me the trouble of having to explain myself for once in my life. They perceived that they had a word for me, and that was enough.
In returning to the U.S., where we have nothing so simple [or simplistic, rather] as the coloured category, finding instances of interracial relationships, mixed race characters, or mixed race actors in TV and film was a frustrating task, relying mostly on what essentially amounted to word of mouth: “Hey, anyone know any films with mixed race characters?” I would ask. The stock replies would come back. Imitation of Life, anything with Vin Diesel, Halle Berry, or Shemar Moore, maybe Spice World. It was frustrating. For one thing, mixedness tended to come down to people who were a combination of black and white. It seemed to me that audiences did not generally recognize, say, Keanu Reeves, Cameron Diaz, or Dean Cain as mixed race. Second, people seemed to have a hard time calling to mind anything that dealt with mixedness onscreen, or even just included a mixed character. I often reference Vin Diesel’s short film Multi-Facial as a brilliant look at why it’s hard for us to pin down mixed race representations. Often the ambiguity of a mixed race body results in the mixed actor becoming a stand-in for any and all minorities. We all look alike anyway, right?
There is also a noticeable dearth of scholarship on mixed race representations in media, which is not to say that scholars doing work in that area do not exist or are not prolific. Lisa Nakamura, Mary Beltrán, and Camilla Fojas are amongst the figures working to remedy this lack. Fojas and Beltrán’s Mixed Race Hollywood is considered to be a foundational text for the study of multiracial representation in film. Steven F. Riley’s MixedRaceStudies.org provides an incredibly useful archive of articles on the subject that not only includes scholarly works, but also pieces from magazines, newspapers, and so forth. The sociology department here at UCSB is even in the midst of putting out the first issue of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies, which is certain to contain valuable insights into mixed race representations in media. Still, these sources are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast possibilities for the subject. What I’m suggesting is that mixed race scholarship might be more easily undertaken if a body of work from which to pull examples were already assembled.
So is it possible to create a digital database for the study of mixedness in the media? Is it desirable? And if so, what would it look like?
I attempted to imagine such a database as part of an assignment for Alan Liu’s digital humanities graduate course. I called that database “MiRa,” for fairly obvious reasons. In my mind, such an undertaking involved crowdsourcing and tagging à la Your Paintings. It involved acquiring movie scripts, as well as transcribing the films without readily available screenplays. The purpose of script acquisition would be to analyze the ways in which mixed race individuals are discussed (or not discussed) and framed in films. It would make possible extracting the terms used for mixed race people as well as the terms used by mixed people. What types of roles are mixed race people given today, and what types of roles have they played historically?
Let’s not pretend we didn’t notice Giancarlo Esposito’s turn as Pierce’s mixed race half brother bringing the tragic mulatto trope back to the small screen. [img: screencrush.com]
To me, the function of such a database would not be to provide an analysis of the data, so much as provide datasets that could be used by scholars for their own analysis. Further, it would simply provide a list from which mixed race scholars could begin to research mixedness in film and television.
Perhaps it would be something like a wiki. Perhaps it would be more like IMDb. Or maybe it would look like Australia’s HuNI, which I discussed and fawned over in my previous post. At this point, MiRa is my pie in the sky idea for making the study of mixed race representations more tenable for scholars. I have no concrete plan as to how to make something like this a reality, nor what would be its most useful form. I am, of course, open to ideas or thoughts on the feasibility of such a project.
What is very, very, extremely important to understand is that I am not advocating the categorization of human beings by the slippery construct of race. I am not insinuating that categorizing certain actors as mixed race is unproblematic. To create any such database walks a fine line in that regard. Self-identification by particular actors makes it easier, but I do think that perception of mixedness is relevant. Racial ambiguity is relevant. And perhaps the solution to that is to have a Snopes-like gradient: Green = verified mixed race; Yellow = undetermined; Red = not mixed. I’m being slightly facetious here, but then, how do we deal with that tension? In my mind, that kind of scale highlights the arbitrary nature of race, which is ultimately a positive thing.
I dunno. Is mixedness too fraught? Too contested? Or is there a way to create an archive of the ways in which mixedness has been represented in television and film without lending credibility to the idea that race is a thing that can be pinpointed in any meaningful way?