Anxiously Ambiguous

“What are you?” The question that has launched a thousand uncomfortable sighs. For me, a woman who identifies as multiracial or mixed race, this question always produces anxiety.  Not only does it lack tact, but this seemingly innocuous string of words forces me to confront and re-contextualize my identity every time. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized

Me at my most adorably ambiguous.
Me at my most adorably ambiguous.

that this anxiety is not one-sided; people ask me this because my ambiguity is uncomfortable.  Before I can be put into a neat box, people tend to choose their words a little more carefully. In her book A Chosen Exile¸ Allyson Hobbs provides an excellent history of racial passing in America through a series of compelling narratives and an in-depth look at historical documents.  Hobbs explores this anxiety caused by racial ambiguity, felt by whites, blacks, and those who fell in between, and the ways it morphed as the racial dynamics in this country began to change.  Racial ambiguity is anxiety producing because it complicates the binary racial system established in the U.S. and all the social meaning and associations embedded within that dynamic.

Although it was by no means the only important element, racial ambiguity was an essential factor for an individual’s ability to pass as white.  During the early nineteenth century, “passing for white” became meaningful because the nature of slavery had changed and black was now synonymous with enslaved, white with free. [1] Racially ambiguous slaves caused whites, slave owners in particular, a great deal of anxiety.  Hobbs claims that, “racially ambiguous slaves on the run passed as white to ease the grueling journey to freedom.  Their success flouted racial customs and undermined southern confidence in the certainty of racial identity.” [2] This was exemplified in the story of William and Ellen Craft, who passed as an injured white man accompanied by his slave in order to escape slavery. [3] For whites, not only was there a fear of losing valuable property, but the whole notion of a slave being able to pass for white severely problematized the whole notion of race to begin with.  Slavery, being built on a foundation of white racial supremacy, depended heavily on the distinction between white and black.

The act of passing itself was also incredibly anxiety producing for those who attempted it as well as their families.  Hobbs chose to focus not only on what could be gained by passing, but what was lost.  She states that, “Passing offered much, but it could not mend splintered relationships with one’s family; it could not ease a deep-rooted sense of alienation and longing for one’s people.” [4]. Individuals who passed often experienced severe psychological trauma such as Lieutenant William J. French, whose suicide demonstrated the mental strain of straddling two worlds. Passing also meant living in constant fear of being exposed.

Portrait of the Johnston Family.
Portrait of the Johnston Family.

The story of the Johnston family who passed as white for over twenty years and, “…been stalked by the constant fear that their racial identity would be discovered.” [5] Even after years of being careful, they were eventually exposed when Dr. Johnston attempted to join the Navy.

The anxiety caused by racial ambiguity felt by whites and blacks, did not end with slavery, Jim Crow, or even with the Civil Rights Movement.  This anxiety and the legacy of passing changed many times as racial dynamics shifted and continues today.  Nevertheless, as Hobbs points out, we are at a unique point in history because we are able to claim hybridity.  To say, “I am multiracial” would have been impossible in the 1920s.  However, the uncomfortable feelings still exist and I believe that we as a society need to lean into that discomfort to have productive conversations about the history and future of race in America.

[1] Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 36

[2] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 30

[3] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 45-50

[4] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 132

[5] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 239

Categories: ABP

15 thoughts on “Anxiously Ambiguous

  1. Tori, you really nicely elaborated on Hobbs’ excellent book. Thank you for sharing your own experience as well. Even thought I know this was not the emphasis of her book, I wish that Hobbs would have elaborated further on the transition in the mid-twentieth century from passing to accepting and celebrating multiracial identities. I really liked the section of the book where Hobbs talks about how abolitionists sparked anxiety in white Southerners about white people being stuck in slavery as a tool to dissuade them from supporting the institution of slavery–anxiety as a marketing tool!

    PS you were an adorable child! Go White Sox.

  2. I cannot truly understand the anxiety multiracial people might feel. How can we as museums allow a dialogue about how race has become ambiguous?

    I agree with Carly wishing that there was more elaboration on the multiracial identities today. Personally, I think it would have been interesting to hear about Rashida Jones and her experiences since her race has always been a topic at times.

  3. Thank you for sharing your personal story, Tori. I believe that someone’s race, culture, religion, and however they identify themselves should be celebrated, but it frankly is no one else’s business. No one should be forced to put labels on themselves and trigger stereotypical associations or assumptions that another person may harbor.

  4. Tori, I really appreciate you sharing your personal experience with us. Reading the book gave me a good sense of the struggles with identity that all these people faced, but hearing how this has affected you personally really deepens the story for me. I’m grateful that we have moved from passing to accepting, but with that seems to have come a new set of concerns. This book, and your story, help us to tackle these current day issues.

  5. Tori, I Iike how you began your post with your own experiences with being multiracial today. Though being multiracial is accepted and even celebrated today, it can still lead to confusion and awkwardness on either side. People want neat simple boxes to place everyone into, and when that doesn’t happen it seems that confusion arises. Passing is possible simply because these simplistic boxes are so contrived. No individual can fit perfectly into any one neat category. What we need as a society is to end the idea of socially constructed negativity toward various identities and instead celebrate what makes all people and their histories special and wonderful.

  6. You make an excellent point that racial ambiguity is anxiety producing because it makes it difficult to put people into categories and defies the racial binary. People seem to have the need to put others into boxes in order to make sense of them, even though it reality no one’s identity is just one thing.

    I’m glad that our culture has reached a point where identifying as multiracial or mixed race is a possibility. I hope we can build on this is order to truly embrace everyone’s identity.

  7. Tori, thank you for talking about your personal experiences. Sometimes I find myself wanting to put people into racial boxes, and I stop and wonder where that impulse comes from. I didn’t consider before reading this book that it might partially be because of our national history of strictly defining race. Our race laws historically defined a binary, and what side of the binary you were on (or chose to be on) could completely define the course of your life. Perhaps this is why boxes make people feel comfortable: they think they are able to assign that person a set of traits or experiences that define them (even though that is not really the case). Maybe we are uncomfortable with ambiguity because the One Drop Rule never left room for it, and that mindset of binarism remains today.

    1. Miranda, I’ve found myself in the same position of wanting to know someone’s race, even though I don’t like it when people ask me that of myself. I also found this book useful in considering where this though process comes from in today’s society; it was very interesting to see how the binary of black and white changed over time with different social and political circumstances.

  8. Tori, I also would like to thank you for sharing your personal story. It really helped to open our discussion to more contemplation on contemporary issues!

    Miranda, your post really made me think. Perhaps we all try to categorize those around us as a counter to our own identity (i.e. I am xxxxx and that person is xxxx). Maybe it is also because we still feel that anyone who is not us is “other,” and racially mixed people are slippery to pin down. The beauty of racially mixed individuals is that so many combinations of race, ethnicity, and heritage can exist–but that also means there is no “one” mixed race. I think not having one clearly defined category (white, black,…mixed?) makes people uncomfortable.

  9. Tori!!! Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I agree that we need to lean into discomfort and discuss the future of race in America. Especially, since our nation is becoming more multiracial. I agree that we as a society want to put people in a box, subconsciously sometimes. I see this with my multiracial five-year-old niece who at such a young age feels pressure (the type of pressure five-year-olds feel) to pick a side when my aunt ask her what color she is. Which I have spoken with my aunt about in depth but we come from different generations. Yet I question, what type of society my niece will be confronted with once she is old enough to comprehend the weight of her racial identity.
    (Your photo is so adorable!)

  10. Tori, thank you for sparing your personal story. I find that once people can understand the experiences of someone they know or hear a personal narrative they are given a lens into what others might have felt like throughout history that have similar experiences. Although we have come a long way in being more accepting of other’s identities I also believe we have to consider all the ways that we as a society try to put people in boxes. Another related issue is sexual ambiguity. Health documents, public restrooms, and housing try to make people identify their sexuality and people are very uncomfortable about sexual ambiguity. We as museum professionals need to consider developing dialogues about how institutions make people feel about their racial, ethnic, sexual, religious and identification. As a society we should be trying to move away from making people mark an X for how they identify in these different categories. People should not have to feel anxious about the various ways that they identify themselves.

  11. Tori, thank you for sharing your insights on Hobbs’ book as well as your own experience. I can’t help but be reminded, as I so often am, of my brother Josh. A major characteristic of his syndrome is hypersocial behavior, or being excessively outgoing and chatty in an overly friendly and optimistic way. Josh to this day almost always asks people, particularly those with accents or who appear non-white about their race or nationality. Most people see that he is mentally disabled and understand that he is being curious rather than rude. He is always polite, but as you pointed out even with politeness these words sting people.

    I bring this example up because I think Josh is representative of how most people feel about the subject. We are curious, we want to understand, and we are over reliant on categories, even in situations where categorical thinking is not productive. Because of his blend of boldness, sincerity, and naivety, Josh feels comfortable asking such questions, that I have seen lead to interesting conversations, dialogues, and even friendships, whereas most of us would wonder for a split second and move on without saying anything.

    A person’s identity is of course their own and no one deserves to be put on the spot….but maybe he’s on to something?

  12. Tori, I really really REALLY loved your blog post. I can so very much relate to the anxiety multi-racial people feel today. I’m always worrying about what others view me as, and what ideas they have about my racial background. Reading this book made me curious about my family’s perceptions of race. My mother, who is of mostly Scandinavian and Volga-German heritage, and my father, who is African American were always so incredibly careful about what books and toys they gave us as children to help us figure out how to represent our own identities. We had books like “What Are You” ( which is a book of personal narratives of young mixed race people to help us understand how different people identify if they’re mixed race. I think having the representation and freedom to express your own identity is so incredibly important for young racially ambiguous peoples so that they can decide for themselves what fits them, and makes them most comfortable.

    As a funny side note: My family and I recently found out that my sister, who is more white looking than I am, has been mistakenly categorized as “white” in her high school’s records for the past 3 years, simply because that’s what she mostly looks like, even though she identifies as “multi-racial” or sometimes just “black”.

  13. As your Mother my concern was always that you be strong enough in yourself and the family unit created for you that you would not have aniexty. The beautiful, loving and intellect child you were helped others be more accepting. And now the caring, funny and gorgeous woman you have become draws people in which causes them and all of us to celebrate what can court when love sees no color.

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