Part 1: Politics of Identity
Fredi Washington was a black/biracial actress who played the "tragic mulatto" role of Peola in the 1934 film "Imitation of Life". Tragic mulatto is a fictional role stereotype in 19th and 20th Century American Literature."I don't want to pass because I can't stand insincerities and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race." - Fredi Washington (Fay M. Jackson, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Apr 14, 1934.)"I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race." In 'Imitation of Life', I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt." - Fredi Washington (The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jan 19, 1935)
|Author Sumiko Saulson with her brother Scott (1974)|
There are two of us and we are one year and two weeks apart. When we were little kids growing up in Los Angeles - back in those early days before our parents divorced - when we still lived in Southern California and were both always tan - everyone thought we were twins, because they saw us together with one, or both of our parents, and Scott (who is these days 6 foot 3 inches tall, towering above me at 5'6) was always tall. We aren't twins, but as I have said, there are only the two of us - we have no siblings - and we are very close in age. We were very close until puberty set in and we wandered off into our respective gender related social groupings (his as it turns out - much more social than mine). From Los Angeles, CA to Kaneohe, HI to Hilo, HI to Honolulu, HI, and finally to San Francisco, CA - we spent our formative years navigating through the West Coast version of Color Conscious America together.
|Gina, Sumiko, Michael & Scott Saulson (Hawaii, 1983)|
The 1970s were different times. I remember waiting for them to show people-like-me on television. When Lenny Kravitz' mother Roxie Roker played Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, she and Frank Cover (as Tom Willis) broke barriers by portraying half of television's first black/white interracial couple. Even then, I remember my brother and I asking our parents why their children did not appear to be mixed, but seemed to be one white and one black child. When Lenny Kravitz came out with "Let Love Rule" back in 1989, I nearly keeled over with excitement. We had come a long way then....
And so now, we've come full circle.
|Sumiko, with her brother Scott, and his girlfriend (center) 2010|
People trying to claim you as one of them is not something I have a problem with. A lot of Jewish American females used to tell me that I acted like one - and I've been called a Jewish American Princess more than once. That's alright. I am a Jewish American Princess, and a Black Queen, and I figure that has to be good. It's the people telling you that you are NOT the other thing that bothers me. I am the other thing. I'm just as black as the President, whether you like it or not. Deal with it.
|Preteen Sumiko and Scott flanking their father Robert (1979)|
Some people seem to experience real difficulty with letting other people racially self-identity, and there is a political reason behind it in the U.S.A.: voting blocks are powerful here. Either consciously or unconsciously, people are aware of the power that has been wielded by organized demographic groups including women, and senior citizens. They are aware of the power of civil rights groups to achieve as a group the liberation of like peoples. One's perceived racial and ethnic identities are a different animal entirely than one's self-identity, with the first being assigned to you in the mind of someone else regarding you, the second assigned to yourself by yourself.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses self-reporting.
|Sumiko and Scott with Scott's newborn daughter (2000)|
This kind of think (as I mentioned in the other article) is now backfiring in some other states such as Florida, where in the case of the George Zimmerman shooting of Treyvon Martin, police listed Zimmerman as white, the media repeatedly reported him as white, and many white people and some not-so-white people began to refer to Zimmerman as non-white and this as a brown-on-black crime. I even saw one lady apologize on behalf of the Latino community for, Zimmerman is half Peruvian. Peru is a multethnic country with a majority Amerindian or mixed Amerindian population.
Yet he is listed as white on the police report, so he has been reported that way on the news.
How do you think he was listed on the Census?
My brother Scott and I have traveled through the same Color Conscious West Coast together for over 40 years. We have endured the annoying questions about whether or not we are half siblings (no - we are not), whether or not his light-skinned daughters are my daughters (no - they are not. Scott and I have the exact same genetic history just like any other pair of siblings and like any other siblings, I am no more likely to produce lighter skinned children than he is).
|Author Sumiko (center) with parents Robert and Carolyn (2009)|
Because of his darker color of brown, my brother has experienced things I have not. Because of my complexion which falls more to the orange side of the sale, my color which, should I purchase makeup, would be far from the palest of the foundation colors for African Americans but would be either the darkest or second darkest of the foundation colors for white people, depending on whether or not I have a suntan that day - my color, which when I have no tan and no tan line on my body is a make up shade called "suntan" - and a flesh color pantyhose for me will be called "suntan" - that color of orange I am causes me to have to deal with Stupid Questions People Ask Mixed Black People.
|Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington|
These questions are all the same as the question some anti-race mixing teen asked me when I was about 20: has my life been "ruined" by being mixed. Is being a mulatto "tragic"?
I want to point out a single, simple fact: we are indeed, all the same race. We are of one race, which is human. The fact that we can procreate together demonstrates that: people like me couldn't even exist if we were not the same species, and race means species. But that doesn't change the fact that we are dealing with a geopolitical system of perception based upon personal reaction to differences, in essence, there is xenophobia based upon perceived race. As long as there is, we can not simply pretend that these distinctions have been erased. I keep talking about it because it still matters but: the truth of the matter is, the only "tragic" thing there could be is a societal reaction. Other than that, it is both as significant and insignificant as having an eye color like blue or green when the majority has brown eyes, or having the minority hair color of red. Statistically, biracial kids in the US are more likely to be suicidal, but there is a strong possibility that is related to the same reason gay and lesbian teens are more likely suicidal: bullying and being hassled over identity.
The quote at the beginning of this article is by Fredi Washington. Here are some links to the movie Imitation of Life on IMDB, Fredi on Wiki, and Tragic Mulatto on Wiki, that I referred to when writing the blog, and the quotes above are from the Wiki article on Fredi.
Do you know what I told the woman who asked me if I was a "tragic mulatto" like in "Imitation of Life"? I said "You know I never tried to pass or deny who my mother was like the girl in that movie. I love my mother." I think that's a good enough answer but I have to wonder: where was the question coming from?