Excerpted From: Erica Preston-Roedder, You Aren't Really Black, You Aren't Really White, 27 Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy 34 (March, 2024) (60 Footnotes) (Full Document)

EricaPrestonRoedderMultiracial persons, e.g., people with parents of multiple races, are a significant demographic group within the US. Nevertheless, philosophical work on race has largely, and problematically, elided this group: we have ignored their distinctive racial experiences, and we have failed to deeply engage with the philosophical issues raised by multiraciality. This essay begins to correct that neglect by seeking to understand one aspect of multiracial experience-- specifically, racial denials. A racial denial occurs when a person's description of their racial identity (e.g., “I am Black”) is challenged or called into doubt. While monoracial individuals can generally assert their race without being challenged (e.g., “I am Black,” “I am White,” “I am Asian”), multiracial individuals cannot always do so. Upon asserting “I am Black” or “I am White,” a multiracial person may be met with the rejoinder, “You aren't really Black” or “You aren't really White.”

Through a consideration of racial denials, this essay aims to demonstrate that, in many cases, multiracial individuals face a hermeneutically unjust epistemic environment. This unjust epistemic environment is significant because it can undercut a person's ability to understand and communicate her racialized experiences. To make this argument, I will carefully tease apart how different kinds of racial denials operate. My focus will be on illuminating the epistemic injustice involved in these racial denials. That is, I will be focusing on ways that multiracial individuals are damaged in their capacity as communicators and self-knowers. Moreover, by providing a careful description of how epistemic injustice operates within certain racial denials, I will draw out a number of larger implications for how we might understand race and epistemic injustice generally.

Before I begin, here are several preliminary notes. First, for reasons of scope, this essay will focus on multiracial individuals with Black and White ancestry. Careful sociological work has highlighted the distinctive experiences of different multiracial groups. For instance, Strmic-Pawl has argued that persons of Asian-White descent are “closer” to Whiteness, and they thus experience their mixedness quite differently from those of Black-White descent. In a different vein, Rudy Guevarra Jr., has argued that the historical influence of Spanish colonialism has created deep affinities between Mexican and Filipino culture; because of this, persons of mixed Mexican-Filipino descent have generally been well-accepted by both their cultures. In light of work like this, it seems judicious to begin an inquiry into multiracial experience by focusing our gaze on a specific subgroup-- namely, persons with one Black parent and one White parent. While I suspect that much of what I say here will generalize to other multiracial groups, this should not be assumed. For the rest of this paper, I will use the term “multiracial” or “multiracial individual” to refer only to members of this subgroup. I will occasionally use the longer term “Black-White multiracial individual” to remind the reader of this focus.

Second, I aim to largely eschew the thorny question: What is race? Let us allow that there are races but be agnostic (for the most part) about the details--biology, social construction, ancestry, etc. I will have some remarks later to make about the metaphysics of race. For now, however, we need only the observation that many monoracial people are able to unproblematically claim a race (e.g., “I am White,” “I am Black,” “I am Asian”), but that people of mixed ancestry sometimes face racial denials--that is, their racial self-descriptions are rejected.

Finally, a word on the significance of this project. Decades ago, Black feminists, such as bell hooks, convincingly argued that feminist theory needed to move people of color “from the margins to the center.” In a similar way, there is both a theoretical and ethical imperative for philosophy of race to center the lives of multiracial people. The theoretical imperative arises because, as amply demonstrated by the last decades of feminist work, reflection on the lives of those at the margins has tremendous potential to enrich our understanding. That is, by examining a less-often scrutinized sector of life (i.e., women of color, multiracial experience), we can gain perspective and insight with respect to issues of broad philosophical significance. In this case, I will argue that analyzing racial denials can add nuance to our understanding of racial and epistemic injustice.

More importantly, there is an ethical imperative. In the case of feminism, it was necessary for White feminism to become more inclusive because, at bottom, the lives of women of color are just as interesting and important as those of White women--and therefore deserve equally substantive philosophical engagement. Similarly, the lives and experiences of multiracial persons deserve sustained attention. If this is right, then philosophy of race has an ethical imperative to reflect seriously upon the philosophical issues that arise within the experience of multiracial people. Further, I would argue that part of “centering” multiracial people is to devote philosophical energy and attention specifically to those phenomena that matter within the lives of multiracial people. The focus of this essay--racial denials--reflects this conviction. Specifically, autobiographical and fictional narratives of multiraciality commonly include accounts of racial denials, elegantly articulating the pain, confusion, and racial self-scrutiny they engender. If racial denials matter in the lives of multiracial people, and if multiracial people are to be centered in philosophy, then there is an ethical imperative to subject racial denials to sustained philosophical treatment.

[. . .]

I have argued that, in many cases, racial denials arise from underlying and unjust gaps in the hermeneutical environment; in these cases, racial denials are a symptom of an unjustly gappy conceptual vocabulary. In other cases, such as denials of Blackness, the hermeneutical environment is robust, although a racial denial may still be significant: it makes a certain conception of race less accessible to an individual. In general, it is fruitful to reflect on racial denials insofar as they call attention to the question of, not just what race is, but who has epistemic power and authority to control conceptual resources around race--both historically and in contemporary times.

In addition to understanding the phenomenon of racial denials, I aimed to demonstrate that centering multiraciality can yield broad insights regarding the philosophy of race and epistemic injustice. For instance, reflecting on multiraciality should lead us to conceptualize race, or at least racial identity, as multiple and fluid. With respect to epistemic injustice, I suggested that we distinguish between cases in which conceptual resources do not exist versus cases in which resources are inaccessible to the individual; this distinction is also useful in nonracial contexts where conceptual resources are fractured and contested.

Insofar as a multiracial person lives in a hermeneutically unjust conceptual environment, she will be subject to certain characteristic struggles. Racial self-knowledge, in the face of an emaciated conceptual vocabulary, will be more difficult. Communicating one's race to others, including establishing race-based solidarity, may also be challenging. Finally, insofar as (some) multiracial people lack the resources necessary to articulate and communicate their identities, it seems likely that they will also be hindered in their ability to articulate, communicate, and ultimately combat the forms of racial discrimination and racialized harm they experience.

To conclude, I want to offer two remarks. First, although my discussion has focused on racial denials, including the harm that they can inflict on multiracial individuals, I do not mean to suggest that many or most multiracial individuals have mental lives irrepressibly burdened by inchoate and misunderstood racial identities. The pathologization of multiracial identity has a long history, tracing back to the tragic mulatto figure in the 1800s and the Marginal Man hypothesis of the 1900s. Stereotypically, multiracial individuals are portrayed as torn between two worlds, with their mental lives dominated by a tragic sense of fragmentation. For many multiracial writers, it is crucial to replace such stereotypes with a more nuanced understanding of multiracial experience.

The account I have offered may, however, seem to contribute to such stereotypes. In particular, my account implies that multiracial individuals do face a challenging hermeneutical environment. However, the claim that multiracial individuals may have more difficulty in racial self-understanding/communication is distinct from the stereotypical claim that multiracial individuals have mental lives marked by a sense of fragmentation. The question of the significance of gappy racial hermeneutical environments for one's mental life is, after all, very much dependent upon the person, her circumstances, and what she cares about. For instance, whether the difficulty of articulating one's racial identity dominates one's mental life, and whether one encounters it as tragic (as opposed to, for instance, exciting or interesting), will depend on many factors. Some multiracial individuals do grapple, painfully, with racial self-understanding and self-expression. Others do not. For these latter, perhaps, their sense of belonging within the world does not depend so much on racialized self-understanding or the racial acceptance of others.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that even for those individuals who do grapple painfully with questions of racial identity, these questions take their place among many others, and their importance may ebb and flow. The biracial writer Rebecca Walker is one such example. As she willingly attests, she has spent a significant portion of her life with an “unhealthy sense of [racial] fragmentation.” As the author of an autobiography on multiracial identity, she has arguably immersed herself in racial questions more deeply than most. Nevertheless, writing six years after the publication of that book, Walker muses:

I rarely think about being mixed these days, other than to notice the effect it has on others and to consider the assumed implications of it in a racially charged situation. When I do contemplate my mixedness, it is like visiting an old friend, familiar, but no longer involved in the day-today goings-on of my life.

That is, we must not lose sight of the banal point that questions of racial self-understanding, no matter how complex or challenging, ultimately constitute just one aspect of a person's life and that the relative importance of racial questions may shift over one's life course.

As a second closing comment, it is worth returning to the larger endeavor that opened this essay--that is, moving multiracial experience from margin to center. How might philosophy of race be enhanced by treating the experiences and understandings of those who are multiracial as central, instead of marginal or exceptional? At the very least, an enhanced focus on multiraciality would raise questions about the relationship between appearance and racial identity (e.g., for multiracial individuals, appearance is not determinative of racial identity), about the role of choice in racial identity (e.g., many multiracial individuals describe a process of exploring different racial identities, raising the possibility that one's racial identity may be partly voluntary), and about the political and pragmatic significance of declaring one's racial identity (for monoracial individuals, it is typically not necessary to use speech to claim racial identity since it is assumed on the basis of appearance; in contrast, for multiracial individuals, declarations serve complex political and pragmatic functions). Probing these aspects of multiracial experience has the theoretical potential to deepen our understanding of race. Perhaps more importantly, doing so expresses an ethical commitment to the value of multiracial lives as equally significant within the practice of philosophy.

No Info This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.