Crossing the Demographic Divide

By Lise Funderburg

American Demographics
October 1998

Desperate situations lead to desperate acts. Or so I tell myself when I dare to admit the following: I loved The Jeffersons. Yes, those Jeffersons, the finally-got-a-piece-of-the-pie Jeffersons, that 1970s sitcom about a black dry-cleaning magnate who buys his way into the lap of New York’s Upper East Side luxury.

It wasn’t the prat-falling, eye-rolling humor of this Archie Bunker spin-off that appealed to me. I waded through the supercilious plot lines, watching and waiting for a glimpse of one minor character, a young man who appeared only occasionally and whose real or fictional name I can’t recall. What mesmerized me so about him was that, gender aside, he was me. His parents, like mine, were a black-white interracial couple. His household, like mine, grappled with mundane issues of family life that had nothing to do with race or racism. But most important, like me he looked white.

The rarity of this, the intersection of my private reality and such public affirmation, may seem dated in the P.M. (post-Mariah) world. But I was born in the late 1950s, on the tail end of the baby boom, and throughout my childhood my particular brand of multiracial exotica was nowhere else to be seen. Even the more recognizable half-n-halfers-the tawny-skinned, blond-Afroed mixies-were absent from the cultural lexicon.

Certainly I exaggerate. There had to be more of us out there, spanning the melanin spectrum, tiptoeing and lurching across the color line. (No one really knows how many–how can you count accurately what doesn’t actually exist?–but one indicator is the National Center for Health Statistics’ tabulation of births by race. The NCHS only started to keep count in 1968, but the total tally of births to black-white couples from then to now is more than 700,000. This number, of course, includes no one over the age of 30.) But whatever our number was then, we weren’t visible in popular culture, neither acknowledged for having heterogeneous roots nor seen in the context of our rainbow families. Not in textbooks, not in newspapers, not in advertisements, not, generally, on TV or in the movies. Not anywhere.

Our responses to this dearth of imagery varied. Many of us folded back into the black community, ignoring or downplaying the white sides of our families, conceding and sometimes even relishing the power of blackness to trump all else in this country. It was often easier to keep family photos in the wallet rather than on top of the desk. Fewer questions, less confusion.

Some of us retreated into a raceless world, neither black nor white. We surrounded ourselves with carefully chosen comrades in humanism, a hermetic group that often, by no coincidence, included others from the margins–those who’d lived abroad or been raised as the minority among some other race or ethnicity, those who were any kind of mix at all. And some of us, especially those as flat-haired and pale as I am, passed into whiteness, by intention or default or both.

Validation for a separate reality

George Jefferson mocked his interracial neighbors mercilessly. He viewed them as freakish, an assault on the world’s natural order. Inverting the conventional prejudice, he objected to his son dating their daughter. Their response to all of his bluster, which I found both instructive and familiar, was to ignore him. For my, part, I filtered out the hatefulness of his position and basked in the recognition, the prime-time acknowledgment that people like me existed. I was so starved for the validation that it was welcome even in such imperfect form.

To be sure, my family suffered no material damage from being invisible to the public eye. In fact, we were in a sense liberated from pat expectations by this oversight. Given no road map–no stereotype-based prescription for what to wear, drive, laugh at, eat–we could choose based on actual likes and dislikes. Everyone should have such freedom.

On the other hand, there was no vocabulary to describe us and so most people, confronted with our racial constellation, were baffled, speechless, even disbelieving. Invisibility can be tiresome; having people respond to your family story with, “You’re kidding!” can be irksome; the occasional response of people reaching out to touch your hair, a vain attempt to gather evidence, can be loathsome. I have, at times, experienced my racial mixture only as bone-deep weariness.

UCLA lecturer Reginald Daniel has taught a course called “Betwixt and Between”, that looks at historic and emerging multiracial identities around the world. We typically think of betwixt and between as nowhere–not this, not that. But people like me often experience something more alchemical as a result of our configurations. The interstice, the place between two recognized points, actually turns out to be somewhere in and of itself. That interstitial world recombines separate pasts into a distinct, mutated reality, one that transcends even as it borrows from its ancestry.

What exactly is this brave new would we inhabit? For me, the essence of it is otherness, a sense and comfort with being outside of a mainstream, the paradoxical notion that difference is something we all can have in common. At best, I use this experience to see past surfaces, to see beyond wrapping and into core humanity and emotion and motivation. At worst, I feel ostracized, not a participant, not an insider, not one who belongs.

Subculture of a subculture

Desperate situations lead to desperate alliances. And so, politics aside, I was thrilled once by Clarence Thomas. A photograph of Thomas during his turbulent Supreme Court confirmation hearings ran on the front page of The New York Times. In it, he and his white wife are kissing, square on the lips. The moment I saw it I realized the many ways in which my family, its intimacies and bonds, remain invisible. My melanin-challenged experience places me into a subculture of the multiracial subculture, but it doesn’t exclude me. I feel a bond with others who cross lines, lines of race, ethnicity, religion, geography, who know and at least partially own more than one perspective on the world.

Maybe as we continue to construct a global village, this will be an increasingly common perspective. As crude a show as The Jeffersons was, it held something of value for me, something I couldn’t find elsewhere. More and more, I see pictures of the world I know, the one in which race, and particularly mixed race, is present but not singularly determinative. These messages of a mixed world are delivered in all formats, media and the arts. As society and the marketplace fill in these outlines, perhaps my anchor of otherness will drift away. I don’t quite know what will take its place, but I wouldn’t mind finding out.