Ralina Joseph Studies Multiraciality in New Book ‘Transcending Blackness’

Ralina Joseph, associate professor of communications, is the author of “Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial,” published by Duke University Press. She answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.

Q. What’s the concept behind this book?

A. “Transcending Blackness” is about mixed-race African-American representations in the 10 years leading up to Obama’s election in 2008.

“Transcending Blackness,” by Ralina L. Joseph.  Image credit: Duke University Press

“Transcending Blackness,” by Ralina L. Joseph. Image credit: Duke University Press

Q. You review representations of multiracial figures in popular culture. Who did you research and what came from this?

A. I’ve collected popular — and not so popular — representations of multiracial black folks for most of my life. Like many teenagers I was addicted to fashion magazines and by the time I left for college I had a 3-foot stack amassed in the back of my closet.  I loved the images of “racially ambiguous” models and actresses, and I would study their images and the occasional stories about them for hours.

I was lucky to begin college at the same moment that mixed-race became a topic of interest for scholars and the mass media. The ever-growing representations (and embodiment) of multiraciality — in popular culture, academia, and my dormitory  enabled me to not just worship the images of mixed-race, but also think critically about them.

Q. What were your conclusions?

A. In this book my critical thinking led me to the conclusion that popular representations of mixed-race African-Americans in the late 20th/early 21st century are nowhere near as complex as the real, live mixed-race African-Americans in my life.

Ralina Joseph. Image credit: University of Washington

Ralina Joseph. Image credit: University of Washington

In real life multiracial black folks identify in all sorts of ways — as sometimes black, sometimes mixed, sometimes as no race at all — and this might be the same person’s choices all in different moments in the same day!

But in representations, I found that the old stereotypes of the tragic mulatto (the figure who is forever damned because of her drop of blackness) and the sell-out multiracial (the figure who is only successful because she does everything in her power to dismiss her blackness) are alive and well.

I tweaked my terminology and definitions to fit our contemporary moment, and so my tragic mulatto becomes the “new millennium mulatta” and my sell-out multiracial becomes the “exceptional multiracial.” I see both of these representations as far from neutral, but instead mired in anti-black racism.

– By Peter Kelley

*Source: University of Washington

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