Ralina Joseph discusses her book cover art at "Troubling the Family and Transcending Blackness" held at the UW bookstore.
Ralina Joseph discusses her book cover art at "Troubling the Family and Transcending Blackness" held at the UW bookstore.Photo by Dario Nanbu
Race, reality, and pop culture collide in a new book written by one UW communication professor.
In “Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial,” Ralina Joseph, a UW associate professor of communication, explores how multiracial African Americans were represented in the 10 years leading up to President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Joseph held a joint book-signing and discussion about mixed-race relations with UW English professor Habiba Ibrahim at the U Book Store Feb. 7.
In “Transcending Blackness,” Joseph compares real-life depictions of multiracial African Americans to their roles in pop culture and politics.
“I’m just sort of interested in seeing how multiracial people have been and are represented,” she said.
Joseph, a multiracial African American herself, said that while researching the topic, she noticed a clear difference in the way multiracial people identify in real life and the way they are identified through the media.
“What I was seeing on TV, in movies, in novels, and memoirs, was not like the kind of complex people I knew in real life,” she said.
She said multiracial African Americans she encounters in real life have fluidity in the way they identify themselves, whereas she saw a constant need to identify mixed race in pop culture in a way that often degraded African Americans.
“As opposed to seeing the real experiences of loving blackness from real life multiracial people, I saw what seemed like a way to demean blackness [in media],” she said. “There’s still this idea that if anyone can identify as anything other than black, then why wouldn’t they?”
In each chapter of her book, Joseph closely analyzes pieces of media that she collected over the years featuring mixed-race African Americans. She said the figures in pop culture were presented in a way that put them into two classic multiracial African American stereotypes: the tragic mulatto and the exceptional multiracial.
The tragic mulatto — or new millennium mulatta, as she calls it — is analyzed in the first half of Joseph’s book. The stereotype is a view that the multiracial individual is somehow doomed by their African American side and will see failure because of it.
Joseph analyzes the second stereotype, the exceptional multiracial, in the second half of “Transcending Blackness.” Multiracial African Americans who fell into this category were shown in pop culture in a way that their success was credited to withdrawing from their African American background.
She said even President Obama’s representation in the media put him in the exceptional multiracial category, as he was often seen as a “post-racial” figure.
“This happens through the way that he’s positioned in photographs, through the way he’s talked about in public statements,” she said. “I saw this really controlled, limited script of mixed-raced blackness.”
She said the election of President Obama helped bring the topic of multiracialism back into the public light.
“Even though I only talk about him in the conclusion of my book, certainly he animated my discussion,” she said.
Ibrahim said Obama was a symbol of the future of mixed-race relations.
“I’m interested in the way two things are happening at once,” Ibrahim said. “On the one hand, we’re focused on what race means when it’s leading us to a future that we want nationally. At the same time, as we’re upon that future, we want to think about a past that looks very familiar.”
Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the UW, was at the book signing. He said he is proud to see the topic of multiracialism receive attention.
“We think we know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about blackness and mixed race,” he said. “Here we have two scholars who are bringing interdisciplinary ways to think about important issues of our time.”
Joseph, who has done other research on race and gender, is working on a new book. She said she’s happy to have “Transcending Blackness” published.
“It feels great,” she said. “Academic work takes a really long time to actually make its way to the public, so I’m glad it’s just out there in the world. I hope it will find its audience.”
Reach reporter LaVendrick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @The_Vendrick
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