Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000

Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000

Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000

Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000

Synopsis

In this broadly conceived exploration of how people represent identity in the Americas, Suzanne Bost argues that mixture has been central to the definition of race in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean since the nineteenth century. Her study is particularly relevant in an era that promotes mixed-race musicians, actors, sports heroes, and supermodels as icons of a "new" America. Bost challenges the popular media's notion that a new millennium has ushered in a radical transformation of American ethnicity; in fact, this paradigm of the "changing" face of America extends throughout American history.

Working from literary and historical accounts of mulattas, mestizas, and creoles, Bost analyzes a tradition, dating from the nineteenth century, of theorizing identity in terms of racial and sexual mixture. By examining racial politics in Mexico and the United States; racially mixed female characters in Anglo-American, African American, and Latina narratives; and ideas of mixture in the Caribbean, she ultimately reveals how the fascination with mixture often corresponds to racial segregation, sciences of purity, and white supremacy. The racism at the foundation of many nineteenth-century writings encourages Bost to examine more closely the subtexts of contemporary writings on the "browning" of America.

Original and ambitious in scope, Mulattas and Mestizas measures contemporary representations of mixed-race identity in the United States against the history of mixed-race identity in the Americas. It warns us to be cautious of the current, millennial celebration of mixture in popular culture and identity studies, which may, contrary to all appearances, mask persistent racism and nostalgia for purity.

Excerpt

In its provocative fall 1993 special issue, “The New Face of America,” Time magazine sensationally represents hybridity as a dramatic development that is forcing a “new” look on America. The issue highlights how racial mixture is redefining American identity, heralding the future, when whites will be “just another minority” (Henry, “Politics” 73). Many of the issue’s articles investigate how mixture literally changes the face of America and discuss the visual implications of this change. The magazine’s cover, the new face of America, is a light-skinned woman who is supposed to represent the fusion of the different races in the United States, the racial average calculated by computer technology. The managing editor of the special issue, James R. Gaines, represents this mixture as a major shift in American racialization, challenging the ways in which we attach racial qualifiers to individuals. Gaines uses the word dramatic twice in one paragraph to describe the “morphing,” the “striking alteration,” “the symbol of the future” that this artificial “new Eve” embodies (2). In a recent essay, “The Face of America and the State of Emergency,” Lauren Berlant says of this image, “the wish of the dream cover is that American racial categories will have to be reinvented as tending toward whiteness or lightness” (420). With its 1990s technical capabilities, Time eases the white majority’s potential fears by replacing the “ugly” reality of actual mixture with an artificially constructed (and thus sterile) “new” face—one that repeats conventions of white beauty from fashion magazines, assimilates differences into one light-skinned whole, and promises that the new hybrid U.S. race will still look white.

Why is the “new face” a woman? She charms—the employees at Time reportedly fall in love with her—and yet she is taboo, bloodless, impure.

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