The mixed-race household: a transnational project

By Sophia Staffiero

The metamorphosing space of the mixed-race household (referring, here, to both residents with dual heritage and migrants) has always been a locus of hybridity and innovation. It is a ‘third space,’ characterised by questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘otherness.’ Though traditionally, the movement of mixed-race/migrant bodies have been a point of interest in understanding how cultures travel across national boundaries, as we shall see, the movement of migrant objects (as much as people) through time and space plays a central role in the building of the ‘mixed-race’ household. Our discussion will therefore focus on how foreign objects interact with new environments to either redirect our attention to other places that concurrently exist (below the surface) in diasporic spaces or extend their skins to make mixed bodies feel ‘at home’. Using Sara Ahmed’s Queer phenomenology, an analytical approach to the enquiry of queer studies and phenomenological research, I will divulge exactly how the meeting of cultures within the mixed-race household may act as a microcosm for our increasingly globalised world.  

What is the ‘mixed-race’ household?

When considering the mixed-race household, we must first acknowledge that the mixed-race body has not historically been recognised to exist (see Naomi Zack, 1993). The concept of the ‘one drop rule,’ a socio-legal marker of racial classification, decrees that individuals with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry are to be considered black or ‘coloured’. This rule suggests that ‘race’ is a purely biological phenomenon with no social component and that whiteness can be ‘diluted’ in a way that blackness cannot. According to this logic, it seems impossible to inherit more than one racial line, yet the existence of the mixed-race household defies such schema, aligning itself neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ but rather, drawing upon several sources to create a third space. 

The idea of a ‘third space,’ derived principally from Homi Bhabha’s hybridity theory, describes the construction of culture and identity within the settings of colonial friction and inequity. For Bhabha, hybridity is a process whereby the colonial powers’ failed attempts to impose upon and assimilate the colonised (the ‘Other’) into their own framework results in the formation of a familiar, but ultimately new culture. He contends that this new hybrid culture, which emerges from the interlacing of coloniser and colonised societies, by its very nature, challenges the legitimacy of any essentialist cultural identity: ‘Hybridity is positioned as an antidote to essentialism.’ I would argue that Bhabha’s original definition is still very much applicable to our post-colonial society in which individuals draw upon multiple funds to both establish their identity and make sense of an ever-shifting world. In this regard, cultural hybridity, as represented by the mixed-race household, is an ‘in-between’ place which brings together (oftentimes) contradictory philosophies, practices, and discourses. Through this ‘remixing’ of cultural knowledge other cultures are often annexed, translated, and re-historicised for the purpose of integration. We see this process manifested through the sensory experience of the mixed-race person and migrant’s mixed home: the familiar smell of certain spices, the mixture of languages that fall upon ears, the visual presence and symbolism of certain objects all work to transport us elsewhere and to redirect our attention to the surfacing of other worlds. 

The mixed-race household is therefore an inherently diasporic space. It may be filled with the celebration at the meeting of several cultures or with the longing for an imagined home, or perhaps, both. 

mother braiding child's hair
Artist: Lucy King

The Scattering of Migrant objects 

Diasporic spaces are sculpted, in part, by objects’ histories. As diasporic bodies ‘scatter’ through space, the scattering of migrant objects and the re-emergence of such objects in new environments creates different impressions on both objects and space. This symbiotic conditioning of objects and space allows objects to extend into space and, in turn, space moulds itself around foreign objects and forges new orientations. 

In the process of inhabitation, individuals acquire orientation devices as a means of extending bodies into spaces and to ‘create new folds, or new contours of what we would call liveable or inhabitable space.’ It is especially within the mixed home that such orientation devices, namely cultural objects, are present. Salih’s ethnographic research of Moroccan migrant women’s experiences in Italy exemplifies the central contribution of cultural objects to the conceptualisation of home in unfamiliar terrain. ‘Home,’ here, is understood to be both physical space as well as a conceptualisation of belonging: these women give significance to their homes through the objects that constitute that space. In her findings, Salih depicts how objects recalling the Moroccan and Muslim world (covers for couches, pictures with Quranic writings, a tajin etc.) are not merely used to superficially decorate their Italian homes, but also to signal their double belonging. Thus, for diasporic communities, such uprooted objects ‘gather as lines of connection to spaces that are lived as homes but are no longer inhabited. Objects comes to embody such lost homes.’ While the migrant objects redirect our attention to other worlds, the presence of such objects does not necessarily allow us to perceive the entirety of such worlds. Rather, such objects grant us access to a limited insight into the worlds from which they emerge. This is only possible through the act of evoking, requiring us to not merely interact with what we presently perceive, but also with the histories out of which objects emerge. As Ahmed suggests:

‘objects also have their own horizons: worlds from which they emerge and which surround them. The horizon is about how objects surface, how they emerge, which shapes their surface and the direction they face, or what direction we face, when we face them. So if we follow such objects, we enter different worlds.’ 

Contact with objects surpasses mere spatial proximity insofar as objects (which are personifications of their histories) begin to take the shape of the spaces (and cultures) within which they dwell. The interaction between their past history and new surroundings creates cultural forms that do not easily fit into one category or the other. Tolia-Kelly (2004) crucially reminds us that diasporic objects are not only a source of longing and loss, but that it is often the case that such objects afford the creation of new identities in our everyday “textures.” As Ahmed claims, ‘such objects keep the “impressions” of the past alive, and in so doing they make new impressions in the very weave or fabric of the present.’ When bodies use objects as orientation devices, overtime those objects may cease to be discerned simply as orientation devices and instead, they become bodily extensions. Levitt and Glick-Schiller’s work on transnationalism highlights the important distinction between ‘ways of being,’ or social relations and practices individuals engage in that do not intentionally reflect their identities, and ‘ways of belonging,’ or the consciousness of being embedded in a network as demonstrated through intentional actions. It is arguably through the intentional placing of diasporic objects that a dual ‘way of belonging’ is established. 

While this section has predominately focused on the ways in which objects leave their impressions on spaces (leading to the reorientations of the bodies which inhabit them), it is also important to note that spaces may also remould objects. In the case of the Moroccan women in Italy, we may wish to ask ourselves, how does the ‘Italian’ space domesticate ‘foreign’ objects? While the placing of Moroccan objects alongside Italian objects results in the hybridity of home, this practice raises some important questions from Salih – is the transnational construction of ‘home’ enough for women to overcome their sense of estrangement? And is it possible to concurrently inhabit two countries?

I would argue that the lines are not so clear-cut and that mixed orientations allow for the renegotiation of the interactions between body and place. 

hair being braided
Artist: Lucy King

What are the implications of the ‘mixed-race’ household? 

From Ahmed’s phenomenological stance, we are reminded that spaces are not external to bodies, but rather, spaces are like a ‘second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body.’ By this we mean that the lived histories of spaces have the power to influence how our bodies act and react in those spaces. We may therefore discern how the ‘mixed-race’ household, as an extension of bodies, is also a liminal space, which conveys perceived notions of foreign ‘borders’ (cultural, economic, political) within the receiving country. According to Brah, the concept ‘diaspora’ and ‘border’ are so closely intertwined that the notions of ‘diasporic space’ presupposes the idea of borders. In this regard, we may consider the mixed home as a meeting of borders, with the mixed-race/migrant body, along with the objects manifesting as ‘liquid’ borders.  

Through the continual drawing upon multiple sources and the renegotiation of identity, the ‘mixed-race’ home becomes a physical manifestation of transnationalism. Transnationalism, which has widely been described as globalisation from ‘below’, opposes the canonical notion of assimilation into one culture by offering individuals the option of two (or more) societies or cultures to draw upon, not only for the formation of identity, but also for economic and political opportunities. Applying, then, a transnational lens to our examination of the mixed-race household, we may view individuals’ inhabitancies as unifying more than one locality. The aforementioned example of Moroccan women’s residence in Italy sees objects flow not only from Morocco to Italy, but in reverse too. When these women carry with them to Morocco those goods to which they have become accustomed in Italy (e.g. baby foods, nappies, Parmesan cheese), they also transport the mixed home across the ocean. Subsequently, social (and political) activities sprawl across state boundaries leading to the creation of a single field of social relations. In this sense, transnationalism acts as simultaneity, debunking the assumption that people must be ‘loyal’ to one nation-state or that individuals can only feel ‘at home’ in one place. The on-going Kashmiri protests in the UK against the Indian government (which have been taking place since August 2019) demonstrates how individuals’ loyalty to more than one nation-state further binds and influences international politics. The current issue at hand is a humanitarian crisis in which Kashmiri nationals and the Kashmiri diaspora strongly believe that they should be given the right of self-determination over the disputed territory. In order to pressurise the Labour party to take a more ‘neutral’ stance in acknowledging that this is a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan, some Indian groups in the UK called upon their community to strategically vote for the Conservative party: a successful tactic which compelled the Labour party to publicly announce their changed stance on the matter (Wintour, 2019). Transnationalism therefore does not only lead to the deterritorialisation of states (through the simultaneity of incorporating activities, rituals, institutions typically located transnationally and elsewhere), but it also challenges previous conflations of geographic space and social identity. Moreover, it shows that integration is compatible with transnational migration. 

The mixed-race household is therefore one of the cradles for mixed orientation, an orientation that comes into being through the fissures of arriving and departing, paving the way for the bridging of many seemingly disconnected worlds, which truly breathe and grow in close proximity.


Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2004) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge

Bhabha, H. (1994a) ‘Frontlines/Borderposts,’ in Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question  (ed). A., Bammer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) Vol.15: pp.269-272.  

Brah, A. (1996) Cartographies of diaspora: contesting identities. London: Routledge. 

Dworkin, Shari ‘Race, Sexuality, and the ‘One Drop Rule,’ The Society Page. (2019) <https://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2009/10/18/race-sexuality-and-the-one-drop-rule-more-thoughts-about-interracial-couples-and-marriage/> {Accessed 6 November 2019}

Garner, S. (2007) Whiteness: An Introduction. Oxon: Routledge. 

Levitt, P. & Glick-Schiller, N. (2004) ‘Conceptualising Simultaneity: A transnational Social Field Perspective on Society,’ in International Migration Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: pp.1002-1039.

Meredith, P. (1998) Hybridity in the Third Space: Rethinking Bi-cultural Politics in Aotearoa/ New Zealand (New Zealand: University of Waikato).

Portes, A. & DeWind, J. (2004) ‘A Cross-Atlantic Dialogue: The Progress of Research and Theory in the Study of International Migration,’ in The International Migration Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: pp.828-851. 

Salih, R. (2001) ‘Moroccan migrant women: transnationalism, nation-states and gender,’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies Vol. 27, No. 4: pp.655-671. 

Tolia-Kelly, D. (2004) ‘Locating Processes of Identification: Studying the Precipitates of Re-Memory through Artefacts in the British Asian Home,’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 29: pp.314-29.  

Wintour, P. (2019) The Guardian: Kashmir: Labour shifts policy after backlash by Indian-heritage voters (available online): <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/12/kashmir-labour-shifts-policy-after-backlash-by-indian-heritage-voters> {Accessed 9 January 2020}.

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