- Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial by Ralina L. Joseph
Ralina L. Joseph’s timely book about representations of multiracial black women in popular culture makes a significant contribution to the growing field of critical mixed-race studies. Drawing on research in various fields, Joseph closely reads four texts produced between 1998 and 2008: Showtime’s television series The L Word (2004–09), Danzy Senna’s coming-of-age novel Caucasia (1998), Alison Swan’s independent film Mixing Nia (1998), and the reality competition show America’s Next Top Model (2003-present). Joseph examines representations of black mixed-race subjectivity in these texts through two tropes: the new millennium mulatta and the exceptional multiracial. These two very different archetypes of multiracial identity are nonetheless linked by a common desire to transcend blackness, a proposition that Joseph argues is deeply troubling in twenty-first-century America, where, although many proclaim that affirmative action is no longer necessary, structural inequalities between blacks and whites remain entrenched.
One of Joseph’s central claims in Transcending Blackness is that popular representations of black mixed-race women fall into one of two categories. The new millennium mulatta is, in many ways, a revision of the tragic mulatta figure, made popular in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Imitation of Life (1959). According to Joseph, the new millennium mulatta is “a self-reflexive character” who is “knowledgeable, angry, or sad about and self-conscious of her tragic destiny” but “ends up inevitably living up to the stereotype” of the tragic mulatta (11). The new millennium mulatta is either the “bad race girl” (6), who is full of anger and punished both when she “plays the race card” (39) (a term that Joseph brilliantly contextualizes and unpacks in the chapter on The L Word) and when she discards race altogether, or the “sad race girl” (6), who seeks to escape stultifying definitions of whiteness and blackness but has difficulty finding and inhabiting a “liminal, in-between, middle racialized space” (72). The [End Page 207] L Word’s Bette (played by Jennifer Beals) and Caucasia’s Birdie, respectively, embody these two versions of the new millennium mulatta, and Joseph’s reading of how their racial identities are imbricated in their gender and sexual identities is compelling. However, I would have liked to have seen Joseph discuss the role of Judaism in Caucasia further; Birdie passes as Jewish in the novel, and Senna posits Jewishness as an alternative identity that is potentially neither white nor black.
At the other end of the spectrum and covered in the second half of the book is the exceptional multiracial, the black-white woman who transcends race, which, as Joseph astutely notes, really means transcending blackness. Representing the exceptional multiracial are the eponymous protagonist of the film Mixing Nia, a young black-white woman who, through various sexual partners and hairstyles, searches for her “true” racial identity but ultimately “de-race[s]” (26) herself, and the black multiracial contestants of the fourth season of America’s Next Top Model (aired in the spring of 2005). In her chapter on this wildly popular reality show, Joseph entertains the possibility that “becoming” another race (the contestants’ assignment in the fifth episode, the episode on which she focuses) may be a transgressive and politically subversive gesture, but she ultimately asserts that it is a regressive one because it relies on essentialized stereotypes about various racialized groups and ignores the ways in which race is not simply a costume that can be donned or discarded at will. Citing the work of Stuart Hall, Joseph asserts that the free play supposedly inherent in boundary-crossing acts of racial, gender, and sexual passing is, in fact, always delimited by social and historical forces. Joseph also considers the economic ramifications of the show, illustrating how commercial television is complicit in furthering the erroneous and perilous (yet profitable) belief that “race and other identity categories [are] neutral, tradable entities” (129...