Sunday, January 25, 2009

There’s a new color in town: beige

If you thought the question of race in America wasn’t complicated enough, Hua Hsu writes in this month’s Atlantic that we now have a new race: beige is the color of the new post-racial America, he argues, one in which race will no longer be a factor. Pointing to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau Hsu assesses that by 2042, all groups that qualify as racial minorities will account for a combined majority of the population. Hence, any child born hereon will belong to the first post-racial generation. This beiging of America, of course, was proposed in the late nineties by Michael Lind who predicted that intermarriage among the races would lead to a mixed-race majority.

Hsu is not talking merely about the color of skin though. What he is suggesting is that in a landscape that allows a child born of Indian immigrants to become the governor of Louisiana, and a man with a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father to hold the highest office in the nation, the mainstream in America might finally be reaching a post-racial state. Citing examples such as hip-hop, which gradually entered the realm of pop culture, and Tiger Woods, who defied the stereotype of golfers as white country-club elite, Hsu makes the case that multi-cultural is now mainstream.

That’s not new. When we look at Broadway shows celebrating the dazzling colors of the Punjabi sharara and clubs devoted to Latin American dances we know that diversity is already embraced in America, or at least in some parts of it. As my half-white, half-Indian friend puts it, “it’s good to be the ‘other.’” But could “other” ever become the norm, merely owing to increasing numbers, and equal opportunities?

As this embrace of diversity and ethnic cultures pervades America, Hsu argues, interracial marriages will make white or black or brown obsolete, and render everyone beige. It has been predicted previously that by 2050, five percent of Americans will describe themselves as multiracial.

Hsu uses the increasing popularity of mocking the so-called white-person stereotype as a testament to his proposition. “Flight from whiteness” is the best defense for white people in a country that is growing increasingly resentful of the privileged white man, according to Hsu. White kids, born of white parents are plagued with identity crisis according to him, a problem hitherto restricted to immigrant and inter-racial children.

But the question is, if America does turn beige, will white soon become a “socioeconomic class” as opposed to a color? Granted, it is sort of a class right now, but one that is filled with white people. Then again, what is “white” other than the color of skin? Sure, it is a culture, it is a stereotype, as Christian Lander wittily and entertainingly continues to illustrate, and it is most often a privilege. But as Samhita Mukhopadhyay describes in the Prospect, culturally, intellectually and economically, wealthier people of color are about as white as white people, and hence, white is as much about class as about race. You need a good amount of disposable income to appreciate or relate to it, she says. Is it just a circle that you belong to then, a status that you attain, and once you reach it, you’re white? For instance, Italians and Jews did not assimilate into the white community for many many years after their arrival.

Or disconcertingly, as Lind observed, might black people be excluded from this broad community, while other races – including Hispanics and Asians – continue to make inroads?

One of the more profound points Hsu makes is the role of the Internet in shaping multiculturalism. There’s no question that blogs that focus on esoteric subjects, and Facebook groups, which cater to people with similar interests straddle racial and ethnic divides more than any offline group could. But even if all these factors – the popularity of ethnic lifestyles, the influence of online networking, and generation Y carrying less of a racial baggage – may cause a cultural and demographic shift, there is no saying that it will end racial divisiveness.

Being post racial does not have to necessarily mean that we are beyond racial divisions, it is just that race is becoming less relevant in the way we identify ourselves or relate to one another.

As Richard Benjamin writes in the Huffington Post, we haven’t reached a post-racial moment, we have merely reached a multi-racial moment because the increasing numbers of Asians, Hispanics and blacks is turning minorities into majorities. In so celebrating lone heroes (such as Martin Luther King and Obama), we tend to obscure the larger issues that still need to be resolved.