Works by two mixed-race Brits—musician Corinne Bailey Rae and writer Zadie Smith—have recently been profiled in the New York Times. Both women navigate their collective white and Caribbean ancestry by embracing hybridity instead of relegating themselves to one group. Their doing so challenges entrenched American notions of race that say that multiracial people must choose one ethnicity or another, not all.
The English-Jamaican Smith, who rose to fame upon the publication of her 2000 bestselling book White Teeth, regards Zora Neale Hurston and Barack Obama as her sister and brother in arms. In her new book of essays, Changing My Mind, Smith praises Hurston for making "'black woman-ness' appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals."
Although Smith uses the term "black" to describe herself, in Barack Obama, she finds a multiracial hero, a man whose racial background gives him a "flexibility of voice" that she hopes leads to "flexibility in all things."
According to Smith, the moral of Obama's story is that "each man must be true to his selves, plural," writes Times book reviewer Pankaj Mishra. Smith's overall message is "that those who live between cultures best represent and articulate the human condition today."
But how do we define who lives between cultures? Aren't we all doing so, mixed race or not? Obama, for one, doesn't embrace a pluralistic world view simply because his mother was Kansan and his father, Kenyan, but because he grew up in Muslim Indonesia and Polynesian Hawaii and the African-American South Side of Chicago. In the 21st century West, where people from a variety of backgrounds inhabit the same spaces and neighborhoods, it's increasingly difficult not to adopt a multicultural mindset. The Los Angeles I live in, where the latest food craze is Kimchi tacos, is nothing like the city depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Crash." And that's good news. It means that whether our parents share the same cultural backgrounds or not, we're more likely to reflect the variety of cultures to which we've been exposed—in art, literature, music or politics.
Mishra, however, implies that Smith may be romanticizing hybridity.
"Having hybrid identities, not belonging anywhere or indeed belonging everywhere, may have its advantages, but these attributes must still contend with pressing circumstances like the voraciousness of 21st-century capitalism," Mishra writes. "Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them."
Valid points. Yet, it's easy to see why Zadie Smith—who went from the working class London neighborhood of Willesden Green to Cambridge University and, from there, on to literary superstardom—would not regard social position as fixed or static.
For singer Corinne Bailey Rae, whose mother is white and father is from the West Indian island of St. Kitts, being mixed-race had a direct impact on her music. Now, 30, Bailey Rae gravitated towards grunge in her teens.
"I loved that P J Harvey and Courtney Love had this sexuality that had nothing to do with the male gaze, it was 'This is how I want to look,'" she told the Times. "It made me feel like there was something defiant about being a black girl with short hair and an electric guitar."
Her late husband, the musician Jason Rae, who was white, influenced her to embrace soul music. When he exposed her to the songs of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, Bailey Rae felt that she'd reached a turning point. And while her self-titled 2006 debut album was more pop friendly, her newest release, "The Sea," reflects her love for a variety of musical genres, most notably rock and soul.
"For the first time I felt musically unified. Being a mixed-race person," she explained, "that mishmash has always made sense to me. People have always been like: 'Do you like black music or white music? Do you like soul or indie stuff?' It's like, aren't I allowed to like all of it?"