Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009

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Physicist Mohamed Diagne ´97 follows in the footsteps of retiring Professor Arlan Mantz. Photo by Ron Cowie

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Beyond Black & White

Beyond Black & White
The cover of “Blended Nation” by Mike Tauber ´94 and Pamela Singh ´95. Photo by Mike Tauber ´94

Mike Tauber ´94 and Pamela Singh ´95 cross the color lines in their new book on mixed-race America

By Phoebe Hall


On a perfect summer day in July, Mike Tauber ´94 and Pamela Singh ´95 relax on the screened porch of their home in Fairfield, Conn. As they try to feed lunch to their sons, Wyatt, 3, and Rohwan, 1, Tauber and Singh talk about typical parenting challenges: potty training, finding babysitters, and juggling their work schedules.

But they face not-so-typical challenges too. Like when strangers mistake Singh for the babysitter, and the white nanny as Tauber´s wife. Or when teachers assume Wyatt can´t speak English. Or when they fill out forms for schools or doctors and have to pick just one box to identify their sons´ race.

It was this issue of pigeon-holing, one with which Singh herself has struggled for years, that inspired the couple to collaborate on a coffee-table book, “Blended Nation: Portraits and Interviews of Mixed-Race America.” Published this summer by Channel Photographics, the book features individuals and families who identified themselves as multiracial on the 2000 U.S. Census, the first time they could do so.

“I was tired of getting the ´what are you´ questions,” explains Singh, who is three-quarters Indian and one-quarter black. Singh grew up in an Indian village on Trinidad and says she considers herself Indian, but when she moved to the U.S. she felt “forced” to identify as mixed-race. “Indians say, ´You´re from Trinidad so you´re not really Indian´; Americans say, ´You don´t look Indian.´ So that´s what made me decide to do this book.

“Why is this even an issue? Why does this matter?” she adds. “But on a daily basis it´s an issue.”

Tauber, who is white, and Singh didn´t know each other at Connecticut College, meeting later in New York City when Singh and some of Tauber´s college friends were attending graduate school at Columbia University. They began working on “Blended Nation” in 2001 after Tauber, a professional photographer, convinced Singh that the topic was so visual that the book should primarily consist of photos.

“It´s all skin color,” Tauber says, which immediately presented him with a challenge: should he shoot in black and white or color? “I like black and white, and I preferred to use it when color wasn´t critical,” he says. But he felt many photos had to be in color “because skin, eye, and/or hair color were important and you would lose that in a black-and-white picture.”

“It´s rare to see the combination in one book. I´m sure some die-hard photography critics will think it´s an abomination,” he adds. “But it would have lost the point if it were all black and white.”

That point — that heritage and identity are as important to mixed-race individuals as they are to those of a single race — was the driving force behind the movement to change the Census. “Mixed-race people are constantly asked to check one of five boxes,” Singh says, thus denying the rest of their backgrounds. After much lobbying, the 2000 Census allowed Americans to mark two or more boxes below the question, “What is this person´s race?”

In response, 6.8 million people checked more than one box. Singh and Tauber wanted the individuals they featured in their book to be clear examples of this population. They steered away from mixed ethnicities or nationalities, such as half Chinese and half Japanese, and followed Census parameters by not classifying “Hispanic” as a race. But they acknowledge that the concepts of race, ethnicity and nationality overlap. “There´s a gray area,” Tauber says. “For example, Middle Easterners are considered white, even though there are dark-skinned Middle Easterners.”

“We were walking a fine line of not being too broad and not being too specific, finding the definition of what race is,” Singh says. “It´s such a complex, nebulous and fluid concept it´s difficult to boil it down to something specific and tight.

“We´re not attempting to solve anything,” she adds.

“We´re just furthering the discussion,” Tauber says.

The couple found their subjects through friends and mixed-race organizations such as Swirl and the Mavin Foundation. Tauber would photograph them, traveling throughout the Northeast and to California and Washington state, areas with high multiracial populations. The subjects were then invited to respond to six questions; many wrote such extensive and intriguing replies that Singh and Tauber re-thought their original approach of limiting the book to just photos and long captions. They included essays by TV journalist Ann Curry and author Rebecca Walker as well as biological anthropologist Alan Goodman, who they say gives “Blended Nation” a scientific foundation.

“It became much more than we expected it to be,” Tauber says. “The project evolved beyond the mixed-race experience into a whole conversation about race.”

For millions of Americans, that conversation began in 2007, when a mixed-race senator from Illinois declared his candidacy for president. Sales of Barack Obama´s memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” soared among people of all races, of course, but Jonathan McBride ´92, who is half African American and half Syrian, says it holds special meaning for people of mixed race.

“I always saw being mixed-race as a distinct advantage,” says McBride, who was photographed for “Blended Nation” with his brother, Mikle, who is half African American and half Korean. “I felt I could move between worlds comfortably. Barack talks a lot about that in his book, that ability to operate on the margins. I absolutely felt that by the time I got into high school.”

Jonathan and Mikle were adopted by white parents and grew up in an interracial neighborhood in Milwaukee. Both say they identify more with their African American heritage. But now Jonathan, a former College trustee, is married to a woman who is half Syrian and half Lebanese. “At age 39, I´m suddenly really exploring my Syrian roots,” he says.

Many of the people featured in “Blended Nation” talk of that lifelong exploration in their essays.

“Becoming comfortable in my skin was a long process and didn´t really happen until I left home for college,” writes Alexis Johara Hoag, who is half white and half African. She recalls white children not understanding that her white mother was her “real” mother, and black girls accusing her of being “too white.” Now, she says, “I always identify as mixed, and I always check off two boxes. If I called myself anything else, I´d be denying a significant portion of what makes me Alexis.”

Tania Hino Gonzalez, who is half Asian and half Mexican, was born in Mexico and writes, “Growing up in the USA is especially hard because you have to identify your race. … I had to develop my own identity and pick and choose what fit best for my personality from all the cultures around me.”

The essays show “what it´s like to exist in that realm between how people classify themselves and how society classifies them,” Tauber says.

Singh says that employers have chosen her race for her when she has checked two boxes, and she expects teachers, doctors and others will do the same to her children. But, she says, she tries not to be “hypersensitive,” and doesn´t want Wyatt and Rohwan to be, either.

“It took me a couple of years after moving here to realize how important race is to Americans.” Now, she says, “I´m over it. I´m more concerned about my kids.”

www.blendednation.com


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