HABIBA IBRAHIM, Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 2012), 256pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies. 63.1



In his anthology Interracialism (2000), Werner Sollors diagnosed an “American exceptionalism” in the policing of racialized boundaries, a “300-year-long tradition” in which sexual and familial relations across the color line have been criminalized and remained taboo after legalization.[1] The last three decades, however, have experienced a paradigm shift from longstanding politics of the one-drop rule to the advent of multiracialism. This transformation has crystallized, for instance, in an unprecedented “boom”[2] of interracial life writing, the formation of multiracial activism, and in the reform of the U.S. Census that now allows respondents to identify multiple racial affiliations. Perhaps most prominently, it registered in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign which frequently converted his interracial origins from the previous cultural taboo of ‘miscegenation’ into the alleged fulfillment of the civil-religious myth of the melting pot. As Obama put it in his pivotal speech “A More Perfect Union”: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”[3]

This discursive shift has been accompanied by a proliferation of research on phenomena of interraciality, past and present. Works such as Maria P.P. Root’s The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (1995) and Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race (1994) inaugurated the field of ‘Mixed Race Studies,’ which dominantly revolved around validating interracial identities and relationships against a historical backdrop of stigma. Within this compensatory engagement, multiraciality was often even inverted into another form of exceptionalism where the recognition of racial hybridity was inscribed with the potential of ushering in an era beyond racist division. This celebratory investment has received sustained criticism that illuminated how the emergence of multiracialism, including its academic attention, was implicitly tied to various forms of antiblackness, heteronormative, and classist politics, as well as to an obfuscation of the history and ongoing effects of enslavement and “genocidal conquest.”[4] With her study Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism, Habiba Ibrahim is joining this line of critical inquiry, exemplified by Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), Tavia Nyong’o’s The Amalgamation Waltz (2009), Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s, Too” (2011) and Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk (2011).

Ibrahim provides an incredibly rich, black feminist intervention by revealing the unacknowledged ways in which racialized gender norms have conditioned discourses of interracial familiality and mixed race. She illustrates her thesis skillfully across a diversity of material and frames the rise of multiracialism within the temporal marks of 1997 and 2007, which cohere around masculinity as a tacit placeholder for “idealized versions of racial community” (x). Whereas the year 1997 designates the moment when multiracialism became legible to a broad American public through the race controversy surrounding self-identified ‘Cablinasian’ Tiger Woods, the national attention around Barack Obama in 2007 is positioned as a time where multiracialism has become “mainstream” (xxvi).

In an “amnesia”[5] about the violent conditions of racial mixing under (and after) colonial conquest and enslavement, multiracialism has embedded itself in a foundational narrative of progress. It begins with the legalization of heterosexual interracial marriage and family in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia (1967), is followed by a “biracial baby boom,”[6] and aspires toward cultural legitimacy in the twenty-first century as a bridge across racial conflict. Ibrahim’s study sets out to disrupt this historiography. In an approach entitled “racial time” (2), she brings into dialogue seemingly disparate historical moments and contexts as a “genealogy” of “multiracialism’s gendered origins” (ix). Ibrahim thus unpacks how hegemonic notions of gender have been continuously been instrumentalized to displace historical and structural underpinnings of racial discourse in a desire for a “promise of neutral personhood” (2) that turns out to be misleading.

In her first chapter, Ibrahim reveals second-wave feminism “as the unspoken precondition” (13) of the mixed race movement. The feminist insight that ‘the personal is political’ is identified as the basis upon which a movement, dominated by white mothers, sought to engender change in binary racial classification. Ibrahim pinpoints that “[m]ultiracialism tacitly undermine[d] a major feminist analytic while implementing it” (15) and interrogates how a feminist strategy of resisting a broad range of systemic inequities in patriarchy was appropriated to “validate personal lives in public,” where state recognition of multiraciality on the census was (mis)understood as the fulfillment of neutral personhood. The author’s black feminist approach furthermore deconstructs the movement’s central rhetoric of ‘the family’ in regard to a naturalization of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and particularly in terms of ideologies of white, middle-class motherhood that reproduced the exclusion of black womanhood in 1960s and 1970s mainstream feminism.

Her next chapter examines this “glaring absence of black motherhood” (68) in multiracialism by revisiting the movement’s self-proclaimed foundational moment of Loving v. Virginia (1967). Ibrahim reads the Supreme Court’s decision in “ideological concomitance” (44) with the notorious ‘Moynihan Report’ from 1965 to argue that multiracialism has legitimized itself via patriarchal-heterosexual norms that ensured a safe distance to an ongoing pathologization of black matriarchal kinship as the ostensible antithesis to functional American family. Ibrahim traces the Moynihan Report’s oppressive legacy to 1980s crisis discourses of ‘welfare queens’ and turns to the film Losing Isaiah (1995) as an example of how pervasive representations of black motherhood as dysfunctional provided a foil against which white mothers could implicitly come forward as the superior caregivers for black/mixed race children in 1990s multiracialism.

In the following chapter, Ibrahim transitions to an analysis of this emergence of white maternal personhood through a comparison of the memoirs Crossing the Color Line (1994) by Maureen Reddy and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness (1996/2016) by Jane Lazarre. From the vantage point of interracial family experiences, these texts launch a critique of white supremacy, which distinguishes them from post-racial projections of the mixed race movement. Ibrahim’s investigation of these personal accounts, nevertheless, powerfully shows how gender norms again become mobilized when unfolding how the formulation of anti-racist critique and the claim to multiracial kinship both depend on presenting white, middle-class, child-centered, heterosexual motherhood as a neutral and neutralizing category. This insight is supplemented with an excursus on Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) as a haunting “pre-text” (83) about a repressed history of violent interracial sexuality and the enduring discursive non-personhood of black maternity as “the ghosts that threaten to disorganize multiracial kinship” (30).

Ibrahim considers the rhetorical emphasis on white maternal affect as a crucial reason why multiracialism was appropriated by neo-conservative forces that stand at the center of analysis in her final chapter. Looking comparatively at James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water (1995) and Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), Ibrahim examines how the “anachronistic” (124) trope of racial passing in the 1990s negotiate a larger turn toward politics of colorblindness. While both texts are analyzed in their desire for the transcendence of “historical logics of racial categorization” (124), McBride’s memoir is ultimately understood as “actively return[ing] to the relevance of race and to the racial and ethnic vicissitudes of history” (131) in the post-Civil Rights era. The passing narrative in The Human Stain, however, is identified as “ahistorical support” (156) for ideologies of colorblindness through an astonishing multilayered reading, where—among a host of interwoven insights on form, gender, race, ethnicity, class, public and private—black motherhood is shown to be metaphorically murdered for the protagonist’s claim to “American personhood” (147) in the form of white masculinity.

Ibrahim’s conclusion not only picks up all the various strands of her individual chapters but interweaves them to provide a closing case study in which Obama’s entry on the national political stage as a symbol of multiracialism and post-racialism is screened in terms of its gendered preconditions. The euphoric reception of Obama is understood as an affirmation of the “promise of personhood,” the hope of having seemingly overcome the “normative epistemologies that still determine which sort of individuality can appear in public” (169). In an elegant move, Ibrahim reclaims the analytic of ‘the personal is political’ for women of color feminism and upends the ‘arrival’ of multiracialism and its “racial hero” (208). Drawing on Cherríe Moraga’s autobiographical (personal-political) article on Obama’s election night, the author elaborates on how the rise of Obama, like the rise of multiracialism, depended on ideal personhood as tacitly masculine, on a narrative of white, middle-class, heterosexual maternity, and, crucially, on the absence of a black maternal background. With this perspective on the omissions and obfuscations that made multiracialism possible, Ibrahim also draws attention to other ‘queer’ subjects such as Guantánamo detainees whose personhood is denied and “destroy[ed]” (172) by a nation state that multiracialism had turned to as a seemingly neutral resource for legitimization.

Ibrahim’s challenging conclusion reflects her overall insightful intersectional approach, which does not necessarily reject a multiracial project per se but one that hinges on the fantasy of the state-sanctioned family as a natural and neutral site of redemptive intimacy. Along these lines, she closes by pointing toward alternative endeavors that understand personhood “at the intersection of identity and oppression” (172) and make “health, safety, and liberty of socially underprivileged persons a public priority” (172). Hopefully, this brilliant study will find productive resonances in a field that has recently reinvented itself as the self-reflexive enterprise of ‘Critical Mixed Race Studies’ to engage with the tensions, contradictions, and exclusions that are inscribed into the multiracial era.


Cedric Essi (Bremen)

[1] Werner Sollors, ed., Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature and Law (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), 12.

[2] Paul Spickard, “The Subject is Mixed Race: The Boom in Biracial Biography,” Rethinking Mixed Race, ed. David Parker and Miri Song (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 76–98; 76.

[3] Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (New York: New York Times). Transcript. 18 March 2008. 4. April 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html>.

[4] Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008), 4.

[5] Minelle Mahtani, Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality. (Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2014), 3.

[6] Maria P.P. Root, ed., The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996), xv.