Mixed-Race Superman

To celebrate the publication of Mixed-Race Superman on 2 July by Melville House in the United States, this is an extract from the opening section of the essay.


I used to say that, in the film of my life, Keanu Reeves would play the starring role. Most people don’t realize he’s mixed race.

Keanu’s father is Hawaiian-Chinese—hence his name, Hawaiian for “cool breeze over the mountains”—but since he passes as white that’s how people think of him.

An old friend, Tirzah Lea Tward, is quoted in Sheila Johnston’s biography of Keanu as saying that “if you asked him where he came from or what his roots were, he was anything you wanted him to be.” I like to think that, not quite white and not wanting to constantly explain his “roots,” he was trying to get his friends to see race differently: not as a fixed sign but as a fluid signifier. Like a cool breeze, he turned his shapelessness into a form of resistance.

When I was at school I wanted my roots to be mysterious too, but unlike Keanu I don’t pass as white. As soon as a conversation turned toward the Orient—Chinese food in the cafeteria, a new Jet Li movie, the other Chinese kid in our year (who was actually Korean)—I’d get these sidelong glances. Asked where I was from, I’d hide behind my mixedness.

I’m one quarter Dutch; most of my family live in Indonesia; my great-great-grandma was from Hokkien; my granddad was a French teacher; I’ve lived in London my whole life . . .

Keanu could choose whether or not to wear the cape of whiteness: an accepted outsider, different and the same, he was capable of spanning the contradictions within himself. Though it now seems shameful to admit, his was the sinuous and racially unmarked version of the face that I wanted to present to the world.

Recently, an elderly woman in a café asked where I was from, or where I was really from. “Gosh,” she said, “those Chinese genes are powerful.”

“I don’t think it works like that,” I said, and started saying something about genetics and race—how they have almost nothing in common—before trailing off. She wasn’t listening. “Have you heard of Keanu Reeves?” I asked.

~

A mixed-race superhero is a contradiction in terms. A superhero might start out like any other confused child, but that confusion soon gives way. The would-be superhero will be injured, taken prisoner, or exposed to cosmic radiation and, later, after a dark night of the soul, they’ll emerge into the bright field of self-knowing.

Their voice will change in pitch and their punches will carry more heft, now having behind them the weight of conviction, of an assured identity. Even with his superpowers, Peter Parker couldn’t save his uncle from being killed because he wasn’t yet Spider-Man. He didn’t know himself.

As a child, I was confused. I believed myself to be white. At the barber’s, I’d ask for hair like Michael Owen or Peter Parker and nobody said anything. Then one day people started asking me where I was from. How long had I been in the country? Could I speak Chinese? My Western name provoked raised eyebrows. My British accent came as a surprise. I could no longer look in the mirror and believe myself to be white, but what was I?

Had I been a superhero, my confusion might have given way to the discovery of some transcendent new identity. But I remained confused, unable to square my experience with the way the world saw me. If mixed-race superheroes do exist, maybe they’re people who have found a way to know themselves in spite of themselves. They’ve worked out how to make their confusion heroic, to embody contradiction.

~

Consider that game where you have to describe a thing without saying the word for it. The quickest way is by naming its opposite—black if you want someone to think white, or man for woman. Though black isn’t the opposite of white nor man the opposite of woman, the mind falls easily into the simplest of patterns: either/or.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway talks about the pervasiveness of certain dualisms in the West: mind/body, culture/nature, active/passive. Whether or not these concepts are opposed, they’ve been hitched together for so long that they’ve come to prop up—and to depend on—one another’s meaning.

The category of the Other, Simone de Beauvoir suggested, is “as original as consciousness itself.”

In other words, we have a habit of defining ourselves by what we’re not. For Haraway, the dualism between Self and Other is essential to how we as non-cyborgs think about ourselves: The Self dominates while the Other is dominated; the Self is active, while the Other is passive; the Self is associated with mind and culture, the Other with nature and the body; the Self is pure and white, the Other black, brown, yellow, or otherwise tainted.

Haraway concludes sadly that “one is too few and two is too many”—no single idea can make sense on its own, but no two ideas can be grasped simultaneously.

The mixed-race person embodies this. With too many heritages or too few, too white or not white enough, the mixed-race person grows up to see the self as something strange and shifting—a shadow on the roadside—shaped around a lack. Whereas most superheroes build their identity around a clearly established sense of Self (buttressed by its opposition to an evil Other), the mixed-race superhero must forge their identity in the confusing space between.