The Fifth Race: Tolerance for ambiguity

From this link that talks about the Society for the Study of this awesome human:

La Conciencia de la mestiza (Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa) struck me in a very visceral way. “In a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways, la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another. Being tricultural, monolingual…and in a state of perpetual transition, the mestiza faces the dilemma of the mixed breed” (p. 100). Which collectivity does the child of two cultures speak to?

My father came from the Appalachian Mountains, in a rural town that is literally clinging to the side of a mountain, surrounded then by tobacco farms and now by the desolation of deep mineral mining spotting the landscape. There is a deep-rooted culture there, born from the Scotch-Irish-Welsh immigrants that settled there after the first wave of Western expansion into the New World. The land is not welcoming enough to strangers to encourage an influx of new blood, except perhaps in the flatter, more urban areas. The music, the lilt in the voices, the food, the ritual, are soaked in every aspect of living. The breakdown of the social structure is evident in the upkeep of the homes. Those that are tidy, even in poverty, have not yet succumbed. 

My mother is from the other side of the world, was raised in a country that had known colonialism, revolt, and civil war without respite. Being the active, take-charge person that she is, my memories of childhood are saturated with her presence, and the strange knowledge that this person who was as intimately familiar to me as myself, who I had known before I had even known that I was a person, was considered foreign and alien to the cultural context that I lived in. I never hear her accent. I mean I do, but I don't. This is the first voice I heard, and knew. It can't sound accented.

A tolerance for ambiguity might be the title of my autobiography. I have a curious capacity to maintain psychological fortitude in the face of overwhelming complexity and ambiguity. I live in a world of flat gray, where black and white and moral high ground cannot exist. I can’t even have a proper argument without being consumed with shame at my temporary blindness to this reality.

The 5th Race?

Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959) was one of the most influential Mexican intellectuals of the 20th Century. He theorized, in a manner that was quite contrary to the white supremacy of his time, that the Latin American mestizo constituted a new, "cosmic race," marrying the virtues of Indians (in the idealized manner of the "noble savage") and Europeans. Vasconcelos believed that this fifth race would be the race of the future.

Vasconcelos was, by no means, some utopian genius who was born before his time. His description of this ideal 5th race is rife with stereotypes and simplistic, two-dimensional misconceptions: "His soul resembles the old Mayan cenote [natural well] of green waters, laying deep and still, in the middle of the forest, for so many centuries since, that not even its legend remains any more. This infinite quietude is stirred with the drop put in our blood by the Black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust. There also appears the Mongol, with the mystery of his slanted eyes that see everything according to a strange angle, and discover I know not what folds and newer dimensions."

However, the idea of this 5th race has gummed up the works in my thinking cap. As a person of mixed race, living in a country that is still tearing apart at the seams because of the consequences of racialized a person involved in researching and understanding health behavior...I find it curious that we continue to parse out race as we do.

The Curious Case of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Pictured here with one of his fav skulls
Blumenbach, a German anatomist and naturalist, was the student of Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linneaus. He is responsible for creating the single most influential of all the hierarchical race classifications - and it was not only NOT based in science in any way, shape, or form, his process was riddled with errors! So, there's that whole bizarre aspect of the reality we currently exist in. He basically had a lot of skulls. Let's not really explore why or how. That's probably for another blog.

In the third edition of his seminal work On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1795), Blumenbach was the first to propose five generic and hierarchically arranged racial groups specifically named “races” based on the study of human skulls: (1) the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race (Europeans); (2) the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race (Asians); (3) the Malayan or “brown” race (Polynesians); (4) the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race (Africans); (5) the American or “red” race (Native Americans).

Ironically, Blumenbach opposed slavery and professed to believe in equality, but he chose the place the Caucasoid at the top of the hierarchy because a skull that he found in the Caucus mountains was particularly beautiful and pleasing to him.

The influence of Blumenbach's Taxonomy on the US Census is partly related to the adaptability of the taxonomy to a sociocultural contract that centers whiteness, it was also just a matter of timely coincidence.

In her book Raising Mixed Race, Sharon Chang explains this event in more detail. It's breathtaking to consider the sweeping implications of the legislative posturing that characterized congress at that time, when slavery was still a central component of the American economy and tensions were escalating between the North and South. "Right between publication of the first (1776) and third (1795) editions of Blumenbach’s On the Natural Variety of Mankind. 18 The requirement for population enumeration, based on racial categories being solidified by white scientists at the time, was aggressively pushed by southern slaveholders seeking to insure that the South’s growing white and Black populations would be carefully counted for the purpose of increased white representation. Northern delegates actually opposed the provision, but it was passed, and the federal census has become the national template for racial categorization."

The "new" mestiza consciousness 

In 1993, this was the cover of TIME Magazine. Of this oft-cited image, Chang criticizes: "I seldom see recognition of the fact that the magazine used mixed race to operate out of age-old white racial framing and push an age-old white worldview on the future. First, Time sidelined contemporary multiracials by coopting their experience with a voiceless, lifeless avatar. Then the magazine fabricated a mixed race Galatea who was really “two thirds” white when the world’s actual population majority is Asian and African."

The idea that a post-racial utopia can be founded merely on the intermingling of the races is simplistic at best. Although race mixed challenges the mutable frames of whiteness that come from the racialized society, and while in many ways racial mixing reproblematizes concepts that had been assumed to be dead, it has not at all meant the end of race. Post-raciality is colorblind idealism; relying on some future racial utopia founded merely in racial mixing and bottom-up approaches that come from the community rather than from policy and legislation is incredibly loaded, dangerously unseeing, and potentially reinforces those racialized ideologies we see to escape.

The 2014 US Census projected that non-Hispanic white people would comprise less than 50% of the population by the year 2040. It's important to remember that the white racialized ideological frames that became part of the legislative foundation of the United States did not evolve in a vacuum. Just as trade has forced globalization, so too must our contact with other cultures and ways of knowing force an evolution in the concepts that we have tried to cling to so strongly that the forces of this delusion are literally ripping the fabric of the nation apart.

In 2013 roughly 12% of new marriages in the US were between spouses who reported different races. Photographer Martin Schoeller captured the changing face of America in a photography series featured in National Geographic Magazine.


The thing about identity is that it is not solid or immutable. It changes according to context, place, time, circumstances, and your own personal growth. Dr. Nina Boyd Krebs used the term "edgewalkers" to describe those who can move between cultures and traditions with a certain degree of comfort. Krebs envisions Edgewalkers as happy ambassadors who welcome questions regardless of the intent of the questioner, and who have the capacity to respond with equanimity and calmness. They enjoy confounding people, relying on humor and patience to use racial encounters, whether positive or negative, to spark authentic dialogue about dominant historical narratives and counterstories. 

As with most things, though, the work must begin at an individual level. Anzaldúa does an excellent job of characterizing this invisible labor: “The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in the healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.” (Borderlands, Anzaldúa, p. 102)

Soy un amasamiento – I am an act of kneading, of uniting, and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings. (p.103)

She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. She learns to transform the small “I” into the total Self. Se hace moldeadora de su alma. Según la concepción que tiene de sí misma, así será. (p.105)


  1. Can a person be a boarderwalker without being of mixed race/ethnicity?

  2. Can a person be a boarderwalker without being of mixed race/ethnicity?

    1. Definitely. I think the trick is to be able to move between realms with ease and respond with an open mind and invitation rather than shutting it down. Still learning that bit.

  3. Loved the post and it was really nice to read about this topic. It was a good read and the post really summarized all the topics really well into a small article.


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