Is the ‘Race’ Race Finally Over?
It’s been an interesting month at Biber, the hip Viennese magazine for second-generation migrants. The April cover feature, "Mischlinge: Erkennst du den Mix?" – a kind of match-the-faces-to-the-races quiz – stirred critiques from the major Vienna newspapers followed by a long trail of impassioned comments on social media platforms.
Mischling is a tricky word to translate, most German/English dictionary entries only list undesirable terms like "half-breed" or "mongrel", a telling indicator of its history.
The controversy boiled down as follows: On the one hand, the media have a moral and historical responsibility – Biber included – and thus should not be toying around with loaded terms like Mischling. On the other, if Biber doesn’t raise the awkward issues, who will?
Does Biber have the right to invite readers to make a game out of race?
Although Biber has been accused of " leichtigkeit" ("frivolity") – as described by former Biber editor Olja Alvir of DaStandard.at – they did not take this matter lightly, even hosting a public debate.
Unlike the one between DaStandard’s Olivera Stajic and Biber columnist Ivana Martinovic published in the Falter the day before, this debate was between Stajic and Biber managing editor, Delna Antia, who is one of the Mischlinge featured on the cover.
A co-author of the quiz, Antia pointed out that the Mischlinge were not the ones complaining. "Everything has its own system," she said in the magazine’s defense, and in the Biber "system", Mischlinge can reclaim the term and make it their own.
They emphasised the importance of "context" and that Biber has nothing to do with Nazis.
Biber as a publication is not exempt from ethical responsibility, insisted Stajic, a trained historian. She claimed the magazine needed to exercise discretion in its choice of terms. "What I chat about with my friends on a Sunday in the park is not necessarily what I write in an article," she emphasised.
Another DaStandard columnist Bogumil Balkansky agreed: There was a time in Austria when a "Mischling-or-not" status was a life-or-death matter (namely, being considered Jewish if your mother was, but not if only your father was).
Can histories such as these be negated or ignored in the name of identity? Like it or not, we are all Mischlinge, the offspring of a series of historical struggles. Instead of erasing the context, is it perhaps time to focus on our success within the contemporary context? To celebrate?
"I’m proud to call myself a Mischling, " Antia said.
So does Biber get a free pass here? Who makes the rules? And who exactly is coming to whose defense?
A new generation
Race has a long, painful history for many. Every country has chapters it would prefer to forget. Sticks and stones were thrown, and names did hurt us. But today, perhaps, a new era has arrived in which who you are can be celebrated, no matter – and even because of – where you come from.
Racism is not dead, but it has been tamed, at least somewhat: whittled down to a polite conversation among the elite where language is the weapon. Such a battlefield might seem absurd next to those where actual lives were lost, but on some level, all wars are fought over identity and ideas.
So maybe the racial struggle is in some sense over: In a world where the U.S. president is himself a Mischling, taking sides becomes more elusive. In fact, interracial unions have led to a new generation that doesn’t belong to any "race", for whom there is no label.
In the past, we tried to fit in, to "integrate" by not standing out or drawing negative attention. Now we promote ourselves on Facebook and hope to be special in a cybersea of faces. One Mischling on the Biber cover grew up in Hawaii and confessed that "back home, where everyone is at least a four-part Mischling, I’m kind of boring".
So has the "Race" Race ended up as a beauty contest? Or are we all, finally, just getting along? Apparently, we’ve made progress, but the more we keep talking about it, the better.
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in Film from New York University and a Masters Degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.