In a world plagued by racism and prejudice, some people have hit on what they believe to be a simple but obvious solution. "Biracial babies!" they coo. "And they're so cute, too!"
This is tongue in cheek, of course, but speaking as someone whose father is white and whose mother is black Caribbean, there does seem to be a growing and pervasive fascination with multiracial people. And in particular, babies.
Recent census figures show mixed-race people are the fastest growing ethnic minority both in the US and the UK. These numbers are only set to rise, as predictions suggest that white people will no longer make up the majority of the US population by 2043. In the UK, one University of Oxford professor has said white Britons are set to become a minority in 2066.
Like many children, the lives of multiracial babies are intimately documented on social media, but they are arguably fixated on to a larger extent than most. Their pictures are all over the internet, under hashtags such as #BiracialBabies, #KardashianKids, #MixedLove, and #Diversity. On Instagram, accounts like Beautiful Mixed Kids and Mixed Babies Feature amass thousands of followers, along with regular picture submissions from doting family members.
Growing up in the entertainment industry it was very hard to get work with my look, which they call 'ethnically ambiguous.' Now, that's all these major companies look for.
However, it's Mixed Race Babies (MRB) that has the real numbers, with over 336,000 likes on their Facebook page, 69,000 members on their separate Facebook group and nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram. Founded by Noel Johnson in 2011, these accounts feature high-quality pictures of mixed babies and children up to around age 12, usually after they have been submitted by parents or grandparents. Johnson, writing on LinkedIn, says the aim of MRB is to "celebrate and encourage unity amongst all races." She mentions that MRB is now essentially a small business—she employs eight members of staff to help manage the "brand."
Michelle, 32, is one of the mums who regularly submits their children's images to MRB. The former actress and singer turned financial advisor hails from Sicily, while her husband is a Cuban car dealer. Her daughters, Jovi, age four, and Mariah, six, both have long and dark curly hair, tan skin, and striking eyes. Both started modeling around age two. Michelle has been using the MRB platform to their advantage.
"Places like Mixed Race Babies, and all the other social media pages, I use as a platform to market my children's unique look to casting directors and various agencies, perhaps outside the market they're in right now," she says candidly, speaking from her home in Florida where the girls have just started their summer holidays.
"I absolutely believe there is a fascination with mixed-race children. Growing up in the entertainment industry it was very hard to get work with my look, which they call 'ethnically ambiguous.' Now, that's all these major companies look for."
Since having her daughters, Michelle has even returned to the industry herself—she links me to a video of her and Jovi starring in a commercial for hayfever medication. She believes that the world is "starting to understand that something beautiful really comes from two different worlds," pointing the amount of work her daughters have been getting as evidence. Apart from Flonase, Jovi and Mariah have also worked for Walmart and the Home Shopping Network, as well as doing spots in print publications. Jovi's last major advert was for Disney.
"Disney is one of the largest optic markets there is and they are such a large advocate of mixed-racial ads," Michelle says. "I get castings constantly with them looking specifically for mixed-race families."
In May, advertising's new interest in casting mixed race families came under scrutiny when an advert for Old Navy—featuring an interracial couple and their child—became subject to racist trolling online from white supremacists."My family will never step into an @OldNavy store again. This miscegenation junk is rammed down our throats from every direction," read one tweet. "Stop promoting miscegenation or else I'm taking my $ elsewhere!!!" read another.
As these tweets suggest, it's not always easy to be mixed-race or in an interracial relationship. As depicted in the upcoming film Loving, about the US couple who helped overturn laws banning interracial marriage, "race-mixing" was illegal in several American states up until 1967. In South Africa, this only happened as recently as 1985. Back in 1937, 385 African-German children were forcibly—and illegally—sterilized as part of Hitler's foray into eugenics. In many communities worldwide, interracial relationships are still frowned upon; in a 2012 survey in the UK, 15 percent of the public said they were against marriage across ethnic lines. This is despite nearly one in 10 couples being mixed in 2011.
I've been called a race traitor many times, and my children have been called a lot of horrible names.
MRB user Krystal, 30, says that she uses the site partly because of the difficulties she faces raising her mixed-race sons in the American south. "I've been called a race traitor many times, and my children have been called a lot of horrible names. It is hard, I'm not gonna lie, but you can't help who you fall in love with. Being from the south it's frowned upon a lot more than other places.
"My oldest son, whose 11, came home from school one day and told me a little boy in his class told all the kids he was a zebra because his parents didn't match. My heart literally broke! He told me he didn't wanna be black, and asked why couldn't he be white like me.
"There have been a few other mum's on MRB who have experienced that with their children as well as criticism of their relationship. It's nice to hear others' experiences, as well as getting advice on the situation."
But MRB is not a faultless platform for mixed race children and their parents. While most captions are provided by family members themselves, they are not immune from commodifying and fetishizing the ethnicity of child subjects. A recent one on MRB reads: "Panamanian & Black (Mulatto & Zambo)"—"Zambo" is an outdated Spanish term; its equivalent in English is "Sambo." Many mixed race people also view the term "mulatto" as a racial slur.
The focus on white-mixed kids with Eurocentric features like light eyes and soft hair is prominent, and the idea that being partially white is what makes mixed-race people attractive crops up constantly on MRB. On a picture of a dark-skinned "Hungarian, Irish, African American, and Indian" child on the Facebook page, a woman recently wrote: "Perfect hair! Hope she will get married to a white so that their babies can look more beautiful."
Not all parents are fans of MRB and its ilk. Jeremy Cole, 30, who has a seven-year-old mixed-race son, calls them "mad." Shannon Shelton, a 38-year-old mother of two boys who are African-American and white, says that while she enjoys "participating in communities of common interests and like to talk to other parents raising mixed-race children about our respective experiences," she isn't so keen on other aspects of the groups.
"I don't have a need to gush over unique eye colours, hair patterns, or skin tones that happen to be common among mixed-race children, which seems to be the case in too many of the posts on these Facebook or Instagram pages," she says.
MRB and similar sites also grapple with issues of privacy. Whitney Bays, 23, found this out quickly when the images of her five-month-old baby daughter she had submitted to the MRB Instagram page was lifted by someone and entered into competitions without her permission. Like Michelle, Bays had been using MRB to try and get her daughter exposure into modelling.
"Obviously I was an amateur and was not prepared and did not think about the negative things that come with social media," says Bays. "I was originally tagging pages that I thought she could get the most exposure from. MRB was one of them." Mixed Race Babies founder Noel Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While groups like MRB can challenge racist ideas of "racial purity" and offer support to someone raising a mixed-race child in the Western world, it's clear that there is a fine line between support and obsession, fascination and fetishization. So the next time you see a mixed-race couple, maybe don't tell them how beautiful their children are going to be.