Shape Shifters


Shape Shifters

Journeys across Terrains of Race and Identity

Edited by Lily Anne Y. Welty Tamai, Ingrid Dineen-Wimberly, and Paul Spickard

Borderlands and Transcultural Studies Series

432 pages
8 photographs, index


January 2020


$80.00 Add to Cart

September 2023


$35.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

January 2020


$35.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

January 2020


$35.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

 Shape Shifters presents a wide-ranging array of essays that examine peoples of mixed racial identity. Moving beyond the static “either/or” categories of racial identification found within typical insular conversations about mixed-race peoples, Shape Shifters explores these mixed-race identities as fluid, ambiguous, contingent, multiple, and malleable. This volume expands our understandings of how individuals and ethnic groups identify themselves within their own sociohistorical contexts.

The essays in Shape Shifters explore different historical eras and reach across the globe, from the Roman and Chinese borderlands of classical antiquity to medieval Eurasian shape shifters, the Native peoples of the missions of Spanish California, and racial shape shifting among African Americans in the post–civil rights era. At different times in their lives or over generations in their families, racial shape shifters have moved from one social context to another. And as new social contexts were imposed on them, identities have even changed from one group to another. This is not racial, ethnic, or religious imposture. It is simply the way that people’s lives unfold in fluid sociohistorical circumstances.

With contributions by Ryan Abrecht, George J. Sánchez, Laura Moore, and Margaret Hunter, among others, Shape Shifters explores the forces of migration, borderlands, trade, warfare, occupation, colonial imposition, and the creation and dissolution of states and empires to highlight the historically contingent basis of identification among mixed-race peoples across time and space.


Author Bio

Lily Anne Y. Welty Tamai is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Sacramento. Ingrid Dineen‑Wimberly is a professor of history at University of LaVerne–Point Mugu, and the author of The Allure of Blackness among Mixed-Race Americans, 1862–1916 (Nebraska, 2019). Paul Spickard is a professor of history, Black studies, and Asian American studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity and Race in Mind: Critical Essays.


“The essays in this field-shaping work on shape shifters in world history are breathtaking in their breadth and fresh insights, challenging readers to think in provocative new ways about race, social mobility, and belonging from the borderlands of the ancient world to our own border-crossing moment.”—Samuel Truett, associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico

“In Shape Shifters we are transported on a journey through mixed-race times and spaces that we always wanted to visit but never had the opportunity to do so. . . . Shape Shifters goes well beyond the ‘passing’ trope to examine fascinating contexts and identity changes. It explores the diverse transformations in these identities, the many different reasons for those changes, and the variety of means by which they happen. It is destined to be a key text in critical mixed-race studies.”—Rebecca King-O’Riain, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth

"This diverse group of historians, sociologists, and scholars of ethnic studies explore how shape shifters, either individuals or groups, have changed identities for a variety of complex reasons that include social situations, cultural appeal, outside pressure or coercion, and as a result of pragmatism, idealism, or some combination of both."—M. L. Roman, Choice

Through a variety of cutting-edge case studies that stretch from ancient China to the current United States, Shape Shifters offers a kaleidoscope of fresh vantage points from which to rethink the enduring riddle of identity. The contributors bring to life a diverse array of border-crossers, tricksters, and chameleons who previously remained hidden from view but who could not be more important or more timely to our present-day discussions of race and ethnicity.”—Karl Jacoby, author of The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

“This is a smart, captivating, and groundbreaking book. It takes up the long-standing racial passing trope, stretching it to its limit and ultimately ripping it apart. [Shape Shifters] offers a welcome, deep critique of notions of imposture, authenticity, and appropriation. The book’s interdisciplinary approach beautifully shows the intricacies and nuances of shape shifting. Indispensable reading for those interested in race, ethnicity, border-crossing, gender, and world history.”—Julia María Schiavone Camacho, author of Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910–1960

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Shape Shifting: Reflections on Racial Plasticity
Paul Spickard
Part 1. Different Context, Different Identity
2. Places of Possibility: Shape Shifting in the Roman and Chinese Borderlands
Ryan R. Abrecht
3. Rabban Ṣauma: A Medieval Eurasian Shape Shifter
Colleen C. Ho
4. From Fan Gui to Friend: American Chinese, Social Identity, and the Quest for Subjectivity
David Torres-Rouff
5. Becoming Mixed Race: Northern California and the Production of Multiracial Identities
Alyssa M. Newman
6. “You Are the Shame of the Race”: Dynamics of Pain, Shame, and Violence in Shape Shifting Processes
Angelica Pesarini
Part 2. Choosing Identity
7. William A. Leidesdorff: The Rise of a Shape Shifter and the Posthumous Fall from Grace of a Racial Imposter
Laura Moore
8. Indian, Civilizer, Slaveholder, and Politician: The Many Shapes of Peter Pitchlynn
Paul Barba
9. Half-Butterfly, Half-Caste: Sadakichi Hartmann and the Mixed-Japanese Drama “Osadda’s Revenge”
Rena M. Heinrich
10. Shape Shifting in the Transpacific Borderlands: Expressions of Japanese Chicano Culture and Identity
Maria Jose Plascencia and George J. Sánchez
11. Betwixt and Between: A Personal Odyssey through the Twilight Zone
G. Reginald Daniel
12. Shape Shifting into Blackness in the Post–Civil Rights Era
Margaret Hunter
Part 3. Compelled Identity
13. Mudrooroo: Aboriginal No More?
Paul Spickard

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