Race, Terminology, and Self-Identification
So there’s this letter in today’s Dear Abby about the way President Obama is referred to by black Americans/self-identifies as a black man. And it contains an argument I’ve heard before about the white “half” and so I feel compelled to point out a few bits of historical and social context in the interests of not listening to people make this argument any more. First up, we live in a society that coined the One Drop rule to ensure that racism had a solid generational footing. The impact of that rule, Jim Crow etiquette and laws, and a host of other bits of institutional racism are still being felt today. Terms like mulatto and colored carry a whole lot of cultural baggage in America that most (if not all) people with good sense want to avoid heaping on anyone else. So, that brings us to words like biracial or multiracial. And yes, President Obama (much like my eldest son) is technically biracial. However, he is not light enough to pass and so he has spent his life (regardless of the color of his mother and grandmother) being treated as a black man in his everyday interactions.
My son isn’t light enough to pass (not that I’d want him too) either and he sees himself as a black man. Some of that is definitely influenced by upbringing (after I divorced his father, I eventually remarried and his stepfather is black), but it is also a product of what he sees in the mirror everyday. This idea that a society that engineered distinctions like the One Drop Rule, mulatto, colored, quadroon, octoroon, and quintroon is going to be filled with people that look at someone with a skin tone that reflects black ancestry and see the white/Asian/Latino/Indian/NDN ancestry as paramount is frankly ludicrous. I’ll let you in on a secret, your average black American with a family line present in America for longer than 2 or 3 generation is part something else. Maybe white, maybe NDN, whatever the racial background, when they go outside and walk down the street unless they are light enough to pass for white (and have the requisite features of thinner lips and a nose that is high and narrow enough) someone is questioning their background. More importantly they are encountering racism (subtle and overt) that constantly informs their experience.
And yes, there is some backlash (from all sides) attached to the notion of self-identification for multiracial people especially if someone feels that the racial identity established is too narrow/disrespectful of the other ancestry/too general. We’re a country that likes boxes and labels (see every single discussion of Tiger Woods) because we’re a country that has built an entire caste system on racial classifications. My son’s biological father is white, but his experience in society? It’s not that of a white man. It will never be that of a white man. When President Obama refers to himself as a black man it’s not a denial of his mother, it’s an acknowledgment of his experience. Is that a good statement about the state of American race relations? Probably not. But this the reality of living in a country that periodically trots out the idea that being tolerant or color blind is the only way not to be racist.