Monday, December 8, 2008

The "one drop rule," black inferiority and our invisible multiracial community

I was just listening to the first episode of NPR's month long "Living in Multicultural America" series on "News & Notes." The participants, Ronald Takaki, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and Jen Chau, founder and executive director of Swirl, a national multi-ethnic organization, spent some time talking about the "one drop" rule--the idea, formed during slavery, that one drop of black blood makes one black. Today, the "one drop rule" has expanded to apply to other races as well, and Chau and Takaki believe it stigmatizes people of multicultural descent. For example, President-elect Barack Obama is welcome to self-identify as a black man, which he does, but would society (including black people) accept it if he chose to instead identify as a white man? He was, after all, raised primarily in white American culture not what we have come to define as black American culture. It would be perfectly understandable if he found himself more closely aligned with the white America. Society's embrace of the one-drop rule makes it hard for people of mixed ancestry to choose. Society says, if you are not pure (Read: 100% of European ancestry), then you are "other."

C. Robinson, a commenter on the NPR site, responded:

I am Black and I agree completely with Jen Chau that all people, particularly people of mixed-race, should be free to identify however they choose. Folks who cannot accept this God-given right need to mature intellectually.

Think about this, as the professor Takaki said, the one-drop-rule makes "VICTIMS" of people who DO NOT want to identify as Black. Conversely, the one-drop-rule "INSULTS" those of us who do identify proudly as Black, like me. Why are we "forcing" people to identify as Black when they don't want to? Let them go (bye, bye Tiger).

The one-drop-rule is racist, antiquated, demeaning, and Black folks - in particular need to stop using it as a determinant for a person's racial or cultural identity. It is long past the time that Black folks stop speaking the language of their oppressors.

However, I do hope that Ms. Chau's support for people to choose their own racial or cultural identity works both ways. For I know biracial siblings who have made different choices. One sibling self-identifies as mixed-race, the other self-identities as Black. I'm not 100% sure about this, but I believe that Mr. Obama self-identifies as Black – at least culturally.

The incessant conversation that Mr. Obama's success has engendered about which "group" gets to claim him is truly amazing! It is reminiscent of the conversation that took place when Tiger Woods hit the scene. Obviously, some of this is conversation is unavoidable. But there is a part of me that believes many folks are still uncomfortable with Black success and therefore will try to rationalize his success by stressing the fact that he is not Black at all; he is mixed-race. It reminds me of when Rosa Parks died and the entire country was forced to take notice of her contribution to American progress because of all the news reports surrounding her being the first woman to lie in state at the US Capital. At that time, a non-Black woman noted how beautiful Ms. Parks was and how "she didn't even look Black". This is another example of society's need to separate prominence, success, and historical contribution from a Black identity. For many people, the two are contradictory.

I believe that EVERYONE has the right to identify with what ever racial group or groups they choose. Period. But Robinson's comment illustrates one reason discussions about the "one drop rule" are so damned sticky. Maintaining a manner of thinking about race that was devised by slave owners is silly, unscientific, hurtful and racist, but there are two things that I think most discussions about the "one drop rule" fail to acknowledge:

The tragedy of feeling inferior

There exists in this country a bias against blackness. Just as a drop of black blood "poisons," a drop of something other than black blood redeems. Notice how even the black community embraces physical markers of non-black blood. Many in the black community worship "good" hair, "light eyes" and "Indian in the family." And why not? Society at large values these things; why should we be immune to their allure. For those who call ourselves "black," sometimes it seems we are eager to be identified as anything but "just" black. It is ironic, then, that a culture that in many ways still subconsciously believes in the supremacy of whiteness, is eager to identify and call out anyone who dares cross the imaginary line that separates worshipping nonblackness with rejecting blackness.

That is how it goes, though. The black community can be prickly when one it embraces as its own chooses to be, say, "Cablanasian" rather than African American. Many discussions about the "one drop rule" and "who gets to call themselves what" wind up portraying black people as simply uncharitable, or worse, racists eager to force anyone with a whiff of Africanness into loudly rejecting all other aspects of their being to proclaim themselves "black." The truth, I think, is more tragic. Black anger at the Tiger Woodses of the world comes from a nagging sense of our own inferior place in the American social hierarchy. Even those of us who love and embrace our blackness know that black is the one thing few other people in America want to be. Remember the Chris Rock joke about how the white male busboy in a concert hall wouldn't want to trade places with him--a black man--even though Rock is rich, famous and successful? It's funny, cause it's true.

So, while biracial Halle Berry gets a "Go, sister, go!" for proclaiming herself a black woman, and Barack Obama is embraced as a black man, we are suspicious of Tiger and Vin Diesel and those folks who confound us by not taking their "rightful" place in the African Diaspora. "Why don't you want to black?" We wonder. It should not matter what someone else chooses to call themselves. Somehow, though, we can take the white busboy not wanting to be one of us, but someone who shares a bit of our history? Similar facial features? That stings too much.

Is it right to make biracial people carry the burden of historical racial wrongs and bear the scars of the black community? Emphatically, no. But perhaps we could more quickly end the "one drop rule's" hold on the black community if we acknowledged why we cling to it so.

Black Americans are multiracial

The other thing that most discussions of racial identity fail to acknowledge is that, for the most part, to be "black" in America is to be multiracial. Articles like to proclaim the coming of a multiracial America as if it is not already here. Society is simply loathe to acknowledge that, due to this country's slave-holding past and the intermixing of African, Native and other peoples, that our bloodlines have long been blended. As an amateur genealogist, I can tell you that, of all the gatherings of African American family historians I have attended, I have heard few family stories that did not include at the very least family members of both European and African extraction. And it seems the further back the tree goes the more the branches lead to places other than West Africa.There is currently an active DNA project for my father's surname. The leader is collecting DNA results from males with my last name. One bit of family lore that the project hopes to confirm or put to rest is that my great-great-grandfather was not just his master's slave, but also his son. Whether or not that connection exists, for six out of 16 other branches of my tree, the connection to a race other than African is confirmed. Culturally, I am most certainly black, but like most other African Americans, my genetic makeup tells a more complicated story. And I don't think my story is exceptional. (See Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello, in today's edition of Salon.)

It is hard to demonize or "other" black people, or label us with some genetic deficiency, if you acknowledge that we are connected to the majority--that we share the same blood. And so, black Americans are our country's invisible multiracial people. If we truly aim to banish the "one drop rule" once and for all, we have to tackle it where it began. We can't just start with today's biracial and multiracial people--the Baracks, Tigers and Halles--we must finally acknowledge the true racial history of the people we call "black" today.

Readers, what do you say? Why do Americans, including the very people the "rule" victimized, hold so tightly to the "one drop rule?"


Anonymous said...

This is of no relaton to the article...but, I love you Tami! ~Daesha Danette

L. said...

Tami, I was just made aware of your blog sometime in either July or August. In this few short months, I have come to the realization that you are my mind twin. There have been at least 3 topics that I have spent hours mulling over, and then I come to your blog and you've written EXACTLY what I was making out in my mind. I kid you not, my exact thoughts somehow find their way onto your blog. I thank you for that.

And, especially in regards to the multiracial argument in this post, I agree wholeheartedly!

Claudia said...

Great post, Tami! I couldn't agree more - African Americans ARE multiracial. And so are most Americans. But knowing this doesn't prohibit me from self-identifying with a black cultural heritage that best represents my beliefs and aspirations. I'm glad we're having this conversation. Even if it rehashes old debates and ideas, at least we can all be clearer about the terms we are using: black, multiracial, white, etc. said...

I think people gravitate towards the one-drop rule because people like rules, as arbitrary as they may be. People like to draw lines and make categories because it makes them feel more comfortable, more in control. A strongly generalized statement like "ONE DROP of X blood makes you X" gives the speaker a feeling of control, power, and understanding, especially in an arena like race where everyone's affiliations are inherently ambiguous. I myself am guilty of this same kind of grandiose generalization, in other topics (um, SUV drivers). Doesn't make it right. We can use our evolved forebrains to think beyond our instinctive need to categorize people. --CC

Tei Tetua said...

One of our moves in the welcome direction of racial equality is that we seem to be breaking down the idea that everyone has to fit into neat boxes defined by race. Recall that in the 2000 census, people were allowed to list themselves as having more than one race, and millions of people did. I believe the old-line black advocacy organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP were uncomfortable with this--I assume they saw it as possibly diluting their constituency. Maybe they were worrying unnecessarily, but they might feel that it has to be clear who's black and who isn't. It's a real practical problem for Indian tribes, where they have a government and maybe money to share, and they're trying to achieve a definition of who belongs to their community. If I'm recalling it right, a few years ago there was a nasty fight among the Cherokee people about whether some individuals of African-American and (possibly) Indian descent belonged to the tribe or not. Talk about mixed-up identities.

I enjoyed hearing that Barack Obama said that if he gets a dog, he wants "A mutt like me". That's the attitude to take.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Is it exclusively about the one drop rule or about appearance? I believe biracial individuals should identify as such, because to give recognition to one parent's background over the other misses the mark--the full story of the person's background.

And yet, appearance matters.

If one appears black, like Obama does, it can seem disingenuous to claim one is biracial. Meaning, without knowing anything about Obama's white background, anyone would presume he is a black man who resembles many black men one can find anywhere in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

If one appears white, like some biracials do, they are treated as white, and to claim their black ancestry seems opportunistic in the eyes of some. And yet, do we want them to deny their heritage?

msladydeborah said...

I am a black member of a bi-racial family. My oldest sib is a white male and my five younger sibs are half black and half white.

When my dad divorced and re-married it was during the 1950's. Which was an era where race mixing was definitely not an acceptable practice to either race.

My sibs were given a black identity by their mother. She had no choice in the matter. As I understand it, each of my sibs looked black. The hospital officials identified them as black and it has stood ever since. However only me and my sister married black men. None of our brothers did.

My own grandchildren are bi-racial. I have insisted that they be identified as such. Primarily because all of them expect one do not look like they are black. The one that does is still bi-racial in my mind. It is a reality and it should be respected as such. If at a later date they opt to be black or to remain bi-racial that should be their choice.

I work for Head Start. There was a time when bi-racial children were identified as other. A term that I find offensive.
It sounded like they were not considered to be human.Or like they did not have an identity. That has changed due to pressure that has been applied by teachers and parents.

I find that there is still a lot of misconception about bi-racial families. I have been exposed to the best that both cultures have to offer. It has given me insight and understanding not only about race, but about how to look at others who are considered to be different.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Tami, I conducted some interviews (including one with Jen Chau) for a proposed article about DNA testing for ancestry, and one question I asked was, "Why does the one-drop rule persist?" One person I interviewed embraces the rule and thinks that self-identified biracial people (with one black parent) simply "don't want to be black". She said that she thinks we should hold onto to the one-drop rule because it created the only "pro" of slavery: it unified black folks.

I don't agree because I've yet to see or read or hear about, always and everywhere, "unified" black folks, not during slavery and certainly not since Emancipation.

MilesPerHour said...

This is one of the best posts I have read in a long time. Early on in the relationship I am in which is interracial (the first for both of us, now 2 yeaqrs old) I asked touchy questions of my girlfriend as we discussed race. I listened. I found that no matter how hard I might try I will never understand what it like to be black or bi-racial, to walk in those shoes. It's okay. It works both ways. Acceptance and an open mind of this fact has made it easy and that it what I hear from your post. Accept others for who they are without judgement.

Anonymous said...

Tami, you are the super-duper bomb diggety! This post is soooooo on target!

MilesPerHour said...

Hi Tami, This post got me to thinking and so I'm posting my own thoughts today. Thank you for the inspiration!

Robot Nine said...

I was thinking after the election that we don't truly have a black president yet, but in reality we probably have never had a white one. All shades of beige...? My love of biology says ah well, they all have virtually indistinguishable DNA.

Tami said...


I hope you will come back and link to your post when it is finished.

Sylvia K said...

I just found your blog through Miles Per Hour and I'm adding you to my list of must reads. I was born and raised in Texas, married a black man in 1965 and have four beautiful children. I never saw color -- ever, and that got me in a lot of trouble as a young girl, but for me, that was and is a stupid way to judge another person. I love your post today and hope that it makes a lot of people stop for a moment and think before they label another human being, for that is what we are, fellow human beings and we all put our pants on the same way. It's time to look past the one drop rule! Thank you for an insightful post!

MilesPerHour said...

Ok Tami, I'm not too good at linking but I was successful at linking yours to my post. Here goes nothing:

Anonymous said...

Good article. I find it a sign of collective low self esteem that black people seem so desperate for a symbol of success that they want to appropriate the son of a white woman and call him black.

Anonymous said...

The one drop rule is racist and repulsive.


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