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?"


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