Who has a right to choose your ethnicity, you or society?

I recently read an article called, “White On Paper,” in which the author discussed the issues he faced as a biracial child in a predominantly white world. In part he says:

“Isn’t this why we love movies like Dances with Wolves and Avatar? They capture our imagination (as well as Best Picture) because they have The White Savior — white people deciding to help an oppressed people and coming to identify as that people. We write Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley over and over again because we love that story so much.” John Metta (2015) [From: https://thsppl.com/white-on-paper-ca337ba3381a 8/21/2015]

This topic of the article speaks to my heart and way of seeing life. An example of that played (and continues to play) out in the media with different people. For example, I was in awe of how the media and other Black folk banded together to slaughter Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who was accused of cultural appropriation, or stealing from another culture (Black) without permission, although I can’t figure out who she would ask for permission. The whole thing entranced, really. You see that, and what happened to Shaun King having to defend himself as biracial, reminds me of how the world treated my fair skinned mother.

In my teens my family lived in Milwaukee, WI. In her late 40s (I think) my mother was very proud that she finally got her drivers license. While at the DMV, when she handed the clerk her application, she didn’t mark a box under ethnic code and when the clerk asked her what her race was my mother said “American,” and refused to say anything other than that. In her mind she was refusing to be put in an insignificant box by a low level employee on a government form. And like Metta (above) said in his article, it was probably a question the clerk was required to ask, as uncomfortable as it was to him, but his job called for every box to be filled out before the form could be processed.

When my mother refused to identify other than “American,” the clerk, probably presuming she had to be white because he couldn’t see an African American as “American,’ checked the box he thought she fit it—Caucasian. My mother was so tickled she brought the license home and laughed as she told what had happened. While I thought it was pretty funny, my older brother, Fred, the militant, was furious. He practically demanded she go back and get it corrected. My mother, on the other hand, seemed to take it as a personal coup. I don’t remember if she left it like that, or for how long she left it like that, but she really pulled one over on the man. What I learned from that, but didn’t quite understand for some years, was that white people don’t necessarily associate being “American” with Black people, even though males in every generation of our family served in some branch or other of the military.

I can go back to the census forms back in the 1800-1900s and see the same thing. I can say with little fear of error that all census takers were white, therefore, each person had the power to classify someone as being “in” or “out” as they saw it. If the family looked like poor whites, down to the blue eyes, and the census taker was from another county and didn’t know these were descendants of some Black field hand, cook, or servant girl, the family could be documented as white and could stay that way if no one knew any better. If the census taker was unsure and the person had some coloring in their skin, they could be documented as “mulatto,” without ever having to show what they were mixed with. At different (and historical) points in U.S. history this could result in race mixing with whites, Mexicans, Asians, and/or Native Americans. It is no wonder that there are Black descendants still passing as white these generations since; many never knew their genetic history.

As Metta (2015) says, “In the context of a society founded and run on institutionalized dominance, the question of whether someone is ‘right’ (in color, sex, culture, gender, ability, etc.) is answered by the dominant demographic. That answer comes entirely from the relevance of the dominant demographic, from their desires.”

There wasn’t then, nor is there now, a foolproof way to determine someone’s ethnicity, which is why this whole race thing is so ridiculous. A fair-skinned Black woman could birth three children by the same man and one may look white, one mulatto, and one Black. One of the reasons many Blacks “passing for white” left the area of their birth could have been because everyone knew who their mama was. One sibling might pass and move north to live as white because of the freedoms that were provided, all the while dreading having their darker skinned siblings come visit and blow their cover.

I can remember sitting in some white (male) professional’s office trying to adopt another child, with this white man asking me what I was. And just as clearly, I remember being confused because in my head I was thinking, surely he can’t be asking if I’m Black because it’s obvious that I am. Being Black was all I’ve ever known. So I asked him if he could explain what he meant and he responded that it was clear that I wasn’t all one ethnicity so he wanted to know, I guess, what I was mixed with. Again, in my head, my thoughts are flying about (still confused) thinking, my mother’s Black, my father’s Black, what does he mean “mixed with?” He was not convinced that I wasn’t mixed with something, but it seemed even then that he wanted me to be mixed with something because I appeared successful, owned my own home, had a good job and money in the bank.

Another thing that no one else has discussed to any degree is coloring itself. When I lived in Milwaukee where the sun is sparse, I was fairer than I am now, long since baked by the California sun. Only when I take off my watch, or sit where you can see where the lighter skin separates from the darker skin on my thighs can you tell how the world saw me when I lived in a colder climate. Too, I can be back East a couple of weeks and come back noticeably more fair skinned. My husband, who is a tennis player (also not mixed) has the same issues and sometimes it looks like he has socks on when he removes his socks and shoes and you can see the dark tan areas in stark contrast to the lighter (usually covered) skin.

Back to my younger years, I can remember my mother on those rare occasions she had to go to my school for some reason, walking in, heels, stockings, hat, gloves (wearing one, holding the other), dressed to the teeth (as they used to say), and looking like Lena Horne. It wouldn’t take long for my peers to ask if she was a white lady. Many times in my younger years I was asked what my mother was. That was aggravating to me because she was always “Black” (Negro at the time) to me, so why would people ask that? I couldn’t decipher whether or not they were messing with my head. To clarify it all, on all census forms I could find, when my mother lived with her biological family, they were all listed as mulatto for decades. When she married and lived with a Black man, she became Black according to white people’s rules (Black by association?).

Another memory is of my mother’s father whom everyone called Papa. He lived in rural Mississippi and came to visit us when we lived in the projects in Milwaukee. It was literally the middle of the night when he woke me and I opened my eyes to this white man with pretty blue eyes staring back at me and wondering if we were being arrested; I was terrified. Insert the fact that my mother was on welfare and the social service workers made surprise visits to the homes and went through every cabinet and closet, even pulling back the blankets over sleeping children to make sure there was no man hiding there, which would allow them to cut off the welfare check. As slowly awoke I heard my mother laugh, and my grandmother (my mother’s step-mother) say something to him about scaring me to death. It was after this that I looked at my mother suspiciously wondering what she wasn’t telling us, because clearly to me, her father was white (he was biracial, but enough to easily pass—he didn’t, nor did his six (one, the eldest, was an “outside” baby) children).

Metta (2015) also says, “And in a white society, white people get to define when someone is Black based on how they want to see Black people at that moment in time.”

That brings to mind another incident, this one involving one of my husband and my (three) biracial children. Our daughter is African American-Filipino mixed and darker skinned. The twin boys are white-African American mixed and fair skinned (by Black standards), and one decided to play hooky from elementary school. What I remember is that he and his friends were captivated by a snake they found interesting on the way to school so they followed the snake into the canyon near the house. Well, the school called and said he had not reported to class and we panicked. We left our jobs, practically flew home and canvassed the neighborhood. After circling the block a couple of times by car, we parked and went on foot, stopping to talk with a white guy who was working on his lawn. We asked if he had seen a boy about so-high, curly hair, walking in the neighborhood. Without hesitating the neighbor said, “You mean that Black kid and the white kid?” It threw me for a minute because race was clearly distinguishable to that man, while I always thought they were passable. Well, we found them in the canyon and meted out the proper punishment. Not that our son knew about the conversation, but he and his brother, now adults, wear their hair cut so short it can fool some people. Metta (2015) also addresses the issue of how hair plays into the narrative.

All of my life I have seen and/or know (personally or of) people who feel so strongly about a different culture that they adopt it as their own without a clear conscious decision to do so. Rachel Dolezal, I think, fits into this. In the past, musicians have adopted the singing styles, and/or musical renditions, created by Blacks because the music speaks to them on some level. Young kids, particularly boys, hang out with the “cool kids,” who are Black boys and in doing so begin to adopt their clothing style, their way of talking, and their mannerisms; and sometimes even their dreadlocks. I’ve never heard other musicians or entertainers accuse them of misappropriating the Black culture. What makes this different? Even the (short-lived) comedy, Fresh Off The Boat, was a humorous reminder of cultural appropriation with an Asian kid identifying with being solely Black so much, everything he did was as his Black persona.

And, while whites have the liberty to be Black one day and slip back into their white world the next doesn’t bother me. Why should it bother you? Does it make you aware that anything you do is “taken by the white man?” There are no trade secrets being exploited, no spying to uncover. And if the people don’t grow out of it let them identify as they wish. I can see that there is, however, some harm done when a culture is appropriated and someone makes money from it without investing in the culture they took from.

I read the mixed responses to Black passable people from those who insist they identify with their Black ancestry and condemn them if they don’t, and those who identify but are condemned because they’re not Black enough. We can’t, as a people, tell them that denying their Black ancestry is wrong if we can’t say the reverse. If they are Black/white mixed why is no one crying out that they should not deny the white part of them? Why don’t Black people understand this genetic quandary? This leaves our kids screwed up.

We have many mixed race children in my families, but most are Black/white mixed. In junior high school my Black/Filipino mixed daughter wanted to hang with the Filipino kids AND with the Black ones. Both groups insisted that she chose (she chose Black because that’s what her sister was), but they wouldn’t allow her to fit into both (self-identify); a result was her becoming closed off to her biological mother’s Filipino heritage. So this one-drop rule seems to permeate cases where those whose one-drop is Black is concerned, must be applied as soon as our society deems it appropriate.

And what responsibility do the (mainly) white mothers of these children have in maintaining a cultural connection to both sides of their child’s world? She can’t just drop them off on a nearby playground and make them fend for themselves (you better learn the other half of your culture or don’t come home). If the kids are young and the (Black) father is no longer in the picture, but the mother accompanies them to Black (or other) cultural events, are the Black folks going to get on her case because she’s not Black (and shame on them if they do)?

The boy/girl of our twin mixed race son are both fair skinned with straighter (more European-type hair. My other Black/white mixed grandson (we have two of both gendered grandchildren who are mixed) has hair straighter than his (same mix of races) uncles who keep their hair close cropped, but if you touch it, you will know, while his sister is more identifiable as Black, including her hair (Blacks would call I good hair). I heard a (white) family friend describe this grandson’s hair as kinky and that threw me for a loop because there’s not a kink to be found. Thick, yes, kinky, no. And under that beautiful head of thick straight (with a slight curl on the end) hair are beautiful bright blue eyes, and dimples. At this juncture he very much identifies with his father, who is Black. So far the support he receives from his father makes him a strong advocate for posturing as a strong man and saying, “I am a strong Black man,” and we all fall out with laughter.

There is little hope that the children of the twin sons who are biracial and married to white women will help their children identify with being Black, or Black culture, although they do not deny their father. They live in a world surrounded by white culture that is controlled by their white environment and their experience and connection with the Black culture is so sparse as to be almost negligible. Even if these two grandchildren get older and want to claim their Black heritage, I’ll bet the “cool Black kids” (and their parents) will be all over that because they won’t be Black enough, and they won’t know enough to fit in. In some ways that’s sad, but they are hardly unique in that.

It is obvious that however an adult identifies with his or her mixed race self, it is going to reflect on how their children identify and there are all sorts of outcomes for these instances, none are the same, but could probably be categorized by someone willing to do a study. Since society won’t allow them to claim both cultures (well, census finally does) and they must identify with one ethnic group or the other, shouldn’t that child have a choice? If you didn’t grow up in the Black culture how can you identify with it just because you have Black genes, or vice versa?

And in the reverse, if you’re of Italian heritage, for example, and grow up surrounded by Black culture all your life, so much so that you can’t even separate yourself from it, why can’t you choose your fit based on your known culture? After all, I’ve seen Black artists become ex-pats in France and come to identify totally with being French. When they come back to the states they no longer fit into that tiny neighborhood mentality where life is clearly black and white. Who do they become then?

But for our blue-eyed elementary-aged grandson whose father is Black and mother white, he identifies with both and because he has Black relatives in and out of his life on a more regular basis, I wonder if his view of what that means will change as he gets older? Will the world still be so evil that he has to make decisions about which he chooses to be when he gets older? Does he have to choose when he gets older? Will the cool guys at his school be white or Black, and will they accept him as he is by not considering him not white enough or not Black enough? We have to work to make this a less stressful future for the ever-growing groups of mixed race children.