Of Susie Guillory Phipps and Chief Redbone: The Mutability of Race

Of Susie Guillory Phipps and Chief Redbone: The Mutability of Race

Newhouse News Service

Jonathan Tilove

Black is black and white is white, but what about Susie Guillory Phipps?

Phipps looks white. She always thought she was white. So did her first and second husbands. Until, at the age of 43, she discovered she was 3/32nds black and therefore legally black according to the state of Louisiana.

And what about the Ramapough Mountain People of New Jersey? They have long been described as a predominantly black people of mixed race. But they consider themselves Indians and are asking the federal government for official recognition as a tribe, status that could entitle them to a casino gambling franchise 30 miles from Manhattan.

When it comes to race and ethnicity in America, it can all get very complicated depending on who is defining whom, and why. People are not always what they appear to be. People are sometimes not what they want to be. In reality, race is as much a matter of politics as biology; ethnicity as much an expression of fashion as fate. It can be transient, changing from time to time and place to place.

Sylvia Yu Gonzalez, 22, is a Mexican-Korean-American. She spent her early years in the barrio in Phoenix but when she was 12 moved to San Diego where she attended mostly white schools. On the advice of a guidance counselor, she identified herself on school forms as Mexican-American for future affirmative action purposes. But by the time she headed off to Berkeley for college, “I pretty much perceived myself as white.”.

Berkeley, the citadel of multiculturalism, was less forgiving. Gonzalez found that in their lust for diversity, people insisted she identify herself racially, and that white obviously wouldn’t wash. “It was really painful to me.”

Gonzalez says she turned against her white friends but didn’t want to choose between being Mexican or Korean, reluctant to give up either. Instead she chose the company of blacks and American Indians. But a couple of years ago she found out about the Multicultural Interracial Student Coalition at Berkeley, an organization of mixed-race students of all descriptions. She had finally found a place “where I could bring all of myself.” She now identifies herself as multiracial…

…It is with blacks that any fluid notions of race and ethnicity run splat into a wall. It is the iron law of American race relations– the so-called one-drop rule. Anyone with any known African black ancestry (therefore theoretically having at least one drop of African black blood) is black.

Period. And the rule has an implicit corollary, according to sociologist F. James Davis: “It’s better to be anything than black.”

Davis, the author of Who Is Black?, says the one-drop rule is the effective standard, whether by statute or case law, in every state of the union except Hawaii, where being mixed-race is the rule rather than the exception.

But this stark line between black and white cannot undo some rather basic genetic facts of life. Physical anthropologists have estimated that about a quarter of the genes of American blacks come from white ancestors and up to 5 percent of the genes of the white population are from African ancestors…

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