One Drop, but Many Views on Race

One Drop, but Many Views on Race

The New York Times

Maurice Berger, Research Professor and Chief Curator
Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

In the 2010 census — when respondents could check more than one racial group — President Obama, the son of a black African father and a white mother, checked a single box: “Black, African-American or Negro.” Mr. Obama himself was unequivocal about it: “I self-identify as African-American — that’s how I am treated and that’s how I am viewed. And I’m proud of it.”

Yet the president’s words are nuanced: While he opts to classify himself as black, he implies that his racial identity is also contingent on how he is seen and treated by others in a nation prone to racial absolutes, no matter how he sees himself.

Those observations are among the provocative arguments presented by Yaba Blay in “(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race” (BLACKprint Press), which examine what it means to be black. In it, she demonstrates how racial identity is not just biological or genetic but also a matter of context and even personal choice. It is revealing that the president’s definitive answer came after years of being dogged by outside doubters who questioned not just his race, but also his very nationality.

“(1)ne Drop” explores the intricate and fraught issue of race through the observations of 60 contributors from 25 countries who self-identify, at least partly, as black, even if they are not always seen as such because of light skin, facial features or interracial ancestry. Their words are accompanied by portraits by Noelle Théard and a team of photographers directed by her. The book challenges narrow conceptions about blackness, both as an identity and as an experience, and the stereotypes and rigid boundaries of color that continue to divide us…

…The books subject’s recount how their efforts to define themselves clashed with society’s imperative to assign neat racial categories in order to “make something that is fluid and uncertain more certain,” as a contributor, Deborah Thomas, noted. Some described the bewilderment and prying questions of acquaintances, co-workers and strangers attempting to discern their race. Others pointed to the social stigma of having complexions that are frustratingly — or insultingly — viewed as too dark or too light…

Read the entire review here.

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