I Found One Drop: Can I Be Black Now?

I Found One Drop: Can I Be Black Now?

The Root

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Race Manners: Time for a racial gut check. Has your African-American ancestor really changed anything?

“I recently availed myself of my university’s online resources and did some genealogical digging about my white conservative family. It turns out that one of our ancestors was an African-American slave who passed as white. His is an incredibly powerful story about a dark chapter in our nation’s history, and I believe that it is important that his suffering be remembered. I thought that my family would also be excited about this new information, but instead the responses ranged from rejection to contempt.

“Despite that, I’ve embraced this revelation and started to study African-American history. I’m proud to be part black and want to learn as much as I can about this part of me, but here’s my quandary: Do I check on forms that I am both Caucasian and African American? I technically qualify, according to the Office of Management and Budget definition, which states that ‘ “Black or African American” refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa,’ but I don’t look black and didn’t grow up in African-American culture.

“Do I check both, and come across as a liar to those who don’t know my history? Or do I check just white, and feel like a self-loathing racist (just like my family)?”—Suddenly African American

First, I congratulate you on developing a perspective different from that of your relatives, who sound horrible. If everyone thought as seriously as you do about his or her public and private statements about race, we’d all be better off.

Second, breathe. No, seriously. Calm down and set the forms aside for now. There are options other than “liar” and “self-loathing racist.” You don’t have to be either…

…Race Is Messy. This Is Up to You

On that note, I can’t give you a rule about whether you should check the “black” box. I know! That’s the whole reason you wrote. Sorry to disappoint.

But here’s why. As David J. Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University at Pullam, put it, your question “points to a belief that race is real, rather than a social construction.” And that’s just not the case. (See this explanation, which probably should be a permanent Race Manners footnote. In short: Race is not based on biology but rather on ever-changing, lumped-together groups created pretty messily by humans.)

So, even your super-official government definition (to say nothing of the old “one-drop rule” that preceded it) leaves some wiggle room about what’s really meant by “black.”

I asked Ulli K. Ryder, scholar-in-residence at Brown University, who studies identity formation and communication, about your query, and she said, “The most important thing is for her to do what feels right for her.”

So, good news: You can do what you want. Bad news: You can only control your perception of yourself, not how others perceive you.

Read the entire article here.

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