I have a cousin. She’s about five foot six, has curly black hair, skin that’s about the color of café au lait in the summer, and a little lighter in the winter, green eyes. When she was a child, the black girls in school used to beat her up for refusing to “admit” she was biracial, or “mulatto” as they called it at the time. Her father had died when she was young and I never met him. He said he was Italian and Native American. Some people thought he was black, but he was never confronted on it. Adding to this, my cousin once confessed to me, after a few drinks, that her father was racist, couldn’t stand black people and had taught her to be racist, too. It wasn’t until she was an adult and she had a job where she became friendly with some black coworkers that she realized her father had been wrong.
One of my closest friends has two white parents. His father’s family is of English descent and his mother is Jewish. They had three biological children and two adopted children, one girl and one boy. The two adopted children were both “black.” The girl had dark skin and the boy was very light-skinned. One day, my friend, one of the biological children, said to me, “I think my brother has identity issues. He seems to think he’s white.”
The grandmother of another close friend of mine came from a Jewish family from Vienna. One day, she took out all the old family photos, including some from nineteenth century Vienna. According to my friend, looking at the photos, her mother said, “Ima, your grandmother was a schwartze.” I remember this quote because of the weird mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and English. She told me that they looked at this old picture of a woman in nineteenth century European dress, with dark skin and kinky hair and wondered where she came from. Since Jewish identity is considered to be matrilineal, this was an important question to them. After tossing around some possibilities, the finally came to the conclusion that she must have been from North Africa, although the possibility that she was from Ethiopia was also considered.
In the book Detroit: An American Autopsy, the author, Charlie LeDuff, traces his family’s migration to the city of Detroit from New Orleans. He had no reason from his appearance to think he was anything but white, yet it turns out that his grandfather was biracial, mulatto or black, depending on your definitions. LeDuff describes himself, with humor, as “the palest black man in Michigan,” but he’s probably wrong. If you subscribe to the “one drop rule”, there’s probably a blond-haired, blue-eyed person out there who is “black.”
In recent years, the “one drop rule” has been popularized by people like U.S. President Barack Obama and American actress Halle Berry. In Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, he writes very condescendingly of a woman he met in college who insisted that she was biracial and did not want to identify as solely black or white. Obama considers her to be confused, which irritated me because I have been close to several people who also felt that way and did not seem to be to be confused. In fact, since the woman he describes grew up in an intact family, with both parents, I would venture to say that, if anyone is less emotionally conflicted, it is she.
In fact, if Rachel Dolezal was able to pass as black without any postcolumbian African ancestry, it was probably due to this belief in “the one drop rule.” The one drop rule has an almost mythical status. It says that a person with even a drop of sub-Saharan African ancestry is to be considered “black.” Despite popular mythology, there was no law of this type until twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, interest in eugenics led to laws about racial mixing.
I have a book called, Strategies for Survival. It is about groups of people sometimes called “tri-racial isolates” by anthropologists. This is a subject that’s on my list of things I want to write about, but for now I’ll try to limit myself to the portion that applies to the subject at hand. The book covers several mixed race communities which identify as Native American. There are many others. One branch of my own biological family traces to a Powhatan group, making it highly possible, although not at all certain, that I myself might qualify as black according to someone who believes the one drop rule, which I don’t. These highly racially mixed tribes each have their own history and different average percentages of European, African and North American ancestry. The Powhatan tribes were heavily affected by Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (essentially all other, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the “one-drop rule”, defining as “colored” persons with any African or Native American ancestry. It also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage (anti-miscegenation law) by criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons.
Strategies for Survival noted that the U.S. never had records that were up to the task. Many racially mixed people became “white” in the wake of this law. Indeed, earlier attempts to define race by law had been rejected due to the difficulty of classification.
In 1895 in South Carolina during discussion, George D. Tillman said,
It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood…It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. The doors would be open to scandal, malice, and greed.
A well-known short story by Kate Chopin, “Désirée’s Baby” utilizes the fact that many people are unfamiliar with their own ancestry as a plot point. After the birth of a child with African features, a wealthy French Creole planter rejects his wife who was adopted as a child and had unknown origins. What he does not know is that his “French” mother who died when he was a child had African ancestry. Somehow, I imagine the husband in that story, Armand, looking not unlike Charlie LeDuff.
At the moment everyone seems shocked that Donezal was able to pass as black, but there is really nothing odd about it at all. Studies have shown that context contributes greatly to people’s perception of race. This is not the study I originally had in mind, but searching a came across a study that found
stereotypes interact with physical cues to shape person categorization, and suggest that social and contextual factors guide the perception of race.
Further evidence about how ambiguous race can be can be seen by looking at 10 Black Celebs Who Can Pass for White. In this context it is interesting to note the inclusion of Melissa Gorga, who says she is of entirely Italian descent. Apparently, some people don’t believe it.
There are quite a few odd parts of Dolezal’s story, but the question Katie Zavadski and Lizzie Crocker ask in the Daily Beast, “How did she trick so many people?”, betrays a tremendous ignorance about how we categorize and perceive race.