Friday, February 25, 2011

Racial Identity: What Does It Mean To Be Biracial?

Writer Clay Cane at the e-zine The Root just wrote an article entitled “Halle Berry and the Resurgence of the Tragic Mulatto,” which, as a mulatto myself (tragic or otherwise), I was naturally interested in.

The subhead to Cane’s piece claims: “The furor caused by Berry’s assertion that her daughter is black reminds us how confused Americans remain about race.” I have to say I found Cane’s article itself confusing, since it’s based on comments the actress made in the March 2011 edition of Ebony Magazine, including: “I feel like she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.”

Berry had her now-three-year-old-daughter, Nahla Ariela Aubry (pictured above), by her former boyfriend, Canadian male model Gabriel Aubry, a white man. According to show biz buzz, Aubry, who is currently suing Berry for joint custody of their daughter, has gone ballistic when his daughter is referred to as black, and he also is supposed to have called Halle a nigger at some time or another, none of which speaks well for him if it’s true.

Cane is technically biracial, but he dislikes both the term and what it stands for and emphasizes that he identifies as black. He cites other biracial people in the public eye, including “Barack Obama, Faith Evans, Jasmine Guy and even the late, great Bob Marley,” who also identify as black. He has less than kind words for the likes of Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey, who prefer to identify as persons of mixed race.

Cane believes, as many people of color do, that those who identify as biracial are basically race traitors, trying to disassociate ourselves from black folks and the inherent discrimination they experience. He also seems to think that there’s a whole new population of such racially mixed and confused people, that we’re all the rage (like hula-hoops…), and this isn’t a good thing.

I’ve been looking for a biracial community for years and have yet to find it. But never mind. The plain fact is, racism is based on color. If you look non-white, that’s how you’re treated and generally that’s with at least some measure of prejudice. If you look white – whether you are or not – that’s how you’re treated and whether you seek it or not, you benefit from white privilege to one extent or another. This creates a special blend of problems for biracial people.

As you can see from my photo (right, sidebar), I’m very white-looking. So, apparently, is Baby Nahla. I was raised by my white mother and black father to think of myself as black – actually: Colored, Negro, Black and Afro-American, in that order, over the years. Based on what I saw when I looked in the mirror, I found this very confusing. I had no problem with “never be ashamed of what you are,” but I instinctively felt that what I was was a racially mixed person. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for with that idea. When I first discovered the word mulatto, my parents told me not to use it, because it was a negative term; indeed, Cane describes it as “deeply offensive.” Can you imagine what it was like to be told that the word that describes exactly what I am is a slur? This didn’t do much for my self-esteem, whatever I was, whatever I looked like.

Over time, experience has taught me that white people will assume I’m white and will, to greater or lesser degrees, be somewhat discomfited when I tell them I’m not. When I was a kid, black people seemed to know I wasn’t white, but they didn’t give me any points for trying to identify as one of them. Over the past 30 years or so, blacks give me a cursory glance and assume I’m white. I know that says something about race perception and how it’s evolved (or devolved) over time, but I’m not sure what it says.

What I do know is that identifying as a person of mixed race – which is what you are when your parents are of different races – is a legitimate identification and I don’t care whether black people like it or understand it or not. Berry says she believes in the “one drop theory,” which is not a theory but a racist construct created by slave owners to increase their herds without importing new stock. It became law in Dixie that you were black if you had “even one little drop of Nigra blood,” and a whole vocabulary grew up around that, racially categorizing people based on the race of one’s parents, grandparents, great-grandparents – etc. (The Nazis did the same kind of categorization of Jews, which should give blacks and whites alike something to think about.) Blacks bought into this notion as well as whites.

Today, there are many light-skinned blacks who have two black parents (maybe light, maybe dark) but who undeniably have white blood somewhere in their background. Conversely, there are more white folks out there than you would think who have black blood in their background and don’t even know it. The fact that we are a very racially-mixed but none the less racist society is just an ironic joke we all live with.

The reason that identifying as mixed race or biracial is important is that, for those of us who do, it contributes to our sanity. Identifying this way is also (ironically) primarily the white-looking privilege of white-looking biracial people; as I said, if you look even remotely non-white, you get the color tag whether you want it or not. But another reason it’s important for society to recognize and accept the biracial category is that slowly, over time, our mere existence can help break down all racial categorization and hopefully lead to a color blind culture. In the here and now, biracial people uniquely have the experience of intimate connection with people of different races and it…colors…the way we see others and the world.

I’ve said before on this blog that while Barack Obama is considered America’s first black President, it’s important to understand that, regardless of his self-identification, he is biracial and that broad experience with people on both sides of the racial divide is often the reason he thinks the way he does and does the things he does. His unwavering determination to find common ground with Republicans is an example of this. Being biracial means being, by definition, a conciliator (no matter how futile that effort may be).

Anyway, Cane is right when he says Americans are confused about race: confused, fearful, and full of strange ideas about the “other.” For myself, I can only say that identifying as biracial has not solved my racial identity problems, but I’ve made my peace with the idea that I will probably never stop feeling conflicted in some way or another. So it goes. In the final analysis, I feel like my mother, who was fond of saying: “I can’t wait until everyone is equal so I can hate whoever I want to with impunity.” Amen.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I too am biracial, and didn't appreciate Cane's article attacking the word "biracial".

LaDonna said...

I think such categorizing is important because it makes OTHERS comfortable, with no thought to the comfort level of biracial person. In a society where you have to be on a side -- and I know many will say that you don't, but in my life experience that's not true -- sizing up your racial category let's people at least FEEL whether you are on their team or not. In the African American community it is further complicated because there is so much discord within our own "team" (ie light skinned vs. dark skinned, "good" hair vs. "bappy" hair). For example, I have two Black parents, the first thing I did was look at your picture, check out your skin color and hair. I did this without thinking. I think I was sizing up your "blackness". Why is it important? I honestly don't know. But my closest friend is Black and Thai. When I met her I did the same thing, and looking back, I think her identifying as a Black woman determined how open I was to her friendship. I don't consider myself racist, but I guess we all have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article, it should be read by everyone. I am a light skinned woman, whose parents are both black; my mother is very light, and my fahter is dark. I live in Miami, Florida where there is a huge Latin population. I am often mistaken for being Latin by both blacks and whites; a black man once called me a "Zebra" and said that he didn't trust me. I've been told by many white folks that "you're not that black", and once a dark skinned woman said to me, "I hate you red bitches". My daughter has also been verbally and physically attacked by kids who say, "she's not black enough" the end of the day, I agree with your mother.

Sharifa said...

Thanks for writing this! My mother is first generation biracial. My father was second generation biracial.My eldest daughter's father is white, and my youngest father is first generation biracial were I am third generation biracial. My entire family speak spanish and english, and my husbands family speak indonesian and english. I was offended when I read the article you referenced dealing with race. I am not trying to not be black, I am simply embracing who I am fully. My family members were born in Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Cuba, and Indonesia. Minus the later (indonesia), all have become mixed at one point in history.

Ashley Love said...

I appreciate this article so much. I found Canes article highly offensive.

I'm a woman of multi-racial heritage & get upset when some black people attack bi-racial & multi-racial people for using those self-identifiers. I understand in some contexts when some mixed-race folks say "I'm black", I do it at times as well. However, there is a difference between race, culture, social economics, nationality, political & social expression (some people don’t understand that). Let multi-racial people say their reality, even if it makes you uncomfortable because they don’t fit in a box!

In the end, multi/bi-racial folks will be the majority, and they will lead us to a place where the these silly race wars and race discrimination will cease to exist.

I’m not talking about "identity", I’m talking about actual race. If someone has two parents of different race, that makes them........biracial.

The 'reality' is: the color green is the color green.

Green is made from BOTH the primary colors yellow and blue. Maybe green may "feel" more like blue, or more like yellow. And their feelings are valid. But the reality remains, green is still green :)

I am ALL of me, not just what people see, or what they feel comfortable with me identifying as.

Ashley Love

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and it looks like in this particular photo the trace of her black features have been airburshed away.