My daughter-in-law is bi-racial. Her father was black and her mother was white. Her skin is a very light brown, making it possible to think her Latino, Asian or even Middle Eastern.  This racial ambiguity often makes white people uncomfortable.  Uncertain of how to identify her, complete strangers often ask, “What are you?” While she finds this offensive, she usually responds with, “I am a human being just like you.”

Of course, some people – either lacking certain social graces or harboring deeper prejudices – don’t get this not-so-subtle suggestion that their question is racist. They persist in their attempt to categorize her. They say, “You know what I mean.  What race are you?” To which my daughter-in-law answers proudly, “I’m half black and half white.” Sadly, many of her questioners seem only concerned about whether any part of her is black.

The lineage of another person shouldn’t be our concern.  That we are all human beings should be enough to engender respect and kindness.  If someone was really curious about my daughter-in-law’s family history, they could ask far less offensive questions.  Asking “what are you?” – with its objectifying language – is obviously focused on determining status rather than empathy and understanding.  They are asking if my daughter-in-law is due their deference or disdain. For some, any blackness is justification for disdain.

While I think such questions offensive and racist, they are far too common. All of us are repeatedly asked to identify what we are.  Indeed, our government is one of the worst culprits, demanding this information on a variety of forms.  We are offered a list of boxes with different racial and ethnic designations and asked to fit our often complicated histories into these prescribed boxes.  My daughter-in-law prefers to identify as bi-racial, but is often asked to identify as either black or white.

Sadly, while my daughter-in-law has both a black and white parent, she does not necessarily have the right to identify as white. The predominantly white culture demands those without a “pure” lineage identify with the “less pure” lineage.  People with a black ancestor are black. Though we’re given the impression we can self-identify, historically the government has carefully delineated who fits in what box.  Those who deviate have often found themselves in court or jail.

Fifty years ago, it was against the law for my son and my daughter-in-law to marry. To enforce these laws, the government established who was white and who was not.  In Virginia, 1/16th black was black.  In Florida, I/8th black was black.  In Alabama, any black ancestors made you black, regardless of how you physically appeared.  Thirty years ago, many southern states still had laws that determined how to categorize people.  These “one drop” laws were designed to defend the purity of the races, specifically the white race.

While most of these laws were repealed or found unconstitutional, the courts are still asked to rule on racial identification. When there are disagreements about “what we are,” the courts are asked to judge.  The census includes an admonition against fraud, implying that self-identification is potentially criminal if the government decides you are not who you say you are.  Indeed, for the 2020 census, the government has added a new category – Middle East/North Africa.  Many people who previously identified as white are being asked to identify themselves differently.  They are no longer white.

As complicated as racial identification has been for my daughter-in-law, it could be even more complicated for her children – my grandsons. What are they?  By appearance, they both look very white.  Yet by the old formulas, they are 1/4th black.  What box should they mark?  Should they mark the one that honors their father or the one that respects their mother?  Why should they even have to choose?  And, if they choose to apply to college as a black person, could the courts accuse them of fraud?

Such questions expose race as the cultural and political construct it has always been. Race is used to divide and categorize us.  For some, it means inclusion and all of its benefits.  For others, it creates obstacles and disadvantages.  In America, it has always been a construct designed with one primary goal – to guard white identity and power.  Within this American racial construct, identifying as white is a protected privilege.

The problem in America is not with how people of color identify themselves. The problem is that so many of us – whose genealogies are probably far more diverse that we know or acknowledge – continue to proudly wear the white label.  As long as I identify as white, I give tacit approval to the cultural and political construct that does so much damage to people of other colors.  Racism will not end with laws or constitutional amendments.  It will only end when white people abandon and deconstruct the idea of whiteness as preferable and normative.

I will not pretend this deconstruction is an easy task. White privilege was embedded in the very foundation of our nation.  Our cultural institutions were built on this foundation.  Cosmetic changes to a few laws do little damage to its underpinnings. However, I am certain who holds the responsibility for deconstruction.  It is the ancestors of those who built this ugly system.  It is white people like me.  In the months ahead, I will be wrestling with the many ways I and other white people can speed the deconstruction.

For example, how should I identify in the 2020 census? To identify as white feels like flashing my membership card to an exclusive club. Yet I also understand that demographic information has provided evidence of inequities and support to those who challenge them.  Even with this statistical evidence of great inequities, many white people resist change.  Without this demographic information, how can the courts be swayed and people shamed?

But I also realize demographics are a two edged sword. The census data of the 1930s was used to identify the Japanese who were placed in internment camps.  How will the label North Africa/Middle Eastern be used against Muslim people?  The boxes we mark give power and legitimacy to what I hate, the idea that people can be divided and valued by the color of their skin.  As much I wish, we are not at a place and time where my daughter-in-law’s response that “she is a human being just like you” is enough.

Until that day, I will use my membership card to gain entry to the club, examine all of its many security measures, exploit their weaknesses and plot its destruction. My goal is not that my white looking grandsons are assured admission. This would be no victory.  I want to tear down the building, brick by brick and stone by stone.  I want to destroy this American apartheid, to see a day when marking the box “white” has no more value than any other box.

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3 thoughts on “What Are You?

  1. Jim, you seem to consistently want to downplay the role of racism in what is happening in our country. I understand this tendency since I made it often ten years ago. I’m glad you continue to engage with my writings even though they obviously make you uncomfortable. Let me suggest that you may be living in the same bubble I once lived in. The experience of people of color in our country is vastly different than what you see or think.

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  2. A book I recommend to anyone interested in the subject of race in the U.S. is Joe Feagin’s The White Racial Frame (New York: Routledge, 2010). His research leaves no doubt that racism remains deeply embedded in the structures of today’s American society.

    Two undeniable facts that trouble me today are these: One political party in this country continues to use its power to disenfranchise non-white citizens, and the same party has increased its power at the national level by pandering to all forms of bigotry (racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia).

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