When I first auditioned her she was so awesome she blew me away. She had so much soul — the only thing white about her was her skin.” (Motown founder Berry Gordy reacts to the untimely death of singer Teena Marie in 2010)
On 7 June 1892, Homer Plessy, a man legally classified as black, boarded a “whites only” railroad car with the express intent of getting arrested for this transgression. The purpose of the exercise was to set a test case that would furnish the opportunity to challenge on appeal the underlying segregation law and have it invalidated by a Supreme Court.
Everything went according to plan, except that, alas, both the Supreme Court of Louisiana as well as the U.S. Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) proceeded to affirm rather than repeal the doctrine of “separate but equal” (a doctrine to be overturned, at long last, some 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education).
As a curious side note, when Mr Plessy initially settled into the whites-only car, no one complained. Only after he had self-identified himself to the conductor as a black man did events unfold such that they resulted in his (desired) arrest.
That’s because Homer Pessy, an “octoroon”—a person one-eighth black, i.e., having one biracial grandparent—looked white. Thus, when mingling with whites, his physical appearance failed to distinguish him from his surroundings.
Arithmetically speaking, the notion that a minority-blood content of 50% or less—all the way down to one-eighth or as little as a single “drop,” as expressed in the even more obnoxious “one-drop rule” for assigning minority status—rendered an individual a full-fledged member of that minority, makes no sense whatsoever.
For, by that logic, why wouldn’t a like percentage of whiteness suffice to make a person a full-fledged Caucasian? How come it only works the other way around?
Why, instead of as the first black president, don’t we regard Barack Obama as the 44th white president (or 43rd, if we count Grover Cleveland as only one president for having been only one person), or, at the very least, alternate in referring to Mr Obama as either black or white, given his 50-50 lineage?
Even better, why not call him the first blite or whack president?
It would seem logical, to the degree to which an individual’s racial lineage is ascertainable, to pronounce that individual a primary member of whatever race he or she boasts by a factor of 51% or more, and in cases of an even 50-50 split, view them as both rather than one more than the other, let alone one to the de-facto exclusion of the other.
The reasons for our lopsided methodology in assigning race are, of course, rooted in history. A few centuries ago in, say, colonial Georgia, Barack Obama would have been slaving away on a cotton plantation along with the 100% blacks and the 10% blacks. Not half-time, in proportion to his black blood content, but full-time.
(I’m using “blood” as a metaphor for DNA markers indicative of how far back in time a person’s last African ancestor’s departure from Africa must have occurred—for the question is not whether all of us are of African descent but how long ago our various forebears departed the black continent, and based on that information we can then calculate the percentage of our physical blackness.)
So along comes this cap-à-pie Caucasian lady by name of Rachel Dolezal (pictured above), acquires a John-Boehner-style tan, frizzes up her tresses, introduces herself to everyone as a black woman (and perhaps sincerely identifies as such), claims to have been racially discriminated against on multiple occasions on account of being black (after suing Howard University for admission discrimination on account of being white), assumes the presidency of a local NAACP chapter—and apparently no one, including the more obviously black members of that organization, notices, let alone bats an eyelash, until her all-white parents blow the whistle on lil’ Rachel’s black snow job.
Given that physical appearance seems to be this poor an indicator of race, what exactly does it mean to say “I’m white” or “I’m black” or “I’m Asian”?
Is our color primarily—or entirely—a function of personal identification with a certain culture, of having a “black soul” or a “white soul,” such that one may legitimately transition from one to another by assuming a few hallmark physical characteristics of one’s “true” race (as has become so eminently laudable in the gender arena), as opposed to an inherent set-in-DNA trait that can be measured objectively?
Imagine a person’s parents were unknown, her physical features inconclusive, and she asked you whether she was black or white—how would you answer that?
Would you tell her she was whatever she felt she was? Would you send her to the lab? Or would you hand her a guitar and instruct her to play you the blues? (On this latter test, Eric Clapton would surely score blacker than black.)
In general, race is associated with biology, and ethnicity with culture. So if you’re biologically one color but culturally another, then what color are you? Does race trump ethnicity, or does ethnicity trump race?
According to an article in the Washington Post by one Osamudia James, the essence of being black derives from “exposure to a racially hostile world, or the mental work of cultivating dignity, fortitude and hope in the face of that hostility.”
As per this definition, any congenitally non-black person prolongedly mistaken, for whatever reason, for a black person by his white-privileged environs will sooner or later turn black as a result of suffering such hostility.
Max Frisch’s play Andorra comes to mind, in which a non-Jewish boy named Andri identifies as being Jewish because he’s never told he’s not Jewish. (Eventually, he is murdered for being Jewish.)
Yet, the notion that life experience, a sense of personal identity, and the internalization of a given culture are necessary ingredients for determining whether someone is white or black raises the hypothetical conundrum as to whether a person that grew up alone on a deserted island can be said to have a color at all. How could Tarzan have been “white,” given that he was raised by apes in the African jungle? Would Morgan Freeman be “black” if he had spent his entire life on a distant habitable planet all by his lonesome?
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?
Psychological factors aside, one peculiarity about human blackness that sets it apart from being white, Asian, Inuit, or Middle Eastern, is that the human race originated in East Africa. Therefore, if we set low enough the arbitrary minimum black DNA content that renders a person officially black by birth—as opposed to the kind of ethnic rather than racial blackness that results from discrimination trauma in conjunction with the adoption of black culture—everybody is black in a way that not everybody is white or Asian.
In other words, how can a person not be genetically black at all, not even a teeny-weeny bit? It seems impossible. You can have zero Asian DNA, or zero Native American, or zero Caucasian, but unless you’re the only person that has ever lived whose lineage fails to trace back to Africa, you cannot have zero African (=black) DNA in your system.
In fact, since human DNA emerged in Africa, and scientists tell us that to this day all humans share 99-and-then-some-% of that original DNA in common, the argument can be made that all people are 99-plus-% black, whether they like it or not, and that certainly includes Rachel Dolezal.
Returning to planet Earth and the more conventional criteria for racial taxonomy—although, in light of the fact that a white woman can this easily pass for black and the blacks that hang with her fail to detect anything unblack about her, I’m still a bit hazy as to what those might be exactly—in a piece titled LOL-Who’d Sign Up To Be Black?, talk-show host and commentator Tavis Smiley poses this question:
When God was passing out colors, who raised their hand for a life a social disenfranchisement, political marginalization, economic exploitation and cultural larceny?
Writes Fredrik Deboer in an L.A. Times op-ed in seeming response to Mr Smiley:
Human behaviors are the product of incentives. We repeat behaviors that are rewarded. And clearly, Dolezal believed she would find rewards in representing herself as a black woman.
Whatever their motivation, some people feel more comfortable living their lives as members of an ethnicity they weren’t, strictly speaking, born into in terms of their race. A white person may want to belong to a specific minority, for instance, because a more pronounced sense of community and group cohesion tends to obtain within groups with a history of discrimination. (In fact, the one aspect about the end of segregation that Sammy Davis Jr openly lamented was the palpable erosion of black community spirit that resulted from increased social intercourse with whites.)
The main criticism leveled at Ms Dolezal appears to be that she lied about her race. She did, alright—but what if she hadn’t?
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she, or some other unhappy-with-her-biological-race individual, had been perfectly upfront from the getgo about the disparity between her apparent race/ethnicity, i.e., the one determined by her personal pedigree, and her true race/ethnicity, i.e., the one she “knew” she was in her heart of hearts.
Surely, if nature can make a mistake and create a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa), it stands to reason that, likewise, nature can inadvertently create a black person trapped in a white body (or vice versa). Why should only the former error, but not the latter, be liable to cause body dysmorphia and a veritable identity crisis in sensitive individuals?
Yet any such suggestion is immediately met with a flurry of indignant explanations of how race/ethnicity is a phenomenon entirely unlike sex/gender, wherefore one cannot transition from white to black in the same or similar way that one can transition from male to female.
Which strikes me as odd, for when it comes to gay marriage, the case of Loving v. Virginia is routinely run up the flagpole in order to make the point that being born black (or white) is, in essence, exactly the same as being born gay (or straight)—by that reasoning, why should having been born black or white be something fundamentally different from having been born male or female?
If anything, the biological differences between the sexes seem eminently more profound than those between the races, expanding beyond mere cosmetics into the realm physical functionality.
So why might race and sexual orientation be immutable in a way that sex is not?
They say you can’t simply adopt the “cool” parts of being black without signing up to its drawbacks as well, such as a “life of social disenfranchisement” and “economic exploitation.”
Fair enough, but then you also can’t simply adopt the perks of being female without signing up to making those storied 77 cents on the dollar from there on out.