I just sent out my first full blast out about this blog and one of the first dialogues got me to question of why people like me and Barack Obama “only considered and referred to as black” when we’re just as much white. Well, of course, that’s not going to be answered in a quick e-mail or blog entry. But a simple answer is: it’s the power structure. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but a lot of it has to do with the color dynamic I wrote about in the ¡SÃ, Se Puede! entry a couple weeks ago. And it starts with the historic “one drop rule.” In the quick reply to my friend I came up with this: People are defined by others by what sets them apart, what makes them different from what’s considered the norm. People self-define by their source of power. The history of “passing” is about people claiming “white” because that gave the sense of power to elevate above the restrictions of segregation and prejudice. The converse of that is the idea of strength can also come from the triumph over adversity. Outside of racial identification you have people describing themselves as “survivors” over cancer or “(recovering) alcoholics” when they give up their addiction. So perhaps racial self-identification is predicated by the same factors. For light skinned Blacks there is a complicated layer because light skin, “good hair,” etc. often affords more privilege. So to remain engaged with the plight of the struggle for all to be afforded equal rights and opportunities, many decide to identify as Black. (Since I started writing this entry an interesting discussion was posted on the New York Times called Go Back to Black which examines the inclusionary history of the US African American community, but also the exclusion of that term and idea when it comes to Blacks from non American-slave descendants. Another interesting post on the subject comes from my friend Meri Danquah.)
So my preferred identification has always been bi-racial (after I took the term Mulatto to be derived from the Spanish/Portuguese word for “small mule” though some disagree with that etymology), because it acknowledged both the privilege and struggle that has come from either definition in either community. I want to be reminded of how individuals throughout the power spectrum perceive me and by not choosing an exclusionary term, and claiming the white and black, I acknowledge that I’m aware of the perceptions of power and welcome discussion that calls into question my participation in an oppressive system. Sometimes I’m oppressed, sometimes I’m perceived as the oppressor. Sometimes I oppress and sometimes I think that I’m being oppressed by an individual when it’s largely an unconscious act as a result of ideas formed under a White Male Patriarchy.
So where does all this lead us? It’s interesting that Barack Obama would identify as black, aligning himself with achievement against oppression, rather than more strongly identifying with the source of privilege in his life. I’ve read a few posts online saying that he’s not doing himself any favor by not strongly claiming the race of the blood family that raised him, but the reality of it all is that even people like my friend who wrote to me initially recognizes that people like me and Barack Obama are considered black before we’re even asked to identify ourselves.
I’ve often said the great privilege of being biracial is that people from various communities view you as included rather than other, then the biracial person has the opportunity to shed light on how one of the “included” can be treated when perceived as other. So today it’s still a very powerful statement to claim to be black when 1 in 15 black adults (including one in nine black males between the age of 20 and 34) are behind bars when distancing yourself from that classification may make your life easier.
So yes, biracial, with or without the hyphen suggests hybridity and duality, as an offensive idea to some as being aligned to a mule. And to claim that as my identity doesn’t even allude to what the sections of the “bi” are. But it invites questions which I choose to answer or not. I am black. I have an intimate connection to the diaspora that the term African-American was supposed to foment yet has somehow created distance. And I’m white, formed by the love my blood family and the community that I grew up in. Though it’s harder to say the later, because that same community that nurtured me also housed elements that violently reminded me that I was black. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say every black person in his lifetime has been reminded at one inconvenient time or another that he or she was not part of the white power elite. And though biracial people may get uncomfortable reminders from their community of color, there’s not the same dynamic. Prejudice is prejudice, but racism and all the other so-called “isms” are indicative of an historic and present power structure. And even with a black President of the United States, blacks may still be nearly 45% of all prisoners in the US on “Day One” though representing only 13% of the US population. (Whites are 35% of prisoners, 70% of the US population, Hispanic are 20% and 12%. These are rounded figures based on a 2003 study by Human Rights Watch.) So it also feels like an act of courage to claim your benefits derived from your connection to the power system that has despicable aspects that you’d like to change. (And lest you think I’m going negative by highlighting prison data look at this article from the Associated Press lamenting the loss of Black CEOs for Fortune 500 companies–down to 4 in 2007–including this quote: “10 or 15 years ago, we couldn’t have had this conversation, because there was no one to talk about.”)
Lastly, what does it mean that biracial (black and white for me) doesn’t parse out the English or Scottish of the WASP lineage and the Native American and French of the Black lineage? You know ultimately this stuff can be parsed to the DNA that says white person X has more African Ancestry than black person Y, and in the biology of it all there may be genetic benefits and disadvantages. So the definitions are subjective, but an informed subjectivity acknowledging the objective political and historical reality of racism, colonialism, etc. creates a better dialogue. And that dialogue, acknowledging the historic and present “matterings” of race may get us to point where race matters much less in terms of opportunity and general peace. Mulatto moments may be humorous or learning opportunities, but they’re not inherently peaceful.