Rachel Dolezal isn’t alone – my family history proves choosing a racial definition is hard
Bliss Broyard’s father kept his black roots a secret his whole life. Her journey of self-discovery led her to the understanding that believing the results of a DNA cheek swab to be more meaningful than one’s experiences is a ridiculous notion
How do you determine who is black? Is it simply a matter of inheritance – you are what your parents are? Does having a black grandparent make a person black? Must she have been raised as black, in a black community? Is one black ancestor, one drop of blood, enough?
These were the kinds of questions asked during the legal trials undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th century throughout southern and midwestern US states, to determine a person’s “true” racial identity. Then, as now, ancestry trumped lived experience. In Ohio the courts ruled that having 50% black ancestry, a single black parent or two mixed parents, made a person black – and hence socially and politically inferior – while in Louisiana, the “one drop” rule prevailed, and any traceable amount of Negro ancestry denied one certain legal rights, including the right to vote and the right to marry a person of another race.
It was possible to be legally white in one state and legally black in an adjacent one. The line dividing racial categories has never been a clear or constant one. It takes someone trying to cross that line to illuminate its current coordinates…
…Since 1970, Americans have been allowed to “self-identify” on the federal census, which serves as the source for other federal- and state-mandated definitions of race. Yet, since its inception in 1790, the census has never defined the categories and definitions for race the same way. The 2000 census, for example, saw the addition of an option to check more than one box when identifying one’s race, where before a respondent was forced to chose one category.
My own family history provides an instructive example of the difficultly of choosing a consistent racial definition across a changing cultural and legal landscape…
…As I set off on a publicity tour for my second book, One Drop, about my father’s and his family history and the history of racial identification in the United States, I steeled myself for someone, most likely African American, to challenge my right to claim a (partly) black identity. To my surprise, it was the white audience members who questioned my embrace of my newly discovered heritage.
I live differently than I might have had I never discovered my father’s racial ancestry…
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