The One Drop Rule: How Black Is “Black?”

The One Drop Rule: How Black Is “Black?”

Psychology Today
Blogs: In the Eye of the Beholder: The science of social perception

Jason Plaks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Toronto

The perception of race is subjective.

Many biracial people publicly identify themselves with only one race (for example, either black or white, but not both). President Obama raised eyebrows when he checked only one box on his 2010 Census form: “Black, African American, or Negro.” Halle Berry (who is biracial), in discussing her one-quarter black daughter, Nahla, has stated, “I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.” When pressed on why Nahla, who is 75 percent white, should be considered black, she conceded that Nahla may ultimately have some choice in the matter, but added, “I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her.” In other words, according to Berry, regardless of how she may choose to self-identify, as long as she has “one drop” of black blood, the world will see her as black.

Is this true? Clearly, there is a good deal of idiosyncratic variation from person to person in terms of how prototypical they are of a particular race. But if you average across many people, what do observers generally view as the threshold where one race ends and the other race begins?

A team of researchers led by Arnold Ho of Harvard University recently examined this question by using a face-morphing computer program. In one study, participants were presented with faces on a computer screen. They were told that each time they pressed the “continue” button the face currently on the screen would morph slightly (in reality, 1 percent increments) into a different race. They were further instructed to keep pressing “continue” until the exact moment they felt that the person on the screen now belonged to another race…

…The legal definition of race membership has a checkered history. Although the precise figure differed from state to state, many U.S. states outlined specific fractions of blackness a person needed to possess in order to be considered legally black (and therefore ineligible for rights and privileges that were exclusive to whites). Similar rules existed for Native Americans. Nowadays, the tables have turned in some respects. Because in some cases being black or Native American can be an advantage (for example, some affirmative action policies), many are motivated to see the threshold lowered so that the category is more inclusive, not less. In other words, we see some movement in the direction back toward the one-drop rule

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