I am the son of a black man from Mississippi and a white woman from Pennsylvania. I am biologically, to the extent that people believe the races are biological classifications (they’re not), half-black and half-white—or biracial. The fact that I am biracial isn’t something I think about very often. It’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been.
When I was growing up, my parents worked very hard to emphasize and instill in me the importance of recognizing and valuing my father’s side of the family, my black heritage. They believed that society was and is so overtly supportive and embracing of whiteness and so-called white culture that I would receive that half of the influence automatically and to the max.
They were right. Everywhere I looked, white was presented to me as, at baseline, the norm, and at its most pronounced, the standard of beauty, success, and happiness in America. Everything that wasn’t white was other, something outside the norm, a race.
To this day, I am peppered with questions, often by complete strangers: What’s your ethnic background? Where are your parents from? What are you?
I suspect my white friends and family are rarely asked about their race or racial identity—because they are white, and that’s enough to satisfy the initial, broadest, and most important inquiry relating to racial categorization: white or non-white.
When I started actively and publicly participating in anti-racism and social justice work, those who sought to attack and silence me began to question and at times, even weirdly challenge my racial identity. The most notable example came from Jason Kessler, the organizer of the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.
After I shared an experience of police and FBI misconduct with a Charlottesville news outlet, Kessler accused the paper of using a black-and-white headshot of me, in order to somehow mislead its readers. I gave Kessler the education he so obviously needed.
I do not intend to pay him any additional mind. I am not concerned with the personal opinions or preferences of those who display open and obvious racial animus, particularly those who engage in these peculiar “you’re not even black,” attacks. I do, however, believe it’s important for supporters, those with a genuine interest in the United States’ racial history, to understand how this country treats race, and how our society determines who’s who, and more importantly, who’s what.
The following section contains sensitive content involving sexual assault and violence that may be difficult for some readers to encounter.
Since its original utilization of African slavery, America has operated under the One Drop Rule, which dictates that even a single drop of African or black ancestry constitutes blackness. The primary purpose behind this principle was pure evil: white slave holders needed to ensure that they could rape women slaves without fear that the mixed-race children that resulted from those horrific acts would carry a credible claim of freedom.
Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves and perhaps the most prominent example of this horrific abuse, was one-quarter black. Her five children, the product of Jefferson’s repeated rape and abuse (which many have whitewashed and portrayed as a clandestine love affair), were one-eighth black—slaves all the same.
To that end, for mixed-race children of slaves, the one drop of black blood meant they were black, a slave, property of the slave owner who raped their mother.
To be clear, while slavery no longer exists to the same degree it once did in this country, this rule of racial identification and categorization is still abundantly apparent and relevant to biracial people in America. We live with it every day.
This country has forced our racial designation to be a part of who we are—our identity.
When I was twelve my family moved from Mississippi to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania after my father's sudden death. Despite being raised in the deep south, the move to Conservative largely-white Lancaster marked the first time I was met with the real-world consequences of my racial identity.
Growing up in Mississippi, of course, I knew my family was different than most. I noticed the people who open-mouth stared at us in public; I remember middle-aged white women pointing at my mother, shaking their heads in disgust, and whispering their disappointment and disgust in her to one another; I remember my family waiting longer than other families to be seated at restaurants (with numerous tables available), then being relegated to the far corner of the dining area, near the kitchen door.
In Mississippi, I knew I was black. But it wasn’t until the move to Lancaster when I was forced to give real thought to my true racial identity. I was twelve, much older than many bi- or multi-racial children are forced to examine this aspect of their humanity. This was a blessing and a curse for me (and perhaps a subject for another post).
Throughout my whole childhood, it has been obvious to me that I was black, as the consequences of my race were much more open, obvious, and apparent in Mississippi. But moving to Lancaster in the care of a single white mother, I was often forced to explain my race, explain my blackness, to inquiring minds who simply would not be satisfied unless they could properly determine and categorize my race.
Ever since I can remember, it’s been obvious to anyone who has encountered me that I’m not a part of what our society considers the default race—I’m not white. I’m something else. Some other. I refer to myself and identify as “black” because I am. And society treats me as such, usually without exception and certainly once my father’s race is discovered.
That I am equal parts black and white, is of very little consequence in America. The One Drop Rule is still enforced strictly. Barack Obama is our first black President; Halle Berry is the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role; Alicia Keys was (is?….is) one of the best black woman pop/R&B singers. These are all half-black, half-white biracial people, but are considered simply and plainly black.
I don’t personally “identify” with one side of my lineage more than the other. To do so would be to deny—and arguably disrespect—one of my parents, both of whom I love deeply and unconditionally. I’m half-black, half-white, but of course, for reasons that I hope this piece has made slightly clearer and more accessible, America treats me as black. So black is what I am.
I love many of the aspects of my white mother’s race, lineage, and culture (to the extent that whiteness has a culture…perhaps a potential subject for another piece). But I am also ashamed of a lot of it, even though aspects of it sometimes benefit me.
I love my blackness and all of the wonderful, life-giving gifts that come with it. But of course I detest and more importantly fear the negative consequences of blackness in this country, even though my whiteness provides me with a degree of protection from them.
The goal now is to examine those consequences within our institutions and larger society, hold those who continue to implement those harms to account, and push each other to dismantle the structures that support them.