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You Are What You Look Like: Biracial, Multiracial, Black, White – Well, Most of the Time

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February is famously Black history month, but that is not why I am writing about race or racial classification. I am writing about it because of the boundless interest in—negative or positive—and the confusion concerning miscegenation in this country. There are three major things that influence my point of view and expertise: my own large extended family (which includes the above categories); study of linguistics, genetics, and anthropology; and what the country of Brazil decided to do a few years back: reclassify everyone based on phenotype (appearance).image of Barack Obama Rolling Stone cover

Let’s start with Brazil. It is that large country in South America that President George Bush was so unfamiliar with that Condoleezza Rice had to tell him privately: “Brazil is a black country.” In fact it is the blackest country outside of Africa.

Here’s how one online encyclopedia explains it:

The Brazilian system of racial classification is far more complex [than the one-drop rule]. In Brazil, people are assigned to racial groups based on what they look like—their skin color, hair type, and facial features—regardless of their ancestry. As such, individuals may be assigned to different racial groups than their parents, siblings or other relatives. Moreover, how individuals are classified racially does not depend solely on their physical appearance. Social class, education, and manner of dress all come into play in assigning someone to a racial category. As Brazilians put it, “money whitens,” so the higher the social class, the lighter the racial category to which an individual belongs.

I first learned about Brazil’s re-classification efforts from a documentary. It means that siblings can be classified as white, black, or mulatto based on the “tests” that were in place. Unfortunately these tests included such things as illiteracy or abject poverty. So if one was fortunate enough to look white but was born poor and illiterate then one could still not be classified as “white.” Black became the default race in Brazil for anyone who did not have all the markings of a “white.” In countries such as Brazil, illiteracy is a big deal because public education is not available in extremely rural areas or in the huge, poor black ghettos.

Why are things so simple in this country? We might gain some insight into it by looking at Brazil’s buzzword: “money whitens.” That is a sword that cuts both ways because it confers on those with the proper phenotype the ability to earn more over their lifetime than their blacker brothers and sisters.

During slavery blacks made the distinction between “field Negro and house Negro.” It’s the same thing, with a different name. If you are unconvinced of this wisdom of the crowd then look at unemployment figures: blacks versus whites; the whiteness and foreign-born-ness of Silicon Valley and Hollywood; the wealth of black households versus white, with almost exponential differences.

Let’s look now at what Hollywood and Halle Berry have to add to the conversation. The actress will grace the March issue of Essence magazine. And in her interview she speaks for herself but not for Hollywood when she says her daughter is black. Even though this year’s Academy Awards will be the whitest in 10 years, directors have been known to cast “black” actors who look white as white. This is not the same colorblind casting that calls for an individual male or female person, does not specify race, and then someone with stature such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith is cast. That sort of casting seems to happen only to those who are big box office draws in the first place.

Halle recently said her daughter was black because her mother is black, with no mention of a white father. She does not stand alone in her assessment but I don’t think she could fill a stadium with that argument either. Opinions online point out that Nahla is 75% white, and therefore what? That’s where the logic ends. My guess is that they arrived at this figure by adding 25% white genes from Berry and 50% white genes from Gabriel Aubry; therefore she becomes 75% white, but not white based on “one drop.” That makes no sense to me. The reality is closer to Nahla as 85-95% white genotype. (That number takes into account the fact that blacks’ genotypes often include Native American and Western European.) In any other country she would be classified as white. But here she is simply black. Confused?

It is confusing and for a good reason. The one-drop rule that Berry invoked allows for an over-simplified conclusion. She was wrong and I hope she reconsiders, or next time has a baby with a black man. I would advise anyone from Tiger Woods to Halle Berry to Alicia Keys to Mariah Carey and others whose offspring look white (or have a white parent) to put white on their child’s birth certificate.

That may be a hard choice and a complicated one. Some cases are simple, as when a biracial (Barack Obama) or multiracial person marries a black person and their offspring look identifiably black. But that is not what nieces in my family did and that is not what Halle Berry did—they had offspring with white men, hence their children look identifiably white, not biracial or mixed. Case closed.

Money Talks

The connection between income-earning potential and white skin is another fact of life that is tucked neatly into that same safe-deposit box containing birth certificates with “white” written on them. That factor cannot be erased as the American Anthropological Association (see below) would have us believe. There is little doubt that “whiteness” will determine that these adults will live in white enclaves and have a better shot at owning a business or a seat on the NYSE or becoming a tech-savvy billionaire. While blacks who have made it and whites who are “liberal” and don’t see skin color are quick to point out “how far we have come” or that race does not matter at all, we cannot ignore the glaring statistics that reveal the “crash” in earnings since 1970 along with the rise in poverty: “Two-thirds of poor White children escape poverty in one generation. But most poor Black children born into poverty remain in poverty. As a result, African-American family net worth falls with each passing generation.” The source of this information, “The U.S. Black/White Net-worth Gap,” presents graphical evidence to support the fact that blacks are losing the economic race with alarming speed, all since the end of Jim Crow. However, the author believes that the cause, if defined as racism, cannot be tested, and therefore it cannot be determined if the color of the person’s skin was the cause of the decline in net worth among blacks. I do not agree with this conclusion.

Why? Because researchers are comparing blacks to whites instead of to each other, which is what I propose. I think that the loss might in fact be testable if you test enough families, including those like mine, and divide them between “black” and “white” (skin color and appearance) and  then compare them for net worth and fiscal health. Both groups are black, only one looks black and the other group does not. According to my own informal observation, black and white researchers alike will be extremely surprised at two things: It is testable, and the statistical differences are significant and would rival those between blacks versus whites.

There are only three legal ways to become wealthy—through a job, getting a loan to start a business that becomes successful, or inherited wealth. I think it is safe to say that those who are white and look white have more success with landing a job. They are more likely to get a call for an interview. Especially if they are not sportng names like “Shaquan” or “Sheniqua” which do not equal callback. But even if they don’t have a colorful or created name, but look black and have schools, zip codes, or colleges that might link them to blackness, their chances of success plummet.

Then those who look “white” but are black probably don’t announce that fact and can even check the “white” box for race, if there is such a box. And it’s a really good thing because if that person has to take their “blackness”—including long blonde hair, slim figure, and educated manner (talking white), fair skin, and blue eyes—anywhere else but to the “hood,” they may make it as black, but will probably get the loan or the job they desire. I know from familial experience that blacks who look white cannot pass for black, but can make and marry into whiteness. These multiracial people cannot make other blacks welcome them as part of the tribe. There is wisdom of the crowd.

Even anthropologists, it seems to me, have backtracked on the issue of “race,” with this advice to the federal government:

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recommends the elimination of the term “race” from OMB Directive 15 during the planning for the 2010 US Census. During the past 50 years, “race” has been scientifically proven to not be a real, natural phenomenon. More specific, social categories such as “ethnicity” or “ethnic group” are more salient for scientific purposes and have fewer of the negative, racist connotations for which the concept of race was developed.

As a student of anthropology I respectfully disagree. Their statement sounds more like pandering to the knee-jerk liberal PC crowd than to what centuries and tomes of anthropological studies have written to the contrary. If the government took this advice, which by the look of the 2010 census, it did, the effect is to contract race and ethnicity and to marginalize blacks—again. The Federal footprint also made its way into recent surveys given to public school students in Texas (maybe other states as well) which allowed for only ONE ethnic group—Hispanic, and five races: white (this definition of white, not the skinhead one), black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American. An informant’s ability to mix and match was limited in order to reduce the impact of race and to elevate the significance of ethnicity—for some.

Let’s consider a recent racial example. Throughout the public schools last year the staff and parents of all students were asked to fill out federal forms about their racial identification. If they were Mexican they were “white” regardless of skin hue. Latino or Hispanic was set aside as an ethnic designation only, not as a race. This angered many Mexican students because they wanted to continue to use “Hispanic” as a racial class. It angered whites, on the form and the census, because it appeared that now only ONE ethnic group was the glue for all others. Mexican parents did not want to check the “white” box. There have been litigation and precedents set over the racial classification and treatment of Mexicans living legally in America regarding education and Jim Crow laws.

What was interesting about the school forms, though, was that regardless of the dark brown skin or the wide noses the students were still white if they were of Hispanic or Latino origin and did not have a black parent. And my question: why does this rule not apply to blacks who are biracial and beyond?

Finally another link from Wikipedia.org about Hispanic whites makes it “official”: Mexicans are white, i.e., they are part of the white race. If they have one black parent then they are biracial and black of Hispanic origin. While a bit of mixing is allowed with the boxes checked, it is race that matters. Choices (2010 US Census) include: white of non Hispanic or Latino origin; black of non Hispanic origin, or white of Hispanic origin (Mexican-American) or other nationality such as Cuban or black of Hispanic origin (my maternal side of the family).

I know that one little article won’t fix Black History Month or change anybody’s mind, but at least people can have civilized and more informed discussions. And just maybe for February the AAA and Anglo-Saxons can act as if race is of no consequence, and that it does not determine financial destiny in this country. That race matters, hue don’t.

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About Heloise

  • http://joannehuspek.wordpress.com/ Joanne Huspek

    Interesting article. I also don’t see the point of the “one-drop” rule. It only works for those who are black, but not for anyone else. Why should that be? Because I am 1/8 American Indian, by that standard I should be considered American Indian. But according to the tribe, both I and my father are not considered so. And in my father’s case, who was born in the 1930s, my grandmother put “white” on the birth certificate for the obvious reasons that she didn’t want him to be discriminated against since she was half Ojibwe.

    I do not consider our President to be Black, nor Tiger Woods, or anyone who is of mixed ethnic heritage. Why isn’t Obama just as white as he is Black? Why isn’t Tiger just as Asian as he is Black?

    In my mixed up pedigree (including white, Asian and native American)- where do you put me? I participate in many survey web sites and the first thing they ask after age is what race you consider yourself to be. I am annoyed when I cannot check more than one box.

    And what is really difficult to comprehend is that when a person is of mixed racial background, their life experiences are like no other, no matter what box you try to put them into, this from personal experience.

    Thank you for your article. It was worth the read.

  • Heloise

    It is called hypo descent. And it should also apply to native Americans. It don’t bcz money is involved. And we all got some Indian in us my friend but we all don’t have African blood. Least ways we can trace. Not talking about the motherland as cradle here. Hypodescent means the raciest mix that is the least powerful politically or in the eyes of the world. Blacks would be the least or last. Only if your race but only if that race is non white does the rule apply.

    Joanne you are white end of story. One good friend from a while back had long blond braid down her back and a cute square nose her mom was half Cherokee and they did not want to be white. But they and you are white. Her dad was Anglo too. That should be races above.

    It is quite clear I think.

  • Jean

    My goodness, tri-racial people in the South have been dealing with this issue for generations, and we considered it no big deal, we knew the majority of the country was not enlightened, and we didn’t care. We knew of our tri-racial mixture, so we talked among ourselves of our own family traditions- where it mattered the most. On my mother’s side her maternal grandmother was the daughter of an African slave man and a Choctaw “cook” – full blood from the Anderson Plantation in Mississippi. Her grandmother, married a German logger in Mississippi. So on my mom’s side, she is African, Choctaw and German. Her father, was African, Cherokee and Chinese (many Chinese men took African American wives down in Mississippi – see the book “Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton”) So my mom passes on African, Choctaw, German, Cherokee and Chinese DNA. On my father’s side we bring in African/Cherokee/Irish on his father’s side and African/Cree on his mother’s side. So in effect our family diverges on many racial lines. We’re proud of it, and we pass it on.

  • http://www.pnas.org/content/88/3/839.full.pd Chicano

    Joanne Huspek You dont consider Barack Obama to be black?
    Studies published by the peer review Journal pnas found white people are the product of admixture or mixing between Africans and East Asains, therefore white people are the product of mixed and mixed haveing mixed. So im guessing as white people owe there existence to mixing your gonna now demand all white people stop calling themselves white, and u no longer view whites as white due to the fact white people came from mixing between two non white people?

    Some how i dont think you will stop viewing people as white, despite the fact white people only exist because East Asians and Africans began haveing mixed race children and we now call them white.

  • Heloise

    I agree that is how mexicans have become classified, not just labelled as white.

  • Keith Beckles

    Hilarious that Halle Berry thinks her daughter is black. I don’t even consider Halle to be black far less her kid. I have two mixed race kids, they consider themselves brown and leave it at that, but we live in Canada and are pretty much over the racial hair splitting. My parents from the caribbean considered my first wife (french irish) to be white but not my second wife (100% italian canadian). Point being, eventually we will mostly be people of indeterminate ethnicity and everyone can relax.

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