Why Biracial Means Black

Checking a census box that says "black" doesn't mean you're denying your white ancestry. It's just how we roll in America.

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When Halle Berry scored her milestone Oscar win in 2002, nobody was screaming from the mountaintops that the first biracial woman had won the Academy Award for best actress. It's not too often that you hear someone calling Barack Obama the country's first biracial president. And although I know people who are biracial and multiracial who primarily refer to themselves as such, I've also heard most of them refer to themselves as black.

My own mother, who is Creole and fair skinned -- to the point where some people assume she is white --will tell you that she is black if you ask, although her answer could be a lot more complicated if she wanted it to be. But isn't it the same for many black people in this country? It's generally safe to assume that most black Americans are multiracial. As The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., has pointed out, statistics demonstrate that 58.5 percent of black Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry.

That's why a new study about how biracial Americans of black-and-white ancestry often self-identify as black comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that the researchers refer to this decision as "passing for black." As if not mentioning your white ancestry when asked to identify yourself is somehow akin to light-skinned blacks of the past having to completely reject -- sometimes forever -- their heritage and families in order to blend in to white society.

No, it's not the same, and for a lot of reasons: A biracial person can check "black" on a census form and 10 seconds later start talking fondly and proudly about his or her white mother or father (anyone who's heard Obama talk about his family knows this). For biracial or multiracial people to call themselves black is not a wholesale denial of their past and family. It's not a lie. It's not, heaven forbid, a ploy to get minority-based benefits, as was suggested by researchers behind the study. It is, for better or worse, a by-product of living in a country that is only a few generations removed from Jim Crow and the one-drop rule.

I know a little bit about passing. I have a great-uncle who moved to California to pass for white after World War II. He would see the family he left behind only infrequently, and even less often after his children were old enough to start asking questions.

 

But being "Creole" instead of "black" didn't mean that they weren't expected to relieve themselves in colored bathrooms whenever they ventured South. It didn't mean that their children, raised outside of Louisiana's Creole culture, would grow up thinking of themselves as anything but black. The only other racial road they could venture down was "white," and they certainly weren't that. Self-identifying as black wasn't passing then, and it isn't passing now.

I'm not biracial. I'm technically multiracial, but I'm not in the habit of listing the various links in my DNA chain in order to explain who I am. That's not to disrespect anyone who does. One of the joys of being black (or part black!) in 2010 is that you can identify yourself however you like. Narrowing your complicated racial makeup down to "black" when you're of mixed ancestry is not passing, any more than self-identifying as biracial is a rejection of your blackness.

It took me a while to get to this point. For example, I was once one of the masses of black folks who were disappointed that Tiger Woods seemed so adamant about identifying himself as multiracial instead of black. At the time it felt like a rejection. My opinion on the subject has evolved, and not because the golfer has become more of a punch line than a sought-after commodity. (There was no thunderbolt moment; chalk up my change of heart to the passing of time.)

Bottom line: Woods can identify however he wants. I don't much care. But what we would all do well to realize -- whether we're social scientists, the multiracial crusaders out there who hate that Obama hasn't joined their ranks or a certain fallen sports hero -- is that one person's Cablinasian is someone else's black. And in America, you can't pass for something you already are.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM