I Found One Drop: Can I Be Black Now?

Race Manners: Time for a racial gut check. Has your African-American ancestor really changed anything?

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(The Root ) --

"I recently availed myself of my university's online resources and did some genealogical digging about my white conservative family. It turns out that one of our ancestors was an African-American slave who passed as white. His is an incredibly powerful story about a dark chapter in our nation's history, and I believe that it is important that his suffering be remembered. I thought that my family would also be excited about this new information, but instead the responses ranged from rejection to contempt.

"Despite that, I've embraced this revelation and started to study African-American history. I'm proud to be part black and want to learn as much as I can about this part of me, but here's my quandary: Do I check on forms that I am both Caucasian and African American? I technically qualify, according to the Office of Management and Budget definition, which states that ' "Black or African American" refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa,' but I don't look black and didn't grow up in African-American culture.

"Do I check both, and come across as a liar to those who don't know my history? Or do I check just white, and feel like a self-loathing racist (just like my family)?" --Suddenly African American

First, I congratulate you on developing a perspective different from that of your relatives, who sound horrible. If everyone thought as seriously as you do about his or her public and private statements about race, we'd all be better off.

Second, breathe. No, seriously. Calm down and set the forms aside for now. There are options other than "liar" and "self-loathing racist." You don't have to be either.

Let's put your question in perspective, and see whether there's a different one you should be asking instead. (Spoiler alert: Yes.)

Identity Is Complicated -- Welcome to Being American

Your ancestral discovery is new to you, but you're not the first person with an extended family tree that's more complicated than meets the eye.

23andme.com researchers told The Root that the average African American is 22 percent European and that "3 percent to 4 percent of people likely to consider themselves as all 'white' have some African ancestry -- between 0.5 percent and 5 percent." So, while having a person or two in your lineage who doesn't mirror the way you identify yourself isn't as common for people who identify as white, it's certainly not something with which Americans haven't grappled (or chosen not to grapple with) before.