Beyond Biracial: When Blackness Is a Small, Nearly Invisible Fraction

In the past, these Americans would have been labeled “quadroons” or “octoroons.” Today their options are so much broader. What can they teach us about race in 2014 and in the future?

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Alexi Nunn Freeman and son Cheyson; Ian Stewart; Melora Hutcheson

Courtesy of Alexi Nunn Freeman; courtesy of Ian Stewart; Benjamin Stone Photography

Stephanie Troutman, a 36-year-old professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., has a white mother and a black father. She has her own family's racial elevator speech down to a single sentence: "I'm a mixed woman who has a child with a black man and a child with a white man." Her 7-year-old son, Rex, is unambiguous when it comes to his racial identity and "very pro black," even protesting when he's described as merely "brown," she says.

With her 11-year-old daughter, Melora—whose pale, golden-hued skin; light eyes; and long, copper-colored hair prompt strangers to ask if she's "Mediterranean" or "Arab"—things aren't as simple.

"For now I've told her that she's a person of color. That's the best way I can explain it. I want to take it away from black and white because those are weird options for her," Troutman says. "But I always kind of knew that I'd have a kid who looked white, and I was right. When Melora was born, my friends were like, 'How did her dad's white hippie granola genes completely beat out your biracial genes?' "

Despite those biracial genes, Troutman realized as a teen that most people see her as "just light skinned" (in other words, black). That hit home one day in the mid-1990s when, in a classically tragic black-identity-forming moment, a Florida stranger yelled "nigger" at her from a passing car.

"At first I was like, 'Damn, that's kind of messed up. Who are they yelling at?' And then I realized I was the only person on the street."

Given the way she's perceived, Troutman is "willing to talk about the biracial thing"—her own mixed heritage—in certain contexts, but most of the time, she says, "I don't think there's anything new or interesting about it."

What is interesting to Troutman is the experience of her preteen daughter, who, if you're doing the crude math, is one-quarter black. She's the kind of person who would have been called a "quadroon" when that "one-drop rule"-inspired term appeared on census forms between about 1850 and 1920, alongside its also-retired relatives, "octoroon" (one-eighth black) and mulatto (one-half).

Of course, as Zebulon V. Miletsky, a visiting assistant professor of Africana studies at Stony Brook University whose research interests include the history of the mixed-race experience, explains, "A lot of times, the people who took the census would sort of guess those things."

Troutman is well aware that people still make those guesses. It's something she considers when she imagines how her daughter will be seen, and see herself, as she gets older.

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Stephanie Troutman's daughter, Melora

Benjamin Stone/Benjamin Stone Photography

"I don't think anyone is ever going to be yelling 'nigger' at Melora," says Troutman. "But she does get asked what she is. She's definitely in an interesting and ambiguous space."

Attention to Americans who have both black- and white-identified parents peaked during what Miletsky calls the "biracial boom" of the 1990s. They found celebrity touchstones in the likes of Mariah Carey and Halle Berry; validation from support organizations; and—in the ultimate victory for those whose rallying cry was "Don't put me in a box!"—the creation in 2000 of a new, multiracial census category. With that, says Ralina L. Joseph, author of Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial, came the fading of the "tragic mulatto" stereotype and the emergence of the "millennium mulatto," along with an accompanying sense of legitimacy.

But people like Melora face a new and different dilemma. Their racial mixture can feel too fragmented for old, no-longer-politically-correct terms like "mulatto" and even the irreverent hybrids like "blewish" and "blexican" that the "biracial boom" crowd created to rename themselves. Making things even more complicated for 2014's cohort of people with just one black-identified grandparent is the dearth of cultural references providing a blueprint for how they might identify. As Ian Stewart, the 31-year-old son of a biracial father and white mother, puts it, "There's a lot out there for the half-black, but a lot less out there for the quarter."

There’s a lot out there for the half-black, but a lot less out there for the quarter.

For nearly as long as people labeled white and black have inhabited this country, there have been people like Melora, who have a racial heritage that's very mixed, either in their immediate families or intergenerationally. But "quadroon," the old term for them, has long been retired. Moreover, there's waning interest in sorting people into any firm, predetermined categories. So "the quarter" and their parents are making it up as they go along, defining themselves in ways that stretch our understanding of racial identity itself.

It's a New World for Racial Identity

"If Melora was born in a different time, if she had the option of passing as white, especially during slavery, that would be a legitimate choice. But I don't see that it's the same anymore," says Troutman.

She's right. Things have changed. Melora is unlikely to grapple with outdated questions about passing or not passing, or even with more modern ones about choosing versus refusing to choose. Her challenge, instead, will be navigating the seemingly infinite options for self-definition.

"What is different today than in, say, 1945 is the way in which we have a much more fluid understanding of race," says Joseph. She's referring to our ever loosening attachment to the strict red, yellow, brown, black and white racial categories conceived of by 18th-century German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, whose now debunked idea of natural divisions provided the basis for those who would push for biology-based racism.

Today we know there's nothing scientific about dividing up humans this way. Alongside that understanding has come an increasing openness, as the country's self-identified multiracial "changing face of America" skyrockets, to letting people describe themselves. In an implicit acknowledgment that this is all highly subjective, Pew queried Americans in 2009 about how they "mostly see" President Obama—mixed-race or black. There was little consensus, and that's no surprise.  

An extreme example of how muddy this can get: A self-confessed white supremacist attempting to launch an all-white community in North Dakota made headlines when it was revealed that he had 14 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry. (DNA tests can reveal the geographical origins of ancestors, a piece of information that is, contrary to popular belief, not the same as race.)

Today, when it comes to what heritage means for identity, there are, in Miletsky's words, "so many more options."

Options for Identity Are Unlimited—Except by Parents' Instructions

For a glimpse into Melora's possible future, Troutman could look at 32-year-old Alexi Nunn Freeman, whose sole African-American grandparent is on her black-Italian-Cherokee father's side, and whose mother identifies as a Russian Jew. The Denver civil rights lawyer-turned-law professor's skin is, at its darkest, tan. Her nose is straight and tiny. Her fine, loosely curled hair is, in her words, "like Shakira's on its best days."

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Alexi Nunn Freeman (bottom left) with her sister and parents

Courtesy of Alexi Nunn Freeman

Like Melora, she is subjected to plenty of guesses about her background—Brazilian and Puerto Rican top among them. She calls scrutiny of her appearance "unfortunate." But Freeman, who spent her years in high school, college and law school thrusting herself into any and every ethnic-affinity organization to which she could lay claim, is proud to explain her heritage in detail. Thanks to the messages she received at home, that has often meant adamantly claiming and even emphasizing the black part.

"My dad would tell my sister and I, 'You're all these wonderful things, but never be ashamed and never shy away from that side, despite your appearance. Identify proudly," she recalls. "And my mom would say, 'Daddy's right. My daughters are black.' "

My dad would tell my sister and I, ‘You’re all these wonderful things, but never be ashamed and never shy away from that side, despite your appearance. Identify proudly.’

Can a parent's instructions really determine whether a kid is black or white?

The entirely different outlooks of Freeman and of Ian Stewart (who lamented the lack of resources for "the quarter") suggest that they can. Stewart, a software tester and student from Salt Lake City, has a half-black dad who, he says, "never considered himself very attached to black culture, always being something of a nerdy outsider," and didn't care to weigh in on his son's racial identity. His mom, taking what he remembers as a "colorblind" stance, didn't give him much to work with, either.

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Ian Stewart as a child, with his father

Courtesy of Ian Stewart

The result? Stewart—who grew from a blue-eyed, blond-haired baby who few believed could be related to his black grandmother to a mustached, pink-skinned man—considers himself "both white and mixed" ("the same way Obama considers himself black and mixed," he says). Sure, he knows that he has African-descended ancestors who were enslaved, but his identity is mostly informed by how he was brought up. No one perceived him as or told him he was black. "Effectively," he says, "I've had the white experience."

Looks Inform but Don't Decide Racial Identity

When it comes to racial identity in America, "The mix itself is one piece, but the appearance thing has always been big," says Miletsky. In fact, scientists say that people register race in about a tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.

Troutman is keenly aware of that at times. Like when Melora asks her babysitter to give her braids with beads on the ends. "I think it's kind of interesting because we're in a moment where there are white women in hip-hop culture who wear black hairstyles. I feel like it reads that way on her to other people," she says. "Then some of my students have said, 'If you move to the hood, you're gonna have to watch Melora, 'cause she kind of has black-girl booty, long hair, light eyes, so, as she gets older ... you know ... ' And I'm just like, 'Oh. OK.' "

Aside from the underlying message that, in the black community, Melora's ambiguous looks would give her points for beauty (Troutman is quick to clarify, "That is not a belief that I agree with"), predictions like this are reminders that wherever Melora's life takes her, people will be sizing her up—or trying to—and race will always be part of the equation.  

Freeman, whose husband has German and Irish ancestry, has come to terms with the way people will see her nearly 2-year-old son, Cheyson. "Chey is white, white, white. I like to say he has an olive complexion, but really, he's fair, with wispy blond hair with a slight curl. I think he's an absolute munchkin, but he definitely looks like a white boy," she says.

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Alexi Nunn Freeman with her husband, Jim, and son, Cheyson

Courtesy of Alexi Nunn Freeman

"If I was being truthful, I'd want Chey to identify as black because of what was instilled in me at such a young age. However, I will tell him he's multiracial, and I will tell him that he's black. I will do what my father did with me and tell him about the significance of blackness in this country and the privileges he carries because of the way he looks."

She's envisioning what author Joseph calls a "politicized understanding of blackness"—in layman's terms, a "First and foremost I'm black" approach. Joseph says that this view stands out among mixed-race African Americans who, "although they don't have the phenotypes of race, are still insistent on accepting blackness as a category."

Custom-Made Self-Descriptions Come From Inside, Not Out

"Melora has never really asked me directly, 'Am I black? Am I white? What am I?' I think she does recognize herself as multiracial, and she knows that she comes from a diverse family," says Troutman. "The thing is, she's extremely comfortable and fine, whether we go to my dad's for family things, where everyone is black, or when she's around her white friends."

Troutman's lack of urgency about making a declaration is revealing of a modern attitude about race. Melora will ask when she's curious. She'll decide what to call herself and how to think of herself when she's ready. No one is threatening to do it for her. And in the meantime, nothing about her life is on hold.  

Even Stewart, whose self-conception leans white, says that any children he has with his wife, who is also white, would decide what to call themselves. "Of course it would be up to them to determine," he says. "I wouldn't want to hide anything, and I hope they would embrace their [black] heritage at least to the extent of being able to say, 'Yeah, this is where I came from, and it's only by accident of birth that I don't have to worry about every interaction with the police, etc.' "

Freeman, too, expects that little blond Cheyson will "spell everything out" when it comes to his background. But she's more concerned about what that heritage, especially the African-American part, means for who he is. "I hope he stands for justice, equity and fairness. Regardless of how he identifies racially, I want him to understand oppression, structural barriers and the like. I want him to realize we don't live in a colorblind society and that race—not just class—still very much matters," she says.

Troutman plans to communicate a similar message to her daughter: "I think Melora will understand she's a woman of color even though she's light. She'll understand that she has this history and it means something."

In their hopes for their children, there's a two-part mantra that's perhaps a peek at the future of racial identity for all of us: "It's up to me, and it matters."

Editor's note: Also check out the accompanying slideshow, "When Black Is Nearly Invisible: Photos."

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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