(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.
Race Is Messy. This Is Up to You
On that note, I can't give you a rule about whether you should check the "black" box. I know! That's the whole reason you wrote. Sorry to disappoint.
But here's why. As David J. Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University at Pullam, put it, your question "points to a belief that race is real, rather than a social construction." And that's just not the case. (See this explanation, which probably should be a permanent Race Manners footnote. In short: Race is not based on biology but rather on ever-changing, lumped-together groups created pretty messily by humans.)
So, even your super-official government definition (to say nothing of the old "one-drop rule" that preceded it) leaves some wiggle room about what's really meant by "black."
I asked Ulli K. Ryder, scholar-in-residence at Brown University, who studies identity formation and communication, about your query, and she said, "The most important thing is for her to do what feels right for her."
So, good news: You can do what you want. Bad news: You can only control your perception of yourself, not how others perceive you.
Let's Be Honest — This Discovery Hasn't Changed Your Life
What feels right? How do you perceive yourself?
I actually think you already know.
First, I disagree that it's significant that you don't "look black" or didn't grow "in black culture." There aren't working definitions for either of those descriptors. Talk about that with the people of Pike County, Ohio, who strongly identify as African American despite the fact that many would say they look white; or our first black president, who was raised by his white mother and grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
But what I do think matters is whether your discovery has changed anything about your life. Racialization happens through personal interactions, treatment and institutions. You were racialized as white, and that remains the case. You say you're proud to be "part" African American, but it seems to me the way we approach "Am I black?" is a little like how we might evaluate "Am I in love?" In other words, the "maybe" implied by your sending me this question probably means "no."
One important note: Your private choice doesn't affect others, but the box you check on those university forms will. If I'm right about how you see yourself, checking the "black" box there could be misleading. It could, as Leonard put it, "provide a mirage of diversity" that would have the opposite of your intended racism-combating effect.
What's Really Going On?
Maybe the dilemma — which I'm reading between the lines of your letter — is not to figure out if your whiteness has changed as the result of your discovery, but to become more comfortable with it without the fear of being racist or "self-loathing."
"This may include continuing to research African-American history, but may also include examining white privilege and the ways she may benefit from her whiteness even as she embraces this long-forgotten ancestor," said Ryder. Leonard suggests that instead of focusing on the box, you "start at home and not only check how your family responds to this history, but the costs and consequences of their racism outside their family."
In other words, it's great to acknowledge your ancestor as an important element of your history, but the real challenge will be to make sense of your personal and family identity in the broader context of race in this country. Sadly, there's no form for that.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "Should a Dinner Guest Call Out Racist Jokes?"
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.