As black people, we can finally get away from the racist "one drop of blood" rule and celebrate our diversity.
He was really funny. I seem to recall that he was especially good at climbing things. He had a thing about The Six Million Dollar Man, as many 8-year-old boys did in the mid-1970s. He was also what was then called hyperactive, come to think of it.
But in terms of how we were to process my schoolmate, whom I'll call Troy, the most important and interesting thing was supposed to be that he was -- oh, dear -- mixed.
The "mixed" kid -- usually with a white mother and black father -- was thought of as a bit of a "situation" back then. The idea was that when he was around 12, he was going to have to realize that he was "really" black.
Or else white people would show him, we supposed. How that would make his mother feel didn't matter. He might want to go around saying that he was two things -- but it wouldn't do him much good in a society that saw him as, well, you can fill in the word. I'll never forget a "mixed" girl at one of those confessional college assemblies (this was 1982) breaking into tears at basically having to deny her mother's half of her ancestry on pain of black kids giving her grief for thinking she was better than they were.
This was just the way it had to be back then. The color line was much fuzzier in the 1980s than 20 years earlier, but it was there. Time passes, though, and I love this business of people openly and insistently calling themselves biracial. Really -- I love it; I read the recent New York Times piece on this subject with joy. I first encountered an actual person taking this line about 10 years ago. It threw me a bit, but I could feel, even then, that this was the way it was supposed to be in 2002.
In the '90s, I already had trouble truly understanding how my godchildren were going to be only "black" as adults. Pecan-colored like hyperactive Troy, and raised in a Bay Area town full of people of all shades by a black father with barely any family and a white mother with a huge one, including a live-in grandmother, were these three really going to have to "admit" when they were 12 that they were "black" in the same way that Dave Chappelle is?
A standard line on why degree and mixture are not supposed to matter for black-white hybrid folk is that the cops will always treat you as black. Even President Obama trotted out this line in defending his classification of himself as black rather than biracial, and comedians had a blast when Tiger Woods declared himself "Cablinasian," crowing, "Wait till Tiger gets stopped by the cops!"
But wait: "No matter what they take from me/They can't take away my dignity." And: "They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me."
Good. But then we're going to base our racial identity on what ignorant white cops do? I'm afraid we'll have to try again. Feel "black" in 2011 as a response to how some white people feel about you, and you are letting racism win.
Try explaining this old-time conception of "black" to a foreigner, for example. That person will say, "But he's part white, and he grew up in a great neighborhood."
You respond, "But there's no intermediate category. He's black, period."
"Why?" asks the person from Japan or Bosnia.
"Because that's how whites will see him," you answer -- and deep down, you know you're arguing from another time based on things you've heard other people say. "You're either black or white, period." What?
The creakiness in this logic is one of two reasons the idea has to go that the Troys out there must "identify as black." One is that for black people to get angry at people like Woods for calling themselves something other than black means enforcing the old "one drop" rule as vigilantly as whites used to do. It doesn't matter if we do it for different reasons -- it comes out the same. Mariah Carey and Malcolm Gladwell are black just like Vivica Fox and Spike Lee, case closed? George Wallace would have been pleased.
The second reason is even sadder. The idea that if, say, a Troy doesn't "know what color he is," then he is to be giggled about at best and jumped on at worst is about shame. Why, after all, does someone who refuses to identify as black make some black people angry? Why would it matter so much to them?
That anger comes from insult -- specifically, a sense that Troy must think he's better than they are. After all, why couldn't they just allow that Troy has had a different life from theirs? Or, more simply, open up to the obvious fact that some people are genetically (and culturally) more black than others?
Those would be perfectly natural responses. Thinking that Troy looks down on you is just one alternative. And that alternative can feel natural only to someone who deep down does feel that being black is somehow lowly.
Troy, under this analysis, is pretending that he isn't down in the mud with the rest of us. Yes, the person must be thinking of blackness as mud -- because otherwise, again, why the insult if Troy refuses to join in? If you think of blackness as a privilege or a party, then you see Troy as missing out. You're not mad at him. Why would you be?
That tongue clucking and anger at the Tiger Woodses among us is about insecurity, a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. To really know that black is beautiful means feeling not the slightest mental pinprick when café au lait people refuse to call themselves only "black" -- and to be unable to even dream of telling them that they're supposed to identify as black because of what happened to Rodney King.
There will be actual black people. There will also be those who are only part black, and there will be more of them by the decade. It's high time that America, black and white, stopped telling them that there's some kind of higher wisdom in adopting the racial-classification strategies of Strom Thurmond.
Go on, "biracial" people. I call it "black to reality."
John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.