Ever heard of Barack Obama? You know, the first black president? The one who won an election and near-deity status in the African-American community while openly discussing his white mother in books, interviews and stump speeches?
Yeah, me, too. This is just one of the reasons I'm scratching my head at the findings of a new study that people with one white and one black parent "downplay their white ancestry," in part to gain the acceptance of other black people. The authors dub this phenomenon "reverse passing" and call it "a striking phenomenon." I'm beyond stumped. In a summary of the results, the sociologists behind "Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans" report that this occurs especially in "certain social situations" — ostensibly, around other black people — where having a white parent "can carry its own negative biases.
Let's be clear: Although the study does conclude that people are "exercising considerable control over how they identify" racially these days, we're not talking about having the freedom to elect to call oneself black. Rather, according to the lead author, University of Vermont sociologist Nikki Khanna, those who self-identify as biracial or multiracial "adopt an identity that contradicts their self-perception of race." In other words, they're being purposely disingenuous. They're exchanging honesty for social benefits, in a mirror-image version of the well-known phenomenon of passing as white.
Viewed through the lens of my personal experiences with racial identity, these findings are nothing short of bizarre. But if this new twist on passing is an accurate reflection of people's experiences, we should nevertheless take the results seriously and try to determine how they fit into the puzzle that is today's complicated racial landscape.
The very premise of the study — that a biracial person would need to "pass" to be considered black — is perplexing to me because I understand being biracial to be one of many ways there are to be black. On one level, I can understand the protests of the self-proclaimed color-blind and the "don't put me in a box" crew, and I get that, for them, my embracing "biracial" as "black" doesn't exactly add up. (How can half of something equal that very thing? And the equation doesn't balance. Mixed people have historically "passed" as white, so why can't they do the opposite?)
But since race itself is just a social construct, my view doesn't really have to make sense mathematically as long as it makes sense socially — for me. And it does. Influenced as this understanding may be by the old one-drop rule and its racist history, to me, being biracial is to being black as being from San Francisco is to being from California. One is more specific, but both are true.
This isn't just my unique outlook. Has anyone really seen members of the black community excluding people who admit a white parent or call themselves biracial? Have I missed the cold shoulder given to Halle Berry and Shemar Moore and Boris Kodjoe? The withdrawal of African-American support for Alicia Keys for anything other than allegations of home wrecking?
I can imagine the study's assertion that biracial Americans downplay white ancestry because of its negative stigma to be true in a few very narrow contexts — a Nation of Islam or New Black Panther Party meeting, perhaps. And maybe in middle school.
Of the mixed friends I talked to about the study, not one had tried to "pass" as black as an adult. If anything, this was a prepuberty phenomenon that took place during the awkward years when few things are as important as being normal. The goal: to fit in with a group of black friends at a time when kids are cruel and anything seen as different (a dad who hums a lot, a mom who rides a bike with a basket, foreign food in the lunch box) is a social liability worthy of concealing with secrecy and lies.
The study's authors conclude that reverse passing is a sign of a changing culture around race relations and politics in which blackness is "less stigmatized." I suppose we're to take that as a positive, but I'm still troubled by the statement the study seems to make about some of the things I treasure most about the black community. High on the list is acceptance of diversity in its ranks. I am saddened by — and struggle to believe — the suggestion that this is no longer a place where everyone's unique way of being is accepted.
While I don't relate to the results of this study, I won't dismiss them. My first reaction — after sheer confusion — was to feel superior to the study subjects. (Maybe they should have gone to an HBCU, where I got the message loud and clear that you can be black in any way that makes sense to you. Maybe they should be in social circles like mine. When polled on Facebook, many black acquaintances said that they always figured I had a white or mixed parent, and — surprise! — they didn't de-friend me.)
But I know it's unproductive to disregard or diminish other people's experiences with race. The idea that the definition of blackness is becoming more exclusive is fascinating. The evidence that some biracial people feel pressured to engage in the same type of secrecy that used to accompany passing for white is troubling.
For these reasons alone, the findings published today should at least provide the seed of a conversation. They can inform a status check of race in America, regardless of how absurd they may seem to those of us whose reality they don't reflect.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.