Black White Man

My mother is black, and my father is white. I walk among you.

Archive for the ‘Being Biracial’

The Curious Case of Tiger Woods: is he Black or Asian?

Yesterday I blogged about a conversation I had with some of my drinking buddies about whether or not Obama is really our first Black president. As annoying as most of that conversation was, there were a few novel and interesting bits. At one point someone brought up the case of Tiger Woods: that he is considered a “Black golfer”, but that he self identifies as Asian.

If you’ve read that post, or much of my blog at all, you might guess at my response. I lean toward the idea that he “all of the above”. So, I would tend to answer the question of whether he’s Black, White or Asian with, “yes”. But, I also tend to very much respect the idea that people who fall at the edges of our system of racial categories have some power to decide for themselves. It has a lot to do with our relationships to our parents, and our home countries, which is an intensely personal thing. One of the main reasons I identify so strongly as being Black is the close and good relationship that I have to my mother and her extended family. On some level, when people tell me I’m not Black, it says to me that she and hers are somehow not my kin. For all I know, Tiger had a similarly close relationship to his mother. In any case, it may not be true that he identifies more strongly as Asian than he does as Black or White — I have also often heard that he self-describes as “Caublinasian”. But, regardless, I feel like it’s his prerogative, since our classification system clearly has a hard time describing him.

“Mixed Race” Jewish kids

Reading this fascinating post about “mixed-race” Jewish kids has got me thinking about the Jewish model on defining race, and how it differs from the other models defining race in this country.    Traditionally, in Judaism, you are considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish.   So, the girl mentioned in the article, whose father is Chinese, and whose mother’s father is Chinese, is considered fully Jewish (at least in theory), not half-Jewish, or a quarter Jewish or “multi-racial” in the sense that it’s often used.

There are a lot of things I like about this construction.   Emotionally, it resonates with me, in the sense that I don’t consider myself “half” of anything.   I think that’s a bizarre idea when you think about it closely.   My training as a computer programmer likes that it draws a clear line, and that iterates nicely from generation to generation.    In fact, it’s the only set-up I can think that has that feature.   Most racial constructs begin to get extremely foggy when you start talking about third generation descendants (whether it be “octoroons” or “sansei”).

Obviously it also has its downsides.   On the one hand, a more common paradigm filters through in cases like the one that this article talks about, where non-White Jews are often not considered “really” Jewish, despite having an indisputable claim according to tradition.   But, even if you take the tradition at face value, it can do some weird things.  Jewish friends of mine who are men have gotten a lot more pressure from their parents about marrying Jewish women (over other races), because the parents want their grandchildren raised inside the faith.   Of course, a non-Jewish woman can convert (which I’ve also seen among my circle of friends), but it’s an extra consideration which doesn’t apply to a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jewish man.   And, I have several friends whose non-Jewish mother decided not to convert leaving children with a Jewish father who are, traditionally, not at all Jewish themselves, which is kind of odd.

All in all, it’s a system.   And while systems for dealing with race are necessary, they’re all problematic in one way or another.

I say to you White Americans, “You are not as white as you think!”

One of the reasons I consider myself Black, despite my white skin, is that, as a result of the One Drop policy which ruled this country for hundreds of years, so-called “African Americans” are actually a people of extremely mixed heritage: African, European and Native American.   It may be essentially racist, but our culture is steeped in it.   We are the Hispanics of the USA.

Most have heard (a lot) about the old trope of the White slave master who would go down into the field to spend time with the slave mistress.   And sure, that happened.   And that has something to do with the mixing in the African community here.   But, I like to remind people what I would have done a hundred or two hundred years ago.  I would certainly have moved to a big city somewhere up North and claimed to be some kind of White Mediterranean type, or possibly Jewish.    And I’m sure lots of Black folk did exactly that.   And they took that secret to their grave.   That means that, if you’re White, and if you’re family has been here more than three generations or so, than there’s a pretty fair chance that you’ve got a more colorful ancestry than you might assume.   I think that these injections of African ancestry into the European community here happened at least as often as the other way around.   We’re all a lot more mixed up than we like to believe.

Multi-racial or other as a category

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I used to work in market research.  My job was to craft online surveys for such luminaries as Ford Motors, Hillary Clinton and Christina Aguilara.   Needless to say, the question of race was often an important one, as corporations and politicos both tried to cater to (quite often) Hispanic and (occasionally) African American audiences.

When I was in High School and starting to define my complicated relationship to race, I was somewhat in favor of “Multi-racial” as a separate category.   But after working in market research for some time, I’ve come to really detest it.   Throwing a Black-White person like me into the same group as a Hispanic-Asian person, and thinking that your going to get any relevant data from the group is ridiculous.

I understand that the other alternatives aren’t particularly attractive either.

  • You can allow people to check more than one race, but then you end up double- or triple- counting people with complicated ethnicities — making their opinions more important in some way.
  • You can force people to choose only one race, which causes multi-ethnic people to complain loudly (myself included).
  • Or you can allow people to check multiple boxes and then quietly recode them into a single race on the back end.   This is subversive and makes your own racial biases institutionalized (for example, that a Hispanic Black person is “really” one or the other).

But, really, I think that having a “multi-racial” category as separate from the other races is a cop out.   It’s worse than a bad solution — it’s an avoidance of the entire problem.   All it really does is cause the data supplied by multi-racial people to be thrown out (at least, any data as regards to race).

Let me give you an example.    I’ve been looking for schools for my son, who’s in preschool at the moment.   The Chicago Public Schools do a good job of giving you a break-down of each school by racial demographics.    This has been crucial to me, because I want my son to grow up in a multi-cultural environment that reflects his home life.   Unfortunately, the CPS data includes “multiracial” as a category.   Usually, you can guess at what it means.   If a school is 80% Black, 10% White and 10% Multiracial, chances are that the multiracial kids are Black and White.   But, it can get a little dodgy.   Some of the private schools, in particular, have higher “multiracial” percentages than any minority.   What am I to make of a hypothetical demographic like 60% White, 20% multiracial, 10% Black, 10% Asian.   Are there any Hispanic kids at a school like that?   Could be tons.   Could be none.   The multiracial statistic by itself obfuscates as much as, if not more than it clarifies.

The problem of the Black Middle class

One of the great achievements of the last forty years in race relations in this country has been the formation of a strong and present Black middle class.     People like my mother blazed a trail, working their way up from poor rural Michigan farms, into the halls of medical school and onward to high paying government research jobs.    As a result subsequent generations have produced people like Obama and myself:

  • many more of us openly mixed race then in previous generations
  • we didn’t grow up in impoverished situations
  • we’ve attended the best schools and had solidly successful careers from the beginning
  • we have been raised mostly as minorities in a white context, rather than struggling up from segregated ghettoized neighborhoods

In cities with high concentrations of Black people (Atlanta, New York, and so forth) you’re even seeing the formation of entire Black middle class communities.     This, in and of itself, is a great thing.    But it requires that we, as Americans, now revise our definition of what it means to be Black and to add a lot more shading to our goals as a society.    Basically, I think that we need to start taking apart the assumption that poor Black people are representative of the Black community on a whole — in the past this was largely true, but it’s increasingly less so.

The assumption that there is one “Black community” leads the mainstream white culture to use the success of Black middle class people to argue or prove that there is no longer a problem with race relations in this country.    In reality the situation is still extremely dire for poor Blacks.    And in this way, I think, the Black community is quickly becoming more and more like the white community.

Poor white people have a very hard time.    All you have to do is watch an hour or two of the E! channel and you’ll see some ass or another making fun of “white trash” or “blue states” or some other term used to talk about poor whites in some way or another.     The idea that this kind of validation of bigotry against the poor may become the norm against Black people as well makes me ill to my stomach.    Not only do I think that we, as a society, have largely turned our backs on poor White people, but the proportion of poor Blacks compared to the Black community is much much higher than the proportion of poor Whites to the the White community on a whole.

I think that we’ve made a lot of progress on the race-relations front.  But I think that the problems we have remaining hit on deeper issues that we have in this country regarding class.    The intersection between racism and classism is a nasty place to be, but unfortunately, that’s where we are.    As a middle class Black guy, I really hope that we can avert people in my position being used as ammunition against the working class Black folk continue to suffer in a very oppressive society.

The “difficulties” of being raised biracial

Elise has a very good post about the drawbacks and benefits being raised in an interracial family.   It struck me that some people seriously consider the pros and cons of bringing children into multi-racial families — not because that’s a bad thing to consider, it’s a good thing to think about; but because it’s never been a choice for me, so I’ve never considered it a choice, really.    Of course, I didn’t choose being born into a multi-racial family myself, and I’ve always imagined myself in multi-racial families myself.   Whether I married a Black or a White woman, I’d consider that relationship to be somewhat multi-racial.

Reading over Elise’s post, one thing that struck me is that, to me, the ‘downside’ of not feeling like you fit in and that you’re not represented in popular media, which are very serious issues that I had growing up (and continue to have) is something very external.   There’s a system of racial categorization “out there” and I don’t happen to fit into it.    Conversely, the ‘strength’ of being taught about diversity and inclusiveness, which I find equally true in my case, I’ve always considered a personal strength.    So, in my mind at least, the ‘pro’ and the ‘con’ of being raised in a multi-racial family don’t exactly balance out.   They have a complicated synergy, as if being flip sides of the same coin.

I think that systems of classifying race are important, at least for the time and place that we live in now.    There are differences between people which are important for us to talk about (e.g. differences in culture, income, and health), and so we need language.    But any system has its flaws, and I think that problems I’ve had fitting in are useful in highlighting those flaws, without necessarily throwing out the whole system altogether.    So, I guess I see the ‘strength’ of diversity as being a cure for the ‘problem’ of not fitting in.    It’s not as simple as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’, but more of an ongoing process.    There will always be ways to categorize people which will be simultaneously useful and also sources of division — the same thing happens on class, nationality, gender, religion, profession, etc. etc.   And so I think there will also be a difficult but important role for people who don’t fit into those categories.    I don’t think parents should be shying away from the concept, any more than I think that we should be encouraging multi-racial-ness.   It simply is what it is, something to be proud of, but not any moreso than people who are deeply entrenched in one ancestry should be proud of that.

The need for multi-racial churches

One thing that struck me about Obama’s recent speech was his pronouncement that the most segregated hour in America is church-hour on Sunday morning.    Provocative, sad and true.   As a multi-racial person, I don’t feel completely comfortable in either all-White or all-Black environments, and so I’ve struggled looking for a church where I could feel I belong.    Our relationship with God is one of the most intimate in our lives — how telling that we refuse to share that, most of all, with people from different backgrounds.

So, I was very glad to read this article about one Christian group’s efforts to create and maintain multi-racial churches.    This gave me a lot of hope.   And it also came from, for me, an unlikely source.  I’m pretty vehemently opposed to Creationism.   It’s one of the few topics that can really get me frustrated; and so I have a blind-spot in my attempts to be tolerant of people.    This article not only gave me hope about the goal of multi-racial churches, but reminded me to be more open-minded to people who I may disagree with on one topic — because we may share common ground in other areas.

The problem with “Multi-racial” as a category

Harris Interactive, a major pollster, is now using “Mixed Race” as a separate category.

I used to work in market research, and I have pretty strong feelings that this is not a good thing. The root of the problem here is that “Mixed Race” people don’t have very much to do with each other. Someone who’s parents are white and Black, like me, doesn’t have any significant relationship with someone whose parents are Japanese and Latino. We may have similar issues specifically around race (identity issues, etc) … but a lot of polling is involved with drawing other conclusions like average income, crime statistics and, mostly, purchasing patterns. None of that is going to be relevant across a group that self-selects as “Mixed Race”. So, what happens? The results just get thrown out. I’ve seen it happen, and there’s really no other choice. The result of allowing this as a choice is just junk data.

The correct way to go about giving mixed race people some respect in your polls is to allow people to select more than one race. Now, the pollsters don’t want to do this because it causes a lot more work on their part. If people can select more than one race, then off-the-bat multiracial people get counted in the data more than once. You don’t want individuals weighting the data too much, so you’ve got to do a fair amount of work to balance it. You can, for example, set up a heirarchy where multi-racial people “count” only one of their responses (for example, counting Black/white people as white).

In any case, pretty much any solution — including not allowing for multi-racial responses — is better than giving “Mixed Race” as a response. For those multi-racial people reading this blog, please don’t mark “multi-racial” on any polls or Census or anything that might be used to aggregate data, unless you really do want your responses to be ignored.


Why I don’t particularly like the word “mulatto.”

I’m not usually one to mince words. I don’t mind, generally, being called this or that, merely because of the words used. It’s the intent behind them that’s troublesome. But the more and more I hear the word “mulatto” the more and more it bothers me. (And yes, I know that I myself use the word on this blog; call me a hypocrite).

Check this out:

More often than not, when I hear the word mulatto, it’s either in a historical context (that is to say, in literature written before 1950), or in the mouths of people like David Duke and company, who use it as a synonym for misgenation. In this article, “Black-ish” is somehow even worse (in their racist minds) than “Black”. For the most part that’s how the whole thing works — any categorization of race is bound to have problems with people like me. Some people have the liberty to shrug and say, “it’s complicated”… but when you are committed to the categories, like polemic racists are, then people like me who muddy up the borders are really problematic.

Like I said, I don’t mind it when presented in the right spirit. A word is a word, I suppose. And it is kind of nice to have one word which captures what is usually a long explanation. But the word is also riddled with a desperate attempt to justify a racist system. I guess that in a lot of ways the word “mulatto” is like the word “nigger”. You might hear us using it for ourselves, but be careful about how you use it to describe us.

Good question: Is “What are you?” a good question?

Maybe it was being raised for a few years in the South, or maybe it was just the enlightening moment of reading Malcolm X’s autobiography — but I usually prefer that people ask an awkward question about race than not.   I like people’s thoughts to be out on the table — even if their thoughts are racist or ignorant, I can at least address them if they come out.

So I try not to discourage people from asking things like that.    I understand that some people consider it reductionist (“I’m not what a ‘what’, I’m a ‘who’!”), and usually when people ask “What are you?” it’s with a bit of an unpleasant tone.   But really, is that so much better than the tipsy-toe “Where are you from?” or “Where are your ancestors from?”?   I know what you mean when you ask “What are you?” … isn’t the point of language to be understood?

Mostly, when someone asks me this, I feel like it’s an opportunity to blow their minds a little bit.    Of course, when I answer them, they are incredulous.   But over the years, I’ve crafted a response which is inarguable.   If I say, “Well, I’m Black” some people with disagree.   Fine.  That’s their right.     If I say, “Well, I’m White.” … firstly, that’s a lie, because ‘white’ in this country includes the concept of racial purity in a way that ‘black’ and ‘hispanic’ don’t; and secondly, they don’t believe me … they follow up… “Are you Jewish/Italian/etc. etc.?”   So, what I’ve come around to answering is, “Well, my mother is Black and my father is White.”    These are indisputable facts.    If I show people pictures, there’s no argument.    So then the asker is just confronted with the poverty of their racial definitions.   And that’s exactly how I like it.

But I couldn’t get them into that uncomfortable position, unless I was okay with them asking the question in the first place.