Black White Man

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

Archive for the ‘passing’


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.

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.

Law & Order episode, “Blood,” featuring a light-skinned Black man who passes

After a couple of hours of Googling, I finally found the info on this episode. It’s “Blood” and it stars Stephen Mendillo as a light-skinned Black man (like me) who joins a law firm in the 60s. Since equal opportunity laws hadn’t been written, yet, he made the choice to start passing when he applied to the firm. It gives a very interesting, and I think balanced, view on the topic. I said it yesterday, and I’ll say it again. I think that anybody these days (and they do exist) who is passing needs to buck up and stand up for their ancestry. But I can’t say for sure what decisions I would have made when there was apartheid in this country, and I can say pretty confidently that I would have passed if I had been born in slavery. The situation as presented in this episode of Law and Order reminds of something that I often forget, and that my Mom has to remind me a lot: segregation in this country was not that long ago. Anyone over 50 in this country remembers it. That’s hard for me to wrap my mind around, but there it is. And so, I’m sure, that there are lots of people in that generation and older whose friends, family and co-workers all believe that they are white. And if they had to do it all over again now, they would do it differently, but they started the lie in a more difficult time…

Anyway, it’s got me thinking. If you do get a chance to see the episode, do.