Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Interesting piece in today’s Salon about The Human Stain and other work done on “passing.” I can’t say that I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject and am still only about two-thirds of the way through The Human Stain. But this is one of the few articles I’ve read that addresses the phenomenon of passing in terms of our ability --or lack thereof-- to confront multi-ethnicity.

Any truly anti-essentialist framework must embrace a technical truth: Despite the legacy of the "one-drop rule," someone who's both black and white is passing for black as much as he's passing for white. "The Human Stain" sidesteps this issue because Coleman's parents are both defined as black, but Coleman's white ancestry is written all over his face -- so why can't he claim it?

There is a lot more to this article but that really jumped out at me. One thing that I’ve noticed growing up in Chicago, which is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, is how complex the reaction is to the concept of biraciality or multi-ethnicity. I sometimes find that simply acknowledging that I am biracial can be seen by people has an attempt to downplay my African American heritage. Coming out as biracial has a “lightening” effect; it’s the new “passing.”

What’s both fascinating—and for me intensely frustrating—is how the one-drop theory has come full circle. Once used as a way for white sires to legally reject mulatto offspring, it became of uniting African-Americans. For a lot of people, the introduction of the little multi-ethnic box on the census sheets was something that could splinter communities.

I had mixed feelings about that. I always wanted to have a definite answer for which box to feel in. People used to tell me, “Put what your mother is,” but that never felt right. Usually I’d feel in two boxes and not worry about it. Mostly I just wanted it not to matter so much. But the Census Bureau is preoccupied with single boxes, so a “Shade in all that apply,” approach was not an option.

And in a way it solves nothing. If I insist on my own multi-ethnicity there are still many people who choose not to. And if a mulatto declares himself/herself as African-American he/she is seen as more African-American than me.

This is not something I think about often as it comes up less and less. But every now and then I catch myself explaining my ethnicity to someone and wondering what they might be thinking.

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