Is Biracial Still ‘Black’?: What Are You?
“There ain’t no black, there ain’t no black, there ain’t no black in the Union Jack!”
When Bevis first moved to England from Ghana, this is what the kids would chant at her on the school yard. Bevis, now 40, is of Irish and Ghanaian heritage and spends her time divided between England and Ghana.
“Here (England) you are definitely considered white or black and you can’t be white if you’re mixed,” she told me when I asked if she considered herself black. “People will call you black if you’re not fully white. I have always identified as black – especially [given] that where my parents live here is a village in Cambridge with not many black people. I always got called black. Now I say I’m mixed – half English, half Ghanaian.”
She points to a new addition on government forms that have given her the freedom to choose her unique racial identity. “Mixed race.”
Stacy, who is 30 years old from San Antonio, TX relates to Bevis’ quandary with racial identification. When she was 8 years old, she was asked to identify her race on an official school form. In those days, there were five options: Black/Negro/African American; White/Caucasian; Native American; Hispanic; Asian. At age 8, she had never been asked to identify herself by race. Her mother was being raised by her White mother in a predominately Latino community, and because of her creamy hue and curly hair texture, people assumed she was Hispanic. Of course, she knew she wasn’t.
“What should I check on the form?” she asked her mother.
“”Well, you’re white…because you live with me. So check ‘white’,” her mother replied.
Even at 8, Stacy knew this wasn’t completely true. There were distinct physical differences between her and her mother, and she was also very aware that her father was Black. The recent addition of Mixed Race/One or More Races (remember when they had “other” for a short while? What kind of human being is “other”?!) on official government forms has given her the freedom to acknowledge both sides of her heritage. She stresses that racial identity is much easier to negotiate with a piece of paper than in our 4D existence.
“If I were ever to walk up to a White person and say I was White, they wouldn’t accept that,” Stacy told me. “I’m only part white, which means I’m not really White. I have always found more acceptance among Black people, who might tease me (never unkindly) about being mixed, but who generally see me as Black. And really, sometimes it’s just easier to say you’re Black than to engage in the whole conversation about being mixed race.”
Are Black people really more ‘accepting’ of mixed race people? Not necessarily, according to Chide and Chinam, two sisters who are of Nigerian/Ghanaian/Dutch/English heritage. Sometimes that ‘acceptance’ depends on where you live. Chide and Chinam are extremely fair skinned, as both of their parents of mixed race as well. Chinam has keener features than her younger sister Chinam, which make her look “whiter”. She tells me that when she was younger, she did in fact identify as white. They lived in an English town of 35,000 people that was 85% white and her dad (who is also very fair skinned) was the darkest person she knew.
“Of course in Ghana I was (and still am) called white,” said Chiman. “In the UK we don’t as far as I know, have the ‘one drop rule’. That’s more of an American thing and [being mixed race] it’s more common now, considering how many interracial relationships and marriages there are in the UK, to call oneself mixed race and it’s accepted to do so.”
Chide added that she has never considered herself “black”, because in doing so she would have to deny who grandmother who is fully English.
“I don’t consider myself black, rather mixed race. But I don’t feel offended if someone else considers me black. I imagine that most of the world does and that’s fine. On official forms I mark mixed. I feel that for me to define or describe myself as black would be denying my grandmother, whom i am close too. I consider myself to be part black I suppose. Round these parts Brown is the new black anyway.”
The women come from a family that is very diverse in its racial make-up. It is because of this Chide noted with some surprise that one of their cousins does not identify as mixed race, but rather as “black”. Her sister theorized it might have something to do with the fact that this cousin has to go further back on her family tree to identify her White ancestors, despite the fact that she is just as fair skinned as the two.
“It’s also interesting how people see me…in Ghana and Nigeria they call me ‘white’,” Chinam said, offering me this perspective.” In Zanzibar all the Masaai I met would say ‘You are part white and black. Where is the black from?’ If I tell people in Dubai (Lebanese, other Arabs, Indians for instance) that I’m black they actually say ‘No you’re not. You’re like a light brown, beige. You’re not black at all.’ So I say no my parents are from Africa and they still insist that well I can’t consider myself ‘black’ can I? Because I’m not dark skinned the way Africans are ‘supposed’ to be. Now I’m like ok, whatever…”
Chide agrees about the connection between skin color and its importance and geographic location.
“When I went to Seychelles they loved me. Almost everyone asked if I was Seychellois and said that I ‘looked like them’. Having spoken to several people they said racial identity is very, very low on their agenda – they associate more with the shared culture. So fair-skinned/ light eye’d Seychellois do not get any special treatment over the darker population.”
I asked each of the women about the question that they get asked the most, being biracial/racially ambiguous. Stacy was the most vocal of the bunch.
“I get asked ‘What are you?’ ALL of the time,” she said. She was gritting her teeth with irritation. “What kind of question is that? I’m a human being!”
For the rest of us who fit neatly in one racially category, it’s not a question we have to contend with, but for people of mixed racial heritage, identifying and embracing ones diversity is terribly important. Do you remember the afternoon in 1997 when we all sat around watching Oprah? Tiger Woods was on. Oprah asked him ‘what he was’ and he replied that he was Cablinasian – a blend of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. My reaction – as well as the majority of America’s – was “Whatever dude. You BLACK.” What the heck was a ‘Cablinasian’? Why was Tiger forcing US to change our neatly cemented perceptions about race! How tiresome for us!
What Tiger did that day widened the door for discussion about racial identity, using media (i.e. the Oprah Show) as a vehicle. (I suspect, thanks again to Mr. Woods, we will be soon be discussing the idea that severe sex addiction is something we will have to learn to accept as a society as well. Look at Tiger, smashing to status quo wherever his Nike shod feet take him!)