Is Biracial Still ‘Black’?: Picking Sides

A common theme in the conversations I’ve had with my mixed race/biracial friends is the pressure they feel to “pick sides”. Some have likened it to being a child of divorce, questioning if they are being true enough to one parent, and if in doing so, is it at the expense of the heritage of the other parent. Some parents struggle to find a balance, finding barriers in something even as mundane as naming their child.

keishaYou might recall the story of Keisha, a 19 year old biracial girl from Kansas City who after years of pleading with her mother was finally allowed to change her name to ‘Kylie’. Her mother explained that she had chosen to name her daughter Keisha in honor of her “African American roots”. It was a sweet gesture, but since Keisha Austin’s mother has never had to live the life and pressures of being a Black woman in America, she could not have foreseen the type of misfortune assigning her daughter a moniker so unquestionably “black” would bring.

We middle class Black folk know that it is imperative to give our children ‘resume ready’ names if we want them to have any sort of shot at success in America. Naming your child LaQuilla or Ty’esha is something you do at your own peril. Most people of color know that the stratospheric success a man of color named ‘Barack Obama’ would enjoy is the exception, rather than the rule.  Had Alan Keyes borne the same name, he never would have made it within 5 feet of the Republican primary debates. We’ll revisit this conversation on a different date.

Stacy, my friend from San Antonio, offered this piece of advice on the subject of ‘picking sides’.

“I always tell my friends who have entered into interracial relationships and are having kids that they need to equip their children to live life as a person of mixed heritage,” she said emphatically. “My mother swears she prepared me, but really, she didn’t. If the kids is Blasian (Black and Asian), they need to understand what that means. If they are Blaxican (Black and Mexican) or any other mix for that matter, they need to understand what that means too.”

She added further insight on understanding one’s roots in America. She contends that most White Americans don’t know their roots, and Blacks certainly don’t, since that was one of the designed consequences of slavery. Most Whites just know they’re White, and Blacks know they’re Black.

“Very few Whites can point to a map and say ‘Yeah, my ancestors come from this town in Scotland’ or whatever,” she said.

“And Black Americans can’t do that at all,” I restated.

There was a time in America – and very recently – that people of mixed heritage had sides picked for them. My uncle Snipper (by marriage) is mixed race, but he identifies as Black because that it what was “picked” for him.

Uncle Snipper's mixed race father and black mother

Uncle Snipper’s mixed race father and black mother

Snipper was born in 1948 in Chillicothe, Ohio. His father was Native American and Irish but because he and his brothers were not 100% white, they were prohibited from marrying White women in their community. They were also made to feel more welcome in the Black community and as a result, Snipper and all his cousins were born to African-American women. Because his mixed race father’s accommodations were indirectly ‘picked’ for him, Snipper’s race was in turn picked for him. These patterns replicated themselves all over Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and their environs, giving rise to a new class of persons of color called “red bone.”

Black families exhibit many shades of color

Black families exhibit many shades of color

My great-aunt (again by marriage) was ‘red boned’, and people were so color struck by her that she was frequently sought after by suitors.

As we have discussed earlier, the impact and issue (or non-issue) of living a mixed existence can have a lot to do with where you live. In America and South Africa, where Jim Crow and Apartheid existed almost simultaneously, race ruled the society. It still does, to a less blatant extent. I have mused what it would be like if all the mixed race people in the world got together and formed their own “human” colony. What might that look like?

Well, one has to look no further than South Africa for the answer.

The Dutch and British invaders into the country did just that, mixing with Black Africans and creating a “Coloured” race. These Coloureds  were then segregated, given slightly better privileges than other Blacks, taught that Afrikaans (the language of the oppressor) – rather than Xhosa or Tswana – was their lingua franca, and encouraged to marry and reproduce amongst themselves exclusively. And they did and for the most part, continue to do. Whereas the mixed race person in America for the last five centuries has been forced to identify as “black”, Coloureds have their own identity and in turn, have their own pride.

Of course, pride always precedes some sort of fall. I always thought I had a good understanding of prejudice, but the Coloured/Black dynamic in SA added a whole new dimension. There is deep distrust between the two, and that’s by no accident. Their mutual suspicion for one another was socially engineered by the government. Things have gotten better in the years since Apartheid ended, but some Apartheid era lessons and perceptions still persist, affecting and infecting South Africa’s most vulnerable citizens: teenagers.

One of the teens from our church went to South Africa for a missions trip and ended up half-way dating a Coloured boy –Romeo – for the three months she was there. She’s African American. When she arrived in the country, her hair was laid. It swung when she walked. However, Black women do not have the same quality of hair care in South Africa as they do in the States, and so in order to protect her hair, she opted to get it braided.

Romeo came unglued.

For days, he begged my young friend to put her hair back the way it was. She refused, telling him this is what was best for her hair now.

“But it makes you look BLACK,” he whined.

“But Romeo,” she countered. “I AM Black.”

He explained that he couldn’t be seen dating a Black girl, and they eventually broke up. The entire ordeal baffled one of the White girls who had witnessed the course of events. Romeo had been going on about “black this” and “colored that” until Becky couldn’t take it anymore. She cornered him and called him out in front of their peers.

“Look!” she hollered. “Let me tell you something. Where I’m from, there is no ‘Coloured versus Black’. When you come to America, you’re just Black. Okay? Got it?!”

I was so busy laughing that I hadn’t paused to consider the larger questions around that one statement. Was Becky right? Is ‘Coloured’ just another shade of Black? Or was Romeo right in asserting that there is a real distinction between Black and Colored, that the two are not one and the same? And is South Africa ahead of the rest of the world with the creation of a new race and racial identity (despite its sinister and less than noble intentions)?