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The Complexion Question Defining Race Has Never Been Easy

A multiracial writer traverses space and time to find the definitive answer to, “What are you?”

Once, when I was growing up in Arizona, my mother and father sat with me in front of a mirror and let me take in the differences in our three faces. My dad is part African American and part Sioux Indian, and his skin is very dark. My mom, an Ohioan of German descent, is white, but the harsh desert sun has deepened her natural complexion, offsetting her bright green eyes with tanned, sanguine cheeks. My face is a chestnut color, accompanied by brown eyes and a soft nose that’s wider than my mom’s but narrower than my dad’s.

“What am I?” I asked them that day. I was 6 years old.

“You’re you,” they said.

Turns out my question was rather prescient. Just as people like to know what you do for a living, what college you went to, what neighborhood you live in, your ethnicity is apparently everyone’s business. When people in bars casually ask me, “What are you?” my answer varies depending on my mood: “A human being,” “an Arizonan,” “Cord.” If they’re hitting on me and I give them the real answer, they’ll sometimes reply with, “It’s a great mix.”

But we don’t yet live in a world in which “I’m me” is an option on college applications, census forms, or medical records. When my father needed a kidney transplant in 2008, doctors wanted to know my race. When I wondered why that mattered, they speculated that because I wasn’t full black like my half brothers, I’d be less susceptible to hypertension in the future, and thus a better donor candidate. Whereas many Americans might check one box next to the question “What is your race?” on a job application or driver’s license form, I’ve sometimes checked three. Occasionally I’ve been told to “check only one,” at which point I’m forced to decide if I should choose black, the race I most resemble, or white, the race that makes up most of my bloodline. Sometimes I’ll write “tri-racial” in the line next to “Other.” Sometimes I leave the question blank.

As you can imagine, I’m not the only one with this problem. America’s mixed-race population jumped by 35 percent in a decade, according to the 2010 census, with more than 5 million of us now self-identifying as multiracial. For centuries people have sought new and better ways to define race. Some of these have been innocuous attempts at demography; others have been linked to efforts to “purify” society by marginalizing undesirables. The question at the heart of both pursuits is the same one I’ve asked myself for almost 30 years: What makes a white person white and what makes a black person black?

I decided to immerse myself in several historical understandings of race and ethnicity to figure out how I would have answered the question “What are you?” had I been born in another time and place. As it turns out, people have never had any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to defining black, white, and everything in between.

* * *


Location: United States
Time: Antebellum

In a time when a person’s race dictated whether or not you could own them, a general consensus about how to define race was frighteningly nonexistent. Even the so-called experts disagreed. Princeton University President Samuel Stanhope Smith believed black people were covered in a large freckle brought on by an abundance of bile. Louis Agassiz, a respected Harvard scientist, once said before the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “viewed zoologically, the several races of men were well marked and distinct.” One thing most scholars agreed upon is that, regardless of what made blacks different from whites, being black was worse. This perceived hierarchy led to rules of “hypodescent,” which dictated that if a person of a superior race (read: white) had a child with a person of an inferior race (read: black), that child was usually a member of the inferior race, with exceptions made arbitrarily based on skin tone, hair texture, etc. Of course, even hypodescent had stratification: Mulatto blacks had one black parent and were worse than quadroon blacks who had a black grandparent, and so on.

What that makes me: My father is African American mixed with American Indian blood, which in the 1800s was also considered subwhite. Frederick Douglass was thought to be of black, Indian, and white descent, yet we know he was still a victim of slavery. Chances are I’d be considered a mulatto and set into bondage.

* * *


Location: United States
Time: Early 1900s

Frightened by the prospect of freshly freed blacks tainting their communities, white Americans, who had occasionally accepted white-looking quadroons and octoroons (one black great-grandparent), now started enacting “one-drop rules,” which said that anyone with any African blood whatsoever was black. Under the nation’s antimiscegenation laws, the one-drop rule effectively prevented someone who’d had a black great- grandparent, or great-great-grandparent, from legally marrying a white person. Tennessee was the first state to officially enact a one-drop law, followed by places like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina. Keep in mind that this wasn’t just backward, post-war Confederate thinking: In his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, Columbia-educated lawyer Madison Grant wrote, “The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

What that makes me: Black.

* * *


Location: South Africa
Time: Apartheid

South Africa’s Population Registration Act of 1950 divided the nation’s races into four groups: native (black), white, Asiatic, and colored. Colored was reserved for anyone of mixed race as well as some East and South Asians, all of whom were treated better than blacks but worse than whites. Because the law, like all racial laws, was as nebulous as race itself, oftentimes close family members were torn apart when the government declared them to be of different racial groups. To best understand how absurd the categorizations got, one need look no further than the pencil test, which “involved sliding a pencil into a person’s hair,” writes Wendy Watson in her brief history of South Africa, Brick by Brick. “If it remained there instead of slipping out, the person’s hair was deemed too curly to be that of a white person.” Later into apartheid, Japanese and Taiwanese investment in South Africa grew to such a degree that South African officials granted them “honorary white” status to spur business development. (South Africa’s insane racial muddling didn’t end with apartheid. In 2008 a court ruled that Chinese South Africans were officially “black,” thus granting them access to affirmative action programs meant to mitigate the effects of apartheid.)

What that makes me: Because my mother is German, I’d have been colored, not black (though I tried the pencil test and it stuck). Unlike my father, I could have voted, but only for colored politicians, whose segregated branch of parliament was designed to always be overruled by the white branch. I also could have moved about more freely than my dad, who would have been banned from any white area in which he wasn’t working. Neither of us could have lived with my mother.

* * *


Location: Haiti
Time: Present

After slaughtering French military colonizers in 1804, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines immediately instituted a policy that every single Haitian, regardless of color or mix, was black. The whimsical policy was meant to counteract the similarly whimsical racial categories the French had established to divide the black underclass. In the years since Dessalines’s rule, the Haitian government has maintained that all Haitians are black, but Haitian citizens have learned to divide themselves as black, red, yellow, mulatto, and white—the Haitian word for white, blan, translates to foreigner. But exactly what constitutes a white person, a black person, and a mulatto person is still up for debate. As the PBS program Race: The Power of an Illusion notes, “[I]n Haiti, you’re white if you have any amount of European ancestry.” Race in Haiti is also tied directly to class; as a Haitian proverb puts it, “The rich black is a mulatto; the poor mulatto is a black.”

What that makes me: Because I’m relatively wealthy, educated, and possessed of a white mom, in Haiti I’m a white guy.

* * *


Location: Brazil
Time: Present

Brazil’s diverse history—Portuguese colonists, African slaves, native Indians, and Asian immigrants—has resulted in a high rate of interracial relationships and a large population of mixed-race citizens. Naturally, it’s also resulted in a Byzantine taxonomy of racial categories. For research purposes, Brazil’s 1976 national household survey had an open-ended question asking people what color they were. Citizens responded 136 different ways, including “brownish,” “honeydew,” “reddish brown,” and “cafe? latte.” In the 2008 national survey, the government legally acknowledged five different groups: branca (white), preta (black), amarela (yellow), indigena (Indian), and parda (brown). Brazilians tend to ignore traditional racial descent rules and self-identify based largely on looks. If people look white, they call themselves white, and if they look brown, they don’t call themselves parda, the government term, they say they’re morenos or “tanned.” “The physical traits of an ndividual, especially skin pigmentation, hair color, hair texture, and the shape of the lips and nose, are constantly used for racial categorization and thus play an extremely influential role in human social relationships,” says the 2002 report “Color and Genomic Ancestry in Brazilians,” published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because of this, even siblings can be of separate racial groups based on genetic luck of the draw.

What that makes me: With curly, but not kinky, hair, brown skin, and interracial parents, I’m probably a prime candidate for the category that 43 percent of Brazilians say they fall into: “brown.”

* * *


Though some people revel in their distinct lineage, I love that my blended heritage makes me somewhat indefinable. However, I’m not naive enough to believe that “brown” is an acceptable racial classification in all contexts. If we’re going to have race-based programs designed to right historical wrongs, we also need to continue codifying race. But how? The one-drop rule is prima facie ridiculous, especially considering that studies show nearly 60 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (the equivalent of one white great-grandparent). On the other hand, just look at Brazil’s relative disregard for quantification, which means fraternal twins with markedly different skin color could be categorized as two different races.

With broad acceptance of interracial relationships among younger generations and with America’s Latino population booming, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to attach a single racial label to any one bloodline. This is what happens when you let an outright lie (that race is a definable, quantifiable thing) stratify society for centuries.

Like most scientists and politicians before me, I don’t have a good answer. I am confident, however, that one day there will be no need for questions about race on official forms. Alas, I am also confident I won’t live to see that day.

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