Spokane, WA (TFC) – Rachel Dolezal could only have passed for black in one country: America. That’s because elsewhere, people who Americans refer to as “light skinned black people” would be considered what they are: mixed race. As an African-Chinese woman, I’m mixed race- 50% of each. But I’d be considered black in America, with my Asian DNA erased.
Americans seem to regard biracial people as “black.” We only have to look at how President Obama is always referred to as “black” despite being as white as he is black. But the labeling doesn’t stop at those who are half black. Incredibly, it appears that even people who are mostly white- in other words, only a quarter black- are seen as “black” in the USA. Floating around cyberspace are articles such as this one, in which a woman who has a white father and a biracial mother (so presumably she is 25% black), is unhappy about passing for white and identifies as a person of color- despite being mostly white.
The fact that white Americans label anyone with black ancestry as “black” may be less surprising than it first appears; after all, the one drop rule meant that a white person with ‘one drop’ of black blood was legally black. Words like “quadroon” and “octoroon” were historically used to describe people who were a quarter and an eighth black, respectively. That 12.5% of black DNA* counted for more than the 87.5% of white, or other, DNA. And it only works one way. Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia are considered black. They aren’t “quadwhites”. From a non-American point of view, whites oppressed not only blacks but also fellow whites who had black ancestry. In a way, the one drop rule makes sense in a racist society; people with 12.5% of black DNA do sometimes have slight black features.
I once knew someone who in a historical America would have been called an “octoroon.” While it was impossible to tell just by looking that she was 1/8 black, her facial features were noticeably slightly different from the other kids in the class. For a racist, it might be unacceptable that such a person be allowed into the whites-only club. Maintaining a racist state is easier when whiteness is exclusive and racial grey areas don’t exist. Perhaps that’s why there was no word for a person who is 1/16 black; by the fifth or sixth generation, as the Australian government noted in its cultural genocide plan against Aborigines, black DNA is no longer expressed in a person’s phenotype.
But why do black, biracial and multiracial Americans adopt the one drop rule- a rule used to oppress them? Maybe it’s because a black identity has been a source of strength in the USA. Blackness was used to fight race-based oppression. During these struggles it made sense for biracial people to accept the one drop rule’s labeling of them as black, and join black people in demanding equality. Without accepting this label, biracial people and whites with black ancestry would have been left powerless, rejected by both the black and white sources of power.
But these days, perhaps this dilution of the meaning of ‘black’ allows anyone to claim it. Now, where to draw the line is a very difficult question. It gets even more difficult when one biracial sibling can pass for white and one can’t; the obvious answer is that one sibling is black and one is white, but surely this is illogical and unfair. Natural human variation also means that, while most 50-50 biracials look biracial, occasionally someone who is half black might be able to pass for white, such as this woman, who feels that Dolezal has made it much harder for her. So, hard and fast rules might not be the best idea. Race and ethnicity are based on appearance, and appearance can vary throughout your life; I, for example, was born looking completely Chinese.
But recognizing biracials, like Obama, as biracial and not exclusively black (or exclusively white) would be a more logical approach than continuing with the one drop rule. I’m black, and I’m Asian; and I’m both. But I can’t ever just be black or just be Asian. A DNA test would prove that I have genes commonly found in people of Asian descent as well as genes commonly found in people of African descent. If mixed race can be proved scientifically then surely it exists, and should be acknowledged?
*There are more differences in DNA within ethnic groups than between different ones. The idea of race is controversial among the scientific community, as race is only appearance and therefore subjective and not measurable (in terms of grouping humanity into discrete races) by science. There is no gene sequence for a European nose or full lips. The phrase ‘black DNA’ (or ‘white DNA’) is therefore not logical, but used as a shorthand, to avoid having to write long convoluted sentences.