Photo: Me and my brother
It was a summer evening in June. My children and I had just finished dinner and I was sitting on the couch with my six-year-old daughter. While relaxing and getting ready to watch some television, my daughter asks me, “Dad, am I white?” I responded, yes, you are biracial, you are part white and part black.
Thinking that I had resolved the inquiry, she threw me a curve ball, “My friend at camp says I can’t be white if I have a black dad.” In this moment I was at a loss for words—I had no response. At the age of six, my daughter was being given the message that she must completely deny a part of her identity.
This made me think, if my daughter had a German mother and an Italian father, she could acceptably co-exist in these two diverse ethnic and culture worlds. However, ethnicity works differently than race—especially if your racial classification is black or African American. Because her skin, hair, and other physical features reveal her African ancestry, she will be labeled black by the dominant society. As she grows up and matures, she will be perceived as a black woman; possibly accepted as biracial or mix-raced, but never white.
In this way, my daughter has been robbed of her ability choose an identity; society has already determined she will be classified as black. If she did not possess the beauty and burden of my complexion, she might be afforded this choice. She could speak to the Croatian ethnicity of her mother’s maternal lineage, or the German and Irish heritage on her mother’s paternal side. If her father had been a man of European descent, she could be accepted as having a dual identity.
This inability to choose one's identity can be traced back to times of slavery. Since African enslavement was an instrument of social and economic control, policies such as the one-drop rule (a doctrine stating that anyone whose ancestry contained one-drop of black blood was classified as black) were created and instituted to control and classify the offspring of black and white miscegenation. These mix-raced individuals whose African ancestry was often revealed in their physical attributes, were almost always classified a black. In this way the slave population could be easily labeled, monitored, and controlled.
Over 150 years after the legal ending of slavery in the United States, people of mixed African ancestry (i.e. most individuals living in the United States identified as African American) are often still unable to choose and define their racial identity. Even our country's first African American president, Barack H. Obama, was unable to be seen within the context of his dual racial identity. He was simplified as America's first black president; despite the fact he had been raised primarily by his mother--a white woman from Kansas.
This leads me to the conclusion that the United States reserves dual identity for those of European heritage. Honoring and celebrating the diversity within various African cultures was never a consideration of America's racial classification system. The dominant culture intended, and still maintains, that those classified as African American, black, or Negro, shall be afforded no other racial or ethnic identity. In this way, black people can be continuously marginalized.
As a father of two biracial children who self-identify as African American, the best I can do is teach them how to navigate the unjust and racist society we live in. To teach them that their African heritage is as rich, beautiful, and diverse as their European ancestry. To help them develop the tools to critically analyze the complex issues that we face as a society around race, identity, and culture. And to support them in realizing that they ultimately define their identities, despite the restrictions that society will attempt to impose upon them.
For more information on the one-drop rule, see "Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition," by F. James Davis, at PBS.org: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html