Updated: Mar 19, 2020
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It’s a question I get often and know very well that the inquirer is actually asking “What race are you?” Some people are offended when they’re asked this question, but I never have been. I get it. I look different, I talk different, and it is hard for many people to classify me into one of their preconceived racial categories, and that’s because the concept of “race” means different things to different people. Is it your skin color? Is it your DNA? Is it the way you talk or your socio-economic status? Is it how others treat you?
My wife is often asked this question too but her answer has been quite different than mine. “I’m Filipino and Japanese,” she’ll say, and after taking a DNA ancestry test, she was spot on. She’s almost exactly half Japanese and half Filipino. But my answer was often very different. “I’m black,” I’d say. This response sometimes worked but often people outright rejected my answer. From “no, but what are your parents” to my high school chemistry teacher’s “no, you’re not black, you’re mulatto” I’ve gotten a range of responses. And once again, I get it. My wife’s response asserts an “ethnicity” based on geography whereas my response asserts “race” based on a social classification system made popular over the last few centuries.
So my desire to take a DNA ancestry test was to have a better answer to this question but as I dove deeper into my ancestry, I had to confront the issue of race and class in the United States and the broader world.
Did you know that before 1960 the United States census was conducted by sending census takers to peoples’ homes to collect data? When it came to the subject of race, these census takers would classify the household based on a government supported system of racial classification. This system had nefarious roots that sought to create a socially stratified society with a “white” class on top, “not white” at the bottom, and “black” below the bottom. Whites were people of European ancestry and blacks were people with ANY African ancestry. The “one drop rule” said that if you had even the slightest African ancestry, you were classified as “black” and considered a lower citizen (and historically, not a citizen at all). Most people accepted this form of classification and it’s resulting mono-racial system that classified them as a single government sponsored race.
The 1960 census was the first time that the census was filled out by individuals and submitted through post mail. For the first time, citizens had the choice to choose their race, however the categories they could choose from remained limited and they still had to choose one. Later that decade, in 1967, the decision in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia struct down laws banning interracial marriages (although some states continued to ban interracial marriages for much longer and Alabama didn’t adapt its constitution until 2000) . Interracial relationships had always existed but as they became legal, more citizens began to marry someone of another “race” and create multiracial children. And while these families and their offspring were free to choose their own race when filling out the census, they were still forced to choose only one race. This choice often took a hypodescent model, meaning the children of these families exclusively identified as whichever race was of lower social class.
However, after a few decades of expanding interracial relationships, the 2000 census was the first US census that allowed for citizens to choose more than one race. For the first time in the history of the nation, the United States recognized that the one-drop rule system of classification of race was outdated and a new system was needed. This system needed to allow for ambiguity and the expression of race as an identity rather than an antiquated state-enforced classification.
“This change in census practice coincided with changed thinking about the meaning of race. When marshals on horseback conducted the first census, race was thought to be a fixed physical characteristic. Racial categorization reinforced laws and scientific views asserting white superiority. Social scientists today generally agree that race is more of a fluid concept influenced by current social and political thinking.”
-Pew Research Center
With these changes in the census (the 1960 change from classification to self-identification, and the 2000 change allowing citizens to choose more than one race), multiracial is now the fastest growing racial category in the United States as more citizens choose to identify as multiracial. This is a profound change that scares some and brings hope to others.
The Fears of Ambiguity
They’re right to feel threatened because this new paradigm affording “agency of identification” and ambiguity nullifies the very system that gives them their power.
Some who were granted a disproportionate amount of power through the old (white supremacist) system are threatened by this new ambiguity. They’re right to feel threatened because this new paradigm affording “agency of identification” and ambiguity nullifies the very system that gives them their power. That system relies on “white” being on the top and “black” being below the bottom, and if people are saying I’m both white and black, it quickly diminishes what it means to be white or black.
Some on the other side are uncomfortable with this ambiguity as well. Since the old system casted such a large group of people (“black” people) as second class citizens, this group became a unified movement sharing the cause to liberate themselves and others from oppression. Through a sort of cultural alchemy, this group turned “black” into something incredible. They turned black into beauty, strength, and resiliency, and used this unified force to push for structural change to American culture and politics with the intent of creating a more just society with equal opportunity for all.
However, if strength in numbers and unity were the secret weapons of this group, then “agency of identification” and racial ambiguity could understandably be perceived as a threat to them as well. If more people identify as something other than black (i.e. multiracial) or something more than black (black and white, black and Asian, etc.), will this diminish the political prowess of this group? And is the intent of the multiracial group to challenge the existing race based hierarchy with their ambiguity and connection to multiple “races” or, is their intent simply to assert that they’re “not black” in an attempt to enjoy the benefits of the existing white-supremacist racial hierarchy? These are valid concerns as some societies (see Haiti) have used multiracialism as a way to extend white supremacy and racial stratification.
While these fears (on both sides) must be addressed, personally I believe the benefits of agency in racial identity far outweigh the challenges if this shift to racial identity is managed wisely. Specifically, the old racial classification system and the kind of thinking it produces had serious consequences– it robs us of our empathy, doesn’t allow us to track real progress, and divides our society more than necessary.
The mass classification of so many different kinds of people as black has the advantage of political unity, but an unfortunate byproduct is that it fails to celebrate the diverse needs and experiences of the individuals. For example, take a look at the LGBTQ community. What’s interesting is they could’ve just been called it the queer movement with one word to represent all of the individual identities. But while lesbians and trans people have overlapping needs, they also have individual challenges that are vastly different from one another. The beauty of the LGBTQ movement is that it built an inclusive coalition of groups with individual needs but unified by a common cause.
If A equals B and B equals C, then A must equal C as well. In a racial context, this works out to be “if person A is black and person B is black, shouldn’t these two people have a similar experience?”
When groups are too broadly classified, the cost is the following local fallacy– If A equals B and B equals C, then A must equal C as well. In a racial context, this works out to be “if person A is black and person B is black, shouldn’t these two people have a similar experience?” This logic is the direct result of the broad classification of “black” and has some serious consequences. From a broader society perspective it goes like this – if Barack Obama is president, America has evolved beyond its racist past. If Halle Berry and Will Smith win Oscars, Hollywood isn’t racist, “black” actors just need to work harder. And from a personal level, if I’m black and get along great with law enforcement, can easily get jobs, and feel comfortable and accepted by all kinds of people, you should be too, and if not then something is wrong with YOU!
It took truly accepting my own ambiguity and multiracial identity to completely dismantle this logical fallacy and see it for what it is, and to appreciate that my cultural experience may be quite different from those close to me. For example:
One summer when I was 22, I was living in a southern US city and having a great time going to clubs and bars downtown to party. One bar in particular was my favorite. It played good music, everyone danced, and it had cheap drinks. I loved this bar, so when one of my close friends was home for the summer before starting graduate school, I invited him and another friend to go there one night. Our outing started off as typical and fun as any other night and when we got into the bar, I was having just as much fun as usual. All of a sudden, as I’m mid-dance, I look over and see my friend being dragged out of the bar by the owner. I rushed to the exit to find out what’s going on, why was my friend being kicked out? I don’t remember the excuse the owner gave but I kind of brushed it off and was like “whatever, let’s go to another club”.
Ok, here’s where that mathematical thinking and it’s lack of empathy bears its ugly head. My friend was distraught about this incident and was convinced that the reason he was kicked out was because he was black. I brushed it off and was like “whatever dude, I don’t think that was it” and we went our separate ways. If I was black and he was black and I’ve been to this bar plenty of times and never been treated this way, how could his blackness be the reason he was kicked out?
I didn’t realize how impacted he was until the following week he wrote an article about the bar and planned a boycott/protest against it. As his story was told, many others came forward with similar stories from the same bar. This was troubling for me internally because the typical socio-economic differences between blacks and their outcome held little weight here as these people were from various different backgrounds. I’m not going to talk too much more about this incident but long story short: two important things happened. 1) The protest worked because of the overwhelming support and evidence of other people, and 2) my mathematical thinking and reasoning to explain the differences in outcome were severely challenged (but it wasn’t quite a moment of enlightenment just yet).
What I couldn’t realize at 22 was that this friend of mine had experienced REAL racial trauma throughout his life (including that night) and unfortunately I just wasn’t able to see it and be there for him as a friend should be during that trauma. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I got a chance to meet up with this same friend for the first time in years and I was able to do something I hadn’t ever been capable of before. I shut the fuck up and LISTENED. I heard him as he explained how he feels about how he’s been treated by society and without seeking to invalidate his experience. I accepted that his cultural experience has been vastly different than mine and was able to show empathy.
My Way Forward
Personally, I believe those who have the ability to connect with multiple fragments of the society have the opportunity to bring people together and show them how much we’re alike.
My DNA isn’t the sole reason I’ve chosen to identify as multi-racial, but rather it was a way to solve the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing about feeling connected to being “black” while experiencing life as a multi-racial person. Everyone’s experience is unique and one’s racial identity doesn’t have to be solely determined by singular qualities like skin color, phenotypic features, culture, socioeconomics, etc.. Rather, I believe everyone should feel free to identify with whatever racial identity (if any) they feel best represents them.
Solving this cognitive dissonance has been an incredible (on-going) journey and I’ve seen a lot of benefits from it. I’m more confident in my own identity, I’m more empathetic to others’ experiences, and I’ve stopped walking around with other people’s trauma. Personally, I believe those who have the ability to connect with multiple fragments of the society have the opportunity to bring people together and show them how much we’re alike. This, in a world where algorithms have isolated cultural fragments and pushed them to ideological poles, will be critical in creating an America (and a world) that can evolve our species and tackle the challenges of tomorrow. I believe this, in a “black and white” world, will be the beginning of something better.
About the Author
Chris Baskett is a Raleigh, NC native. He has explored many states in the country but is currently settled in San Francisco, California. He loves technology, music, and finance and is just trying to evolve as a human being.
Stay tuned for the podcast launch, where Chris will be a recurring guest discussing identity, race, and ancestry!