Tag Archives: race relations

CAN A WHITE PERSON BE BLACK? ETHNIC IDENTITY IS A MATTER OF CHOICE, NOT NATURE

IMG_Rachel Dolezal

Q: Can a white person be black?

A: Yes. I know the case you have in mind: Rachel Dolezal (pictured above), who is a leader of the National Association of Colored People, and professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, has built a professional a career as a black women; but her parents last week stated that her ancestry was Czech, Swedish and German with a dash of Native American and, while she mixed with and African Americans as a young woman and married an African American, “She’s chosen to not just be herself but to represent herself as an African American woman or biracial person. And that’s simply not true.” That’s what her mother said.

Q: That’s the case I have in mind. She’s a fraud, right?

A: Not in the slightest. She’s chosen to adopt an identity as a black person. What’s wrong with that? Barack Obama describes himself as an African American, but he’s never called himself black. Tiger Woods avoids both African American and black and has invented his own identity as Cablinasian – meaning a hybrid of Caucasian, Black, American-Indian, and Asian. So I see us at a stage in history when we’re able to select whatever ethnic identities we choose, maybe several. But it’s a matter of choice.

Q: But surely some people are black and that’s a fact of nature?

A: There is nothing natural about being black or white. Whiteness has origins in the second half of the seventeenth century when English, Irish, Scottish and other European settlers in America began to see themselves not as individuals or members of national groups, but as parts of a race. Most occupied a status not greatly above that of black bondsmen, that is, slaves. The antislavery movement argued that slaves were sentient human beings and deserved appropriate treatment and this prompted slaveholders to defend themselves. Slaves were like livestock, the plantation owners argued, but without anticipating the force of the Quaker-led movement. The need for a sharper, clearly defined barrier of delineation became more pressing as antislavery campaigners grew in confidence. The title of Theodore Allen’s 1994 book The Invention of the White Race conveys the action that followed: whiteness was invented.

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There is nothing natural about being black or white

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Q: So let me get this straight: slaveowners created whiteness to convince workers from Europe that they had a kind of unifying identity and should stick together and that the slaves, who were descended from Africans, were black.

A: Not quite: whites were persuaded they were part of the same group, but slaves were called a variety of terms, most of them suggesting a natural grouping. Blackness, at least in the sense we understand it today, is a creation of the 1960s, when radical African Americans started to use it.  For example, “Black is beautiful,” and “Black and proud of it.” There’s a tremendous James Brown track from 1968 called “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (check it out at the end of this blog).

Q: But the fact remains: people who identified as black were and still are African American. Dolezal isn’t. How can you argue against that?

A: In 2011, after splitting up with her partner, a white Canadian, Halle Berry (pictured below) pressed for custody of their daughter. The custody was contested and Berry based her claim on her daughter’s ethnicity: she was black, insisted Berry, drawing on what has become known as the “one drop rule.” This is an old idiomatic phrase that stipulates that anyone with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry, however minute (“one drop”), can’t be considered white and, in the absence of an alternative lineage – for example, Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal – they are considered black. The rule has no biological or genealogical foundation, though, in 1910, when Tennessee enshrined the rule in law, it was popularly regarded as having scientific status, however spurious. By 1925, almost every state in America had some form of one drop rule on the statute books. This was four decades before civil rights. Jim Crow segregation was in full force. Anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited unions of people considered to be of different racial types, remained until 1967, when the Supreme Court repealed them completely. By the time of Berry’s court case, it might reasonably have been assumed that the rule been exiled to America’s ignominious past. Berry herself has an African American father and a white mother, who is from Liverpool. Her parents divorced and she was brought up by her mother in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to the custody argument, she had declared she considered herself biracial, this referring to a child with a black parent and a white parent: “I do identify with my white heritage. I was raised by my white mother and every day of my life I have always been aware of the fact that I am bi-racial.”

Actress Halle Berry

Q: Berry is hardly a controversial figure, but I know she’s occasionally talked about the particular predicament of biracial people, but, at various points, she’s also used black, African American and woman of color to describe herself. She’s talked of how she never felt accepted as white, despite her white mother. Her appeal to the one drop rule seems a bit like a physicist trying to explain the movements of celestial bodies by citing astrology.

A: Actually, while it seemed irrational, Berry’s explanation of her actions was far-removed from any kind of faux biology or pseudoscience. “I’m black and I’m her [daughter’s] mother, and I believe in the one drop theory. I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide – how she identifies herself in the world,” she was quoted by Chloe Tilley, of the BBC World Service. In resisting conventional census categories, or labels, such as biracial or multiracial, she was not returning to another label black, as if returning to a default setting. Black, in her argument, is no longer a label: it is a response to a label – a response, that is, to not being white. Blackness, on this account, doesn’t describe a color, a physical condition, a lifestyle, or even an ethnic status in the conventional sense: it is a reaction to being regarded as different or distinct.

Q: You’re saying black no longer describes a designated group of people, but the way in which those who have been identified as distinct from and opposite to whites have reacted; their answer.

A: That’s basically it, yes. When Berry allowed, “that’s what she’s going to have to decide,” she meant that her daughter has some measure of discretion in the way she responds. Blackness is now a flexible and negotiable action; not the fixed status it once was. More likely we’ll witness the kind of situation encouraged by Berry, in which ethnicity becomes a matter of choice, people electing their ethnic identities. Note the use of plural identities: Berry’s child may change hers as she grows, perhaps opting for several at one time, changing to suit different situations. It will be – probably already is – possible to have multiple ethnicities, all interchangeable and all utterly fluid. We live a “liquid life,” as Zygmunt Bauman calls it.

Q: For some, this lack of certainty must sound like a waking nightmare. Surely we can’t change identities and switch ethnicities as we change our appearance with cosmetic surgery, replace limbs with prosthetics or restore vital functions with organ transplants from human donors, can we?

A: That’s what is happening and, for this writer at least, it’s no bad thing: the death of blackness will bring with it the demise of whiteness and all the inequity, oppression, bigotry and manifold wrongdoing that whiteness has engendered. Oh, and excuse the plug, but, if you want to read the full version of this argument, it’s all in my book Beyond Black (that’s Halle Berry on the front cover, by the way).

RACISM: SHOULD WE FIGHT IT, OR MANAGE IT?

Q: Nowadays, do-gooders are everywhere; they line up to get our attention. But I wonder if Trevor Phillips (pictured below) is trying to do any good at all. Apart from give his own reputation a boost, of course. I mean, he’s been on tv urging for more openness on the issue of race. He’s discovered a lavish opportunity for showcasing his gamekeeper-turned-poacher turnabout. The Labour Party made him a member of its London Assembly in 2000, and three years later he became head of the Commission for Racial Equality. So he used to promote the policy of multiculturalism he is now criticizing.

A: Well, hang on a minute: that’s not quite true. His support for multiculturalism hasn’t suddenly disintegrated. He had reservations of Tony Blair’s approach to the policy, which he thought would lead to a kind of ethnic isolationism.

Trevor Phillips OBE

Q: Unlike the American policy that’s encouraged the acceptance of core values and the cultivation of sort of hybrid identities, like African-Americans or Asian-Americans, for example?

 A: Let’s remind ourselves that the USA’s policy has not exactly been a runaway success. We only have to glance across the Atlantic to remind ourselves that, despite ending segregation 50 years ago, introducing affirmative action, or positive discrimination, and even electing an African-American to President, America has more than its fair share of racially-charged episodes. In the 1980s, Britain feared Britain was going to follow the US: the riots in London, Birmingham and other cities (see picture below) seemed to reflect the riots in America twenty years before.  So the British pursued its own policy: ethnic difference was welcomed and those who wished to preserve their distinct identities through their language, faith, customs and overall lifestyle, were put under no pressure to assimilate, that is become absorbed into the wider society. Phillips argues now — as he did then — that this was a mistake and has led to the cultivation of distinct ethnic groups with little in common. Of course, the American approach has been fraught with problems and, in recent years, we’ve seen evidence of this.

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 Q: But, as I understand it, Phillips has been saying we’ve deliberately ignored the race issue, abiding by a kind of code of silence.

A: He exaggerates: I don’t think we have been unduly silent about race in the UK. Think about the Stephen Lawrence Report’s publication in 1999. It prompted a heated debate for years. And, when Phillips argues, we were silent about the sex exploitation cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, I think he forgets that, while there were Asian gangs behind many of these cases, we all knew about this. We also know that several whites, sometimes prominent whites, have been involved in similar activities. I get the impression that we talk about these issues. Occasionally, we hear about cases of the police protecting the identities of Asian sex grooming outfits secret; there was a case in Birmingham last year, but the truth eventually reached the headlines with “High number of Asian child sex abusers in Birmingham” I doubt if this is likely to persuade anyone that all British Asians are involved anymore than hearing that Victoria Climbie’s parents were African was going to convince anyone that all Africans are child-killing black magic worshippers. So I don’t think we are as silent as Phillips supposes. In any case, I doubt if there is any benefit in making our thoughts and feelings too well-known. Sometimes, free speech can hurt. That’s the reason the Wigan Football Club owner Dave Whelan got into hot water when he made a reference that had an antisemitic implication and then compounded this with an racial epithet about Chinese.

Q: But I was reading recently that the US Army  is investigating a platoon of soldiers, who were given a free pass to use racial slurs against each other during what was known as “Racial Thursdays.” And, in any case, we have laws against “inciting racial hatred.”

A: And this is why I think a code of silence is sometimes preferable to, as you say, a free pass to express your opinion. When Phillips says we have to be ready to offend each other, he should think of the consequences. I’m in favour of freedom of speech, but you have to stay mindful that it’s a potent power. The balance is a fine one: you have to limit the kind of speech and expression of thought that will impact negatively on the life of others. Clearly, there are people around who harbour racist ideas and we have to accept that they will cling to these. In practice, we can’t do much about that, at least not without some form of thought control. What we can do is impose limits on their behaviour: to prevent them harming innocent people.

Q: So you’re actually managing racism rather than addressing it?

A: It sounds defeatist when you put it like that. But that’s about right. I think we should spend our energy on protecting groups. In time, changes in attitudes will follow. But it’s a glacially slow process. The first significant manifestations of racism were in 1958 at Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill and the fact that we’re still discussing it suggests the rate of progress is not impressive. I think managing race is the primary task.