Josna Rege

335. Are you Black or White?

In 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 14, 2015 at 12:56 pm

2840Back in 1980, while living in Concord, Massachusetts, I worked for a time on a newspaper at MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord called Concord Community Inside-Outside. Those were the days when prison policy still included an element of rehabilitation, and inmates could participate in all kinds of programs, educational, skills-training, cultural, even community service and fund-raising. For my part it was an eye-opener, as I became aware for the first time of conditions in U.S prisons and began to get an inkling of what it might feel like to be on the inside. The non-inmates were allowed to go right into the prison to work on the paper with the insiders, and I had some memorable discussions and interactions, one of which became a friendship that lasted 30 years. Many of the participants in the program were lifers and, because of the racially skewed nature of the U.S. criminal justice system, many of them were African Americans.

I remember one conversation in particular, at the end of which one of the inmates asked me whether I considered myself white or black. Put on the spot, and without pausing to consider the question and its implications, I replied, “Black.” No one in the room ventured further into that racially fraught territory, so the subject was dropped, until later, the next time I visited my friend. He asked me curiously why I had answered in that way, and gave me the opportunity to consider the question a little further. My reply was that given only two options, white or black, my choice had been clear. Since I most certainly didn’t consider myself white, I had to be black. My answer had been based on my mixed background, personal identification, and political perspective.

Given my skin color and class background, I was in a position to choose my answer. Whatever people had thought of it, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Thirty-five years later, I would have challenged that black/white binary formulation and said that I was brown. As a racially and ethnically mixed 1.5-generation immigrant, I considered myself both Asian American and European American. Politically, I identified with people of color, both in the U.S. and globally, and I was still most definitely not white. Everything about that category disturbed me. However, I was in a position to pass for white, something that most other Asian Americans could not do, and I recognized the privilege that it afforded me.

However, being in a position to choose my answer by no means guaranteed that I would be accepted as such. At university in the early Seventies, there was simply no question of my sitting with the black and the Latino students at lunch. And though there were a few Japanese- and Chinese American students, at that time there were virtually no other students of South Asian origin at university. Nearly half a century of Asian exclusion and restrictive national-origin quotas had seen to that, and the children of the post-1965 immigrants had not yet come of age. It was a very different racial and cultural landscape for me then, as a new immigrant to the U.S. not understanding its very strange and particular system of racial categorization, coming out of the universalist ethos of the 1960s when we were all one, and not yet having entered the multicultural 1980s when everyone was expected to celebrate their difference rather than their unity.

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It was not until graduate school in the late 1980s that I came to study the history of race and ethnicity as both reality and construct. I learned that despite the painful reality of race to the people who were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, and who had to live with racism on a daily basis, “race” was a socially constructed category, something that had no scientific validity and that varied from society to society. Whiteness was a strange identity whose definition has changed over time and which, in the U.S. context, had been deployed by different immigrant groups from Irish to Italians to gain themselves leverage and social status as they struggled to assimilate. They might be poor and discriminated against, but they could claim whiteness and thereby position themselves as superior to blacks. (See Toni Morrison’s 1993 essay, On the Backs of Blacks.) Similarly, the dubious distinction of the model minority had been conferred selectively on certain Asian immigrant groups, with the effect of rendering them perpetually non-white, but simultaneously raising them above native African Americans (or all blacks, since African, Latin American, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants were lumped into the catch-all category of Black). The effect: a whole lot of “Others” rendered permanent outsiders to full Americanness, and pitted against each other as they struggled for a slice of an ever-shrinking economic pie.

Every society constitutes its racial categories in different ways. Those with histories of slavery and colonialism are still struggling to dismantle the racialist ideologies that were used to justify their oppression and disenfranchisement. In Britain in the 1970s, when post-colonial immigrant populations of color were under attack, and a movement had arisen to “repatriate” even those who had been born there, they adopted the term Black British to unite across categories of race, religion, and national origin, giving themselves greater moral support and political leverage. By that definition, when I was asked to identify myself racially in 1980, I could have called myself black, but not in the United States. There, an acceptable equivalent might have been person of color, but not black; not for me, anyway.

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These reflections have been prompted by a news story that has been making the headlines this week: the case of Rachel Dolezal, a Howard University graduate, NAACP leader, and Africana Studies instructor who has long identified herself as black but whose parents have suddenly outed as white. There has been a furor in the media at this unusual instance of racial passing, in which the person in question has chosen to adopt the identity of a particular race, but not, as is most common, of the more privileged one. It seems that Dolezal decided that her own racial identification was all that mattered, and that she could disregard biology altogether. I understand the anger of African Americans who, by virtue of their skin tone and history of race-based discrimination, do not have the privilege of choosing a racial identity, and who see her as not only having lied, but having taken advantage of the scant programs and hard-won privileges for which African Americans have frequently laid their lives on the line.

Although I understand that anger, I do not find myself sharing it. I wonder, like Al Sharpton when interviewed here, why Dolezal’s parents felt the need to expose their daughter publicly in this way, why she was drawn to identify racially with her black adopted siblings and to represent herself as black. But I do think that in the wider scheme of things, this is a storm in a teacup, and a distraction from the ongoing racial injustices in U.S. society, where being black, or perceived as black, still puts one’s very life in danger.

If I were asked that question again today, whether I considered myself black or white, I would challenge the false binary and the whole premise of the question. But if I had to choose one of them, I would most probably give the same answer as I did then. Did that answer make me a liar, a wannabe, or wrong in the head? I don’t think so. I had my reasons; Rachel Dolezal probably had hers.

Then again, I could have chosen to walk out of that prison anytime.

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  1. I like your whole reasoning and response on this question, Josna. To me, there is something wrong with any society that forces one to be one race or another. Like you, I see the divide between black and white as a false one.
    Just at a very basic level, there are so many permutations and combinations of ethnic compositions that many could not even begin to decide what race they belong to. However, they are often forced to identify as one or another.
    The bigger divide/s between people is/are socio-economic. Because blacks and people of colour have been discriminated against for so long, they often fall into a lower socio-economic stratum that whites do. This tends to indicate to intolerant people that it must be race that keeps them down, whereas it is the dominant economic society that does so.
    How good would it be if everyone were to be granted complete financial and social equality, as well as education, with no social conditioning to get in the way – a level playing field if you like. It would demonstrate, I believe, that there is no difference as far as race goes. It is the individual and the group that will rise or fall according to the degree they grasp opportunity and work towards improvement.

    • Thank you, Linda, I’m glad my reflections made some sense to you. I agree with you completely that there need not be a divide, but as the recent killings in that South Carolina church demonstrate so tragically, there obviously still is one and, as misguided it is, it is a powerful social reality. Despite everything, we must hold on to your ideal of complete equality, social and economic, and continue to work towards it, no matter what.

  2. I have had to deal with this ridiculous question just like you, Jo, and I always say either “mixed” or brown. However, it always brings up the immediate question – why is this even a topic of conversation? What on earth does it have to do with anything meaningful about me or anyone else, as a person; a human being, with all that implies in the real world?
    The question frustrates and angers me at times, but also makes me thankful and aware of my many privileges, and the many people in my life who value me for myself as a friend, sibling, or member of any group such as choir, church, nursing school, etc.

    I remember feeling ashamed of my adopted country only a few times in my life, the first being when my dad was turned away from some fancy golf club in San Diego because he was not “white” enough. That horrible feeling came rushing back to me when there was such a huge fuss made about Michelle Obama saying she was proud of her country for the first time, and being put down because of it. I understood what she meant instantly.

    It gives me a great sense of hope when I realize that the small minority who even care about the issue of acceptability based on color or “race” are dwindling and dying out and younger generations of people are replacing them slowly, but surely.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Marianne. Yes, the question is so frustrating, and one has to wonder what it is that prompts it. Strange, that need so many of us have to “place” another person before we can feel comfortable with her or him–whether it is by sex or gender, class or caste, race or ethnicity. And yes, there are so many other categories of belonging that we choose, joining with others who share the same interests, commitments, passions.
      I had never heard that story about your dad being turned away from the golf club–horrible. My (English) uncle was turned away from a golf club, too, no reason given but presumably because he wasn’t quite the right class. And yes, I too completely understood what Michelle Obama was saying.
      I so hope that this racialist attitude is dying out, but then again, look at the age of the perpetrator of the recent killings in South Carolina. So much work still to be done, but we must keep hoping–and loving.
      x J

  3. I’ve been asked that question so many times. I from generations of light skinned black people. We were light skinned slaves. So I always answer “black” and I punch them in the face if they want to argue with me about it. No, I don’t really punch them in the face but I do tell them they have no say in it if they try and argue and ask if I’m sure I’m not whatever other category they might want to put me in. I am sick of the question and wonder why people feel they need to ask.

    Josna, I don’t think you would have been considered “black” among the people I know “person of color” or colored, but not black which had a connotation of having that drop of African blood. It’s too back you weren’t at my college in Detroit, Wayne State, because there were a number of Asians, South Asians, mixed Asians there during my time (late 1960s).

    • Yes, a metaphorical punch in the face is definitely in order when the question comes from a certain place. Who is setting themself up to make that judgement on your behalf, and what motivates the question?
      You are right, Kristin, I am not black, esp. not in the U.S. racial-historical context, and would not be considered or consider myself so. I hope I made that clear in the story. I tried to explain why I declared that allegiance when I was put on the spot with a binary choice, and also how, in other contexts, such as in late-Seventies Britain, I could have claimed a Black British identity. By the way, during the colonial period, the British called Indians black, not only Africans.
      And yes, I might have had a less alienated time at college if it had been more diverse at the time, not only racially and ethnically, but also in terms of class. I felt myself to be an outsider in so many ways. But then, I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

  4. Labels, labels, labels — what a load of old cobblers the whole approach represents. We all instinctively seek those, for evolutionary reasons, when it comes to identifying whether individuals are from an in-group or an out-group and therefore might or might not pose a danger. But …

    … the problem with a label is that it can so soon change from something transferable (like a badge that can be taken off or put on at will) to a meme. And memes, as we all know, take on a life of their own, infecting others and even mutating; and like their biological counterparts these viral concepts can cause difficulties, in this case an irrational prejudice against anybody or anything that is outside the experience common to the group that the infected identify themselves with.

    The weird thing is that you’d think that with the upsurge in interest in family history people would start to become aware that, what with historic and prehistoric migrations, intermarriage and acquired beliefs, we all of us are very likely to represent an admixture of various groups (I refuse, as you refuse, to use nonsensical and inaccurate concepts like ‘race’) and to be in no way pure in any sense of the word. As I’ve mentioned before my family has Irish, Scottish, English, Portuguese and — heavily disguised by the adoption of European names — Indian contributions to the tree. As it happens the English one dominates, but I now live in Wales, which I consider home. I’ve stopped filling in the form asking me which ethnic group I consider myself to belong to.

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