Written by Penelope Farthing
We now live in a world where people can change the gender listed on their birth certificate because they feel they were born in the wrong body, and add and subtract their anatomy to match. People can claim they feel decades younger than their actual age, and appeal to get it legally changed, the linear progression of time be damned. White women can masquerade as weird, uncanny valley, brown-painted versions of themselves, while claiming not wanting to be black (yeah, right). Why, then, with all these accepted alternate expressions of self, whether steeped in reality or cloud cuckoo land, is it seen in some circles as such an insult to refer to someone, specifically, someone with one black parent and one nonblack parent, as biracial? Or, to refer to someone who has recent nonblack ancestry, as mixed?
We all know why this is; as in all delicate subjects I try to provide context. As a result of the horrors of slavery, to keep the white pure, the one-drop rule was created, relegating anybody with any black blood in them to a second-class citizen. This is largely an American social construct that is pervasive in any conversation about black people in the States. However, colorism, a side effect of this, is an international phenomenon not unique to black people.
Part of the problem is that there is no widely accepted definition of “black”. It’s very chicken or egg. For some people, blackness is based solely on skin tone or phenotype, i.e., if you “look black”, then you’re black. But then that rabbit hole goes deeper. What does black look like? Look black to whom? Does what looks black to me look black to you? Who defines blackness? The person in question or the community at large? The common follow up defense to the “looking black” argument (especially if the subject is a biracial person who looks phenotypically black) is “well, white people will see that person as black, so they’re black”. The problem with that, is that white people then get to define blackness, no? Judging blackness based on how you think white people would treat you is counterproductive for sure.
For others, blackness means two black parents, and for others still, black means four black grandparents. For some, blackness is cultural, so you’re black no matter your parentage if you were raised a certain way. For added difficulty, the “rules” all change when it is a biracial/mixed woman in question. Her blackness will be graded like the SATs, comprising multiple sections to include external factors such as who her black parent was (children of black fathers are seen as blacker than children of black mothers, or vice versa depending on who you ask), dating history (if most of her suitors have been black, she can be black, if not, she’s SOL, again, depending on who you ask), sorority she pledged, hobbies, whether she uses a washcloth or a loofa in the shower, day of the week, name of her childhood dog, you name it.
Two examples include Tank appearing with his wife Zena on Black Brides Magazine or Tyrese referring to his wife with the remotest of black ancestry as his “black queen” (which was roundly mocked at the time, if memory serves). Who defines these ladies’ blackness? Being black is the only race that seems to be graded on a scale depending on irrelevant outside factors.
Are either of these women black to you? Why or why not?
It’s a very complicated issue that a single blog post will not be able to unravel.
How do all the other races define their racial makeup? If they’re not having the issues we do when it comes to classifying mixed people, maybe we should take a page out of their book. Thanks to the aforementioned one drop rule and centuries of internalized colorism and racism that resulted, it is only black people that are made to accept biracial people into the blackness fold, often to our detriment, and to the confusion of the biracial/mixed people that are getting yanked in and out from under the blackness umbrella.
I say all of this to say that designating people with one parent who is nonblack as mixed/biracial is not an insult. One reason biracial women in particular feel so comfortable or entitled to taking roles better suited for fully black women is that the community has elevated their status; why wouldn’t they take that role or that scholarship or that opportunity when black people have been cosigning the narrative that they are “black just like us” their whole lives? Why be designated as a “bottom-tier” white-adjacent person, when you can instead be “black royalty”? Plus, mixed people know that they are not black like us, despite how much they say otherwise. Could you imagine the uproar if a dark skinned, kinky haired woman was cast in the role of Marilyn Monroe or Selena Quintanilla, and painted and wigged in every shot to match? I think it would be much louder than the ire that Zoe Saldana got for her Nina Simone debacle.
I believe that people can self-identify as whatever they want, but collectively, we have to draw the line somewhere. Biracial people can say “yeah my mom/dad is [insert nonblack race here] but I’m still black”. I’m not going to come at someone for identifying themselves a certain way. However, I’m not going to call them black, because they’re not. Red and blue make purple, and purple is beautiful, and can stand in their purple lane with pride. Black people aren’t going to progress as a collective if we continue to elevate others over ourselves, and cosigning the belief that people with one nonblack parent are black like us, despite the privileges they get as a result of said nonblack parent, contributes to our downfall.
But wait!!! You are going to make biracial children too! You hypocrite!!!
If and when the time is right, my husband and I will indeed become parents. And we will be sure that they know and claim both sides of their rich ancestries, not one over the other, but both. Biracial is biracial, and that’s just fine.