Defining Blackness Down

Most of the coverage surrounding the Rachel Dolezal controversy stems from the perceived notion that she was engaged in a 24/7 blackface routine or that she was misappropriating blackness out of some kind of deep-seated sense of confusion or emotional inadequacy. Frankly, none of that interests me. What’s incredible to me is that no one is asking how American racial politics enabled Dolezal to pull off her scheme, because in no other country would she consider her to be black, whether in her youthful Caucasian phase or in her current racially ambiguous disguise.

I’ve thought for a while that the United States defines blackness down, to borrow a phrase, via the “one drop rule.” As readers probably know, the one-drop rule says that having a single black ancestor, no matter how distant, makes one completely black. On one level this is patently absurd, since if the one drop rule was really being enforced, almost everybody would be considered black (I’m personally of the opinion that anyone whose family has been in the United States since the antebellum period has African ancestry). On a practical level, the one-drop rule expands the notion of “black” to the point where it has no meaning. One can have blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin and still be considered “black” in the United States. Not even South Africa, probably the only other country that shares the American obsession with racial classification and stratification defines “blackness” in such vague terms. Outside the United States, black people are defined as being, well, black. Simply being beige doesn’t cut it. The very term “light-skinned black/African American” should be an oxymoron, but few people think anything of it.

This was something that confused me a great deal as a child. Until I was about ten or so, I thought my mother was white, because she was even more pale than the obviously Caucasian mothers of my white peers. I also thought that my maternal grandfather was white, as well as my maternal great-aunt because of their skin color. It wasn’t until some time later than I realized that one could look white for all intents and purposes, but still be black because of the one-drop rule.

The reason that the one-drop rule was instituted was because of intense fears among 19th century white Americans that racially ambiguous “mulattoes” would intermarry with white people and “lessen” the nation’s “racial stock.” Granted, they were about two hundred years too late with that concern (if you’re worried about racial intermixing, then you absolutely shouldn’t have slavery, because that ensures that the dominant race will take sexual liberties with the oppressed race), but that was the stated reason, absurd as it may be. Even today, there is resistance to the notion of being a mixed race American, even though inter-racial marriages are at a record high. The idea that one must be only one and only one race still has a strong hold on the American imagination.

As with many things in life, racial mixing, whether voluntary or not, was/is quite common in the United States, despite a professed horror of the notion that persists to this day in some quarters. Almost all of the nineteenth century African American heroes had white fathers, including Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington. Some early twentieth century “race men” like John Hope, Walter White (of the NAACP, not the guy from “Breaking Bad,” and Alonzo Herndon look almost completely white. Was anyone really surprised when Strom Thurmond, who famously engaged in the longest filibuster ever by a lone senator to thwart the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, was posthumously revealed to have an illegitimate black/bi-racial daughter? I certainly wasn’t. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The knave doth protest too much.”

The insistence that blacks are blacks and whites are whites and the two have never and must not ever meet is so obviously false that one wonders how such a view can persist. For whites, I think they simply don’t want to have to deal with the true horrors of the “peculiar institution,” which includes the mass rapes of black women by slave masters. That many conservatives still try to find ways to absolve Thomas Jefferson in the matter of the Sally Hemmings’ affair shows the depths of their denial. For blacks, I think that confronting the past head-on is simply too painful to bear, so they simply prefer not to think about it. Our collective history of racial-mixing is sort of like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but no one wants to address.

Simply put, I think if the United States didn’t have such a racial binary system that Rachel Dolezal never would have felt compelled to pass as black, because she wouldn’t have been able to get away with it. If Dolezal had to exist in some kind of mixed-race category rather than as an oxymoronic light-skinned black person, she would have consigned herself to being a white ally, which is what the commonsense and appropriate approach would have been to her alleged affinity with African American culture. I can appreciate Dolezal wanting to advance the cause of social justice and African American rights, but you don’t need to change your skin color or get extensions to do that.

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