From the house slave to the paper bag tests, the octaroon Balls, to the legend of the Proctor’s, a biracial existence and stereotype has persisted throughout American history. Over the years, through my experience, research and intense discussions, it has become apparent that the issue of what it means to be biracial, Black or white has come up as a topic of great interest as we progress in the United States and abroad. I will discuss my opinion as a Black man and give references to the evidence in which supports my opinion.
I grew up in a predominantly black community which was very diverse in its make up. In PG County, MD, you have all types of Black people from dark skin to light skin to biracial. In my area there is an Urban Legend of a family called the Proctor’s which only marry light skin in order to keep their line “pure,” a long with other rumors I shall not name. Also, while attending a school system which was about 80-90% Black, I’ve often had friends at school that I never knew had a parent of another ethnicity, that identified as Black. Those that I knew at that time to be mixed identified as Black, no matter if they were Black and Asian or Black and White. Often times they were questioned as to their background, but as kids, you never really know the effect that can have on other kids.
In my family, there are a wide range of hues and phenotypes ranging from very light skin and thin nose to very dark skin and thick hair. My maternal family has been able to trace our roots back to the Captain and his slave as well as the various Black, white and native mixing subsequently after. My family since my great great grandmother has always considered themselves Black or “Negro” and married and lived as such even though they were very lightskin. My gg grandmother had one brother who left the family to go pass; he never had kids and never invited the family to see his new life to save his secret.
I’ve personally dated, befriended, and have cousins that are biracial; either they have one parent that is another ethnicity or they had one 1 or more grandparent that was another ethnicity. Of course these relationships have led to a great many discussions about how they perceive themselves. One such young lady I was dating persisted on me accepting her as biracial. I understood her opinion and accepted what she wanted to identify as. Another young lady I was dating didn’t give it too much thought, she considered herself Black. A friend of mine acknowledged that he’s biracial, he loved both sides of his heritage, but he identified as Black and went on to marry a Black woman. I’ve had friends with lightskin, red hair, and freckles with two Black parents and I’ve had friends that were lightskin with green eyes and curly hair with two Black parents, they all considered themselves Black and was seen as such.
So when considering my background and how I perceive the world, I usually see biracial people as Black rather than biracial. For instance, if I see a person that looks like Trevor Noah or Obama, in no matter the capacity, I would most likely see them as Black; where as, if I see a person who looks like a Blake Griffin or Patrick Mahomes, in any capacity, I would automatically believe them to be mixed, but I will identify them as Black. This is not to say I do not accept a person to be biracial if that is what they identify as. If that’s what you want to be referred to, if that’s what you want to be called, I am no one to stop you from considering yourself as such; this is left to the courts and the US government to determine an official category. But I will try to explain how we got to this point.
Of course, the mixing of populations is nothing new. In the cradle of civilization we have Africans mixed with Asians and Europeans and any other combination of the three, where race was not considered but usually based on one’s religious beliefs or citizenship. Fast forward to colonization, we begin to see a phenomenon of Hypodescent—or better yet, The One Drop Rule, which designated anyone with “drop” of African blood is considered, Black, Colored, Negro. The Spanish and French colonies a long with Thomas Jefferson, took it a step further in creating a caste system in classifying people according to the percentage of Black blood one may have: Mulatto, Quadroon, Octaroon, etc, with white at the top and Black at the bottom. These categories were in wide use during colonization but Spain and France has since taken a colorblind policy classifying according to nationality where as the US, England, and Latin America has continued to use classifications based on race. The difference between the US and England and Latin America is that racial categories are more fluid within the latter two areas.
As this racial caste system takes hold of the colonial powers, we have the creation of the pseudoscience of eugenics to try to justify its claim and we have Hypodescent forming in the ideologies of the perceived race (those in power) and the ideologies of the target race (how those who are perceived identify themselves). Eugenics was used as a scientific theory in order to support the claim of racial inferiority of people of color to white people. Where at first, white people saw themselves as separate by way of Nationalities, they began to see themselves as One race in an effort to bring civilization to the world and purity had to be defined. Of course, this offered those that mixed with white people an opportunity to excel, however, it often times their success would lead to resentment among white people who did not accept their existence and Black people who were jealous of the privileges they received. These unions were not all the product of love or choice, it was often done by force, through rape and breeding. In Australia for instance they have a Stolen Generation in which mixed children were forcibly removed from their indigenous homes to be assimilated into white society, similar to some Latin American countries that practiced blanquiamiento, only they were not forcibly removed, but rather manipulated through policy.
In the US we had quite the opposite phenomena where those who were visibly mixed largely assimilated into Black society while those who were extremely ambiguous went to pass into white society. Following the One Drop Rule we have civil rights court cases that will decide what degree of whiteness is acceptable to identify as BY LAW. Plessy v. Ferguson is one such case; a biracial man who was very ambiguous was identified as a Black man on a car train and told to sit in the Negro car. He then took the issue to the courts, and even though he was 1/16 African, the courts designated him a Black man and upheld the segregation laws of the State, fueling what would then become the legal segregation of Jim Crow; essentially dividing America based on the percentage of ones racial background. There was a case in Louisiana in 1983 where a woman who lived as a white woman her whole life was forced to put Black on her passport because her birth certificate stated she was Black. Reading the article is hilarious because it highlights the dynamic of passing and the psychological effect it has on identity and her perception of Blackness. She identified as White, found out she was Black, felt sick because she was identified as Black and skipped her vacation just to prove she was white, and the LA courts rejected her “Whiteness.” Of course this was in one of the most rigid racially segregated States, the same state where Plessy v. Ferguson took place, and it reflects the overall racial construct of what America was built upon that is still seen today.
For the most part, Black Americans continued to accept their biracial kin as their own throughout the years as well as they themselves identifying as Black. The reality of the situation was that of choice; they had little if any choice as to what they wanted to identify themselves as, save in isolated areas such as the creole south and other Blue Vein Societies. When a birth certificate was documented, when a passport was issued, Black or Negro or Colored (Negro and Colored falling into disuse after the 70s) would be the designation on the Race, each one being interchangeable with the other. With the creole south and other Blue Vein societies, because of the increased opportunities and upward mobility that biracial Black people were able to receive, they would build a tradition of seeking only light-skin or white partners to marry in order to maintain their status. Because being light skin was perceived as a status, many people who were ambiguous enough to pass in white society would often forsake their kin and even of having kids in order to maintain their appearance around their new white family, friends, and co-workers.
Fast forward to the United States of America in 2021 interracial marriages have become more acceptable than it was in 1983 and 100 years before that in, 1883. We have to remember, interracial marriages were not fully legal until 1967, before that, the State was the sole regulator of miscegenation laws, so we have definitely progressed as a nation. With this progress and acceptability of interracial relationships, those who were once prejudice or racist against Black people now face their children marrying outside of their race and having biracial kids, who ultimately would be considered Black. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why the terms “biracial” and “mixed” are being used more often in mainstream society. Not only does it acknowledge both sides of a biracial persons heritage, it also gives comfort to those who were once prejudice or racist to consider their kin as “biracial,” instead of Black.
Where do we go from here? Well, I will always see biracial people mixed with African as Black. Whether it’s conditioning, or through my family and experience, or just bias, that is what I see through my eyes when I see interracial people—Black. I am not one to reject my kin on the basis of how much European ancestry he may have as did the framers of race. Though I say this, I am not opposed to identifying people by what they want to be identified, so if a person is biracial, and want to be identified and known as such, I will try to acknowledge them as such. And Aagain, in my opinion, being Black is not just a monolithic phenotypical look or purity of lineage, being Black is also an ethnic and cultural experience that we, as Black people, experience. For this reason, I accept and respect those interracial people who have never been a part of the ethnic or cultural experience and who are not phenotypically identifiable as Black identifying as white and/or biracial.
My only suggestion would be for those who would like to be acknowledged as separate from Black and White to get an official category on the Census so that official statistics can be taken and applied to the allocation of resources to particular minority populations. It seems the English may be more progressive in their classification of races then that of the US. Whether we have bias or are conditioned, in my opinion, it is better to be aware of it so one can be as objective and empathetic as possible towards others.