In an eloquently argued New York Times Sunday Review article on March 16th, entitled “As Black as We Wish to Be,” author Thomas Chatterton Williams advances a provocative and thought-provoking argument: “mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.”
Is this a good argument? Do mixed-race individuals have an ethical obligation to identify as members of one race, rather than many or none? And is there a special obligation in the case of mixed-race African-Americans, given this country’s long history of racial discrimination?
I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Williams and answer all three with “no.”
The first problem with Mr. Williams’ fear about authentic “blackness” being lost in the chaotic kaleidoscope of multiracial identity is that he implicitly assumes there to be an authentic “blackness” to begin with. Defining a monolithic “blackness” — or, for that matter, any “-ness” at all — is not so simple as saying it exists.
The peoples white America has long uncritically lumped together as “black” have histories and cultures too diverse and too unique to be essentialized in the breath of a single word.
America’s so-called “blacks” are first-generation Ghanaian immigrants; they are old families whose mystic chords of memory tie their past inextricably to that of the slaveholding South and the civil rights movement; they are the descendants of Brazilian mestizos whose family trees boast a brambly tangle of Amerindian, African, and European colonial branches; they are the sons and daughters of South African freedom fighters forged in the fires of apartheid.
What, then, is “blackness,” and does anyone have the right to define it?
I worry also that Mr. Williams veers dangerously close to endorsing the old racial fantasy that character follows blood — that, to quote Aimé Césaire’s dictum in “Discourses on Colonialism,” “if we plumb the depths” of the modern multiracial man, “then what we will find is fundamentally black.” It seems rather like buying into the very racial myth long perpetuated by the prejudiced and the small-minded: that genes determine (or ought to determine) how one acts, thinks or interacts with others.
Third, identity is an intensely personal choice, and often multiple identities coexist and overlap within a single person. It is no one’s business but our own how we adjudicate our own internal struggle for identity — whether we identify with our mother or father, our “blackness” or “whiteness,” the moral legacy of Frederick Douglass, César Chávez or Abraham Lincoln, or all of these at once.
Indeed, perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of this community we have here at Stanford is the spectacular way in which it constantly explodes categories and renders old boundaries meaningless.
Society draws strength from its plurality and imbibes vitality from the hybrid experiences of its not-quite, in-between people. The daughter of a Singaporean businessman and a Venezuelan lawyer, the son of a Nigerian diplomat and a Haitian-American doctor — these people’s stories are so powerful precisely because, unrestrained by artificially enforced fidelity to a single aspect of themselves, they are free to embrace the many facets of their lived experience.
We need only look in this regard to the incredible story of our president, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas who, as he patiently reminded us in the aftermath of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco, “can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother.” We could look to psychology, which tells us that mixed-race individuals are perceived as more attractive, or music, where the melding of ethnic genres gave birth to Elvis and The Beatles, or architecture, where Spanish colonial grandiosity and ultramodern élan blend in the campus we know and love.
With the pernicious legacy of the one-drop rule still staring coldly over our shoulders — with white America exerting more than sufficient pressure on black people to conform to ancient stereotypes; with the charge of “acting white” still limiting the aspirations of young black children across the country; with support for anti-miscegenation laws among Southern Republicans still hovering between 20 and 30 percent — it is high time we stopped putting people in boxes. It is time we began taking them out.
Take Miles out of his box anytime by emailing him at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.