Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Can We Talk? About Halle Berry, The One-Drop Rule, and Identity Politics
I don't usually like to repeat myself here on the blog, but when I get so many comments on one post, I know that more discussion is needed. It seems that a lot of people have a lot of things to say about Halle Berry's insistence on calling her child Black, on invoking the one-drop rule and on dragging her child through an ugly custody battle with her baby daddy.
I am so not going to put my foot into the middle of a custody case because they are messy. And sad. And completely unfair and damaging to children no matter how you figure it. But I would like to comment, on this 'my child is Black' comment.
1. Remember when President Obama was candidate Obama and he described himself as a Black man with a White mother? Some people didn't get that, but basically Obama said that he considers himself Black because when he walks down the street people see a Black man. They don't see his White mother.
2. I have two mixed children. One is dark enough that when he walks alone with his pale father, people assume he is adopted. And my other son is light enough that when he walks with me, people assume I must be the nanny. My children do not look alike but I tell them both that they are Mixed. I also tell them they are Black and Spanish. I don't insist that they call themselves any one label, I simply work hard to make sure they know where they come from. My older son recently came home and told me he was only allowed to check one box on his standardized test form and so he put Latino!? Point being, what I tell my kids and what they decide for themselves may be two totally different things.
3. Halle Berry's daughter is a child of the 21st century. She doesn't look Black. She looks Mixed. (Now of course you can disagree with me here and say you have an aunt so-and-so who IS Black and looks just like Nahla, but my point is, now that as a culture we are more culturally savvy, we understand that some people with pigmentation are not Black, but Mixed or Latina, or Asian with curly hair.) Unless everybody knows who her mama is, most people will probably be baffled by her racial heritage. In fact, I should probably send her one of my t-shirts that reads "Ambiguously Brown." Perhaps 50 years ago when racial categories seemed to begin and end with Black or White, or 200 years ago when the one-drop rule meant the difference between freedom and bondage, yes she would be defined as Black. But we have moved into the 21st century and the reality is little Nahla can be whatever she wants to be. Does that mean she won't face discrimination by some who still believe in racial purity or perhaps just hate Black people? Of course not? Am I saying she should deny being Black or call herself White. Not even close. When it matters, some day in the future, if Nahla wants to claim the Black community as her own (like her mother) she can do that. But on the other hand if she feels more culturally in touch with the Mixed community she can sign up with them. Or maybe just maybe, she will feel some supernatural connection to the people of Brazil and will claim them as her true community. ( It could happen!)
My point, and I do have one, is that our children today are lucky and challenged to have the option to choose their identities in many ways that people just one generation behind were not. And if we're honest, we have to admit that some people who are Mixed look more like one race than the other and perhaps their opportunities to choose their identity are more limited. President Obama, for example, discovered that calling himself Mixed felt false when everyone assumed he was Black. A friend of mine who is Japanese and Irish tried to "be fully Japanese" and the Japanese community in her city rejected her because she literally was too White. Another friend who is Black and Chinese was never welcomed into the Chinese community because she looks like a "regular Black girl." She says nobody ever knows her mother is Chinese. So, for some Mixed individuals that choice is not there to make, but for others it is. Nahla is definitely going to be one of those children. But considering she's only two right now, I think it's safe to say that her Mama can call her anything she wants to as long as it is said with love.