Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Can We Talk? About Halle Berry, The One-Drop Rule, and Identity Politics

Meltingpot Readers,

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.



iamatraveler said...

I think you are right. Halle can call her daughter anything she wants to as long as she says it with love. But question, when it comes to culture, what does it really mean to be mixed? What type of rituals and traditions are being created here where, folks of a certain phenotype feel more comfortable in? The thing about this new mixed movement that's in full swing, is that I feel it's a rejection of the traditions and rituals of the African-American community. But what type of exclusive culture replaces it? Just because you may have less African features, doesn't mean you have to walk away from the African-American cultural experience, i.e. our music, our dance, our celebrations, our proud history, you don't have to look a certain way to enjoy that. For me, it's about culture. Race is just a social construct. Everyone in the whole wide world is Black because the human experience began in Africa. So if that sounds silly to you, then let's stop categorizing by race. Because really yes, the one drop rule is very out-dated, and so are racial categories of white, black, and mixed. But, as you have shown your boys, there is nothing wrong with recognizing and celebrating and embracing culture on all sides of your ancestry.

Mimi-Louise-Love said...

Halle Made me so angry when she uttered those words, she purely made herself look like an idiot. Did she say such things out of shame? she made herself look so ignorant. there is NOTHING wrong with accepting and embracing all sides of you.

sorry but i had to vent my feelings about her!!

LT said...

I think the Mixed community is defining their traditions as we speak, but basically the culture of being Mixed comes from growing up with feet in multiple pots of culture. It is not the same thing as being of one single cultural background. It's not my heritage, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Try visiting Mixed Chicks Chat or the Mixed Roots website to get some more ideas about Mixed culture and history. I know I learned a lot from them.

No need to apologize. You go ahead and share.

Anonymous said...

Nahla is 3/4 white. If Halle Berry was so concerned about the race of her child, why didn't she have a child from her other husbands?

LT said...

That's an interesting question. One perhaps Berry is asking herself right now.

Anonymous said...

i have a question for you Lori. from what i've read you are doing your best to raise your kids to deal with the real world. but i'm interested to know how your husband approaches the racial identity issue. how does he go about explaining to your sons their racial identity? keep up the good work!


Kristy said...

I'm "white" and married to a "black" man. I put those in quotes, because I think the color descriptions are just hilarious! Obviously, then, our 2-year old son is mixed. He definitely looks like a mixed child to those who know what mixed children look like. He looks like a very tan white kid with brown ringlet curls all over his head. Absolutely adorable! Neither my husband or I really worry about teaching any particular cultural background to our son. My husband will be the first to tell you that he doesn't call himself African-American, because he doesn't know anyone in his family who came from anywhere besides the United States. He simply identifies himself as American. I, on the other hand, say I'm German and Irish (very European). Although my husband does not really have any cultural traditions that he cares to pass down, I do. On the basic cultural traditions, like Christmas, Easter, etc., we agree and carry on the childhood traditions. Otherwise, we tend to teach my traditions more. But, that's only by virtue of how we were raised so differently. Regarding skin color, or race, I tell my son and step-daughter (who is all black) that people really are not black or white. I teach them the true colors that we all are. I taught my step-daughter that she is actually brown and I'm beige. My son is more of a light brown or tan color. The other day while I was teaching my son colors, my husband walked through the room and my son said "daddy's brown!" I laughed hysterically! But, that's what I believe in teaching him about race or skin color. The way that people describe it is not really correct.

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

Its number 3 I take issue with. Why do people think that just because its a different century problems of the previous century no longer exist?

Hello! People from 1950 are still alive, and if they were hateful their kids picked up on it which meant their grandkids picked up on it.

In 2011, I still see the one drop rule all the time. I still see racism all the time. Sure you may no longer have actual laws that support discrimination but that doesn't mean it isn't in practice.

I just don't get how any parent can raise their kid to believe things have improved so much that they will never face opposition and discrimination as a result.

My mother (she is white) didn't prepare me for the racism I would face and would at times be in denial about my black heritage and now I have to figure this out all on my own.

The same problems that fueled the problems of slavery and Jim Crow are fundamentally still there. You can deny it all you want but that will only make your child's life harder, especially if you live in the Midwest (like me) or the South.

Now if you live in some perfect world where there are no problems then you are lucky, but you should still prep them for the world and not pretend the 21st century is somehow better than the world 50 years ago, not when there is so much hate going on as we speak that prove the opposite.

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

I guess the only person able to understand why Halle Berry did what she did is an actual mixed person like myself. Why whites and blacks don't understand it baffles me, its really not hard to understand.

I guess the reason I get it and none of you guys get it is because, like Halle, I know what its like to grow up not feeling any connection with the black side, but being seen as black, and then realizing that being black in America is the hardest thing ever which causes all sorts of feelings and confusion of how to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

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