Many times throughout my life I began to write about the subject of inter-racial marriage. My birth being the result of an American interracial marriage, I found that the perspective was rarely spoken about from the point of view of the child of these unions. I am friendly with Rebecca Walker, and when meeting her for the first time, I explained how Black, White, & Jewish was such an important book for me, as we shared similar experiences as children in the 1970s and 1980s in America, born to mixed heritage.
A Pew Research study just released today revealed that 15 percent of new marriages in America are between two persons of different ethnicities, with 11 percent being Black and Caucasian unions. I recently attended a panel at a conference where my friend, music executive, Sylvia Rhone spoke. The subject of the discussion was the impact of music, specifically hip hop and black music, on mainstream branding and advertising messages portrayed in the mass media and "to" the mass audience. As some of the brightest and progressive in media, technology, advertising, and philanthropy sat around a room discussing the subject, I looked back and forth at Sylvia as if to say to her through facial expression, "are we really having this conversation in 2012?"
The reality is, as I approach my 42nd birthday this week, persons like myself have seen this change in our country's demographics for the same years I have lived on this earth. Certainly, if you are of the younger generations, you do not perceive people or culture this way, but still it is a subject of contention and debate that seems to dominate the messages sent through media and advertisers.
Barack Obama is of mixed heritage, and still we waste time discussing his birth certificate and the authenticity of his citizenship and birthplace. A friend of mine, whom is of mixed heritage (half Pakistani) and a U.S. Citizen, formerly an investment banker at Goldman Sachs was detained in London for over seven months because his name was the same as someone on the terrorist list. Need I mention that there are likely thousands of people with the same name in Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, and that after he proved his identity, citizenship, home, life, job, and education, should have been allowed to leave to go home? No, this did not happen.
This week, a moving documentary aired on HBO, The Loving Story. The film reminded me that in addition to many of the landmark rulings that have been made in favor of women's rights, civil rights, and human rights in our country seem to be center stage once again. I just do not understand how this is possible in an era where tolerance and acceptance is a part the younger generations and society.
As recently as 1960, "miscegenation" was a felony and punishable by jail in over 24 states in our union.
My parents met in 1965 in Washington, D.C at the Washington Hospital Center, where my mother was a nurse in the emergency room with my father's sister, my Aunt Blanche. My mother of Irish-Scottish decent, blond, and green-eyed married my brown skinned father four years later. Mixed relationships and mulatto children have existed in America for centuries when masters had relationships with their slaves and Indians mixed with both Caucasians and Blacks. The government and many political leaders opposed public relationships, and certainly marriage was forbidden.
As a young child, I spent a lot of time with both sides of my family. My mother's family and my maternal grandparents lived in North Western Pennsylvania, so we spent most holidays in the country. My paternal grandmother lived in Washington, D.C. just miles from where we lived. My paternal grandfather had passed long before my birth. I did not even realize that racism existed until we moved to Maryland when I was in the first grade. I knew my parents were of different ethnicities, and the differences in the two sides of my family made logical sense based on that. My parents had friends from all over the country, and all over the world. We lived in the center of an internationally transient community, and it was not unusual for me to have friends from Germany or Liberia or Vietnam, even in the late 70s. I did not realize this was not the norm for most people until years later. In many ways, I felt years later as if I lived in an unusual and rare bubble, but I know now that my parents being very progressive, purposely surrounded my brother and I with people of similar philosophies, and exposed us to culture of all kinds.
In the first grade, the State of Maryland had a required placement exam that I had to take at school. That is my earliest memory of the question of my ethnicity. My mother sat me down at the questionnaire of personal information that she was to fill out for me. She had me fill out the questionnaire myself, and she guided me through every question. When we came to the fill-in-the-blank question about race, my mother simply said to me, "which one do you feel comfortable filling in?" I remember being confused by the question, and asking her what she meant and why the question was asked at all. She simply told me that it did not make sense to her either, but that the state feels they need the information so they understand people better. She then explained that I am "whom I believe I am inside" and that I should never allow anyone, including she and my father to tell my brother or me what race we should identify with. She then explained that even though she was "white," that most people would believe that I was "black." I then told her I was both, however, there was no option for "mulatto" or "mixed race." Since there was not, my mother then explained that if I wanted to think about it, I should, and that if I changed my mind later when asked the question again, I could answer differently later. She really wanted me to not be stressed out about the question, but she was clear that I was about to embark on a part of my life where I would be repeatedly asked this question, and perhaps specifically asked about my parents. I did fill in "black," and since then always have filled in "Black" unless a mixed race or mulatto option was presented. I was never once asked about my race when with my father, clearly, with my Mother being pale, blond, and light eyed, that raised more curiosity when I was young. Not soon after, when my mother was picking me up from a play date with my best friends, twin boys named Matt and Sean, a young Caucasian girl, whom was one of our classmates, approached me as my mother was loading me into the backseat of the car. She said, "Are you adopted?" I had never heard that word before, and did not understand what she meant. My mother interrupted and said politely, "No, she is not adopted." When we drove away, I glanced up looking at my mother in her rear view mirror and said, "Mom, what is adopted anyway?" She then walked me through what it meant, and I was even more confused. I then said, "Well, Mom, why would she think you were not my real Mom?" My mother smiled at me, and I could see she was so happy that I didn't understand. She then walked me through the fact that she was white and I was not white skinned so that many people are ignorant to the fact that she was my biological mother. She made me to be sensitive to that type of ignorance, as ignorance. She continued by insisting that I was lucky to have the experiences and family that I did, and even went on to predict that in the future I would be advantaged to be both white and black. When I was a bit older and asked a similar question about the racial differences between she and I, she had a more spirited sarcastic response, "how could you possibly think that? I am her sister."
As an adult now though, I am frustrated by the similar conversations that I had when I was 6 years old. How is it possible in our society, with the evolving demographics of our nation and of the world? It is seemingly impossible, however it does exist? How is advertising with non-white images considered "ancillary" or "urban" or "niche?" How are we again questioning the civil and human rights about gay marriage or challenging Roe v. Wade? Are we going backwards? These are not positions that are either conservative or liberal. They are simply rights discussions. Moreover, it seems to me that youth realize this, and that the older generations and political gatekeepers need to allow for a changing of the guard that is reflective of our current society.