On vacation in South Africa, riding through Cape Town on my way to my hotel, I was dying to ask my cab driver, any South African, about apartheid. It had been a subject of interest for me since I read Kaffir Boy in junior high. It didn't take long for me to broach the subject. He was talking about how South Africa had changed and how Mandela and then Mbeki had given him hope for the future of his country.
So what was it like, apartheid, I asked with only a modicum of trepidation.
It was hard, you know. It was bad, he replied.
He went on to describe how the country was segregated in almost matter-of-fact technical terms. I got the sense I wasn't the first tourist to ask the question.
Getting close to my hotel he said to me, rather cavalierly, but you wouldn't have been considered black.
I'm black, I shot back, defensive. My mind instantly castigating him: this poor brother, I thought. He doesn't get it. We're all the same. I don't see why he has to try to divide people.
No, he continued, I mean in the system you would not have been considered black. You would have been colored.
Colored? I thought. What kind of Jim Crow bananas is that??
I was considered colored, he added.
At this I looked at him sideways. I didn't know what to think. Clearly, the South African racist oppressors conceived a slightly more nuanced racist system from the American racist oppressors. He was a rather dark-skinned man that resembled Laurence Fishburne. Ironically, I was working with Laurence Fishburne at the time and already had my camera out to take his picture. The only other distinct difference between the two besides him being considerably darker than Laurence Fishburne was his silky straight jet-black hair. He was an Arab.
On that trip and through my adventures throughout the region, in three other countries, I learned a lot about race. Because we are the most diverse country in the world, the United States inherited the world's misconceptions of race and used those misconceptions to construct a very powerful illusion. As an African American one has to resist the cultural pressure to see oneself through a prism of racism. But in Africa, the motherland, I learned something very important that I needed to know about myself as a black person, identity. Specifically, that my identity was defined primarily by my experiences.
The headline reads: Halle Berry's Ex: Don't Call My Baby Black!
The recent allegations of racism lobbed against Gabriel Aubry don't upset me the way they seem to upset many black people on the Internet. In the ugly custody battle between Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry that has gone public for all to weigh in, a facetted and substantive debate has surfaced.
I have a friend that is Canadian. He is one of the kindest, most generous, most nonjudgmental people I know. During the 2008 presidential debates, he always remarked he thought it strange that Obama was referred to as black. He thought Obama should be referred to as biracial since his mother was white and his father is black. When pressed why he thought there was something wrong with even Obama's self-identification as black man he shared that to him it felt racist of white Americans to not acknowledge that African Americans are often times multiracial. He saw it as exclusionary and quite frankly, I think he's on to something.
The one-drop of blood rule is indeed racist. It was constructed by racists and promulgated by racists, and promoted by racists as a means to discourage interracial relationships. Race was a standard by which people were excluded from opportunity in this country. Black people were, and to some degree still are, relegated to a marginalized socioeconomic class. The one-drop rule was a warning against having children with a black person.
Interestingly enough, the best-kept secret of America to this day is that many, many, many biracial people passed. In order to skirt the one-drop rule, droves of biracial people lied about their identity and said they were French or even Jewish and then married white people and gained "status" that was otherwise closed off to them. The children of those kids were most times unaware of their black roots. That great grandmother that was darker was portrayed down through the generations as being French or black Irish or Spanish. In reality, she may not have been any of those things at all. She may just have been a child or grandchild of a black person.
This factual history, reality, flies in the face of the one-drop rule that brainwashed Americans into thinking that white is pure and black taints. It's a blantant lie as the truth about our ancestors attest. We should all be proud of our black heritage. Considering what black people have been up against: a white man with a criminal record is more likely to find a job than a black man without a criminal record; Jim Crow Segregation; slavery--it is impressive that African Americans have created scholars, inventors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, artists, scientists, activists, entertainers, educators, politicians, a president, and so on. African Americans gave this country the Civil Rights Movement which delivered all disenfranchised people into hope for justice and equality. African Americans gave the world jazz and blues. Whatever you may think of hip-hop, African Americans turned insurmountable poverty and its inherent nihilism into a billion dollar industry. There was no privilege or advantage to being black, quite the contrary, and yet African Americans not only survived but in many cases flourished.
All things considered, one has to strive to create a world in which plight is not affixed to race. And one has to strive to create a world where race is presented as it truly is, a phenotype-a set of physical characteristics, an idea many African Americans bristle at. Race is an illusion. To that, it is perfectly acceptable for a person to acknowledge all of his or her heritage. No one should be made to feel ashamed that their parents crossed the color barrier. Biracial people shouldn't feel that pressure from white people and they shouldn't feel that pressure from black people either because we should all be free to identify with who we truly are. So, if Gabriel Aubry feels inclined to be specific in identifying his daughter's racial background, it is his prerogative. As long as the choice is not shrouded in shame, I think it's probably rather healthy.