Transcending The Race Issue

María Arreaza-Coyle

Many years ago, after proudly telling a Caucasian friend of mine, that like most Hispanics from northern South America, and the Caribbean area, I had black ancestors, he made a defining and unequivocal statement: “So, you are black”. And I, a bit disconcerted, went on to say, “Yes.”


María Arreaza-Coyle

After that short exchange a few days were to go by before I realized that I was actually irritated at its implications. And then it all came to surface; it was his quick and ready made categorization of my racial status that had annoyed me. In my case I wondered, what about my Basque ancestors on my father’s side and my supposedly French great grandmother on my mother’s side? Why were these genes that I was also proud of so suddenly eradicated from my biology? But as I brewed over the incident, I realized that my racial designation was really not surprising in as much as in the United States this categorization applied not only to me, but to thousands of interracial and biracial individuals who readily accepted it and actually choose it. A case in point being the actress, Halle Berry, who has a black father and a white mother and calls herself black.

The media itself in fact assigns the racial category “black” to people who the average reader and TV viewer know are indeed biracial. As I write this article in fact, I read in the New York Times the obituary of the famous playright, August Wilson. Mr Wilson was the son of a German father and a black mother, but the writer of the article in question goes on to say a few lines ahead:

“As the only black student in his class in a Roman Catholic high school, Mr. Wilson gained awareness of the grinding ugliness of racism.”

And again, in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin journal you are informed that Barrack Obama, the recently elected Democratic Senator is “…the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas…” and a few paragraphs later he is referred to as “The third black senator since Reconstruction…”. In the Newsweek of November 1, 2004 again, you come across a similar categorization of Senator Obama: “ Since his speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2005, Obama has spent as much time campaigning for other Democrats as for his own race…” and you do not need to ask what race they are referring to of course. In a Vanity Fair issue of January 2005, Obama again is referred to as “African American” which literally means black. Once again in 2005, Mary T. Washington died. You could tell from her picture that she was 100% biracial but in her obituary in The New York Times, they called her, “….First Black Woman….”and so as things stand then, in the eyes of too many journalists, television anchors and newscaster, as well as the average white American, and biracial American, white and black = black, gray is non-existent, and Mr. Obama himself, most likely feels he belongs to this group. It was then in light of this aberrant yet interesting psycho-social phenomenon that I had never seen addressed, that I decided to do a bit of research and write about my findings.

For centuries, the children of interracial unions were considered negro, the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese word for black, and a most unfortunate choice given the hateful context of its use and its connotations. Most of these individuals accepted their denomination although in time the qualifier became black and later African-American with no pejorative connotations. But theirs was, and for many of them still is, the struggle of finding an accommodating slot in the two distinct worlds of black and white. Often taunted and rejected by both, uneducated blacks and whites, these individuals often had no choice but to live in black communities. Their escape route was then to feel and act black.

This, was their way of solving a social problem, albeit unaware, that in so doing, they were also giving in to and reinforcing a preconceived and misguided racial notion, namely the ‘drop of blood’ designation according to which having a black ancestor makes one black and there is nothing in between. Sociologists refer to this as the ‘rule of hypo-descent’ or the affiliation, in the minds of bigots, with what they consider the ‘subordinate’group as oppose to the ‘super-ordinate’ group. White is for them a pure category, and being biracial or inter-racial makes one absolutely non-white.

The ‘drop of blood’ designation was also and foremost, a commercial subterfuge in as much as those labeled individual would not be spared from slavery.

Anyone who has studied biology learned that there are dominant and recessive genes, and that the protein melanin which is responsible for dark skin is indeed dominant. But the intent of racist individuals is to obliterate the recessive white genes that biracial individuals do possess; their intention is to make race a social fact. And this, leads to the case in point, for its accolade is the denial of all white ancestors on the grounds of an arbitrary and rigid black and white line of demarcation. A line that ironically is observed every time a biracial individual chooses to call himself or herself black.

The question is, then, are these individuals aware of the implications underlying their choice? And why are they seemingly ashamed of being biracial, namely part white? In the past, denial of any white heritage was actually a must. Then, the act of miscegenation was castigated only when black men like the fighter Jack Johnson rebelled and held affairs with willing white women, but not when black women were victims of rape by white men. Back then, outstanding black leaders like Booker T. Washington condemned these unions, and so, there was no recourse for biracial or interracial children and adults but to reject, to obliterate the white in them. But today, why do they deny their white heritage and stigmatize it even when their parents are married or have made love willingly? After all, history tells us that many important leaders, abolitionists, were interracial; Americans like the great Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, E. Du Bois, entertainers like Lena Horn Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Rosa Park, the civil rights pioneer, and others were all part white. But of course history also tells us that given the circumstances and the context in which they lived, and the causes they were fighting for made them want to feel absolutely black. It was then a status they actually sought, elicited by a multiplicity of factors.

Today’s biracial and interracial people however, whether consciously or subconsciously are forgetting that there were indeed white freedom fighters, and emancipators as far back as the 18th and 19th century. The underground railroad was to a significant extent organized by white men and women who in silence fought slavery. By the mid 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt, the great German natural scientist had already rejected any notion of a hierarchical or superior race. In the late 19th century, another German, the Jewish anthropologist, Franz Boas, fought to do away with ill-founded notions and claims of white race supremacy by scientifically disproving them. There have been countless white Americans who have also fought in their own way against racism, and thousands if not millions joined Martin Luther King back in the sixties. Today, in this country, a white majority together with black leaders want to see any form of racism stamped out. Why then does the need of a black status continue to predominate?

One important answer among many is that Slavery in the United States as we all know was a kind of genocide and it still hunts us. On the other hand, slavery in one way or another goes back to centuries B.C. The Israelites were sold into slavery around 600 BC. Around 860 BC, black Africans were exploited in what is today Iraq but enslavement here soon came to an end given widespread revolts. Whites themselves were also subjected to slavery in Muslim countries. In the 16th and 17th centuries slave trade in Africa was actually negotiated by black middle men who fell into the trap of the European slave trade and profited from it. White Europeans built forts that served as trading posts, and exchanged goods such as rum, guns, and clothing for free African men and women who were betrayed by their own race. The story of Nzinga Mbemba, ruler of the Congo Kingdom in the 15th and 16th centuries, comes to mind. Initially against slavery he gradually came to accept it as a necessary mode of fair trade, and took in exchange, what were considered crucial goods such as rifles which were then used to fight neighboring attacks.

And today, there is still slavery in parts of Africa, and genocide as well, an example being the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 and what is going on today in Darfur, the Sudan. For centuries, there was a form of slavery in Russia, serfdom, which was to last until Tsar Alexander II freed the peasants in 1861. The peasants still had a price to pay but that is not at issue here. What is at issue in the 21st. century in the United States is what James Baldwin said so many years ago:

“It is time for White people to stop feeling guilty about Negroes, and for Negroes to stop trying to make them feel guilty, unless they want to feel guilty about being persons on this earth.”

The above appeared in an article in The New York Times of Monday, September 13, 2004, A Literary Friendship in Black and White and was quoted by Sol Stein, 77, a writer and publisher who in 1939, and despite their almost dramatic differences at the time, started and sustained a long life friendship with James Baldwin once they met at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. According to Mr. Stein. Baldwin wanted to show,

“that thought about the issues rather than anger was essential to establishing the sense that we are all human beings and not of color.”

But anger, overt or covert, still persists and it is manifested in the denial of one’s white race; a fact that reminds us that forgiveness is yet to come. The horrors of slavery in this country, the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, we must never forget. But we must forgive and in our own way contribute in someway so that coming generations in full awareness of these evils fight them like the plague.

The past refuses to leave us though, and so, not long ago the traditional notion and reality of inter-race relationships and their offspring, took center stage in the USA by way of the late Senator Strom Thurman’s illegitimate biracial daughter, Mrs. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whose mother had been a servant in the Thurman household. The media in general in covering the story referred to Mrs. Washington-Williams, as “black” despite her obvious heritage. In other words, with few exceptions, like her CBS interview with Dan Rather, her biracial status, her right to call herself half white, was ignored. And the saddest part of this was that she accepted it. Had she, despite the historical context, brought to bear her racial reality, the fact that she was also half white, and deserved recognition and acceptance by her white relatives, her dignity would obviously have been at stake in the eyes of most blacks and some whites, but, she also would have set an important precedent. In the same mode, Rosa Park called herself black up until the end, and on her passing the media referred to her as such.

Yet, this state of affair is gradually being challenged given that there is in the United States and in the world today what could be called a dilution of races and to such a degree, that in future, it may make racists and purists gasp for breath and drown in its wake. The future however is yet to come and presently one can still experience situations such as the above that set back the stage and cloud the perspective of a society where race should no longer be a salient issue that leads to strife and discontent.

Many are then the implications and repercussions of interracial relationships, but most central is the fact that interracial marriages here and in Europe, are rapidly giving rise to what can now be considered a new individual, a “beautiful blend”, a catchy phrase recently used in a PBS program on mixed races in this country. But most importantly a new individual that will not wish to be categorized as white, or black, or American Indian. Current, and certainly future generations of inter-racial individuals, fully cognizance of the deformation of race by racists, will no doubt be proud of their mixed heritage, and expect that a more enlightened and egalitarian society will make a conjoint effort to transcend the one race issue and in so doing, its nefarious consequences. Finding support will not be difficult as already some voices have been heard.

In 2/23/97, The New York Times published SONGS OF SLAVERY LIFTED BY A CHORUS OF HORNS, by T. Rosengarten. In this article, the great African-American jazz musician, Winton Marsalis, was referred to by the author for his enlightened remarks on the race issue. Mr. Marsalis had expressed the belief that addressing racial issues without at the same time aiming to transcend them was indeed futile.

Undoubtedly, whether musically, verbally in debates and chats, or in writing, the only approach is to go beyond race. And nowhere is the futility of centering on race more eloquently expressed than in Mr. Rosengarten’s quote that “When an African prince who once owned slaves, finds himself enslaved, we are not dealing with black or white men, we are dealing with a dark side of human nature.”

Later on, in IN LIVING COLOR by John Leland and Gregory Beals, NEWSWEEK, April, 5/5/97, Tiger Woods, the champion golf player, also voiced an important opinion about transcending the one race issuer by way of his "cablinasian" neologism. Cablinasian, which stands for Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian, and which Mr. Woods made up when he was only a little boy, is another way of saying: I am all of this and I’m proud, but I am also more than this, I am a whole individual. The importance of stressing one’s humanity as opposed to one’s racial status, was also expressed by Tiger Woods’ father when they both made their appearance on an Oprah Winfrey Show. When asked about the particulars of his son’s racial background, Mr. Woods, like his son, transcended the issue by referring to him as just “a human being”

Having originally come from a long line of mixed-race individuals whose ancestors date back 200 years or more, I, along with, not all, but still, thousands of people from the Caribbean area, have in many ways gone beyond blackness, whiteness, Asian, and Indian heritage to become interracial or multiracial. Consequently, the notion of one absolute race has ceased to be centerfold in our lives. As more than one sociologist will attest to, in these sectors of Latin American societies, racial identity is not characterized by the rigid “descent rule” that has prevailed in the United States. The majority of people living in these parts of the world have long embraced their heterogeneity and this has in turn allowed them to go transcend race itself. If there is a racial framework of references, it is one that interestingly enough has endowed many of us with what could be called a kind of ‘racial maturity’ one that allows us to focus on what he or she has to offer independently of skin color and facial features, for in embracing our entire heritage we are also embracing our common humanity.

Let us hope that in time, a similar attitude becomes entrenched in the United States. And no doubt the dilution of races that has been taking place through interracial unions will be a contributing factor. One could say that the road is already being paved and that its destination should be a society whose vast majority discounts stereotypes and underscores common values. If like Freud once said –and this somewhat echoes the content of T. Rosengarten’s quote above, “There can only be a loving community as long as there is an external enemy to hate” we are doomed. But many of us would rather believe that a high caliber education, reinforced by secular principles will encourage children to understand that independently of their religion, the morality of our actions must be judged by their consequences in this world. Future generations will then defy and defeat not only the enemy within, but our worse external enemies, namely ignorance and its offspring, fanaticism. Many of us believe that this is healthy, and hope that it will gradually lead to transcending the fixation on race and halting the divisiveness that has come of it, one which up to now continues to make headlines.

by María Arreaza-Coyle (Teacher/Applied Linguist)
Copyright © 2005