Why does this man call himself "black"?
Biracial Americans seem to have internalized the racist belief that having only one drop of African blood makes them black despite their Caucasian heritage.
President Obama and Halle Berry embody the lingering belief in the one-drop rule. Both Obama and Berry have one black and one white parent, but they self-identify as black.
White people of mixed ethnicity don't identify themselves as descendants of one ethnic group. My last name is Italian but my mother's parents hailed from Slovenia, a former republic in Yugoslavia.
When people ask about my ancestral background, I never self-identify as Italian but as Italian and Slovenian. (Actually, I'm so tired of having to explain what Slovenian means I sometimes say I'm Swedish and get away with it because I've inherited my mother's Scandinavian coloring, light skin and dark blonde hair.)
Despite polls indicating that Americans believe racism is wrong or at least pay lip service to the ideal, why does the one-drop rule persist? Why is President Obama called our first black president? Why is Halle Berry the first black woman to win the best actress Oscar? Obama and Berry are not black, they are biracial, just as I am not only Italian.
Henry Louis Gates, Harvard Professor and Victim of the One-Drop Rule
In a recent documentary on PBS, Cuba: The Next Revolution, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explored the lingering racism that discriminates against black Cubans and maintains their second-class citizenship.
Ironically, Gates himself has experienced the effects of the one-drop rule. His detention in his own home made international headlines when a white cop handcuffed and detained him after a white neighbor dialed 911 and said someone was trying to break into a nearby home.
After Gates showed the officer his Harvard identification with his home address on it, the cop still couldn't believe that a black man could live in a nice home instead of burgling it. Like Obama and Berry, Gates had one white parent. It's not surprising, though, that he self-identifies as black because that's how society treats him, i.e. shabbily.
Does anybody believe that if Gates looked white, a neighbor would have dialed 911 as Gates tried to break into his home because the lock on the front door was jammed? Or that the cop would have handcuffed the internationally known Harvard professor had Gates looked white?
Passing for White and Denying Your Heritage
Equating race and ethnicity, however, is a case of apples and oranges and invalid. Because of my mixed ethnicity, no one identifies me as Italian. If I wanted to "pass" as a WASP, I could. In fact, people tell me I look British.
But people of mixed color can rarely pass as white unless they are predominantly Caucasian and look white. A good exception to the one-drop rule involves Cuban Americans. Most identify as Caucasian because they can, even though the heritage of many Cubanos is a mixture of black and Spanish with a bit of Native American blood.
The paucity of Cubans with Indian blood has a simple if distasteful explanation. When Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492, the indigenous people were Arawak Indians. The Arawaks died of European diseases or were worked to death as slaves. To replenish the slave labor supply, Spanish conquistadors abducted Africans to harvest the island's lucrative sugar crop.
Why Cubans Don't Have Much Indian Blood
"The Spanish killed the Arawak before they could f____ them," as one ethnologist who understandably asked not to be identified told me.
Mexico's native people were too numerous to become extinct -- unlike Cuba's tragic Arawaks. The result is that Mexicans often self-identify as Hispanic rather than white or Native American.
Like the United States, only in less pernicious forms, discrimination in Cuba lingers despite legal prohibition of racism. Cuba, nevertheless, comes closer than America has to the ideal of a rainbow nation whose citizens are color-blind.
With its "black" president and its "black" Oscar-winning actress, America remains a nation that observes the one-drop rule, the toxic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Why African Americans Aren't "Black"
In his autobiography, poet and social activist Langston Hughes offered one reason why it’s inaccurate to call Barack Obama our first black president:
“You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black.
“I am brown.”
According to the poet’s definition of color, President Obama is beige.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. Hill & Wang, 1993.
Wilson, Clint C. et al. Racism, Sexism, and the Media: Multicultural Issues Into the New Communications Age. SAGE Publications, 2012.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders