“Biracial” does not exist: Why children of Black and White parents are Black or White.
When Barack Obama ran for and won the presidency in 2008, the phrase “the first Black” was ubiquitous. The first Black major party nominee. The first Black president of the United States. This wasn’t new in 2008. A New York Times headline announced in 1990 that he was the “First Black Elected to Head Harvard’s Law Review.” Wasn’t his mother White? Did nobody notice that he’s biracial?
I was particularly interested in this phenomenon as I pondered my future life with my soon-to-be fiancée, now wife. She’s Black. I’m White. Both before and after we had children, we would have the same argument over and over. “They’re biracial,” I would say. “Black,” she’d respond. She was right. “Biracial” implies that a person belongs to two races, yet it is not possible to be both Black and White at the same time.
To understand how the product of a White person and Black person can be simply “Black,” requires a realization about race that I had not yet had. I now understand that race, as we use the term in the United States, is determined by how others see you. While I believe in allowing people to identify by whatever terms they prefer, in reality, being Black means that society treats you as a Black person. Being White means having the privileges that American society affords White people. Our children look like a combination of both of their parents, which makes it obvious that they aren’t White. Even with relatively lighter skin tones, their visible physical features clearly identify them as Black. Thus, they move through life as Black children.
Race is not the fixed or genetic condition it’s often made out to be. Race is a system by which we categorize people by skin color along a social power hierarchy. That does not mean that White people have all the power and Black people none, but it means that there is more power concentrated in the hands of White people than there is in the hands of Black people. Centuries ago, White Europeans could have chosen hair color or eye color to serve as indicators of race (physical traits as meaningless as skin color), but they didn’t. They chose skin color because it was the people with dark skin they intended to enslave and sell. It was convenient, political — profitable. Races based on skin color were created to give power to some and remove power from others.
In modern times, races are so arbitrary and socially mediated that they aren’t even defined the same way in different countries. A person could travel the world and change races in the process. South Africans would call my children “Coloured.” In the United States, the decennial census lists the following options for race: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. This lumps all people from China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, some of the most populous countries in the world, into one race. This can be quite confusing. For example, Filipinos are usually considered Asian since the county is located in Southeast Asia but they could just as easily be Pacific Islander since geographically the island nation is located in the western Pacific Ocean. As Asians, they are officially the same race as Iranian, Nepali, and Japanese people. This system only makes sense when we acknowledge that race has no basis in human biology. People with parents of different races might choose to check more than one box when asked for their race on a form, but that will not change how they are perceived or what race they are assigned by society.
To say that race is not a biological entity does not imply that there is no genetic underpinning to it; after all, skin color is determined by genes. Differences in skin color genes do not constitute a race, though. Recall, eye color is also genetically determined, yet we don’t consider blue and brown eyed people to be of different races. The fact that some diseases are more likely in people with African ancestry does not mean that those with African ancestry are a genetically unique race any more than the fact that blue-eyed people could have a higher risk than brown eyed people for certain cancers, such as melanoma. Defining separate races of a species by genetic criteria requires far more genetic variability than exists in humans. What we call races are simply superficial observations. The fact that you can see a difference between people does not make it a meaningful difference.
Others might point out that commercially available ancestry kits can identify specific locations where one’s foremothers and forefathers originated. If we can genetically identify that someone is Kenyan, doesn’t that mean there are genetic differences between the races? No. It means that there are genetic markers unique to certain populations in Kenya (and any other location you can think of). These markers are far more specific than our five American racial categories. If we counted each of those populations as races, we’d have thousands of races. The bottom line is, there is no genetic justification to establish what Americans call race.
With that in mind, let’s consider again the idea that the offspring of Black and White parents are Black when they are perceived as Black or White when they are perceived as White. Race is a social power construct, and America has never had a place on the social hierarchy for “biracial” Black and White. Either you’re subjected to racism for being Black or you’re not. Either you’re granted White privilege or you’re not. It’s never both at the same time.
Due to generations of interracial procreation (frequently from rape in the time of slavery), many, if not most, Black and White Americans carry mixes of African and European genes. Two Black parents can have children who “pass” for White because they transmit a higher percentage of their European-derived skin and hair genes. As a result, people with one White parent and one Black parent can have features that are similar to people with two Black parents. My eldest daughter has already experienced people touching her hair to see what it feels like; that alone lets you know that she’s Black. Having a White father does not change her race.
There is ample evidence that Black people with lighter complexions are treated better throughout their lives than those with darker skin tones. Children of interracial parents will likely receive some degree of privilege from having less melanin, but this is no different than the privilege experienced by children with two Black parents who have similar complexions. Both groups are still appropriately referred to as Black. As my children face future racist micro or macroaggressions, no one will stop to check how many Black parents they have. White supremacy does not bother with such nuance.
When my wife and I discussed our children’s racial identities, she always brought the conversation around to the One-drop Rule. The One-drop Rule declared people with even one ancestor who was Black to be Black, even if that ancestor was as far removed as a great-great-grandparent. In other words, you were Black if you had just one drop of “Black” blood. She said that any society that created such a policy would surely see our children with 50% “Black” blood as Black. I responded that I refused to adopt that ideology. The One-drop Rule was a policy enforced in the Jim Crow South to maintain “racial purity,” and I was not going to continue that legacy by calling my children Black simply because White supremacists would have done so a hundred years ago. I still think I’m right about this. Our kids aren’t Black because they have more than one drop of “Black” blood, they’re Black because they have the phenotype of people we call Black. If our children had turned out to be pale skinned with straight, blonde hair and blue eyes (a possibility that could have occurred if my wife had any European ancestry), they would be White. They still wouldn’t be “biracial” because they would move through society with White privilege. They’d be White because society would treat them as White.
While American society does not have a space or a concept that allows for people to be “biracial,” they can certainly be bi- or multi-ethnic. Ethnicity is about culture, and when it comes to ethnicity, self-identify matters quite a bit. I identify as Ashkenazi, a Jewish group with roots in Europe. My wife is Igbo, the prominent ethnic group of southeast Nigeria. Our kids have Igbo names, and they have Hebrew names. They can go to the synagogue for religious school and come home to eat Nigerian jollof rice for lunch. As they grow, they might develop an affinity for African-American culture and identify with this ethnicity also. This will be their choice. Their ethnicities are both chosen and hereditary, but their race is assigned: Black.