“Do you believe that black students are less intelligent than white students because their parents do not care about them? Raise your hand if you believe this.”
I was able to hold back the tears when my fourth grade teacher asked this question. My best friend and first real crush raised his hand with rest of my class and shot me an apologetic glance. During my fourth grade year, the No Child Left Behind act was passed, resulting in a survey of students in my Illinois elementary school to locate and highlight common stereotypes about black people. Stereotypes were read aloud and I watched as my classmates raised their hands again and again to show their belief in the statements. I was the only brown student in my entire class and for a whole week I watched as my classmates revealed the stereotypes they had of black people and all of the conditions that came with the label. I disappeared behind a category. During our discussions I wasn’t seen as a kickball captain, doodle queen, or avid reader, I was the black girl.
At the end of the week I came home with a note for my mother, stating that it was imperative for me to choose a race. Even now, almost a decade later, the fury my mother felt on that day would be obvious over a bad connection on the telephone.
“I felt like it was unfair for the school system to claim you as black because you have the influence of so many other people in your life.” She let my brother and I choose our own identities, but saw no right answer. If I checked white, I would miss out many college scholarships and ignore the undeniable hue of my skin. If I checked black, I would be abandoning half of who I was and the struggle of my black ancestors for equal representation. My mother was determined to ensure that the school board would make the reforms necessary to provide an equal education to all children; she made it clear to my brother and me that the goal would not be accomplished through choosing sides.
Despite my mother’s indecision, I chose black. All that is left of my weeks of deliberation is a letter in my file at Unit 4 school district headquarters voicing my mother’s despair at how emotionally torn I was after the entire race choosing ordeal.
I understand now that the motivation for the humiliating classroom survey was to collect data for research of ways to lessen the racial performance gap in schools. As honorable as that motivation was, the survey had a major misapprehension; despite any number of children polled, the data would be inaccurate. The traditional definitions and ideas we have of race in the United States completely disregard the racial barriers that have been crossed since the day they were instated. Race mixing has happened forever and on every continent. The racial categories that society upholds today exclude millions of people with mixed heritage and the mixed privileges that come with them. Forcing people to describe themselves as one race, to align themselves with millions of people with whom they might only share a skin tone interferes with the recognition of the individual.
It can be argued that the unique experiences that come with skin color are what form the strong bonds between members of the same race. To that, I answer that I have not bonded with anyone over the topic of race more than I have with my white mother, whose pale skin has always and will always contrast the golden brown of my own. She has cried with me in moments of injustice, pain, and frustration. She does not have to be black to understand me, that bond that seems to be one of association is actually one of compassion that a person of any color is capable of.
The mandate to assimilate oneself into one of four optional race groups extends to all Americans, even to our current president. As a nine year old I was forced to understand that, yes, I am half white but that’s not the first thing you see. It won’t stop people from using racial slurs or withholding job opportunities. There is not a single checked box that will alleviate my mandated presence in the race battle, no label that will reconcile my inheritance of my mother’s face with my father’s complexion. I am forced to choose every day just as Barack Obama was pressured to give an unprecedented speech about his race and choose a side during the presidential election of 2008. Yes, the election of a biracial man shows some continued success of the civil rights movement in the United States, but is that bit of success worth perpetuating the application of labels and thus perpetuating the divide in our population?
I understand the value of using racial statistics to monitor the progress being made toward an equal opportunity society. Race is so deeply entrenched in our history as a nation, that it would be virtually impossible to immediately stop using racial labels. However, the decision to move toward is one that can be made on a personal level; each person can make a conscious effort. In order to eradicate racism and move toward a less constant focus on race, we need to consciously decide to begin eliminating racial labels as forms of categorization from our vocabularies. There are ways to describe and represent people without referring to their skin color – a genetic aspect that says nothing about their potential as a living human being.
Barack Obama was raised by a white family and therefore indirectly benefited from white privilege. His mother was never denied a job because she was black, never denied a fair education or countless other luxurious yet deserved rights because of her skin color. At age 10, Barack Obama moved to live with his white grandparents in Hawaii. With their financial support he went to Punahou School, one of the best private preparatory schools in Hawaii, and then continued on to attended Columbia and Harvard. With 24.5 percent of the black population below the poverty line in 2008, Barack Obama’s opportunities for privileged schooling were far from those afforded to the average Black American.
Barack Obama is a unique individual; it is ridiculous to group him with millions of people that may not share anything other than skin color in common. In fact, people share more similarities when placed together by blood type than by race. None of Barack Obama’s accomplishments can be credited solely to his skin color; so why then does the world focus on his race so much? It is absurd that the world would expect him to explain his genetic make-up, a choice his parents made some nine months before he was born. During the race for the presidential nomination and throughout the entirety of the presidential race, Barack Obama was forced by the masses to choose a color, to choose a parent.
On November 4, crowds of people gathered on Yale University’s Old Campus and shouted a roaring, boundless cheer. Barack Obama had won the presidency and the atmosphere was one of euphoria. The majority of his supporters were white students. Is Barack Obama not white like them? Can he not be mixed like me? Is he only black like my father? The problem with labeling Barack Obama at all –or any other person for that matter –is that you not only exclude people that might otherwise have a lot in common with him, but that individual also loses some of their own history in the process. Even if the world cannot relinquish the need to categorize using ethnicity, we must recognize that racial groups are outdated and in no way representative of the people they include.
Sheer biology can only offer scientific information about an individual; it provides no real detail about salary, life experience or personality. My choosing black in elementary school provided the school board with no more information than if I would have chosen white. Neither category alone would provide a complete explanation for why I am who I am because biologically and culturally I belong in both. Furthermore, there is no clear definition of race. Debates go on daily about the definition of “Black.” Should African people be included with African-Americans? And how many halves, quarters, or sixteenths qualify a person for each ethnic label?
We are not two groups of people. We never have been. As Barack Obama himself said, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Race is a continuum of peaches, caramels, mahoganies, and chocolates. There is no real separation; each skin tone in connected to the next by a hue that is the compromise of the two. There are no physical lines drawn; we are divided only by social barriers that we choose to uphold.
There are similar experiences that connect many people of the same skin color. These experiences, however, rise from socioeconomic influences, not directly from one’s skin color, and certainly are not the experiences of every single person that shares African ancestry. For hundreds of years we have been squeezing ourselves into a middle school four square game. Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks. The lines of each square have become impermeable; have to choose a square to play the game. Pass the ball and follow the rules to be included.
One might argue that a measure of race is necessary to monitor and prevent discrimination. With that I agree. Minorities in the United States have had fewer opportunities for higher education, well-paying jobs, and the inheritance of financial prosperity and deserve the consideration of these deprivations when being compared to more privileged competitors. When race overshadows individual ability, this attempt at an equality of opportunity fails. Race should be recognized as it connects a person to a larger social history that inevitably affects who that person is – however, everyone deserves to be seen as a person rather than a color. We won’t stop fighting the war while we are forced to choose sides. Let Barack Obama be president. Don’t limit him to being black, white, biracial, or mixed. Don’t focus on what we can or can’t see in him. Focus on what we see him do. Without assigning him a racial label we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Barack Obama. He can inspire all Americans regardless of their skin color.
I recognize all of the benefits of one’s being aware of one’s racial background. With race come many elements of culture and tradition. Those benefits, however, can be enjoyed without the presence of a racial magnifying glass. I love the color of my skin, my possession of my mother’s voice and my father’s smile. I am happy to say that my identity cannot possibly fit in one box. We are in an age of new ideas: ever smaller cellular telephones, pocket sized computers and instantaneous communication via numerous electronic devices. We seem to be on the brink of cleaner fuel, hovering cars, and medical miracles. If we as the human race can accomplish all of that, we can surely free ourselves from the old fashioned labels that force us to give up a bit of who we are.
U.S. Census Press Release for 2008
Richard Bribiescas, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Yale University