I’m somewhere between relieved and disappointed that comments were disabled.
It starts off by noticing the relative prominence of mulattoes among famous black people:
When I was in my early 30s, I started making a list of every child I could think of who had a black parent and a white parent and was born between 1960 and the mid- to late 1980s. It was a collection of people like me, who grew up and came of age after the Supreme Court decision in 1967 that overturned the laws in more than a dozen states that outlawed interracial marriage.
I was thinking of people I knew or had heard of, so of course the list included actors like Tracee Ellis Ross (born 1972) and Rashida Jones (1976); athletes like Derek Jeter (1974) and Jason Kidd (1973); singers like Mariah Carey (1969) and Alicia Keys (1981); and, eventually, politicians and public servants like Adrian Fenty (1970) and Ben Jealous (1973).
It occurred to me, looking at the names I’d gathered, that what I was making was not just a snapshot of a particular generation but an accounting of some of the most notable, successful, widely recognized black people in American public life — cultural, political, intellectual, academic, athletic.
It made sense: The people I could think of were the people who were the most publicly visible. But what did it mean about race and opportunity in the United States that many of the most celebrated black people in American cultural life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries happened to have been born to one white parent? What if my and my cohort’s achievements as African-Americans, especially in fields to which we historically had little access, were more about how we benefited from having one white parent in a racist society than our hard work?
Yeah, it’s kinda fucked up knowing you have material comfort in life because you know how to make white people comfortable. You serve a valuable psychological function for them, as a token. Being someone’s not-a-racist card is no small thing.
My parents were married on Valentine’s Day in 1969. I was born in 1973, six years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia. That history — the Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, were arrested in 1958 and put in jail for the crime of miscegenation — wasn’t something I learned about in school, even in my highly educated, middle-class California college town, the one with the great public schools and the proudly liberal politics. I don’t think my parents ever mentioned it either, though if they did, I probably tuned it out. I found their discussions of American and world history as dry and boring as the news programs they watched on PBS in the evening, which is to say: I was too busy being a kid to think too much about how I had become one in the first place.
My parents got married before the Loving decision, but yeah. I had a Native American anthropology teacher who used to tangentially mention miscegenation laws, but I didn’t get deep into these issues until my 30s, either. I know that my paternal grandmother was bummed my dad married a white lady and tried not to mention it in social situations.
If people don’t know about anti-miscegenation laws, they certainly don’t know about sharecropping or the backlash against Reconstruction generally. Where you’re coming from is invisible in most situations.
But my sister and I are a direct result of what came in the two decades after Loving: an increase in the number of interracial marriages and a spike in the number of births of American children born to one black parent and one white parent, an entire generation of kids whose very existence symbolized racial progress for some, cultural impurity for others.
According to Nicholas Jones, director of race and ethnic research and outreach in the population division of the Census Bureau, in the 1970s there were about 65,000 black-white couples in the United States. By the 1980s, a little over a decade after Loving, that number had doubled, to 120,000.
Even I was surprised the number is that low.
There’s an adage that to succeed, black people have to be “twice as good”: twice as gifted and smart, twice as hard-working, twice as … everything.
How does having one white parent change that “twice as good” calculation? Data on biracial people is tricky because it relies on self-reported identity. But my early inquiries into the Loving Generation showed that people with one black-identified and one white-identified parent seem to be disproportionately represented among black leaders and luminaries. Are our achievements impossible to separate from the benefits that, in this country, have always come with whiteness?
Of course, to be a black American is to be, by definition, mixed: According to a study released in 2014, 24 percent of the genetic makeup of self-identified African-Americans is of European origin. Colorism, which places black people in an uncodified but nevertheless very real hierarchy, with the lighter-skinned among us at the top, was a fact of American life long before Loving v. Virginia. Light-skinned black Americans, even those with two black parents, have, for centuries, been considered to be closer to white people, closer to white ideals about, well, most everything.
I definitely got the “twice as good” message growing up, and it’s basically true.
I knew, even as a young adult, that I moved among and around white people with relative ease, in a way that my blackness — and my own perception and self-consciousness of it — wasn’t at the foreground. What I didn’t know is whether that had something, or everything, to do with what I’d accomplished.
Turns out, I was not alone. Erin Cloud, a public defender in the South Bronx, has similar concerns. “At my job, there’s actually a lot of biracial people that are in more leadership opportunities, and I think about that. I’m like, ‘Well, is that because there’s something about their whiteness and our whiteness that is giving us space to communicate and that’s why we’re getting promotions and why we’re moving forward?” she said. “I am a black woman. I see myself as a black woman, but I also have to be honest. I love my mother. I can’t say for many of my black friends that they deeply, intimately, without any bounds love a white person.”
That last point is a deep observation.
“Even having this discussion opens up all these other questions about our responsibility,” Mat Johnson told me. “If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”
Believe me, it is.
On the one hand, this is a unique and crappy moral responsibility to be saddled with. On the other hand, it’s not too different from the questions everyone in the West should be asking themselves.