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It was a muggy day in September 1987. Thanks to the dense New England humidity of a stubborn Indian summer, most of us pre-freshmen had hung our crisp new college outfits in the narrow dorm closets and had retreated into the baggy shorts and long tank tops that all high school students wore that year.

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Adam McCauley

Brown shoulders abounded as we gathered nervously for our first group event of the Third World Transition Program, or TWTP, as it was commonly known. All non-white members of the incoming freshman class were invited for a four-day orientation that was meant to acclimate us to our Ivy League surroundings. We were supposed to commune together and develop bonds so that we would feel comfortable and at home when the “snowstorm” (our term for the arrival of the Caucasian students) hit.

Upon arriving at TWTP, my first question had been: What is up with the name? I’m from New York, not a third world country. Apparently, the program had been created to appease the mostly African American students who famously organized a walkout in 1968 to protest their lack of representation among the classes and faculty. Therefore, even though the majority of students who gathered under its banner had graduated at the top of their classes from some of the best high schools in the Western Hemisphere, the nomenclature was not to be trifled with.

Chastened by the explanation of TWTP’s genesis and shamed by my lack of knowledge about what it took to make the program a reality, I took my seat in Andrews Dining Hall next to a cool Indian girl in an all-black outfit, wearing one enormous earring. In typical teen girl fashion, we became fast friends in about fifteen minutes, but we were quickly parted when the program organizers announced that we would be gathering in ethnicity-based groups. She trotted off to join the Asian students, and I was left alone to face a difficult choice: Did I join the large fun-looking group of black students at the far end of the room who were already laughing, high-fiving, and forming cliques? Or should I join the small, sad group of biracial kids whose only unifying characteristic was parents of two different races?

Technically, I belonged with the biracial kids because my mother is African American, while my father is white and Jewish. But that characterization did not feel like home to me at all. I had been raised black, felt black, and had never once called my racial identity into question. There was no confusion or conflict in my home, either. My dad had always told me, “It’s simple. I am white and you are black.”

So I made my decision and went off to join the black group. I sat down in a circle of girls who were complaining that the humidity was jacking up their straightened hair. My own curls were pulled back into a ponytail, so I had little to contribute to the conversation. They looked at me a bit oddly until finally one girl asked, “You sure you’re in the right group? You look like you’re mixed with something. What are you, anyway?”

The dreaded question. I’d been asked “What are you?” my whole life as, apparently, my long nose, tan skin, and curly hair did not immediately indicate the identity I felt so strongly.

“I’m black, but my dad is white,” I replied.

“Well, aren’t you supposed to be over there?” The girl gestured with her chin in the direction of the biracial kids, who were in the middle of choreographing a skit that involved standing on either side of a rope and pulling back and forth to indicate their racial confusion. Ugh. Nevertheless, I knew I was too conspicuous to avoid grabbing a piece of that rope, so off I went. But I left feeling determined that this would be the last time I would be deemed “not black enough” at Brown.

I set about my focused overcompensation immediately. I joined most of the African American groups at Brown, pledged a black sorority, hung out mostly with black students, and only dated black guys. In the middle of a Third World Center meeting that somehow devolved into a heated discussion about relationships, I even made a firm public declaration that I would never date a white guy.

By my sophomore year I had successfully erased any doubt about my relative blackness. It had been a challenging process, as the African American student population at Brown was notoriously judgmental. The worst possible label a black student could have—and one that we threw around with relative ease and impunity—was incognegro. An incognegro was a black student who we did not feel “acted black” enough. Perhaps that person had too many white friends or, God forbid, hung out with the “Eurotrash” crowd. Perhaps the person didn’t listen to “black music” or preferred Wriston Quad frat parties over black Greek step shows. Maybe the hapless incognegro simply couldn’t shake his or her lifetime of prep school education and upper-middle-class suburban upbringing to develop a cultural bilinguality like the rest of us. No one thought twice when the black salutatorian from Exeter gave a pound (fist bump, for the uninitiated) to the Phillips Academy lacrosse team captain and said, “Wassup, bro.”

Yes, I successfully avoided the dreaded incognegro label and was a fully accepted card-carrying member of Brown’s small but highly opinionated black community, until the unthinkable happened: I fell in love with a white student. Before Brown, I’d had an equal number of white and black boyfriends—a fact I had certainly not made public at college as I expressed my singular love for the “brothers.” But sophomore year, I got swept away by a half-Danish student from Vermont. In other words, I fell for not just a regular white guy, but the whitest white guy you could possibly imagine. I simply could not help it; we had a powerful chemistry, and I was head over heels within weeks.

At first, I tried to keep the relationship a secret, but that didn’t last. We were nineteen-year-olds in love, which necessitated the requisite hand-holding between classes, sharing meals at the Ratty, and making out on the Green. Soon, everyone knew that we were a couple, and the shock reverberated across campus. I expected and received some ribbing related to my anti-interracial dating comments of a few months earlier. And I knew the black men of Brown would be less than thrilled that one of “theirs” had strayed from the fold.

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Interestingly, as much as I had desired to have a place in Brown’s black society, I found myself not giving a crap what anyone thought. I was comfortable in my own skin, and I had nothing left to prove. I was who I was: a biracial black woman who loved a white man.
It was during this time that I learned one of the most important lessons that Brown can teach: Being yourself is more important than anything else. And dichotomy is okay, because one extreme does not have to preclude another. I was African American and Jewish. I was a member of a black sorority, yet my best friend was Asian. I loved both hip hop and classic rock. I liked hiking and camping, and I also loved to go clubbing in New York City. And I loved my white boyfriend (and white father, for that matter) but never had any doubt about my black identity.

My boyfriend and I were together long enough that the campus got completely used to seeing us. He would come with me to step shows, and I would play hacky sack on the Green with him and his Deadhead buddies. The more confident and comfortable we were, the more Brown felt like my real home. And I finally realized that I had never been in danger of being labeled an incognegro, because their main distinguishing characteristic wasn’t actually lack of interest in the black community; it was lack of comfort in their own skin.

Sadly, the perils and temptations of junior year proved too much for my boyfriend and me. I went to Paris for the year, while he explored his roots in Denmark. I fell in with a West African and French crowd that never once questioned whether I belonged. My days were spent hanging out in the marché aux puces in front of the Centre Pompidou; at night we would grab a cheap dinner of merguez sandwiches, then ride the Métro to whatever club one of our friends was DJ-ing. It was an idyllic world in which we cared less about race and more about language, culture, and style.

I returned for a restless senior year spent largely—and coincidentally—in the company of Brown students with mixed-race backgrounds. There was my new boyfriend, a black/Welsh Boston native with model good looks and a dichotomous appreciation for the great outdoors and urban life that rivaled my own. I also started hanging out with a black/Swedish student who had been previously snubbed by Brown’s black crowd for her rocker inclinations and her role on the crew team. She was obsessed with a black/Jewish guy with shoulder-length blond dreadlocks, so we spent a considerable amount of time chasing him around the campus.

After graduation, my black/Swedish friend moved to the nation’s biracial capital, San Francisco. I headed back to my hometown, New York City. As I moved through various industries (from finance to fashion to media), I felt ever more secure in my own biracial skin. I still got asked the annoying question that had consistently defined much of my interaction with strangers: “What are you, anyway?” But in the melting pot that is New York City, my answer of “I’m black but my dad is Jewish,” was received with little more than a nod. I had a diversity of friends, none of whom questioned my identity.

A few years passed. I began a relationship with the tall and very brown-skinned black man whom I would eventually marry. At one point, we debated moving to the West Coast and decided to visit my friend in San Francisco. She was now sporting a sleeve of tattoos, a nose ring, and an all-black wardrobe. Her boyfriend’s complexion almost matched her very light toasted-almond tone, but his was the result of having two equally light-skinned black parents.

One day she and I went to grab a coffee together. We talked about how tall my kids would be if I married my boyfriend. “They’ll be huge,” I joked, “but at least no one will ask them what they are. They’ll be brown enough to avoid that nonsense. Your kids might have an issue. They’ll be so light that no one will know that they’re black!”

My friend stopped smiling and peered at me weirdly. “My kids won’t be black. Why would I call them that when they’ll look closer to white?”

“Uh, because they’ll have two black parents,” I replied, thinking that she must be kidding. “You’re half black, therefore you’re black, and your guy has two black parents, so there’s no debate at all there.”

My friend, who had had an admittedly tough time growing up as a tan girl with a Swedish name in a provincial New England town, proceeded to tell me that she didn’t consider herself to be black and that she thought the whole one-drop rule—the historical idea that any person with a trace of black ancestry is black—was just stupid.

“In Brazil,” my friend said, “neither my boyfriend nor me nor you, for that matter, would be considered black. Why should I make my kids take that on when they will clearly have as much white blood, if not more?”

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My mouth fell open. Society had so far supported my belief that part-black means black. While biracial people were (and, to some extent, still are) treated as something of a novelty, the black community in New York City had received me with open arms. I loved being black, loved both the culture and the strong community. My friend, however, had been raised to call herself black and Swedish (which, I believe, contributed to the racial turmoil she seemed to feel), and she lived in San Francisco, birthplace of the nebulous designation multiracial. She had come to believe that you could simply opt out of being black if you had light skin.

I was shocked and offended. We had a heated discussion, during which I tried to get her to understand that being black had powerful cultural and political connotations that were personally awesome and had greater implications for our country. But her assertion that she “refused to call her [future] kids black” killed our friendship for more than a decade.

This wasn’t just a personal issue for me; it still is a principle of extreme importance to the African American community as we are faced with the diffusion of our collective power by future generations of biracial kids who don’t define themselves as black. While it may seem like a wholly personal and innocuous decision to claim multiple races or to check off the new multiracial category on a census, it’s a decision that affects the government data that help determine what programs and funding are needed to address social inequities. Fewer multiracial or biracial people identifying as black could have devastating consequences.

After I became the editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine, the country’s oldest and largest African American publication, I was part of many discussions about racial identity and black power. In many people’s eyes, my perspective in these conversations was complicated by my own mixed background and by the fact that I was now divorced and in a serious relationship with a white man. But the lesson I learned at Brown has never left me: I’m comfortable in my own skin and in my racial identity. Whom I date still has nothing to do with who I am. Still, when my team at Ebony and I decided to do a special feature on being multiracial in America, I observed a generational divide on the issue of who is black and who is not. Most of the younger people, regardless of their skin tone, contended that multiracial was a valid category for half-black people. For the first time, my views began to feel somewhat anachronistic.

Years later, when I got together with my college friend for the first time since that last disastrous meeting in San Francisco, I found that we had both mellowed when it came to our views on the subject. She now has three gorgeous daughters whose skin color ranges from her oldest, who is a beautiful nut-brown and undeniably black, to her youngest, whose pale skin and blond-streaked sandy curls give her a more multiracial look. While my friend still thinks the American one-drop definition of blackness is ludicrous, she is now more comfortable in the African American community.

And as for me, while I still believe that blackness is as much a political issue as a personal one, I now have many friends who married outside their ethnic group. As their legion of multiracial kids grows up, I can see how racial categorization in the United States will become more and more complicated. For example, my girlfriend’s biracial, blond, dreadlocked college crush eventually married an Asian woman, and they now have twins. What race are those kids? I hold on to the notion that because their dad is black, so are they. Their Asian mom, however, is likely to differ.

The census bureau estimates that by 2050 the United States will be a majority minority country, in large part due to the multiracial children born to the rapidly increasing number of interracial couples. With a country full of people like Tiger Woods, descriptors such as Cablinasian—Woods’s term for his own Caucasian/Black/American Indian/Asian makeup—may eventually eclipse African American. The question “What are you, anyway?” might become as common in a new conversation as “What do you do for a living?”

And my Black/Swedish friend might get the last laugh.

Amy DuBois Barnett, former editor-in-chief of Ebony, is executive editor of a new ESPN website offering commentary about sports and culture for an African American audience. A portion of this essay appeared in The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill.





Comments (11)
09/13/14
 
Anyone who looks white IS white. There is no such thing as two "black" parents for a person who looks white. White with a touch of "black blood" does NOT equal "black." Ask the Hispanics. 
 
http://melungeon.ning.com/forum/topics/5th-union-presentation-by-a-d-powell
 
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09/15/14
 
It's weird to me that no one has considered the fact that we are looking at this all wrong. The Black./ Swedish friend is black. She is also Swedish. The two are not mutually exclusive.
 
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09/16/14
 
Wow, no wonder this country has such a hard time with this issue: you all are so rude to each other! I'm white, grew up in NYC. I get the revulsion at the one drop rule, but don't people have a right to choose for themselves where they want to fit in? I agree that assuming that 2 mulatto (to use an old, useful and I hope unoffensive word) parents add up to black kids is a little pushy as her Swedish/black friend must have felt. Clearly the author Amy has found a happy home in the black community and wants to strengthen it via inclusiveness; actually I have heard other groups say much the same thing it terms of maintaining political power for the minority group. If we keep pushing for real equality in this country then people will be able to identify themselves without having to worry about social consequences individual or societal.
 
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09/21/14
 
For me, personally, the color of a person\'s skin has never been important. Our country is worse because color and/or cultural background is so emphasized. Until I came to New England and Brown in 1951 from PA, I never questioned or chose my friends by their color or origin. I had all sorts of friends and acquaintances. The article was an education about what ought to be unnecessary frustration, This country is worse for making ethnicity the political highlight it is. Perhaps if the government stopped catacarizing us, people could atop asking what are you anyway? and we would enjoy living together just as we are. Children should be able to achieve identity by their own talents and personalities. Good article, but with very sad and negative undertones.
 
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09/27/14
 
It would be terrific if Brown made a special effort to introduce everyone on campus to the **much** enhanced vocabulary for discussing ethnic/regional origin that is being developed by researchers at the National Geographic's Genographic Project (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/about/). 
 
The best thing about the project is that many, many, many, narratives of origin and social/cultural/political cause & effect can be layered upon the pathways of genetic origin and change uncovered by project researchers. I see proportions of genetic markers that can speak to the Middle Passage, as well as others (9% altogether) that document the movement of my Native American ancestors into North America. 
 
Also noteworthy is the project's identification of 43 "reference populations" (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/reference-populations/), whose distributions will provoke self-identification and – I hope – movement well beyond the elementary term "multiracial."
 
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10/12/14
 
I only now discovered that BAM takes on-line comments. I have already submitted a letter to the Editor of BAM and am probably going to ask if I might submit something for publication. 
 
I have sent two tweets to the author but can see that she has better things to do than answer unknown tweets. 
 
So first comment: I found the article fascinating because the author reveals so much about the apparent conflicts between subgroups, conflicts that seem in some cases to be examples of racism at work. 
 
What is really fascinating and important as at least 4 comments note is that the author does not seem to realize just how exceptional America (I am American) is in its archaic classification by race system (See USCensus Bureau former director Kenneth Prewitt's book "What Is Your Race?!). She with vast experience simply seems to accept the system, calls herself "biracial" and uses truly strange nomenclature for her Swedish friend.  
 
As I write in countless New York Times comments - a couple today 12th - I know a large number of refugees from Sub Saharan Africa who are now Swedish citizens. Not a one would say - I am black-Swedish. Not a one would even know what to say if you asked them "what is your race?"  
 
I think follow up articles are needed in BAM and then elsewhere. The BSU should be given a chance to explain why its members would behave as the author says they do. 
 
This is just a start. You can read much more at some of my older blog posts and you can see a few of my Eritrean, Somali, and other African friends there. 
 
Larry Lundgren, Linköping, Sweden Only-NeverInSweden.blogspot.com
 
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10/17/14
 
I see that nobody is adding comments, which probably means that nobody is reading. BAM is going to print a Letter to the Editor from me and I have submitted a Point of View manuscript for consideration. 
 
Just in case anyone reads this, here is a question you can answer using my Gmail at my blog Only-NeverInSweden.blogspot.com 
 
Ms. Barrett tells us that Brown University students and others "What are you" which in context means "what is your race?" I had hoped more of students with the intelligence it takes to get into Brown. 
 
Imagine student x asking a young Ms. Barrett this question: What are you? Ms. Barrett answers I am black (in America meaning black "race") What has student learned that is of interest? Nothing. The so called black "race" is the most genetically diverse population on the face of the earth. And since people like Barack Obama and Amy Dubois Barret have one "white" parent and one "black" parent their saying simply black, clearly their prerogative, tells us little. 
 
In other words in my view asking the question "What are you?" or "What is your race?" reflects badly on the person asking. 
 
So tell me, can you think of a better question than that, at least if you think you might want to get to know the person being asked?  
 
I meet new refugees every time I am at the Red Cross in Linköping, Sweden. I can guarantee that no one would dream of saying what are you and if someone said what is your race they would be told, we do not ask racist questions here. 
 
How about you?
 
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10/17/14
 
Joan Plumb and Laura Stookey, I have just discovered I can find your Email addresses so will write to you directly. I like both of your comments because they show that not every Brown University graduate or student thinks that knowing a person's "race" is useful. 
 
One you notes that to ask the dreaded question is to be rude. Many "black" refugees with whom I have discussed this question say that it is worse than rude. They say that the question is racist and should be challenged immediately. 
 
One of you also refers to the black/Swedish student. I have close friends who are now Swedish citizens but have their roots in SubSaharan Africa from which they fled. Not a one would describe her or himself as black/Swedish. I have been trying to find a way to contact Amy's friend but so far no success. 
 
Finally, one of you says the column is about ethnicity. I wish it were. The column is about "race" as "race" is defined by the US Census Bureau and others.  
 
I have submitted a Point of View manuscript. If it is accepted maybe we will have more to discuss. 
 
Only-NeverInSweden.blogspot.com shows some of my Swedish friends from Sub-saharan Africa. 
Larry
 
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11/05/14
 
As the mother of two biracial daughters, I was flummoxed after reading [insert article title]. For one, my daughters are, and will remain, biracial their entire lives. To negate that fact by labeling them as black completely effaces my husband’s, who is white, identity, and deprives my daughters of part of their genealogical patrimony. It astounds me that you were/are “shocked and offended” by your friend’s very personal choice to not label her future children as black because some individuals in American society will only see them as such. Are we to define ourselves by the constructs of others? Are we to choose how we view the world, and our place in it, by centuries old classifications? 
 
As a black woman from New York City, never during my four years at Brown did I experience any sort of exclusion or judgment from Brown’s “black community.” (Personal definitions of blackness alone could merit a separate article.) I had friends and dated men from various ethnicities. After reading your article it is apparent that there is a generational divide between our experiences. Mine seems worlds apart from yours, as is my view on racial identity and biracial families. While I respect your right to define yourself as black, even though your father is white, the concept of one-drop of blood defining one’s racial group still baffles me, almost as much as the conclusion of your article where the future of black America’s “collective power” is placed on the backs of generations of biracial kids. That is a very heavy load to carry! 
 
Taais Jacobs Grosse 
Class of 2003
 
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11/16/14
 
I agree with Ms. Grosse. If Ms. Barnett would like to identify herself as black go for it but why should that be a rule and why would the African American race be preferable to a biracial person's other heritage? It makes my biracial blood boil and is shockingly narrow minded. Personally, Ii grew up with the paler side of my family. Why would I identify with the side I hardly know just because of pigment? Not as Ms. Barnett says, to provide for more governmental benefits for minorities. I'm orry but that's the worst reason I can think of. 
 
And this blanket statement seems to sum up the depth of Ms. Barnett's reasoning: "I hold to the notion that because their dad is black, so are they." Biracial people do not need to fit into some box or one particular cultural identity while forsaking the rest of their heritage biracial people with black heritage certainly don't have to prove anything politicly or culturally anybody.
 
Georgia Sparling '05
11/29/14
 
Thanks for the article. I explore identity through two poems. The first "Cleanup on Aisle 3" is in the South Asian American Poetry Anthology INDIVISIBLE. The second "Where are you from?" was performed at HYPHEN Magazine's LitCrawl event this year. The third link is my blog post about the topic in Psychology Today. 
 
Cleanup on Aisle 3: http://youtu.be/3bXkHSj1ixI 
Where are you from: http://youtu.be/1igPBfkZeSk 
Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pacific-heart/201407/where-are-you 
 
Best, 
Ravi Chandra, M.D. 
www.RaviChandraMD.com
 
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