Black Is a Multiracial Country

Tami finds out she's 30 percent white. This changes nothing:

So, now, after discovering that I am 70 percent sub-Saharan African with cultural ties to Balanta and Fula peoples in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende people in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka people in Senegal...that I am part of Haplogroup L1b, one of the oldest female lineages on Earth...and that I am also 30 percent European...Who am I now? 

Well...the same person I was before. I am a black American woman with all the rich, cultural history that implies. Thirty percent European biogeographical ancestry (likely derived through oppression and sexual violence), doesn't change my identity. I don't think 60 percent European ancestry would change my identity. I am a black American--my culture is my culture. I would also add that learning more about my African roots doesn't make me Senegalese or Fula or Mende. I am a black American--my culture is my culture.

I've been thinking about my response to the whole beiging of America story, and part of it is premised on the arguments, but I think another part (and perhaps the deepest part) is premised on my own understanding of identity. I haven't been tested, but I recently "discovered" that some generations back I also had "white" ancestors. My response was basically the same as Tami's-- I'm black.

"Blackness," unlike "whiteness," never enjoyed the luxury of constructing itself from a model of racial purity. When your Valhalla includes a significant number of people with white ancestry (Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Etta James, Frederick Douglass, Lena Horne etc.) it gets really hard to maintain an argument rooted in genetics  

But it's never hard--even without genes--to make a case for a crude essentialism. Consider Stanley Crouch claiming Barack Obama isn't black, not because his mother was white, but because he isn't the descendant of slaves. Consider a red-headed, and very beige, Malcolm X deriding Southern civil rights leaders as sell-outs. Consider Muhammad Ali--in truly puzzling fashion--attacking Joe Frazier from the perspective of white racism (The Gorilla) and from the angle of black essentialism (The white man's champion.) Joe Frazier was from Beaufort, South Carolina. His parents were sharecroppers. But Ali is the shining example of "blackness."

The point here is that when we discuss a "beiging of America" as though it's new, it really ignores the fact that beige people are as old this country. But sometime in the 17th century, for rather embarrassing reasons, we decided to call them "black." Therein is the diabolical lesson of American racism. Prejudice is arbitrary. There are no fixed, natural rules that say who is in and who is out. As soon as the people change, given a good reason, "race" and "racism" change with it. Surely we can escape our present prejudices, but we can not escape ourselves.

Just ask Joe Frazier.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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