|ESSAY: COUNTING COLORS|
May 31, 2001
| CLARENCE PAGE: For
many years, Hollywood had one way of looking at biracial Americans: The
ACTRESS: She saved her money and lived on the scraps white people gave her. Why? For me. So she could send me off to school, so I could learn to be a nurse, so her granddaughter would be spared the kind of life she's had to live.
CLARENCE PAGE: In "Pinky" we see the tragic love story of a light-skinned black woman who passes for white.
ACTRESS: I'm telling you, it's my mother!
CLARENCE PAGE: In "Imitation of Life" we see the same thing, a light-skinned black woman passing for white, yet knowing she is living a lie.
ACTRESS: ( Crying ) Mama, do you hear me? I'm sorry.
ACTOR: I'm moving out of here in the morning. You can have it if you want it.
CLARENCE PAGE: In Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" he didn't probe the biracial mind much deeper. Drew, his one biracial character, loses her man, a black man, to a white woman. The old Hollywood rule still holds: Want to give your love story a tragic obstacle? Make it biracial.
ACTOR ONE: So we do understand each other here? You're a titsun?
ACTOR: Excuse me?
ACTOR ONE: Charcoal briquette, a Moulin yan.
ACTOR: What's your problem?
CLARENCE PAGE: On "the Sopranos" the neurotic mob boss, Tony, has a daughter, Meadow, who had a boyfriend, Noah Tannebaum-- half black, half Jewish-- neither of whom was acceptable to her father. Yes, big Tony's a throwback, but not all that far back.
Just ask my in-laws. This is my wife, her brother, and her sister. Hollywood's version oversimplifies their lives. Their black father and white mother were married in the 1950s in Chicago, a city of immigrants and fierce tribal loyalties. When my wife Lisa was about to be born, the hospital put her white mother into a ward with other white mothers. Then after Lisa was born, they wheeled her mother into a ward filled with black mothers. A pattern was set for Lisa's life; always on the borders of two worlds, always moving back and forth. And Lisa's not alone. When her sister Leslie's four- year-old son Jonathan was born, he looked a lot like his white father, Ulrich. A nurse, who happened to be black, took one look at him and declared "white" on his birth certificate. So much for the one drop rule. Remember that old American standard? It's the rule that says even one drop of black blood makes you black. But even one drop rules are made to be broken.
Multiracial Americans are increasing too fast for the one drop rule or that census category "other" to contain them all. A new biracial identity movement has begun to speak out. Not waiting for Hollywood to catch up, they are telling their stories in their own books and memoirs. In magazines, in organizations, and on Web sites, they are saying out loud, they are multiracial and they're proud. The 2000 Census made it official: For the first time, we Americans could identify ourselves by more than one race. For the first time, we could check all of the boxes into which we might fit. I wondered what my in-laws would choose. My brother-in-law Christopher made a multiple choice, black and white. Forget the one-drop rule. He saw no need to deny half of his family background. Leslie made a different choice; she checked only the African American box for herself and for little Jonathan, too-- the child who, you will remember, was declared white on his birth certificate. My wife and I chose black for us and for our 11-year-old son, Grady. We've been black too long to change now. But the whole thing may have left our son a little confused. He declared, "My mother is black, my aunt is white, and my uncle is mixed." That got a good laugh from us grownups.
Race, once immutable, is increasingly defined in the eye of the beholder. The rules of race keep changing and raising new questions. What rules will my son's generation make? What category will his black and white cousin Jonathan choose? What labels will others choose for him? The deeper we look into our species, aren't we all mixed? When we Americans talk about the other, aren't we really talking about ourselves? How long will it take before the labels don't make any difference? I'm Clarence Page.