It’s another cold wintry day in Baltimore and thankfully I am inside and warm and still glowing from a wonderful Valentine’s Day where I was able to do a combination of things that I love. I worked a little bit in Washington D.C. Sunday morning. I came home to my wonderful home in the sky and made and ate a healthy Valentine Meal with my Valentine.
Today, I opened my news feed to find a Saturday Night Live skit trending called “The Day Beyonce Declared Herself Black.” It was funny and poked fun at recent comments made about her Super Bowl half time performance, that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared to be an “attack against the police.” The skit made fun of white people who did not know that Beyonce was black. Really? The issue of race continues in its own unique and complex fashion in America. As an example of this discussion, I would like to share with you a conversation about race that I had with a young woman while on the train from Baltimore to Washington D.C.
I first caught sight of her when she was on the platform waiting for the early morning train. Reddish brown hair, green eyes, a ring through her nose and no- coat with temperatures in the 20’s. She happened to sit in the seat across from me on the train and began to chat with me. She told about me her unusual family living situation where she lived with step parents because her birth parents were artists in New York. The conversation turned to race and I think I was the one who asked her what she racially considered herself. She and I are both multi- racial and I was curious how she identified herself. Her mother is White, her father is Chinese and Black. She looks White, but identifies herself as Black. As we discussed the issue of race, this young woman, whose name means Magic, so I will call her that, discussed the incident last year where a white woman posed as a black woman. Magic said that that incident made it harder for someone like herself who is racially black, but looks white.
This meeting with Magic got me to thinking about embracing who we are and expanding the narrow confines in which we package things- including ourselves. In my own day and time, I too had chosen to identify more with one of my multiple races rather than the others. I did not feel comfortable with identifying myself with either being Chinese or Indian because those areas of my racial ethnicity had never been explored in my family except for in the food, which often times included curry dishes. There was no or little reference to my Asian ancestry at all. If I were forced to choose based on the pre-dominance of a blood group, then technically I would be considered Asian. I am- since we are forced in this country to be at least 1/16 in order to claim to be Native American and one drop of black blood will make you black according to one drop rule- so although I am 1/8 black and 3/8’s white and mostly Asian, I choose to call myself an African American.
When I made this decision decades ago, it was not without a lot of thought. I had been emancipated by a California court when I was sixteen and I was forced to choose a box under the Race column. I hovered over the box that said “Other”, but I didn’t want to be known as an “other”. I was already an outsider. The coolest people, and everything that I loved was “black”, this included Dianna Ross, The Temptations and Martin Luther King. Yes, this Caribbean born multi-racial woman, wanted to be a part of the race that included the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. Besides, at no time during the D.C. race riots which I experienced as a child, did anyone stop to point out that my eyes were Asian. No, I was a non-white. I chose to declare myself an African American in the little square box of race.
Magic, my young train companion told me that she chose to declare herself as an African American because she said that there were many more opportunities in terms of scholarships for people claiming to be African American rather than “other” or “white” which she clearly looked like. Oddly enough, this was another reason, that I more than 4 decades ago had chosen the box next to Black or “African American.”
Back then when I made this choice, as I entered college in the early 70’s, people had their opinions about my choice. This was manifested in many ways including the fact that there was vocal disapproval to me joining the Black Student Union when I was a freshman in college. I didn’t wear an Afro. My hair was shoulder length and my skin was the color of coffee with milk and my eyes clearly portrayed my mother’s Chinese ancestry. Twenty years later, while I was in law school one of my classmates who was Chinese and black and was a member of the Asian Law Club suggested I join that group instead of NBLSA which is the National Black Law Student Association.
After my classmate made the comment, I literally stopped as I was entering the NBLSA offices at the University of Washington School of Law. At first, I was taken back. He looked a lot more “black” than I did, and yet he had chosen to be a part of the Asian Law Students. I don’t recall what I responded to his suggestion. I think I said, that I would think about it, but in my heart I knew that my orientation, my soul was aligned with being African American.
Even today, there are people who tell me that I am not black at all and that the darkness of my skin comes from my father who is a Madras Indian- those are the very dark skinned Indians born in southern India. I don’t understand the need of people of any race to question what a person chooses to consider themselves, when they are of multiple racial ethnicities. This is especially true because even though the race boxes have expanded to include “Pacific Islanders” and Native Americans, the choices are narrow and exclusive rather than inclusive.
Magic told me three sobering facts. When she was younger and living in an almost lilly white section of Baltimore Maryland called Roland Park, her teachers urged her to declare herself white. But Magic, who knows her Chinese Black father knows she is not “white” although her skin is the color of milk and her eyes are green and her hair is a dull red. She said, “If I had called myself white, or “passed” for white, every white person would know that I was really black and I would get called out for “passing””, However, she says that while some people of color question her choice of black, because her skin is pale and her hair is red, they quickly understand that she is in fact black.
It is unfortunate that there is such a need to categorize by race. There is really only one box and that is the race of human beings and no box will ever match the diversity that exists within the human race. But, if you force us to choose then Magic and I are both African American. My ride and conversation with Magic ended with me putting my name in her phone in the event that she chose to accept my offer of a winter coat. And yes, we should find all children and young people to be our children and all people to be our siblings, parents and members of our magical human race and family.
I close today with the wish and hope that you all live with joy each day and celebrate your uniqueness in a world uncomfortable with things and people who don’t fit within a box,