Imagine a room with black and white people. Black people on the right, white people on the left, both sides loud with conversation and interactions. Now, imagine wanting to retreat to your own racial group. You feel more comfortable around the group you look like and the group that collectively shares more of your values--more of your culture. But what happens if you are both black and white? Neither? Most black/white biracial people, like myself, struggle to decide which side of the room to go on. Our skin may be too dark to feel comfortable with the white community and too light to feel truly black. Sometimes we can pass as just black. But still, they feel ostracized because of a white family upbringing, making their exposure to the black community and black culture minimal. The exact opposite could be true as well. Maybe the person is white-passing but was raised by their black side of the family. The socially constructed binary between races alienates black and white biracial children. They are ostracized from both racial categories due to the dissonance between what they identify as and what the respective communities believe their identity is.
This socially pressured dissonance between biracial people’s culture alignment and race contributes to developing identity issues as they grow up and become more aware of how society views them. This dichotomy of black/white in American society is a perfect explanation of Douglas’ theory cultural categories, and how they impede on personal and social lives. Humans feel it necessary to fit our disorganized world into box-like binaries to find meaning, comfort, and solace in. It never works if you are one of the anomalies.
My situation falls under the first example: I am biracial black/white, but I pass as being non-biracial black. Growing up being raised by my white side of the family and having little to no exposure to my black family has created an internalized identity struggle. The question “Are you black or ar you white?” has been forced upon me by society for as long as I can remember. Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist, touches on this concept (of ideas/constructs being ingrained in our memory) in her piece called “Purity and Danger,” through the example of our perception of “dirt.” Douglas explains that we often struggle to break away from the cultural categories we have established because they are deeply ingrained into our mindsets and even our lifestyles. In the same ways that we view “dirt” in a categorical sense and not in terms of actual dirtiness, we naturally try to push racial categories as soon as we meet people. What defines our categories is when we understand what doesn’t fit into those categories: “...we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place.” If a person does not fit the standard as black (darker skinned) or white, then they are forced into a box. Biracial-ness and people who are neither black or white are naturally viewed as “out of place,” and struggle to feel close to their race or culture because of it. Race is not as clean-cut as black and white, but we perpetuate the idea that race is a single narrative through reiterating the binary in our cultures.
White people categorically place biracial (black/white) people as just black, even if the biracial person identifies as both. This begins a feedback loop of identity crises, contributing to the ostracization of biracial people. Since the biracial black person is being told that they are only black, their white identity is erased, even if they were raised by their white side of the family as I was.This phenomenon stems from America’s racial history and can be traced back to laws like the One-Drop Rule, when the difference between biracial-ness and blackness was lawfully denied by the white community.
During the 1920s, the One-Drop Rule was established and indicated that having even a “single drop of ‘black blood’ makes a person black.” This rule distinguished white people from any black person of color, regardless of their skin tone. This law is a perfect example of how a community tries to reinforce a cultural category “by settling for one or other interpretation,” which erases an anomaly from the main binary of the respective categorical groups. Biracial people are not supposed to be socially acknowledged. The difference between being black or white is distinct, and the difference between black and biracial are ignored. The One-Drop Rule was created to draw a distinct line between being black and being white, when in reality there is no distinct line. Terms such as ‘mulatto,’ and ‘mixed’ were created to emphasize that biracial people were neither black nor white. This history created the foundation for the identity issues that biracial people can face, and for the internalized mindset that biracial people must pick a side to identify as.
For me, growing up with my white side of the family, while externally looking solely black, furthered my discomfort with being forced to pick a side. I grew up self-identifying as biracial but along the line I was told by other black people that I could pass as not being biracial at all. This was when I began to understand the difference between what people viewed me as, and what I viewed myself as. The deniance of difference, by American society is oppressive because biracial children like me, feel pressured to conform to just one side of the socially constructed, false racial spectrum (with white on one side, black on the other), even though we are genetically both, and can relate to both black and white identities in different ways.
I listen to “white music,” which is often frowned down upon in the black community. I “speak white,” (which, although the term itself is false because speaking what is considered the “right way” only highlights the privilege that white people are subconsciously given) ostracizes me from most of the black community. The black community frowns down upon speaking this way because it is perceived as conformance and “giving up” black culture. But I was raised speaking this way.
Another way in which biracial (black/white) people can be ostracized is through hair styles and texture. Being raised by my white mother put me through an emotional turmoil. My hair was thick, curly, “nappy,” and my mother had straight, thick, perfectly untangled hair. Because I was not raised being told that I could have my own identity, that I didn’t have to look like my white mother, I mentally tried to fit myself into her box.
American societies’ ‘black vs white’ mindset can mostly be attributed to 18th and 19th century slavery, and the dichotomy that arose after the privilege of white people was established in the mindsets of all people and our institutional systems. When someone meets another person with an ambiguous race or ethnicity, the person feels the need to inflict the binary on the person they are meeting because it is what they are taught to do, and it releases the discomfort they feel when they recognize that the person is an anomaly. Race is ambiguous and not singularly narrative, but our distinctions between black and white are not, making outliers automatically anomalies.
Davidson, F. James. "Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition." PBS. Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York, NY: Routledge, 1966.