Updated: Jul 18
Recently, a respected Black intellectual commented on Twitter that the Black community continues to cling to the legacy of the one-drop rule and other racist laws that once defined Blackness in America despite though the fact that more and more folks are of mixed racial backgrounds.
In my experience, it’s not the Black community that clings to the legacy of racist laws and the one-drop rule. It's everyone else. Even if they don’t intend to, the way other communities perceive and interact with Blackness serves to erase and minimize any other racial or ethnic heritage a person may be a part of. The perpetual othering and elevating of Blackness ensures that the legacy of the one-drop rule persists, even if we wish that the world were different.
I’ve lived in very different parts of America. From the Northeast to the Southwest, and a few spots in between. Each community had a distinct culture, those quirks and expectations that make DC very different from Phoenix for example. Different in conceptions of time, cuisines, art, and more.
However, there were a few overlapping, universal characteristics. In all the places I’ve ever lived, the idea of America as the melting pot persisted -- a home for diverse peoples making a new life together. While the degree of belief in America’s foundational narrative varied, the undercurrents remained.
I’ve also encountered one other near-universal experience when in the United States: Behavior from outside the Black community, from others of a diverse array of races and backgrounds, demonstrating that my Blackness is the only aspect of my identity necessary for them to categorize and “understand” me.
When I meet people, they often ask me “what are you?” or “where are you from?” When we dig deeper into the conversation it becomes clear that what people really want to know is what I’m mixed with, what ethnic background has formed my ambiguous and confusing features. Typically, after a short explanation, most folks nod and smile, satisfied that I’m Black, Asian, White, and a little bit of a whole lot of other things.
In these initial meetings race remains present but it's not entirely apparent how others are processing or receiving my identity. It’s typically later, in more subtle and insidious ways that I realize that, despite the fact that I’m light-skinned, multi-racial, and from an incredibly diverse family, my Blackness has left its indelible mark on how others perceive me.
In college and graduate school, I was told repeatedly, in offhand and unintentionally hurtful ways as well as through direct and cruel assertions, that I was a “diversity pick.” That I got into college or received preferential treatment based on my race. Those statements were made just as often by my Asian, Latinx, and other minority colleagues as they were by White folks. It was clear then that they were referring specifically to my Blackness as the factor determining my entry into higher education.
Not my grades, not my test scores, and not the intensely competitive fellowships and scholarships that I received. In their minds just my Blackness ensured my acceptance at university and also rendered me unworthy to share academic space with them.
I’ve been told my entire life by nice, unassuming coworkers and colleagues that I’m “intimidating” or “scary.” I’m five foot two and shy when I first meet people. Especially in professional and educational environments, I tend to be very quiet until I learn the lay of the land and figure out the social dynamics. But my quietness is not perceived as politeness or me just being demure, as I suspect it would be if folks assigned my Asian heritage a higher priority in their minds. Instead, I’m often told that I am scary, that I make others uncomfortable with my quiet commentary and soft smiles. Whether intentional or not, the consistent assumption that I’m aggressive or threatening draws directly on racist tropes associated with Blackness and angry Black women.
Considering how many extremely restricted, highly regulated, competitive, and predominantly White workplaces I’ve participated in and excelled in, let’s be honest: As one of the few minorities and a young Black woman at that, I never would have been allowed to behave threateningly or aggressively and remain employed. Yet my colleagues remained scared.
And granted, I have a complex relationship with some aspects of my identity, like my Japanese heritage. Yet no matter how connected or disconnected I feel with that part of myself, there’s nothing quite as jarring as being completely alienated and embarrassed when other Asian folks make me out to be freakish for my mixed heritage. I’ve had Japanese American classmates fall on the floor laughing (literally) about how they could not believe I was part Japanese or how they would never have thought so after seeing photos of me with my mom and grandma.
Another common response, after they stop laughing or the disbelief leaves their face, is to interrogate me in a polite, but othering way. To demand to see my bonafides either in language, cultural knowledge, or detailed family history so that they can figure out just how Japanese they believe me to be. Most of the people who have behaved this way are often also mixed-race folks of Asian descent, though one of their parents is typically White. In those instances, it is my Blackness that is truly confusing to them, not my Asian heritage.
I’ve also been accused of not being a “good reciprocal ally” for the Asian community, which on its face assumes that I cannot be part of that community. The work I’ve done or not done aside, why can my Asian and White bloggers and friends, those who also have limited exposure to the language or culture of their ancestral homelands, be embraced as part of the Asian community, but the pinnacle of what I could hope to achieve is the status of “reciprocal ally?” I don’t often discuss my Asian heritage for those reasons. I’m tired of playing the “OMG you can’t be Asian!" game.
I have innumerable examples of the erasure of other aspects of my identity. Of the elevation of my Blackness as the only part of my background that matters, or at least matters to others. Where does that leave me in an increasingly polarized climate in which identity politics seem ever-present?
Right where I started. Living my Blackness out loud while the other parts of myself remain mostly hidden.
I am an American descendent of enslaved Black peoples. I am also the granddaughter of world-renowned artists, whose work hangs in museums alongside towering figures. I am the daughter of an acupuncturist and an activist. I am a woman with strong ties to Hawaii, but not Hawaiian. I am also the great-grandchild of Japanese calligraphers and a descendant of whalers from Newfoundland.
I can explore those identities, quietly and privately painting a fuller picture of what it means to be me. But, for now, I prefer not to try to live all of them out loud. Though likely hidden behind a smokescreen of curiosity, fake politeness, and professionalism, once I stray too far from the idea of Blackness that others assign to me, my explorations will elicit an inevitable reply. So, I tread cautiously, lest I provoke them to remind me of my place.
Every single time someone oh so politely points out that my Blackness is of the utmost importance and simultaneously the reason that I do not belong, that is exactly what they are saying.