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Archive for the ‘biracial’ Category

Tiffany D. Jones at Mulatto Diaries has given me her kind permission to cross post her wonderful review of Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (2010). Some of you might know Heidi Durrow from her blog, The Light-skinneded Girl.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

- The History Boys

This is exactly how I felt while reading Heidi Durrow’s debut novel “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (available now wherever books are sold). Except that I do know her, and I thank God that she’s not dead because I need more from this author/friend of mine. Heidi has written one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure of reading, biracial subject matter or not. Truly beautiful, profound, poignant. All that good stuff and more! I read (more like devoured) TGWFFTS during an extremely difficult time in my life. I felt as though the book was saving me. And reminding me of all the good things I have to offer. And that no matter what hardships and tragedies we may go through in life, the story goes on – there’s another chapter to be lived.

Though the book is not entirely about being black and white, there are many beautiful passages that honestly touch upon the heart of that matter. I often find myself lamenting the fact that this biracial identity is so misunderstood out in the world at large. “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” offers much insight. I sincerely hope that it is widely read. We all need this book. Whether we know it or not.

A few of my favorite “themes” of the novel:

Loss of self, becoming the “new girl”, becoming “black”, forsaking white. Making deals with the self. Deals which become layers covering over the authentic self. The self that the biracial kid loses when they feel pressured to be just one thing. Then eventually you long to be just one thing because no matter how hard you pretend to be whatever it is they want you to be, you can never totally convince yourself that you are exclusively that one thing. Because you aren’t. But most people seem completely incapable of understanding that, of allowing that. So we find ourselves feeling alone and lonely in groups of people.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “I think what a family is shouldn’t be so hard to see. It should be the one thing people know just by looking at you.” Unfortunately, we’ve been trained to recognize families as homogeneous groups. Seeing interracial couples is still jarring for many. Mentally pairing a mother with a child that “does not look like” her can be a major stretch of the imagination. But it is not an imagined thing for many. It is a reality. And for whatever reason that people who don’t have to deal with this don’t seem to understand, we need our families to be recognized.

I could go on and on. I have pages of notes. But I hope this is enough to pique your interest and motivate you to buy (and read!) “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky”. I’d love to hear what you think!

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Staceyann Chin (1971- ) is a slam poet from Jamaica who now lives in the country of Brooklyn in New York City. She travels the world performing and teaching poetry. Unlike most poets she has been on Oprah’s television show and has her own Blockbuster Online page.

I thought maybe she was just television-driven fluff, that she had no substance, but when she made me cry at her grandmother’s death – not mine but hers - then I knew she could write.

She was a slam poet before slam poets were in fashion, when it was still underground in New York. Like in Ancient Greece, slam poets perform their poetry for an audience with judges picking the winner. Their pieces generally run three minutes long and tell a story. A video of one of her pieces is at the end of this post.

She got into slam poetry almost by accident: one day she went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The rest is history.

Her first published book is not of her poetry – she is not ready for that yet – but a  story in prose about her first 24 years: “The Other Side of Paradise” (2009).

She was born on Christmas day in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the unwanted daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and a poor black woman. Her mother left the country soon after and Chin was brought up by her grandmother, then in her sixties. Although unwanted by her mother, her grandmother loved her unconditionally. No one has ever loved her more. Because her grandmother could not read, Chin read the Bible to her, especially the psalms – a slam poet in training!

All that ended at age nine when her mother arrived from Canada, briefly, and put her with a great-aunt whose sons tried to force her into sex. She was shifted from house to house without a home, till age 16 when she went away to boarding school and then university – paid for by a Chinese businessman who denies he is her father.

At age 21 while at university she found out she was lesbian. She only told close friends: in Jamaica  you cannot live openly as a homosexual and expect to not be beaten up or, in the case of women, raped.

As much as she loved Jamaica, she had to leave: it would not allow her to live freely as a lesbian. So at age 24 she came to New York:

New York was my godsend. As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.

No one in New York cared if she kissed girls. She was free! Yet not free: she was black. In Jamaica, because of its colourism, she was favoured for her light skin. But in America she found herself at the bottom – for the very same skin, now seen as black. America may have been more enlightened about lesbians, but it was way less enlightened about black people.

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Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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pj_hairI saw this on the Mulatto Diaries. It is from an article about an adoption agency in Boston:

For a flat fee, the prospective parent(s) can adopt a healthy, Caucasian infant within one to two years. For those willing to accept biracial or at risk children that wait time can be as little as one year. Betsy notes that the agency is particularly proud of its Lindelli Fund, which provides subsidies to any parent wishing to adopt hard-to-place children.

More at the Mulatto Diaries.

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Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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stickersThe following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

Most studies done on biracial or mixed-race children growing up in America have been done on those with a white and a black parent. There is no general agreement yet on the stages they go through, but Dr Tatum says it goes something like this:

  • ages 1 to 5: You become aware that your skin and hair is different than one of your parents. You want your same-sex parent to be like you. One girl said if she had a magic wand she would turn her mother brown like her. Your parents say you can be both black and white but it does not make sense.  You may get a good deal of unwanted attention. But worse than that is if you get cut off from the black side of your family and your white side bad mouths them. That, along with the racist messages coming from society, will make it hard for you to feel good about yourself down the road. It is not as bad the other way round because society will help you to feel good about your white side.
  • ages 6 to 12: By now your parents have stuck a label on you: black, white or biracial. You are starting to think of yourself that way too – and at the same time you are finding out how well that label works in practice. If you do not look like your label it is going to be rough. “Biracial” does not work in all towns and neighbourhoods. It depends. If you look white, then your friends are going to be in for a shock when they see your black parent. (It is less of a shock the other way round.)
  • ages 13 to 18: This is the hard part. You are going to be asked to choose sides. The tables at lunch become more divided by race. There is no biracial table. If you sit at a black table they might say you are “not black enough”. You will also have to hear their angry words about whites. You might share that anger if you have experienced racism too, but for you it will not be so straightforward. Yet at the white table you might hear racist remarks. Even if you look white, “passing” as white might not be as easy as you think if they know you are part black. You will run into the same trouble with dating – many white parents will see you as black no matter what. So if you are, say, a biracial girl growing up among whites, they might say you look beautiful and “exotic” but you are still dateless.
  • ages 19 to 25: You become more secure in yourself. You are less affected by what others think. You can freely accept both the white and black parts of yourself. It is much easier to think of yourself as “biracial” than it was in high school.

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KW-SmithThe following is based on Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues” (2009):

Zadie Smith is a writer. She speaks in a posh British accent. But when she was growing up in the  Willesden section of London, the daughter of a white Englishman and a black Jamaican woman, she had a different accent.

For a while she could speak in both accents as the circumstances required, but then bit by bit her childhood accent went away. All she had left was just her posh accent.

She spoke that way not because she hated where she was from, but because she thought the way people spoke at Cambridge University where she went was the way lettered people spoke. And she wanted to be a lettered person.

Now looking back she sees it as a loss. Most people have just one voice, even if it changes over time. But a fortunate few can speak in more than one voice. Two that come to mind are Shakespeare and, yes, Barack Obama.

Authors often have to be able to speak in many voices. It makes their stories more believable. Shakespeare was a master at it. He was so good that even though he was a Protestant people still wonder 400 years later whether he was a secret Catholic.

And it is partly why some wonder if Obama is a secret Muslim. Like Shakespeare he can speak in many voices. He changes how he speaks depending on his audience.  He says “we” instead of “I”. He can say things like this:

We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

Taking “awesome God” from the churches of Georgia and “poking around” from the kitchen tables of Indiana.

Shakespeare could do it because he grew up between Catholic and Protestant worlds. Obama can do it because he grew up between the black and white American worlds. And so he can see them as worlds. Instead of being stuck between them, like a tragic mulatto, he moves between them.

Some might see that as underhanded but Zadie Smith sees it as having a broader view of the world, seeing it more as it is. Most presidents, like most people, stick to their own kind and so have a narrow view of the world. Not Obama.

On the night that Obama won she was at a party of white New York liberals when she got a call from a German friend to come uptown to a Harlem reggae bar. She looked at her dress and thought about her posh British accent and did not want to go. But then she saw that as:

A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.

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AmerasiansAtTransitCenter1992

Vietnamese Amerasians are those who were born to an American soldier and a Vietnamese mother during the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s. Outcasts in Vietnam, most are now in America living in poverty. Few have ever seen their fathers.

There are about 22,000 of them in America, at least 4,000 of which are black. Maybe 2,000 more still live in Vietnam but there is no way of knowing.

In Vietnam they were called “half-bloods” and “children of the dust”. They had no fathers in a land where fatherhood is strong. They were mixed in a land where almost everyone is pure Vietnamese. To the Vietnamese they looked like black and white Americans, they looked like the enemy of a long war in a country broken by that war.

They were outcasts. They were unwanted. Sometimes their mothers were outcasts, seen as loose women. Sometimes even their own mothers threw them out to live on the streets. Other children called them names, beat them up or were not allowed to play with them. Most only went to school for a few years. Some cannot even read.

When Saigon fell in 1975, about 2,000 of them were flown to America and were adopted. Of the rest many were hidden or made to look more Vietnamese. Any proof of their American fathers, like pictures and letters, were destroyed for the most part to save them from being killed by the army.

In 1988 America passed the Vietnamese Amerasian Homecoming Act. If you went to the Amerasian Transit Center in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), an American official would look at you and if you looked white enough or black enough he would send you on to a camp in the Philippines where you would learn a bit of English and something about America (not necessarily what you needed to know) and then be sent on to America where you would get some help for six months and then be left to sink or swim.

Most sank. Good work was hard to find: their English was bad, they had little education and no car. So most live in poverty.

met_amerasianLambert1Only 3% found their fathers. Partly because they had little to go on, partly because most of these men did not want to be found. Most fathers, when found, refused to see their children. Yes.

Full-blooded Vietnamese who live in America want little to do with them – they do not seem Vietnamese to them. Even to Asian Americans they often look too white or too black. And, because they are foreigners in America, black and white Americans do not see them as one of their own either.

So they are caught in the middle with no place they can truly call home. “Children of the dust” turned out to be a cruel truth.

For those who are black, sometimes called Afro-Amerasians, it is the worst. They got the least education in Vietnam, experienced the most racism and learned all the Vietnamese stereotypes about blacks, so much so that self-hatred and self-doubt is common.

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colorofwater“The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (1996) by James McBride was the number one book in America and spent two years on the New York Times’s bestseller list. It is now required reading at many high schools and universities.

It tells the story of his mother, who became an outcast from white society for marrying a black man in the 1940s, bringing up 12 children in Red Hook, a poor black part of New York, sending them all to get university degrees. And it is about James McBride himself, about his search for who he is as a mixed-race person.

Growing up, McBride did not make all that much of being mixed. He looked black, thought of himself as black. It was not like he could pass for white or something. He avoided the issue, but by the time he reached 30 he found he could not go on like that.

mcbride-netzWhen he was growing up his mother was the only white person in the neighbourhood, at church, at the bus stop. And yet her past was a mystery. She never talked about where she came from or how she got there. But McBride found he could not understand himself unless he understood the mystery of her past.

She would not even say she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. It turned out to be truer than McBride knew. She had a white body, got the diseases that white people get, but because whites would not accept her while black people did (more or less), she became in effect black. McBride calls her a black woman inside a white woman’s body.

Bit by bit the truth came out. She was a rabbi’s daughter who grew up in the South. Being Jewish in the South and living on the black side of town where her family’s shop was, she had only one good white friend growing up. After high school she left home for New York. There she fell in love and got married.

But because her husband was black, her family cut her off. Completely. They would not even let her see her mother on her deathbed. When her husband died and she needed help, they slammed the door in her face. Only years later, after the book became a bestseller, did they speak to her again.

Cut off, she did not know what the future held, she did not know what she was doing half the time, but, becoming a Christian, she trusted utterly in God.

One time he saw his mother crying in church. He thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else. He asked her what colour God was. She said, “the colour of water”.

When she saw him off to Oberlin College she gave an absent-minded wave as the Greyhound bus pulled out. But when the bus turned the corner and he could see her again, she had broken down, leaning against the wall crying.

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jamesm26James McBride (1957- ) is an American writer and jazz musician. He is best known as the author of “The Color of Water” (1996), which became a number one bestseller in America and is required reading at many schools and universities. He also wrote “Miracle at St. Anna” (2004), which Spike Lee made into a film of the same name in 2008. McBride has written music for Anita Baker (“Enough Love”), Grover Washington, Jr and Barney (no, not “I Love You”).

In 1981 when he worked for the Boston Globe, he wrote a column about his mother for Mother’s Day. It got so many letters that he made it into a book, “The Color of Water”.

His mother was a rabbi’s daughter who ran away from home to Harlem in 1939. She married a black man and became an outcast among whites. Even her own family cut her off. She found herself a white woman bringing up her 12 black children in Red Hook, a poor black ghetto in New York. All 12 children got university degrees, two of them becoming doctors. McBride himself studied music at Oberlin and journalism at Columbia.

As a boy McBride noticed that his mother looked different and asked her if she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. She always talked about whites as “they” and never as “we'”. Her past was a mystery. He asked her what colour God is. She said, “the colour of water”.

Race was not something she liked to talk about. The book “The Color of Water” tells the story of his mother’s life and, in parallel, his own life and how he comes to terms with colour:

I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.

He sees himself as black but came to understand that blacks and whites are pretty much the same on the inside. His Jewish background is part of who he is, but he is Christian.

His next book, “Miracle at St. Anna” is about four black American soldiers who fought in Italy in the Second World War as part of the mostly black 92nd Division. Like his first book, it also shows the ugliness of racism and yet at the same time  the underlying oneness of mankind.

His latest book is “Song Yet Sung” (2008). It is a true-to-life story about a slave woman who is being hunted down while she flees north towards freedom. It shows how slavery worked in practice, how it affected the moral lives of both blacks and whites.

His advice to writers:

  • You learn writing by writing.
  • Most books are written between five and seven in the morning.
  • Do not wait; start now.
  • When you fail, get back up, forgive yourself and try again. (Only about half of McBride’s books ever see print.)

Most of that goes for musicians too.

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halleHalle Berry (1966- ) is an American actress, the first black woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Actress. In America she is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful black women alive, even now in her 40s. She was Miss Ohio USA in 1986, a Bond girl in “Die Another Day” (2002) and has long been a face for Revlon.

While she is beautiful, I would not go to see a film just because she is in it, like I would with Gabrielle Union.

She won the Oscar for playing the lead  in “Monster’s Ball” (2001), where we see her make love to the white racist prison guard who put her husband to death. Angela Bassett refused the part because of how it made black women look. Berry took it and won an Oscar.

After the Oscar win and her success playing Storm in the X-Men films (2000-2006), she was given the lead in “Catwoman” (2004). Few black actresses are given the lead in any film  aimed mainly at white people, at least not without appearing opposite a white person. Unfortunately, “Catwoman” was terrible – so terrible she won a Razzie Award for it, which she accepted with good grace.

She does not try to just get by on her pretty looks. When she was going to play a crackhead in “Jungle Fever” (1991) she talked to crackheads and went for ten days without a bath. I can still remember her performance.

Apart from the Oscar she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for what I think is her best film  by far: “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999).  She was perfect. She is something of a latter-day Dorothy Dandridge herself.

She has been married twice: first to baseball player David Justice (1992-1997), then to singer Eric Benet (2001-2005). She is now in a long-term relationship with Canadian model Gabriel Aubry, who is white and ten years younger than her. They have a daughter together, Nahla, born in 2008.

Life with Aubry seems to be a happy one, but her past with men has not always been so happy. One boyfriend hit her so hard that to this day she cannot hear well out of her right ear. When Justice asked for a divorce she was in such pain she came close to killing herself – only the thought of her mother finding her body pulled her back from the edge.

She is diabetic, the kind where you need to take shots all the time.

She is named after Halle’s department store in Cleveland, where she grew up. Her mother is white, her father is black. Her father left when she was four. He came back once but then was gone again for the rest of her childhood.

When they moved out of Cleveland to live in the suburbs people called her “zebra” and put Oreo cookies in her mailbox. Her mother told her that when people look at her all they will ever see is someone black: they will not know that her mother is white – nor will they care.

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People who are half white and half Asian are sometimes called Eurasians or hapas, which is a Hawaiian term that comes from the English word half. Here are some famous ones – Americans, mainly (famous means famous enough to be in the Wikipedia):

Ann Curry, Keanu Reeves, Eddie Van Halen, Dean Cain (“Lois & Clark”; born Dean Tanaka), Miranda Cosgrove (“iCarly”), Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”), Steve Berra, Maya Soetoro (Obama’s sister), Rob Schneider, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong), Stacy Kamano (“Baywatch Hawaii”), Jennifer Tilly, Meg Tilly (born Margaret Chan), Lindsay Price (“Lipstick Jungle”), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Saved by the Bell”), Phoebe Cates, Liz Cho (ABC News), Jessica Gomes (Australian model), Enrique Iglesias, Kristin Kreuk (“Smallville”), Nancy Kwan (“The World of Suzie Wong”), Vanessa Minnillo (“TRL”), Russell Wong, Betty Nguyen (CNN), Lina Teoh (Malaysian beauty queen), Devon Aoki, Maggie Q and Lisa Joyner (TV Guide).

Those listed above were half East Asian. These are half South Asian:

Norah Jones, Boris Karloff, Sir Ben Kingsley and Yasmeen Ghauri.

These are part Asian and part white, but not necessarily half-and-half:

pat01.jpg

Bruce Lee, Yul Brynner (“The King and I”), Nicole Scherzinger (Pussycat Dolls), Patricia Ford, Michelle Branch and KT Tunstall.

As far as I know Miley Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”) is not part Asian, but she sure looks it to me, just as Hudgens and Cosgrove do:

She was caught in a picture pulling her eyes up at the corners, something white children do to Asians for some racist laughs. For someone so much in the public eye I thought she would know better, but if she is secretly part Asian it starts to make sense in a backwards way.

But my powers of observation are pretty poor when it comes to part Asians. I thought that Eddie Van Halen and Rob Schneider were plain white and Nancy Kwan was plain Asian, for example.

I once had Yasmeen Ghauri and Ann Curry on a list of white women but I was dutifully informed that they were not pure enough to count as white. The white race is the poorer for it. I remember looking at Ann Curry on the morning news – I could look at her forever – wondering if she was white or what. I did not see the Japanese in her. I thought maybe she was from Tennessee and part Cherokee or something.

To be hapa in America is different than being either White American or Asian American. For one it means having to deal with two different worlds, one white and one Asian American, belonging to both and yet belonging to neither.

Some can pass easily between the two worlds or at least within one of them, but others feel like outsiders forever in both, never fully accepted by either whites or by Asian Americans. That is the biracial experience. On top of that your parents do not understand what you are going through. So it helps if some of your friends are hapas too.

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Danzy Senna: Caucasia

caucasia“Caucasia” (1998) by Danzy Senna is a story about Birdie Lee, a girl growing up in America who can pass for either black or white. Her father is black and her mother is white but she is neither – or either. She is whatever the circumstances demand. It is a story about that strange, grey nowhere land between the races, between black and white, a story about the nature of race itself.

For a long time I did not read the book because of the title: “Caucasia”: it seemed a little too skinhead to me. It is nothing like that.

Because the story of Birdie Lee seems so much like Senna’s own life you keep having to remind yourself that it is fiction and not autobiography. Just like Birdie Lee, Senna grew up in and near Boston, her father was black, a professor who studied race issues, her mother was white, an old-money, blue-blood Wasp who turned against white American society after having black children.

Unlike the main characters in “The Imitation of Life” or Nella Larsen’s “Passing”, Birdie Lee is not a tragic mulatto. She does not hate being either black or white. She does not come to a bad end trying to be either.

In fact, her very willingness to change race is unsettling. It unsettles even her. We expect our heroes to stand their ground, to be the moral centre of the story. It is sad to see her kiss up to the white girls who laughed at how she looks; it is sad to see her try to be just like them. And sadder still to see her give the cold shoulder to the only other mixed girl in town. Sad, but probably truer to life.

Her mother is wanted by the FBI for hiding guns for revolutionaries. So for much of the book her mother is on the run with her. During that time Birdie Lee becomes Jesse Goldman, a made-up Jewish girl with a made-up Jewish past. But she is Jesse for so long she forgets where Jesse ends and Birdie Lee begins, she almost forgets that she ever was Birdie Lee. Which is her true self? Does she have a true self?

As Jesse she wore a star of David, but then when a boy threw pennies at her (because Jews are supposed to be cheap), she stopped wearing it and tells her friends she is only kind of Jewish because her mother is not Jewish.

I was hoping that she would not quite fit into white society, that her secret about being part black would come out, that she would become an outcast like that mixed girl she would not talk to, that she would say bitter but true things about American society. Well, it is not that kind of book.

However her father does tell her that race is a construct, a fiction, a lie that American society is built on. And that, as it turns out, is the moral of the story.

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sennaDanzy Senna (1970- ) is an American writer, best known for her book “Caucasia” (1999), a coming of age story about a girl who is somewhere between black and white. It is about a mulatto who is not tragic. Something Senna knows about first-hand.

Her parents were both writers and both worked for the civil rights movement. Her mother was white, coming from an old-money Wasp family in Boston that once traded slaves. Her father was a black Mexican. Senna, born in Boston, was in between, able to pass as white or black.

But not as biracial: in Boston in the 1970s there was no such thing. You were either black or white. Her parents brought her up as black.

You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don’t have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege.

She saw herself as black. But because she could pass for white she could hear the things that white people said about blacks behind their backs.

She found that no matter how much whites might talk equality and Martin Luther King and all that, they were still just as hung up about race as blacks were – they just had a different, more subtle way of talking about it. Subtle or not, it was still hard to hear it.

People who do not know her tend to think she is Jewish or Arab.

These days she sees herself as being mixed yet black:

I think of myself as mixed, and I think of myself as part of a long history of African-American writers, so I don’t see them as so distinct as people do these days.

She says not being white helps her as a writer because it gives her an outsider’s point of view.  In writing courses she took she noticed that white men, at least those who were not Jewish, had a hard time picking something to write about.

Even though she had been writing stories since at least age 11, when she went off to Stanford she studied medicine instead. But the science courses were too hard and, besides, she found that writing was something she just had to do.

The writers who made her know she should be one too were Colette, James Baldwin and Dostoevsky. She particularly likes Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. And also Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”.

“Caucasia” was her first book. It was so good it became a hard act to follow. For two years she wrote nothing. In time she did write another book, “Symptomatic” (2004) whose hero is also biracial, but this time more of a tragic mulatto. Her latest book is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History” (2009). She also writes for magazines, especially about the way race and sex affects how people think of themselves.

She is married to writer Percival Everett.

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barack_half_white

Barack Obama is black. He is not biracial, much less white.

Some say that in American society you are whatever you say you are. Like Tiger Woods calling himself Cablinasian. If only. But even from that point of view, Obama is still black: he has always called himself either “black” or “African American”, never biracial, never mixed.

Yes, he was brought up by the white side of his family, mostly by his grandparents who grew up in Kansas. Yes, he barely knew his black father from Kenya or any other black people while growing up. That is why Steve Sailer says he is a white man trying to act black – a wigger.

But what makes you black in America is not your upbringing but how you look.

So even during that supposedly wholesome white Kansan upbringing that he had, he had white coaches who passed him over for less able white players. He had few if any girlfriends because only black girls would date him and there were few of them at his private school in Hawaii.

When whites do not accept you because of how you look but blacks do, then you are black. Not just black but “black enough” in all the ways that truly matter.

So Obama is not just black but he is also black enough.

When neither whites nor blacks accept you – you are too black for the whites and too white for the blacks – then you become biracial. That was not Obama’s experience, so he is not biracial – except in the strict sense of the word, a sense that is useless when talking about black Americans since most are part white. Some are even mostly white by blood.

Some seem to think that having a white parent and a black parent is something new, something the 1960s brought in. Hardly. The mixing of the races may have been looked down on (and still is in many quarters), but it has been going on in America a long, long time, almost from the very beginning of the country. There are plenty of light-skinned blacks to prove it. And DNA tests on white Americans show that a tenth of them are mixed with black too.

But then why this urge to see Obama as biracial?

Is it because we are entering a new and better day when the colour line is going away, when the One Drop Rule is becoming something only found in history books? I wish.

Partly it is because biracial people, understandably, want to claim him as one of their own, but mainly it is because many white people do not want to admit we will now have a black president. It is easier for them to see him as biracial or mixed or half-white.

Anything but black.

Calling Obama biracial would not be progress: it would allow whites to hold on to their racist views about blacks. Thank God Michelle Obama will be the first lady.

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