“What are you anyway?”

“What are you anyway?” The bluntness of the woman’s tone puts me on edge. […] The woman doesn’t get the subtlety of my response. “Well, I’m looking at you and I can see what you look like. But,” she struggles, “what are you?”

What she doesn’t say, but what is implied, is that I look so white. But I’ve revealed that I’m not 100 percent white. My appearance isn’t to be trusted. That seems to bother her. (235-6)

I just finished reading White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik. I had actually come across her story in shortened form previously, in this Washington Post article; it piqued my interest and I sent away for the book to be delivered to my library’s hold shelves. It’s not written in the best prose out there, but the story it tells about race in America is illuminating,

The story of Lukasik’s family illustrates the complications of racial makeup and identity in America, especially in the South, and especially in Louisiana. Historically, Louisianans lived in the three-tier caste system, made up of whites on top, slaves on the bottom, and “free people of color” in the nebulous middle. The free people of color originated from manumitted slaves, from free black emigrants from Europe, and from the children (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) of white Louisianans and their black slaves, and later on, from the relatively common plaçage arrangements set up to get around laws against inter-racial marriage. Over time, the free people of color simply became what we would now call biracial. In the antebellum years many were considered legally white (and/or had terminology/labels applied describing theor proportionate mixture of blackness and whiteness: mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, etc.).

In the 20th century, things got dicier with the “one-drop rule” of the segregated South that said, in essence, having even one black ancestor means that you are legally black. In Louisiana, a person would be considered black even if only 1 of their 32 great-great-great grandparents were something other than white. (Just for reference, and if you will excuse this instance of Godwin’s law, this is more stringent than the Nazis were in determining Jewish descent and identity.) This of course was tied up with white supremacy and eugenics and other nasty things. But what happened when you were mixed race, considered legally black, but looked white? When the census-taker came to the door, that form only had two options for race. You were black, or you were white. So what did you tell them? And more importantly, how did you live?

The author’s mother, Alvera Frederic, had to make those choices. On her birth certificate she is listed as “colored”. In one census she is listed as black; in another, white. She left her family in New Orleans behind forever, “crossing over” the colour line and moving to Ohio, where she married a white man who never knew she wasn’t as fully white as he was. Lukasik was a grown woman when she discovered her mother’s secret, and Alvera’s pain and shame over being found out compelled Lukasik to keep that secret until after her mother’s death, some seventeen years later.

After Alvera’s death, Lukasik’s search began in earnest, beginning with an appearance on Genealogy Roadshow and ending with the discovery of a large, multi-racial family into whose arms she has been welcomed — it is a poignant story and a touching one. The book tells not only the story of her mother and her family, but gives a lot of historical context about their lives. In the end, Lukasik finds her African ancestor: a woman named Marta, born into slavery, her parents most likely brought on some of the first slave ships from Senegal. As she tells Marta’s story, Lukasik wrestles with what, if anything, having a black ancestor means (or can mean, or should mean) to her:

But even after I discover Marta, it changes nothing about my sense of racial identity. I have no claim on black identity, no right to declare myself even mixed race. And yet, my African ancestry is there in my DNA: 7-9 percent, more than one-drop, enough that up until 1983 in Louisiana I would have been designated as black.

What does it mean for a blatantly white woman to tell the story of her distant slave ancestor? “What gives me the right?” I ask myself. Is 7-9 percent African DNA enough? Does it matter that it’s me telling her story, as long as her story is told?

My search has never been about claiming a black identity. It springs from another place — the desire to know what my enslaved ancestors endured, how they assimilated into their time and place, and how they survived. I carry their DNA like a badge of honor. (202-3)

More than anything, White Like Her provides a compelling argument for the notion of race as a social construct. What does it mean to be “black” or “white” or “mixed”? Is it your facial features, skin tone, or hair texture that defines your race? Your DNA proportions? Your acknowledged cultural identity or preference? The answer seems to be all of these — or none of these — or some of these, some of the time. And what happens when you’re not white enough for the white community, but not black enough for the black community either? Lukasik quotes an email she received from a young mixed-race woman:

People usually think that I’m Hispanic or at least mixed, and sometimes they’re just unsure. I do come from a very bi-racial or multi-racial family. As a result I definitely have a few of my own racial issues to be honest. Looking the way I do I have personally never been accepted by the black community for the most part, a concept called colorism, you may have heard of. Kids teased me and called my white (though I don’t look white to most white people I don’t think, but by black standards definitely not black enough). […] Even in this time, there are clearly advantages [to being thought white]. It’s sooo complicated. (233-4)

It’s sooo complicated, indeed.

My one beef with White Like Her is the sheer amount of speculative material it contains. I understand that genealogy can provide more questions than answers, and that names on baptismal records and death certificates don’t tell you anything about what that person thought or felt, or how they lived. Lukasik indulges in a lot of “Did she think that…?” and “What was he feeling as…?” which got somewhat tedious. But more alarmingly, in what is supposed to be a biography, Lukasik makes up letters between some of her ancestors, and the reference to the fact that they’re made up is brief enough that a careless reader could easily read it. This isn’t historical fiction; those should never have been included.

Imaginary correspondence aside, I’m glad to have encountered White Like Her as I continue to think and learn about the “sooo complicated-ness” of race in America.

“Pardon me, your epidermis is showing…”

Pardon me, your epidermis is showing, sir
I couldn’t help but note your shade of melanin
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement
Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin…
(DC Talk, “Colored People”)

A month or two ago I re-read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s excellent book NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children. I first read this book years ago, when I was working as a nanny, but coming to it again after having my own children lent it some fresh interest and relevance to me. Bronson and Merryman bring together some fascinating research on children, looking at (among other things) the “inverse power” of parental praise (see this New York Magazine article), new insights into sibling relationships, and why products like those “Baby Einstein” videos don’t foster language development but actually retard it.

One chapter that seems especially relevant right now is their look at race relations between children, and the surprising finding that the more integrated a child’s school environment is, the less likely they are to have a cross-racial friendship. School diversity isn’t having the effect that most people assumed it would. So what does that mean?

The answer to that question is at least partially tied up with the notion of “white privilege” — bear with me, now. I know that this can be a bit of a loaded term, particularly as it seems to be used in a couple of different ways. But as I understand it, at its simplest, it’s just this: white privilege is the privilege of not needing to think about race. This makes sense to me; I’m not really conscious of my whiteness in my day-to-day existence. When I watch TV, the people I see there mostly look like I do. If I have an unpleasant interaction with someone, it’s never even occurred to me to wonder if the colour of my skin was a contributing factor. Bandaids and “nude”-coloured undergarments always match my skin. Et cetera. (See also: Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay on the subject.)

Because white parents mostly don’t think much about the colour of their skin, they also don’t talk much about racial and ethnic differences with their children, whether out of uncomfortableness with the subject or because it doesn’t occur to them to do so. Or sometimes we assume that if our children are in multi-racial/multi-cultural environments, they’ll simply pick up the notions of equality on their own, without the need for parental guidance or intervention. Not so, say Bronson and Merryman.

The trouble with this thinking is that children naturally notice different skin colours and types of hair (and the like) — and of course they do! Young children are very interested in categorizations and in nearly every other subject we encourage them to discern differences: “this is a boy and that is a girl; this is a dog and that is a cat; this is green and that is blue; this is how you tell which is which.” But without some straight talk about light and dark (and medium) skin, they are left to their own devices, noticing differences but not sure what they mean. And in that situation, they tend to default to people “like me” and “not like me,” and those “like me” quickly become the preferred playfellows.

So what to do? The answer is simple enough: to talk with our children about skin colour and race: regularly, from a young age, and (this is important) explicitly. If we keep it too vague (“Everyone’s equal!”) our children simply won’t have any idea what we’re talking about.  So we’ve started having very simple conversations about it with Anselm, using people he knows as examples: “Mr H– has very light skin, like we do. We call skin like that ‘white skin.’ Mrs H– has very dark skin. We call skin like that ‘black skin.’ [Their daughter] has medium skin. We call skin like that ‘brown skin.’ God made people to have all sorts of beautiful skin colours. People of every skin colour can love each other and be friends.” As he gets older there are a lot more things that will be added to the conversation, but this seems like a reasonable foundation for a two-year-old.

An acquaintance of mine on facebook recently posted this article from Motherly: 20 children’s books to spark important discussions about race and tolerance. Several of them are earmarked as appropriate for youngest readers, and I’ll be checking some of them out from the library over the coming weeks. We’ll see where the conversation takes us.

(Bonus: here’s DC Talk’s 1995 music video “Colored People” — because I love me some mid-90s CCM.)