So apparently R&B artist Keyshia Cole started a s***-storm of controversy recently when she went on BET's 106 & Park and claimed that she wasn't initially sure how she felt about being on “Black Women Rock,” because she's biracial. Madame Noire asked, “I think it’s fine if she wants to point out that she’s bi-racial, but one, where is this coming from, and two, are you not still black by all one drop rule standards? And are you really going to act like the rest of society doesn't still see you as a black woman and you can now no longer understand the need to celebrate black girls doing good things. C’mon now?”. While I agree with M.N. in part, I can't go for the one-drop rule assessment.
For those unfamiliar, the one-drop rule is the U.S. law (and only the U.S.; no other country is so backwards), dating back to Jim Crow, which states that one-drop of negro blood makes someone black. As you can imagine, this law was invented largely to prevent miscegenation (that's “race mixing”). Not really sure how enforceable that was a hundred of years ago without discernible proof of one's lineage, as the one-drop rule resulted in lots of people “passing” for white in order to benefit from the more favorable status afforded by law and society in general.
Seeing as Jim Crow laws have been eradicated, and we live in an increasingly multiracial and multiethnic society, I don't really see a benefit to the one-drop rule in today's society. In fact, the one-drop rule seems to be invoked by black folks more than any other group. Yes, we generally tend to claim everyone and their grandmama as black.
While there are many bi- or multi-racial/ethnic celebrities who are perceived as black merely because of their appearance–and to some degree because of their associations [Pres. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, Alicia Keys, Dwayne Johnson, Tracey Ellis-Ross, Tia and Tamara Mowrey, Bob Marley, Carmelo Anthony, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Bonet, Maya Rudolph, Faith Evans, Jimi Hendrix, Jordin Sparks, Kelis, Shemar Moore, and Stacy Dash just to name a few], there are also those bi-/multi-racial/ethnic whose appearances defy a label of just “black”–even to the point where many don't even know they are biracial until they come out of the color closet, so to speak [Mariah Carey, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Beals, Vin Diesel, Cash Warren, Wentworth Miller, Santino Rice and G&R's Slash are just a few who come to mind who have elicited the “OMG! I didn't know s/he was black!” response]. And what about the people who are (allegedly) “black” so far down the line that it shouldn't even matter, since no reasonable person would ever perceive them as multi-racial, let alone “black” [thinking of, for example, People's Sexiest Man 2012, Channing Tatum, who is reportedly 1/16 black on his father's side]?
I personally think it is pretty pointless to assign someone a mono-racial identity for the comfort of one group who thinks that celebrities should acknowledge their blackness and only their blackness. Look, I get why we would or should want to do it in some circumstances. Without the one-drop rule, instead of America having its first black president, we have our first half-black POTUS. Without the one-drop rule, there has never been a great black pro-golfer (not that we have a great one now, in either case, right?), just a half-black pro-golfer. However, self-identification–particularly when that self-identification is grounded in some reality–is important, and even if we allow someone their (right to a) half-black or quarter-black identity, we have still made cultural progress. President Obama self-identifies as black, because he is viewed as and treated as a black man [No worries! We still have our first “black” president–sixth if you still insist we go by the one-drop rule]. However, he acknowledges his biracial status, because to do so is an insult to the white mother and grandparents who raised him [as opposed to his African father who was largely non-present in his life]. Halle Berry was raised by her white mother, but that same mother raised her as a “black woman,” because she realized that is how most of society would perceive her [And, similarly, Halle has insisted that her one-quarter black daughter is also a black woman by society's standards–despite her light hair and blue eyes]. Mariah Carey, for reasons unknown, self-identifies as black, and occasionally as “tri-racial.” Dwayne Johnson self-identifies as both black and Samoan. Tiger Woods self-identifies as Cablanasian (seriously)–and that's his prerogative. The thing is, asking someone to self-identify as only one race–regardless of their life or familial experiences is not the business of the outside world.
My daughters are too young to understand the concept of race, let alone begin to self-identify. Pop Culture Preschooler only knows racial differences from a crayon-box perspective. She has declared before that she, daddy, and her sister have white faces, and mommy has a brown-face. Of course, even on the crayon-box perspective, she is incorrect, and we have corrected her that she and daddy have beige faces, while her little sister and mommy have brown faces (or, more accurately, Pop Culture Toddler2 has a tan face); but ultimately none of this will prove important as she grows up. People will put her into one box or another, and regardless of what box or boxes she checks for herself, someone will always question her choices. If PCP checks the “black” box with her pale skin, green eyes, and naturally highlighted hair (though with black features she received from me), there will be those who question whether she is “black enough.” If she checks the “white” box, many will accuse her of being self-loathing [no lie, I may have that fear myself]. If she checks both boxes, then there will still be some people [including the State of Texas on the forms we filled out at the hospital!] who will consider that an unacceptable answer, and forcing her to choose only one–more often than not, the “black” box. In short, no matter what she chooses, she will lose before she's even began. Pop Culture Toddler2 has the opposite problem. Even though her features and hair came from her Caucasian, American Irish father, she undoubtedly has my coloring. Without seeing both parents present, most people don't even realize she's biracial, and when she is only with my husband, people are as confused as they were when I used to be alone with Pop Culture Preschooler as a baby–yes, I was actually confused as the nanny on several occasions. While few strangers would probably question if PCT2 self-identified as “black,” any other classification may raise eyebrows and accusations. This would, of course, be unfair, because she, just like her older sister, is very much a product of both of her parents.
We will cross these bridges when we get to them. In any event, I don't think that the “one-drop rule” is the way to go, because it is not up to society to decide how a bi- or multi-racial person views him or herself (no matter how much it may irk us). Not to mention, it just gets into absurd and ridiculous results when you are talking about someone who can barely trace their black heritage, who would never be identified by society in general as a black person, and who will never know or experience any amount of discrimination as they would if they were actually a minority.
Now… as far as Keyshia Cole… though her answer was thought-provoking insofar as the general topic, it was quite a head-scratcher for me. Why? Well, because Keyshia Cole doesn't know who her daddy is. By every report, her mother was a drug addict, and didn't know who she was with during her crack-fueled binges. There has been a lot of speculation about who her father is, but no definitive answers. Maybe he was a black man, maybe he wasn't. But the bottom line is Keyshia neither knows who her father is nor has she had an experience of being raised in a multi-cultural household or society. She's an R&B artist who is largely unknown to anyone who doesn't follow R&B. Moreover, she gave this statement on Black Entertainment Television, which is… well… the only channel that plays her videos. So… you know…. Self-identification really only works when, as stated above, there's some basis in reality. I mean, I could call myself half-Vietnamese, but that doesn't make it true or reflective of my life experiences.
Ignoring the Keyshia Cole craziness, what about the rest of you? What do you think about the one-drop rule and self-identification? Should we leave it up to individuals to (within reason) identify themselves; or is there some societal value in forcing the “black” label on half-, quarter- and 1/16th black individuals, regardless of how they seem themselves?