The Myth of "Pure" Whiteness

Have you ever thought you might not be who you think you are?

For example, maybe your curly hair isn't from a "Jewish" grandmother? Or maybe your skin that tans so easily isn't really from Sicilian heritage? Could it be that you're really not related to some Spanish Moors despite what your mama done told ya? Could it be that you actually have some, God forbid, African ancestry?

Go look in the mirror. Look at your lips, at your nose, at your hair. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? 'Cause I'm thinking you're part black!

To confirm this, maybe we should do a little digging into your storied ancestral past.

Oh my goodness! It seems that some folks back in the day suspected your granny was maybe part Negro!

Yes, America, if we dig up even ONE black relative, whether that's your grandma, grandpa, a great-grandpa, or even great-great-great-great grandma, guess what, party people, you're black! It doesn't matter if you've been living your entire life wearing Peggy McIntosh's invisible knapsack of white privilege. Nope, now we've got you! You're black and you'd better acknowledge your blackness or else we're going to stone you in Ebony and Jet like we did Mariah Carey back in the early '90s when she went around claiming she was Venezuelan, Irish and a bunch of other stuff, instead of just saying she was black.

Get used to the idea that you are going to have to check all those other ethnicities that make up your DNA at the door. Who cares if identity is a fluid construct! That one drop of black blood is mighty powerful! It's so strong that it's going to trump everything else.

In case you're worried about what this means for you, we have some new perks coming your way. Your "I'm Black So Racial Profile Me" card is arriving in your mailbox tomorrow. Dancing lessons are on their way to you so that you can learn how to get crunk -- because you know every "real" black person knows how to dance, right?

We can also get you in touch with the Holy Ghost at a black church this Sunday so that you're getting the "real" black religious experience. Oh, you've also been signed up for soul food cooking class because all "real" black folks make greens and cornbread for dinner every Sunday after church.

Okay, okay. I can see you're crying now. You'd better stop that or else I might have to also label you as a tragic mulatto. You definitely don't want that to happen because now that you're black, you should know one thing about black people: they don't like tragic mulattoes.

Sure, keep on insisting you're a half Russian Jew like Dinah Shore. Whatever. I'm not buying your lies anymore. In fact, I think the real reason Dog Chapman didn't want his son hooking up with a black woman is that Dog's actually secretly black.

What? You thought that was just a really dark tan or really extensive sun damage on Dog Chapman? Puh-leeze! He should have come clean and told the media he's black because then he could have gotten a pass on using the n-word in reference to the woman.

Blame a woman named Bliss Broyard for my eyes being opened about how white folks aren't as pure white as they claim. Yes, thanks to her, I'm now looking at everyone as suspect.

Even George Bush could be a possible "You're Really Black" candidate. And you thought he just got Condi and Colin Powell into those roles because they were the most qualified. Hah! Bush was merely doing what black people do: hooking up his people!

Now that white America's big secret was exposed by Bliss on the Today Show this past Monday when she was talking about her book, "One Drop", our racial classification system has been turned on it's ear. Bliss wrote about her family and her father, Anatole Broyard. Yes, you guessed it. Bliss didn't know that her daddy was part black. It seems that Pops was passin' for white! He had tons of relatives that were of French and Spanish descent. But, he also had relatives that were of African descent. And, oops, he conveniently forgot about them so he could get ahead in his literary career in New York City.

Turns out, her Scandinavian mother knew about her husband's black heritage, but only revealed this secret to Bliss right before her father passed away. And, as Bliss explains here, her mom went and consulted a priest when she first found out she was married to a man with black ancestry. Wowzer.

All sarcasm aside, I'm sure this sort of thing is more common than we all realize. It's sad that her father felt that he had to abandon his relatives in order to make it in America. Why'd he do that? Hmm....could it be that he didn't want to feel racism anymore? I mean, gosh, Arthur Ashe died of AIDS but he still said, "Race has always been my biggest burden."

Maybe her dad wanted to get away from that. Besides, what if her father was actually genetically more French instead African? Could he have then said that he was French? And is that the point anyway, to create some sort of system that operates on percentages? Oh wait, that's sort of what the one drop rule is, right? Except that it's if you have any percentage of black blood, you're black.

Let's face it, most black people in America have white ancestry. We're all "mixed". So, logically, we'd have to be idiots to assume most white people are just "pure white" (whatever that means) without even one drop of "black blood".

To be crystal clear, I think being black is a wonderful thing. It's not something to be ashamed off. But the rest of the world clearly doesn't agree. It was SO telling how when Bliss was on the Today Show, Natalie Morales actually said about Bliss finding out about her father's heritage, "Was it just a complete blow to your identity?"

Her father hid his black heritage
Her father hid his black heritage

If you're not black, would it be a complete blow to your identity if you found out that one of your ancestors was black? And if you did find this out, would you then start telling people that you are black?

Why do we insist on believing there's such a thing as being pure white? And why do we cling to this idea of one drop of black blood makes a person black?


Anonymous said…
I nominate Bob Barr as a suspect. :P

I have a few "white" friends who suspect that they have a parent or grandparent who passed. They'd love to find out the truth.

I don't think it would be a blow to my identity if I found out any of my ancestors were black. But I'm married to a black man, so it is not something I view as interesting, not bad. I don't think I would identify as black, though, because I haven't earned it. I'd be honest and upfront with people about it, but I'm not sure it would be appropriate to yell it from the rooftops or wear a t-shirt saying "Guess what? I'm 1/32 black."
The one percent rule makes about as much sense as the idea that white is superior to black, or the other way around either.

I think most Americans are racially mixed, whether that fact strikes them as convenient or not.

If I were to learn that I had black ancestry, it would seem right and might help explain why I have always felt personally involved in the struggle for equality.

My late ex-husband, who was a part of the NYC literary scene in the 50's and 60's, knew Broyard and was aware that he was of mixed race, so I'm shocked and saddened that his children didn't know.

The concept of race is really outdated. I would welcome an era that recognized that most of us are of mixed heritage, and that much of the vitality and beauty in our society comes from that.
I think Justin Timberlake might have a black grandparent or great grandparent.

In all seriousness the Bliss story fascinates me not just because of the race issue but class as well. This woman grew up very Upper East Side NYC and her dad was a lengendary book critic for The New York Times. Rumor has it Philip Roth based his book HUMAN STAIN on Mr. Broyard. I just don't know how he was able to live with his secret for so long. He basically cut out all his black relatives, many of them were also Creole but chose not to pass.

Yes racism in the States was/is horrific but I have a hard time understanding someone denying their entire family and background to get ahead. He was doing this in mid/late 1900's not the 1800's.

How did the kids not know? I thought it was the worst kept secret in literary circles. Anyway, a friend told me there was an asst. at one of the big talent agencies passing. All the black people knew she was black but the white people had no idea. This was a few years ago. Bizarre.

I cracked up when you wrote about the "real" black church experience. We are so tough on folks who don't fit a very narrow view of what it means to be black in America. Okay, I have to go now and listen to some Led Zeppelin. ha
Mes Deux Cents said…

Since those Europeans long ago invented the concept of race it's been a thorn in the side of humanity.

How many millions of people have been killed or brutalized because of race?

I think that if Whites suddenly began to discover that they had one drop of Black blood we might finally have real discussions about race in America.

Very interesting post.
Miz JJ said…
What must it be like to try to pass. Wouldn't you live in fear that at any moment your secret would be exposed? The entire thing is just really sad to me.I agree that most Americans are mixed. Definitely.
storyteller said…
Insightful post ... and I suspect you're absolutely right (especially for those of us whose parents arrived in America early). I'm sure there's Native American Indian blood running through my dad's family (and therefore mine) and wouldn't be in the least surprised (or concerned) to learn of Black Ancestry.

If we could just accept that we're not "alone" but rather "all one" we'd each do what's necessary to resolve the world's problems recognizing "we're all in this together" ... especially since we've seen earth from space and know how "precarious" life can be ... and we've learned that "butterflies in Zimbabwe affect weather on California's coast. :)

I have this image in my mind of a giant jigsaw puzzle and each of us is a piece. When we get lost (or fail to show up and get connected) gaps exist that no one else can fill.

I'm glad Heart in San Fransisco pointed your direction. I'm sure I'll return often.
Hugs and blessings,
storyteller said…
Of course I meant Heart in San Francisco ... sigh! The teacher in me couldn't let the error stand. I know I should preview, but don't always take the time when security codes are in place. :)
Anonymous said…
America has some messed up notions about race. Some other countries will acknowledge that mixed people are just that, mixed. I don't understand why people are so vigilant about demanding that a person who is 1% black take on a black identity when they don't care about someone who is 1% white. They're saying that to be black is to be impure and soiled and to be white is to be clean and pure.

I listened to an NPR interview with Bliss Broyard and I could not understand why Terry Gross was so fixated on her race. You could tell in the way she just attached herself to that line of questioning that she was really attached to Broyard coming out as black. She is like a lot of "liberals" who are so attached to race, but are not willing to admit it. America is really brainwashed about race, not only brainwashed, but has really odd notions of racial identity. I was not surprised that Gross approached the subject this way as I had listened to a previous interview where she found it funny that Africans would consider a mixed race woman white and not black because she had white ancestry. It's the exact reverse of what America does. I could not believe that someone as educated as her would not see the irony.

To tell as mixed person that they are only one race is to cut them in half and say that the other 50% does not count. Even if a child looked only like one parent, he/she is the creation of both parents and should be acknowledged as such.
Anonymous said…
I find it amusing that my (White, southern, DAR member) MIL has traced ancestors who lived in Welsh castles centuries ago but hasn't mentioned a single black ancestor or relative. Then again I'm reminded of Samuel L. Jackson talking about how suddenly when he had become famous, white relatives started coming to family reunions and claiming him as their kin.

I can sort of understand that the concept of passing still exists - I use my Anglo middle name and my husband's last name professionally as I was sick of explaining and spelling my name on a daily basis.
Lydia said…
I love this post Liz!

My father could have passed. He would frequently regale us with stories about being in the company of white folks who would begin to tell off colored race jokes or just talk about 'niggers" in his presence because they didn't know he was black. The fact that he was NOT trying to pass made this more amusing ( because he would usually respond with "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST SAY?!) but it was scary that up until he died in 2005, every few months in Los Angeles, California he had an unfornate race related story.
It is sad that the idea of "being black" causes such trauma, drama and turmoil. I too love being black, simply because that is who I am and am the rich descendent of so much brillance and culture. (like we all are) If it were not for the gifts, labor, and lives of millions of Africans, where would we be in America today? That question is an UNDERSTATEMENT!

But the real question is why can't we honestly discuss our fears, biases and perceptions of race, class, and identity?

Thank you Liz for this honest, reflective, witty, right on post!!!
Liz Dwyer said…
Never heard of Barr and just googled him. Oh wow! That's all I can say about him and his "drama"!

People think my dad looks part black because he has big lips. Sometimes I think they say that simply because he's a jazz musician married to a black woman. I mean, why would a plain ole white guy want to marry a black woman 40 years ago? LOL! Then again, maybe he does have black ancestry. I hope he gets a DNA test done. That'd be cool to find out. After all, Black folks and the Irish have been mixing it up for generations in this country.

You seriously have connections to all the cool, historical people. I love that about you. It seems like there were quite a few folks other than his children who knew about Broyard's "secret". The way we use race is painful. We use it to hurt, not to heal. There are intrinsically beautiful things about each "race" and I think each group of people has something special to offer all of humanity.

Even if you didn't have black ancestry, I think you would be involved in the struggle for equality because that's where your heart is. And that's REAL!

Oh, yes, the narrow view of what it means to be black is so lame. I'm listening to the Thompson Twins right now and gosh, I'll just slide my black card across the table! LOL!

Hmm...I've thought that about JT as well, and not just because of the dancing!!!

I am very fascinated by secrets and the ones that people carry with them to their graves. This does not seem to have been that big of a secret though, which makes it even more interesting and tragic that the kids were so "unaware". There was a girl I went to undergrad with who was passing. It wasn't until junior year when someone from her hometown came to the school and tried to speak to her that the secret got out. Such a shame.

Indeed, Europeans have come up with some great things, but the whole racial superiority/inferiority thing is not one of them.

I think I read about how some researchers did genetic testing on a couple of small towns (can't remember where) and found that something like 30% of the white folks had black ancestry. If you discover you are what you've looked down upon, does that change your heart?

Miz JJ,
It seems that the fear of exposure would take years off of someone's life. It's very stressful to keep secrets. And truly, very sad.

Welcome! Sorry about the security things. When I take them off, I always get weird spam.

But, I'm glad Heart pointed you this way as well! I 100% agree with your comment. The recognition of the oneness of humanity, that we are all just different parts of the same body, would cause a profound shift in the way our society operates. Our world is moving toward having to recognize this. Of course, we can be forced to recognize it through the spread of disease and environmental disaster...or we could choose another path. I hope we collectively choose that other path.

We do have very messed up notions about race and we spread them around the world via the media. I haven't heard the NPR interview, but I can only imagine. It seemed like Natalie Morales on the Today Show wanted to say, "So, now that are you black..." The questions surrounding how her life has changed, it's like people want to hear how horrible her life is, like she's suddenly getting pulled over by cops or unable to catch a cab.

I really think my parents did a great job helping me recognize that I'm black, but I'm Irish too. I can be proud of both, even if when you look at me, one isn't really visible (unless you see the photo of the women in my dad's family when they first came here in the 1800's. I look ALOT like them.

Yeah, I love it when people don't think I'm what they're going to get when they've only seen my name.

Very interesting about your MIL. I'm sure folks always want to highlight the relatives they think can bring them some sort of status. People like black relatives like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and a famous octoroon madame, but the average black sharecropper, not so much.

That question is REALLY an understatement! I really wish folks would just get over themselves and talk! If someone hurts my feelings, I'll forgive as long as I know they're sincere...and I hope the same is extended to me. But I think what impedes things is that black folks do not want to forgive because there is a lack of sincerity, sometimes real, sometimes perceived. And white folks are scared to give up the inherent sense of superiority and are afraid they won't be forgiven.

You also make me think about my husband's grandma who could've passed for white, but didn't, and married someone darker. We have a photo of her up in our house and without fail, people always think she's on my side of the family, not his because he's darker skinned.
...that was brilliant. the one thing you didn't touch on though was how many bi-racial folks actually dislike white folks--with the exception of their own parent, of course. i interviewed a bi-racial dude who touched so much smack about palefaces that it shocked me when i found out his mother (who he lived with) was white.

racism in any form is stupid, but some bi-racial folks (like my brother) carry a heavy hate in their heart. that said, don't get me started on the dark complexioned english teacher i once had who insisted he was "just jewish." nuff said.
Anonymous said…
Even if some White folks have slight Black ancestry from years ago, it doesn't change their identity.

So what if they're not 'pure' White? They are still White. Are they not of mostly European stock? Are they not the product of a White woman and a White man?

What do people want them to do? Call themselves Black? Denounce their Whiteness? lol ;)

From the studies I've read on this subject, Whites are more likely to have Native American ancestry than African.

The average AA is of 9%-15% non-Black ancestry.

I find it very hypocritical that people were denouncing Broyard for 'passing' as White, yet these same people will celebrate and support mixed folks identifying as AA. Pot, kettle, Black anyone?

It's crazy to me. But then, I'm not an American.

PS. Justin's great-grandma was either Indian or part-Indian.

I agree with you Jstele.
Jameil said…
i would love to have had a discussion about this with some white people who wanted to be honest. i take that back. i would be pissed. i want to read that book. this is happening to more white people, tho. lmao@ tragic mulatto!! i def. know i have white ancestry. i guess maybe i can post about that. i think i already did but i also think you brought some other stuff up.
Jameil said…
also in the today show intv, she was talking about passant blanc, my roomie from new orleans swears her father's neighbor in charlotte is doing it. natalie sounds really ignorant in this story. and it makes her sound more ridiculous (to me) b/c she's not white. it's like you REALLY don't know any people like this? lame. the white psych lady had to check her. "this isn't as uncommon as you think."
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh yes, the shock when you meet the white parent of a biracial person who proclaims to anyone who'll listen that they hate white people is something else. It's like they're trying to prove that they're "down" and as "black" as the next person by saying how much they hate white folks.

Back in the early '90s, someone I knew casually had just joined the NOI and was always telling me I was 1/2 a devil because of my dad...and then I met his mom and moms is white! He'd say that mess right in front of her too and she'd agree!

It may seem hypocritical but the way our racial system has historically worked, one black relative in your family tree = you are black. I can definitely see how, depending on the person, it could change someone's identity if they suddenly found this out. If I look down on black folks and have a superior attitude, then to find out that I'm part black might be really hard for me.

I'm putting the book on my library list. I want to check it out. But I will admit that there's a part of me that thinks there's a little fetishization going on of the whole Louisiana experience. Can I just read about some black folks who came up without Thomas Jefferson or some French guy in their family tree? I know, that's a whole 'nother topic. But the whole objectification of interracial sex, plus the tales of how exotically beautiful all those "Creoles" were, is just starting to get on my nerves.

And doesn't Natalie sound ignorant? Goodness!
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh, and before someone totally jumps all over me, I KNOW Jefferson didn't live in Louisiana. ( was almost midnight!) I guess I just mean that there seems to be a sort of titillated fascination on the part of some with the whole creation of folks who are percentage-wise mostly white but are part black and so are considered black.
Tafari said…
I was trying to take this post serious but could not stop laughing to save my life!

Speaking of “Tragic Mulattoes”, I called my wife one after an argument last week & she slapped the shit out of me. Next time I will whisper it.

You know I saw something on this after I heard about it on NPR & just shook my damn head. Passing back then I think is a touchy subject so let's keep it real; it is so much easier to be white so why not? Way Back when (anytime before the 70's), Black unity was not on any Negro's minds, basic survival was. Shit my wife was passed as a white baby to hide a family secret & her mother is still delusional to this day.

What I do think is fucked up is how one denied his/her family & self until the grave. What a fucked up secret to die with.

Anyway, when I saw the picture of Anatole Broyard, I that nigga was Black especially in older photos.

His wife is just as much to blame for the lie that was told to the world. I am sure she knew he was a bother as soon as she got a hold to his hot di@~ & Nu^%.

Liz Dwyer said…
Oh wow, you had me falling on the floor with laughter...once with me imagining your wife smacking you for calling her that (it might've gone down like that in this house too!) -- and again in the last part about his wife knowing! LOL!!! That's really funny. But maybe he proved the stereotype wrong. We'll never know. Maybe we can get Alexyss K. Tylor and the mama together and they can have a little chat about all that! ha hah! Ok,the lightning bolt is coming through the window any second now! ;0
Unknown said…
GREAT post. Good stuff and great thoughts for all of us to ponder!
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks so much for the feedback. Sometimes I feel like I'm thinking about these things in a vacuum so it's nice to get all the thoughts from others as well.
Anonymous said…
Bob Barr, Joseph Cotton, Carol Channing, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and her siblings and father Moon Landrieu, Peter Ustinov, Jimmy Carter (his mother Lillian Gordy) and his wife Rosalyn (Smith) Carter, Bill Clinton on his mother's side of the family, and the list goes on and on and on . . ..
Anonymous said…
Don't forget J. Edgar Hoover and Louisiana's Huey P. Long.
Ada said…
I always suspect Joseph Cotton to have African ancestry, one look at his nose lips and that unruly hair that he kept under control with men's 'jelly products' he was also born in Virginia the home of the great cotton plantations...say no more.

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