Matters of (Post) Race

FASCINATING SET of pieces up at The Root about the malleability racial designation.

The first about the Harlem Renaissance writer, Jean Toomer, who wrote Cane, a series of vignettes about black urban and rural life in America. Toomer was, as my friend Sydney used to say, an “Artesian.” It was her catch phrase to designate people who seemed to elude racial classification due to not just their features but the way in which they carried themselves.

In the introduction to a new edition of Cane, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr and co-writer Dr. Rudolf Byrd posit that Toomer’s personal story wasn’t about “transcending race” — but was a classic narrative about for “passing” for white.

From The Root:

They lob this intellectual grenade in their introduction to the book, which W.W. Norton & Company is to publish next month. Their judgment is based on “an analysis of archival evidence previously overlooked by other scholars,” Mr. Byrd and Mr. Gates write, including Toomer’s draft registrations and his and his family’s census records, which they consider alongside his writings and public statements.

Rest of the piece is here in the New York Times.

Second piece, Bi-Racial Americans Increasingly Passing for Black” reports a study published this month in “Social Psychology Quarterly” suggests that statistically, more bi- and multiracial people are choosing to identify as black — following President Obama’s lead.

The study “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans,” is, according to the Root: “likely to rekindle the debate by providing evidence that black-white biracial adults are increasingly choosing, like Obama, to emphasize their blackness and downplay their white ancestry. In what the study calls “a striking reverse pattern of passing,” a majority of respondents reported that they ‘pass’ as black.

From the post:

“History, of course, is full of Anatole Broyard stories of mixed-race blacks who have personally profited by camouflaging their racial makeup and pretending to be white. What is novel today, according to the study, is that “multiracial individuals now feel more free to experiment with their identity and many express pride in their blackness and take steps to accent attributes that they consider black.”

Expressing pride in their blackness — that is a good thing, and the authors of the study use their data to make the case that this phenomenon of reverse passing demonstrates that blackness itself is less stigmatized today than in the past, which is certainly evidence of progress. However, what is troubling about the study is also what I find so disturbing about the criticism surrounding Obama’s census decision — namely, the flawed premise that in America, an opposition can exist between “biracial” and “black.”

But here’s the rub: the idea of “experimenting” with identity. For those whose racial identity is a clear-cut either/or, while navigating the world, it isn’t a matter of choice or experimentation. You simply are. It’s not a cloak you can take off or put on at will. The attitudes and understanding of self start within; how society views, values and honors difference. If being black is now “less stigmatized” well, we should celebrate that, but it also suggests that a hierarchy still exists. As the writer points out late in the piece, this is an old debate, as being black in America has always been a “mongrel affair.” It seems as this debate still roils, we still have ways to go down that road . . .

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