by Marissa Jenae Johnson
It goes without saying that addressing racial issues in the United States is a series of ongoing conversations rife with logical fallacies and confusion, both genuine and manufactured. Coming up with solutions to the immoral racial context we have inherited is difficult work, and many spend precious hours, days, weeks, years, and lifetimes simply trying to convince the dominating class that there is a problem. But throughout these awkward and emotionally packed conversations are basic presumptions that often go unconsidered.
If we are going to talk about race and its implications, shouldn’t we talk about what race is?
If asked, some people could tell you what race does: certain groups of people are afforded powers and protection, and others are exploited and harmed based on their race. But very few people will be able to tell you what race is, even if they can readily racially categorize themselves and others. Everyone I encounter most certainly says I am Black, but if I asked them how they knew I was Black they might not only feel embarrassed, but would likely be at a loss for a good way to explain their impulse.
How can this be? How can we all know how to categorize each other by race and yet not know exactly how to explain it? How can you racially categorize someone you have never spoken to? How do you racially categorize someone when you don’t know their ancestry?
The reason why interpreting someone’s race is easier than explaining it is because race itself is interpretation. Though people often confuse race for being genetic or about personal identity, race has precious little to do with the individual. You don’t determine your race, the world around you racializes you.
That we don’t interpret race based off of some objective guidelines but that someone’s race is what we interpret is a confusing concept for most. The best way to think about your racial identity is to think about what happens when you walk into a room. We racialized people the moment we see them, even subconsciously. Skin color is touted as the primary marker of race, but it isn’t the only metric and people with the same skin tone can be categorized differently. Facial features, hair texture, voice, eye color, and body type are all traits by which we racialize one another.
Further, racial identity has political consequences on our lives and the conditions we inherit. So when we talk about race, we are talking about not only how we individually are interpreted, but the generational effects of how our parents, grandparents, and ancestors were interpreted as well.
That race, an identity that affects us in almost every part of life, is subject to the beliefs and politics of the people around us is an unbearable reality. Because racial identity has such harsh and unforgiving consequences in this world, we want to believe that it has some grounding in fact—in objectivity. We want to believe that something that has such force in our lives and in the lives of others isn’t so connivingly subjective.
Looking at conversations and the experiences of “mixed” people in the United States highlights the instability of our racial hierarchies, and at the same time its paradoxical persistence. Our impulses in trying to classify mixed folks into our binary gives us insight into the ways we racialize everyone.
One way people will try to determine and justify racial categories is by either explicit or implicit claims that race is genetic. Not only does this reasoning have its foundations in eugenics, but it doesn’t actually account for the political consequences people experience being Black. A police officer doesn’t know your parent’s racial identity before shooting you, and your racist employer may not know or care that you have a non-Black parent. There are no genetic markers for being Black and people born to one or more Black parents may or may not be born with features that label them as Black to the outside world.
Take me, a mixed Black woman, for example. My father is Black and my mother is white. My father is Black because he is interpreted as Black and he has two Black parents. But his mother, and my great-grandmother, and my great-great grandmother were all light-skinned Black women. Presumably, somewhere along the line there were one or more white or non-Black ancestors on my father’s side. But at what point did their descendants stop being white and start being Black if race is about lineage?
This is part of the problem when people try to assign a percentage to racial identity. Growing up I was taught I was “half Black and half white”. But no such political reality exists in this world. I have never and will never walk into a room and be interpreted as a white woman, nor, more importantly, treated like a white woman.
I am always and will always be regarded as a Black woman and I cannot—could not—escape all of the political and social realities which bind me to Blackness. I am not “half Black and half white”, but I am a Black woman with a white mother. While having a white parent affords me significant privileges, and while colorism also contributes to my positive outcomes, it cannot grant me access to whiteness. Being interpreted as a Black woman and unable to escape that interpretation, I have no access to whiteness even if I wanted it.
Born to a white mother and a Black father, I am a Black woman. I look at my grandmother and wonder “who is that white woman wearing my face?”
While it is accurate to identify me as a light-skinned woman or as having a white parent, it isn’t true that I am in any part “white” because the Black/white binary, and the political and societal realities accompanying it, maintain that no one can be both Black and white at the same time.
My three younger siblings and I all have very different racial experiences as mixed folks even though we all have the same parents. Myself and the youngest are firmly racialized as Black, primarily because of our kinky Black hair. The two middle children, having my mother’s hair, occupy a place of racial ambiguity that myself and the youngest don’t have access to. They are never interpreted as white (because whiteness is a puritanical thing and they are indeed brown), but they also are not as bound to anti-Blackness as myself and the youngest. When they walk into a room, people often do not know where to place them in relation to Blackness, and often interpret them as non-Black POC.
While they, like myself, do not have access to whiteness—to being white—they also are not confined to the political reality of Blackness as I am. Though we all have the same genetics, our political realities are different based on how we are interpreted, and something as arbitrary as hair can be the deciding factor.
To complicate the matter further, my sister is married to a white man and is a mother. Though my sister is a brown woman with a Black father, she gave birth to a white child. This child is white not because her father is white, but because, with her pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, she is interpreted as a white child. This is a difficult reality to contend with in my family, with Blackness being assigned to many of us. That there could be a next generation that does indeed have access to whiteness and therefore is not Black is strange.
Though my niece is white, she will be and already is impacted by the realities of having a Black lineage. This is the other part of the difficulty. When we talk about race we are talking about A) the present consequences someone receives based on how they are interpreted, and B) the generational consequences of how their parents and ancestors were categorized. So, while I am a Black woman, I am impacted positively by having a white parent. And while my niece is white, she is generationally impacted by having a Black grandfather.
One might be inclined to say that I am too narrowly categorizing my niece, that maybe she can grow up someday and be racially defined by how she chooses to identify racially. I’ve heard this sentiment from parents of mixed children often, that they want their children to have the freedom of racial exploration and self-determination. But while these children might indeed be free to explore and identify culturally with Blackness via their families, they cannot will themselves to be racialized outside of how they are interpreted by the larger world.
If race was about how we individually identified and not how the world regards us, then Rachel Dolezal is indeed a Black woman and we as Black people should all be able to will ourselves to be white. In his essay “(Still) Playing in the Dark: From People of Color to Black and Back Again”, RJ Eldridge explores the impulse to engage in this sort of voluntary, temporary Blackness and whether such self-identification bears any validity. But while racial self-categorization may be useful to gain access to cultural expressions that our Black/white binary does not afford us, it isn’t useful insomuch as race articulates a political and societal reality.
Blackness is a social death that is inescapable. To be Black is to be unconsentually and unwaveringly bound to this reality. If you can escape being identified as Black then, arguably you are not Black even though you might have a Black parent or self-identify as Black. While knowledge of Black lineage does have generational effects and might hold personal significance for racially ambiguous or “white-passing” people, having Black parents or ancestors in itself does not mean that someone experiences the dangerous political reality of navigating the world in a Black body.
Because of the persistence of the “one-drop rule” in America and the need for Black bodies to make up the foundation and sustenance of white flourishing, who is Black will continue to encompass many people, none of whom share one singular identifiable trait. For that reason and many others, there will continue to be appearance-based hierarchy even within Blackness, namely colorism. But we cannot properly address the issues of colorism, of Blackness and anti-Blackness as the foundation of the world, if we cannot articulate race outside of genetic determinants and the desire for individual self-identification.
Race is not how you feel, or whom your parents are, but about how you are interpreted when you walk out into the world and how those political and social realities form you. How you are interpreted is your race and how you are interpreted can vary from region to region. I am Black in America, but would not be Black in South Africa (this is part of the reason Trevor Noah is a poor choice to speak on the condition of Black Americans though he is now Black). When we talk about race as interpretation, we are talking about things as they actually are. We are admitting how arbitrary and immoral our systems of anti-Blackness are. We are divesting from this useless notion of individual racial self-determinism in a colorblind society, and instead confronting the reality of our political condition.
Race is not who you choose to be when you look in the mirror, but who the world tells you you are. Race is not a choice, it is a trap.
Marissa Jenae Johnson is a writer and speaker working at the intersection of Blackness, womanhood and Christianity. Her work in the Black Lives Matter movement has garnered international attention, and she is currently working on a book about her radicalization. Follow her on Twitter @rissaoftheway.