On the eve of President Obama’s historic 2008 election victory, I penned a letter to my two biracial nieces, then ages 10 and six, about what having a man who was both “African” and “American” as our new president would mean to their generation and lives. My words were both aspirational and informational, preparing them for a world that still obsessed with the ubiquitous labelling of people as “biracial” or half Black and half White.
I wanted them to know that regardless of their White ancestry, they would indeed be considered Black girls and eventually as Black women. It’s something that we as Black people have understood about ourselves since slavery. It was validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 (that Blacks were only 3/5th human) and who can forget the famous “one drop” rule. This social and legal principle of racial classification that has had historical prominence in the United States asserts that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry ("one drop" of Black blood) is considered to be Black (Negro in historical terms). This concept evolved over the course of the 19th century and became codified into law in the 20th century. Although it is no longer in effect, its remnants can still be felt.
Enter famed Black neurosurgeon turned Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson. This week on the campaign trail Carson launched an interesting discussion regarding President Obama and his biracial parentage, citing that because of it, the President really has no clue about the “Black experience” in America. Growing in poverty in Detroit, Carson on the other hand, feels that he is in fact closer to the real deal.
The issue we need to address is that being of mixed-race in America has always been problematic for the progeny of interracial parentage. Lighter is better. "Good" hair versus nappy hair. Are we White or Black? Where do we fit in? These are questions that arise outside of the Black home. However, if you grow up in a typical African American household with two Black parents, aunties, your “Big Mama,” and a slew of cousins, your experience will be vastly different than what I see happening for my nieces in their very White neighborhood, White school district, and mostly White church experience. Black parents parent differently, discipline differently and worship differently. They inform us about the perils of the world and that includes having to still be “twice as good” as everyone else with the same credentials or gifts.
Being Black in America is a unique historical and present day experience unparalleled to any other. Just ask this new generation of Black Lives Matter activists who have a different perspective on the criminal justice system, sentencing, arrests, the wealth gap, unemployment and most painfully the random murders of innocent Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Dr. Carson doesn’t get that being “half Black” still makes you very much Black and although President Obama was definitely raised in a more traditional “White” upbringing, once he began to mature, he understood what being a Black man truly means. He walks like a Black man, and talks like one, and is married to a strong, beautiful Black woman. He has two Black daughters and more importantly, if he were to put on a hoodie, secretly leave the White House and try to catch a taxicab, he could not. He would be racially profiled like any other Black man. The truth is that the world already confirmed President Obama’s race, so to Dr. Carson, I would simply say the President is Black enough. Leave him alone.
A rather interesting question in this discussion on race is that White Americans still do not understand the need for Black culture. It’s a fight that continues to happen in my own family where my nieces’ relatives simply don’t get it at all and in some ways deeply, resent that our culture is “pushed” on these now teenaged girls.
Like the President, I know that one day, my nieces will venture beyond the false notion that because they have a White parent, White grandparents and are being raised around mostly White people that somehow they are White. They are not. One day, without embarrassment or bitterness, they too will have no choice by instinct and experience to embrace their Blackness.
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq. is an attorney and award winning journalist. Follow her on Twitter @IAmSophiaNelson.