Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Who Is "Black"?

A couple of months ago, the Dean of Cincinnati, arguably the most liberal White man in Cincinnati (and it shows from his latest riff trying to prove the "evils" of eating meat by suggesting the SPCA should serve dog meat on Fountain Square) posted a piece that I found kind of surprising.

He was bitching rather precipitously about the media refering to Barack Obama as "Black" or "African-American". Apparently because Obama had a mother that would generally be called "White", the Dean thinks Obama should be refered to as "multi-racial".

Hmmm ... how about such other lovely yet dignity-robbing phrases as "mulatto", "quadroon" and "octaroon"?

Now, the Dean is an educated man, and an educator himself. He also is married to a young lady who would traditionally be considered "Black" or "African-American" and has two children with his wife.

It puts me in mind of a line from Star Trek - "How can you have lived on Vulcan so long, married a Vulcan, raised a son on Vulcan, without understanding what it means to BE a Vulcan?"

He re-interrated in an "orphaned comment" on my blog the other day, "The problem is not with how I question why people insist my children are Black -- but why people like you wish to make such insistences and proclamations in the first place! 'Blackness' is not a disease. It cannot be 'caught'. It does not 'stain' white genes. Racially diverse children are precisely that -- neither white nor black!"

It's a bit more complicated than that.

I spent six years intensely studying Judaism and a question that comes up rather frequently is "Who is a Jew?" Now that one is REALLY complicated because Jews don't have anything approximating a uniform physical appearance. In fact you can convert to being Jewish so there are Jews in the world who look like pretty much every "host culture" imaginable - European, African, Asian, etc.

"Black" is somewhat more complicated. Generally, yes, what is generally referred to as "Black" implies some level of African influence within, say, the last 500 years or so.

After that you're on your own.

Technology of course has finally caught up with us and you can send a cheek swab into various companies and you can find out such alarming information as the fact that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University has a set of genes fully 50% traceable back to Europe.

Both his Y-chromosome AND mitochondrial DNA come from Europe, for the love of God.

And yet quite obviously this gentleman is Black.

Not "mixed", not "half-and-half", none of that.

No - he's Black - and there's nothing wrong with that.

I had been somewhat of the impression that the group we call "Black" or "African-American" is just that - a group with some African genes, some European genes, and occasionally some Native American and Asian genes that went through a pretty intense story, and this combination of factors makes them the group they are now - much as the experience of the Hebrews in Egypt contributed towards the kind of people the Jews are now.

However, Obama actually came into the "middle of the story". His ancestors were never African-American slaves. His parents just happened to have a similar mix of genes to the typical African-American who DID have slave ancestors and - voila - much like someone who converts to Judaism, Obama becomes an "African-American".

Now of course as you start to REALLY "dilute", you start to see some rather fascinating stuff. Mrs. Axinar and I stumbled across a photograph of actress Karyn Parsons and her children in Ebony and started doing double, triple, and quadruple takes.

I warned her again, should Mrs. Axinar and I start belting out kids, there could be a "genetic accident". Quite to the contrary of what the Dean seems to think, we could experience something of a repeat of what happened with my aunt when my younger cousin was born and the doctor hands her to my aunt and my aunt says, "Oh my God! It's my mother-in-law!"

Yes, it's genetically possible that Mrs. Axinar and I could produce a flaming red-head and that would be scary enough to cause most people to try to flee the planet.

But Karyn Parsons herself has a White father and a Black mother. And yet, unmistakably, in this culture, Karyn Parsons is Black.

And there's nothing WRONG with that.

However these two kids we may have to take under advisement.

Now, complexion is certainly not the defining factor. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s father is VERY fair and would still unmistakably be considered Black. Tom Joyner is very fair as well with gray eyes and a wicked spooky similarity to one of his distant White ancestors, and yet Joyner too is unmistakably, undeniably, thoroughly Black.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

Hard to tell what the children of Karyn Parsons will consider themselves. Perhaps a little like Mariah Carey they will embrace a little ambiguity.

I've always thought the way she handles it is kind of cool. None of this wishy-washy "multi-racial" business.

No - I think she goes more along the lines of Nick Meyers when he explained in the commentary track of Star Trek II - "I'm not going to TELL you why Khan never took off the other glove," and basically leaves it to the imagination of the audience what particular group she might be associated with.

Oh - and it varies from culture to culture. Here Mrs. Axinar is "Black" - in Puerto Rico she's "Cuban". In Malaysia of course she's just "American".

Now factor all those variables in and see if your head doesn't start to spin ...


At April 23, 2008 at 5:32 PM, Blogger The Dean of Cincinnati said...

I'll always remember in grad school, when a professor told us always to be on the lookout when someone uses words like "obviously" or "clearly."

If the thing in question were so "obvious," why the need to label it as such? Should it be, well, obvious?

Axinar said: "And yet quite obviously this gentleman is Black."

(ps: I thought of you when I attended my first Seder the other night...)

At April 23, 2008 at 9:58 PM, Blogger Axinar said...

Okay, I'll take out the "obvious" for you, Dean ... :)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has:

A European Y-chromosome.

European mitrochondria.

And 50% European nuclear genes.

And Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is Black.

Now why are you the only person, including presumably Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who disagrees with those statements?

At April 25, 2008 at 12:31 AM, Anonymous conspiracynut said...

i don't see why multiracial is that much different from saying 'mixed,' if that's what a person considers him- or herself. It's just how white people say it. So what? i say 'mixed,' he says 'multi-racial.' Same thing. Btw, to those of us who somewhat enjoy a diverse culture around here know that we've never seen a mixed baby that wasn't just absolutely gorgeous.

At April 25, 2008 at 7:10 AM, Blogger The Dean of Cincinnati said...

If I say I'm an Eskimo, does that make it so? It appears Gates has it wrong about his own self. Poor guy. He must be confused.

At April 25, 2008 at 7:21 AM, Blogger Axinar said...

"... we've never seen a mixed baby that wasn't just absolutely gorgeous."

You clearly never went to my high school.

Although, yes, I have to admit best looking people in Hollywood are of mixed ancestry.

But sometimes someone who is "mixed" is not particularly more attractive than anyone else.

However, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has discovered, your typical "Black" person on the street in American is about 25% European - Maya Angelou, Don Cheadle, etc. "Light-skinned" Black people like Tom Joyner tend to be even more European - 40 - 50%.

So just about EVERYONE called "Black" in America is genetically "mixed".

Part of the "Black experience" in America, one might argue, is having European ancestors.

At April 25, 2008 at 7:22 AM, Blogger Axinar said...

"It appears Gates has it wrong about his own self. Poor guy. He must be confused."

He's got more degrees than you, dude. :)

Does he have a socio-political disagreement with you?


Is he confused?



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