I didn’t see much of my father after my parents divorced, but when I did he liked to dispense words of warning. When I was in high school, he told me that even though I was biracial—he was African-American and my mother white —the world would always see me as black. “But it will be up to you to decide how you want to be black,” he said.
A few years later, when I was graduating from college, I joking suggested that I might become the editor of Newsweek some day. (I had worked as an intern there for two summers.)
“Do you really think Newsweek is ready for that (having a Black editor)?,” he answered gravely.
“Who knows?” I asked. “Maybe it will be some day.”
Well, it turned out that both of us were right.
If I could go back and talk to that college graduate now, I would report that twenty years later he did become the first Black editor of Newsweek. He earned it the old-fashioned way, by rising through the ranks, but the magazine and the country also changed enough to make it possible. A decade after that, the son of a black father and white mother was elected President of the United States, and by 2010 the number of Americans who identified themselves to census takers as mixed-race was growing even faster than those who called themselves African-Americans.
But I would also tell that 21 year-old that his father was right too: it is still up to us to decide how we want to be. No matter how society defines us, the only way we will ever escape those boxes is to decide how we want to define ourselves.
Mark Whitaker, the Managing Editor of CNN Worldwide and former Editor of Newsweek, is the author of “My Long Trip Home,” a family memoir.