By now you’ve heard the story: Beth Humphrey, who is White, and Terence McKay, who is Black, were denied a marriage license earlier this month by a white justice of the peace in Louisiana.“There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” Keith Bardwell told the Associated Press. “I think those children suffer and I won’t help put them through it.”
Maybe now people will stop referring to 2009 as the dawn of the “post-racial era.” Even the election of a biracial President couldn’t completely sweep away long-standing prejudices against interracial couples and their offspring.
For years, biracial children were seen as tragic outcasts doomed to a life of racial confusion—a view Bardwell apparently still holds. Others, perhaps caught up in Obama-mania, now see biracial children as the wave of the future and view being multiracial as hip, in vogue, and exotic.
Neither view captures my reality.
Race mixing has been going on in my family for generations. My father’s birth certificate actually listed his race as “mulatto,” an archaic and somewhat offensive term referring to someone who is half-Black and half-White. My mother, who is also of Black and White ancestry, is so racially ambiguous in her appearance that she is often mistaken for Filipino. I guess you could say we were biracial before biracial was cool.
Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, I had my share of run-ins with race. The conventional wisdom back then encouraged Black-White biracial children to adopt a Black identity starting at an early age. It was supposed to forge a sense of community and, oddly enough, mitigate the sort of alienation that Bardwell was talking about.
But that “Black-only” approach to racial identity never quite worked for me. In the fourth grade, Black classmates described me as a “half-breed.” At a family get-together, a dark-skinned uncle once referred to me as “White boy.” In middle school, a White kid called me a “White n—-r.” In other words, I was either Black-with-an-asterisk, or not Black enough at all.
But none of these encounters was fatal. I survived them and I turned out just fine. The journey became easier when I began to meet other mixed-race people who shared similar stories. In the end, many of us came to embrace a multiracial identity because that’s the only label that truly fit us, both in terms of ancestry and personal life experience. Finally that label is growing in acceptance along with public support for interracial couples and their children.
We may not have arrived at the post-racial era yet. But I’ve always believed race relations in America behaves sort of like the stock market. There are ups and downs over the short-term, even an occasional crash. But the long-term trend is positive.
Just look at the swift reaction to the situation in Louisiana. A growing chorus of public officials is calling for Keith Bardwell to resign, or face removal from office.
Now that would be change we could believe in.
Elliott Lewis is the author of Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America (Basic Books, 2006) His website is www.lewisfreelance.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the blogger and do not reflect those of ESSENCE or ESSENCE.com.