Last night I watched the documentary Little White Lie. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a synopsis:
The filmmaker, Lacey Schwartz, explores race and identity by telling the story of her life. Lacey grew up in a Jewish family in New York. By all accounts, she had a typical NY Jewish childhood. The only thing that stood out was that her skin was noticeably darker than everyone else’s and her hair very curly. In college she discovered her mother had had an affair with a black man, and that she’s half black. She takes you on this journey and how she came to understand herself, family, and race.
Here’s the trailer:
Overall, I found this to be an intriguing exploration of race, identity, and community in America. Lacey grew up believing she was 100% white and Jewish. When the question of her dark skin came up, the family referred to Lacey’s great-grandfather from Sicily who had dark skin. Other than that, no one ever discussed it.
But when Lacey went to college, the university accepted her as a black student, and at college she was part of African American student groups. College is what got her to take a good hard look at herself and to push her family and childhood friends to do the same.
It blows my mind how Lacey’s mother could, for so long, not acknowledge who Lacey’s real father was, and as a consequence, leave literally everyone else wondering what was going on. It also blows my mind how no one discussed it. Denial is one of those things I know happens, but I just don’t get it.
But the thing that also struck me about the film was how when Lacey discovered her biological father was black, how she started to call herself “black”. Her biological mother was still a white Jewish woman, so she had just as much of her blood as her father’s. But she still called herself “black”.
Why do we do that in America?
Obama’s mother was white and his father was black, and we say he is the first black president. I’m not saying he’s not black, but he’s still half white. I’m not saying Lacey’s not black, but she’s still half white. So why, in both of these instances, do we call the person “black”?
When someone’s mother is Chinese and their father is white, we don’t say he’s “Asian”. We say he’s “half white, half Asian.” When someone’s mother is white and their father is Native American, we say she’s “half white, half Native American”. Throughout Latin America, when someone is partly of European descent and partly of native descent, they’re called “mestizo”.
So why, in America, if someone has some African blood, are they “black”?
In the film, Lacey discusses this a bit with a couple of her friends. One makes the point of the “one drop rule”, that if you have one drop of African blood, then you’re black. They also say “black” is an inclusive term. Anyone with some African can identify as “black”.
But when we use this label, we deny the totality of who they are. We ignore the fact that, biologically, parts of them are not African. There is nothing wrong with being African American- in fact, there’s a ton of history and culture to embrace. And I’m not saying people who are part black, part White/Asian/Hispanic/Native American/etc forget their other part, but why as a society do we call them “black” when there’s more diversity than the term alone provides meaning for? And why is “black” the only race we do this for?
I don’t have clear answers to these questions. I don’t think anyone does. At best we’ll have speculation and discussion, with no final THIS IS THE REASON. But it is something to think about, and whatever conclusions we draw ought to tell us something about our own ideas of race, identity, and community.
My own thoughts are, people should use whatever term, or terms, they feel match who they really are. It’s up to the individual to decide. That said, it seems strange to use a term that only lends itself to part of who you are. No one said you had to pick just one.