I’d told the audience about my journey of finding my mother’s birth certificate and discovering her racial secret when I was 49, confronting her — and her swearing me to secrecy until her death. Then 18 years later, I found my mother’s lost family, thanks to my appearance on PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow.”
The woman’s question stunned me. I responded, “What do you mean what am I?”
For the majority of my life, I’d never been asked my race. Everyone, including me, assumed I was what I appeared to be — a White woman. I never considered that once my mother’s story went public, people would question my racial identity.
“Well, I’m looking at you and I can see what you look like. But,” she struggled, “what are you?”
“Do you mean what my DNA says I am?” I asked her.
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” she said looking me in the eyes.
I didn’t think that’s what she meant. “I’m 7 to 9 percent African and about 86 percent White,” I replied.
On my drive home, I fumed. Mad at myself for defining my race solely by my DNA. We were no longer living in the Jim Crow era, when race was determined by arbitrary laws such as the one-drop rule, meaning that if a person has any Black DNA at all, they are considered Black. If we were, my DNA would have designated me as Black.
And I was mad at the woman for asking me what I was. My purpose in telling my mother’s story was to shine a light on racism — on why she felt the need to conceal her Blackness — not shine a light on my own racial identity.
It occurred to me that maybe her question had to do with her fears about racial purity. Perhaps my White appearance and Black ancestry troubled her. If I could be other than I appeared, so could anyone else.
Or maybe what she said upset me because the truth is: I wasn’t sure how to identify myself racially, now that I knew my real heritage.
When I spoke at a St. Louis bookstore before a diverse audience, again I was confronted with the question of my racial identity.
At the conclusion of my talk, a Black woman raised her hand. “How do you identify yourself racially, now that you know your mother and her family were mixed-race?”
This was the first time a Black person had asked me this question. I plunged ahead confident in my answer, which was based on my appearance, culture and life experiences: “I’m a White woman with Black heritage.”
She smiled. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I’m a member of the St. Louis Black Caucus. Any other answer would have been wrong.”
I felt like I’d dodged a racial bullet aimed at me.
Later, I wondered, what would have been the wrong answer? Was she concerned that I would identify as African American? Clearly, I had no right to that identity.
Still, I was uneasy about my answer. Is that really who I am — a White woman with Black heritage?
My confusion was heightened after I appeared on “The Today Show.” When Megyn Kelly asked me about my racial identity, I repeated, “I’m a White woman with Black heritage.” But I added a caveat, hoping to move past this need to racially label. “I consider race a social construct.”
People were missing the point of my mother’s story — the arbitrariness of racial designations and how the powerful in America have used racial designations to control minorities.
A week later, a Black woman, who saw me on the show, skewered me on Amazon, telling Black people not to read my book, “White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing.” She found my identifying as a White woman with Black heritage offensive, a betrayal of my Black ancestry.
Did I betray my Black ancestry by not fully embracing it? How can I claim a Black identity when I’ve enjoyed White privilege my entire life?
Would the woman who declared herself a member of the St. Louis Black Caucus see it that way? Their viewpoints seemed wildly divergent.
It became painfully clear to me that no matter how I identified myself, someone would be unhappy.
Adding another layer to this question of racial identity, a mixed-race man who viewed the show contacted me with his family’s converse racial secret.
Though his family secret was his White heritage and mine was my Black heritage, I realized that our families’ need to hide a part of their mixed-race identity was rooted in other people’s prejudices and racial expectations.
Not until I spoke before another suburban Chicago audience did my view on racial identity crystallize. After my talk, a frank discussion about racial identity ensued.
A Black woman who stated at the onset that she identified as African American related her husband’s story. Her husband, as she had, attended an all-Black high school and college. Both of her husband’s parents are Black. But before their marriage, his Black parents told them that he was adopted. They revealed that his birthparents are from England and are White. One of his great-grandparents was from Argentina, which accounted for his slightly brown hue.
Jokingly, she said that when they first met, she told him he was the whitest Black man she’d ever seen.
After he discovered that he was genetically White, he said that he still considered himself a Black man. He was raised by Black parents, felt connected to the Black community, went to Black schools and had a Black wife.
For him, culture and life experience trumped genetics. By claiming a Black identity, he defied not only his appearance and genetics but also the idea of race, becoming an outlier who deviated from ingrained notions of race.
In my continuing to identify as White with Black heritage, appearance and culture played into my answer, as did my desire to be sensitive to African Americans who’ve endured discrimination and worse because of their skin color.
But what about my Black and mixed-race ancestors’ long history of racial discrimination and trauma — from my 5th great-grandmother, Marta, an 18th-century enslaved woman who bore her enslaver 13 children, to my mother’s oppression under Jim Crow laws? Though I hadn’t directly felt the sting and suffering, they certainly had.
But I still wasn’t comfortable declaring myself something other than White with Black heritage.
What finally cemented my decision to re-envision my racial identity was a comment made by the host of the “My American Melting Pot” podcast, University of Pennsylvania professor Lori Tharps.
While discussing my racial identity, Tharps suggested that I’ve inadvertently been thrust into the position of a racial ambassador: explaining Blackness to White people and opening up a dialogue where they can talk to me about Blackness.
Though I’m uneasy in this role, she was right. My mother’s story has given me a public platform to talk about race. It’s also given people permission to question my racial identity.
Considering my DNA, my ancestor’s history of subjugation, my mother’s choosing to pass as White and my public platform, I felt I could no longer cling to a White identity. I decided that mixed race was the identity that best defined me.
Then I learned that I was far from alone. In the 2010 Census, some 9 million identified as mixed-race, but in the 2020 census, that number rose to 33.8 million — a jump of 276 percent.
Although some people may feel I have no right to claim a mixed-race identity, I believe I have an obligation to do so. Standing before an audience, so blatantly White, and declaring myself mixed-race, I challenge people to think differently about race.
My choice of a mixed-race identity is my truth. Not the truth of how others — whether Black or White or mixed-race — see me. Or how they think I should identify on the basis of their own racial beliefs.
When I selected multiracial on the 2020 Census, I stepped out of the shadow of my mother’s racial secret. If I hadn’t gone public with my Black heritage, I probably would not have joined the fastest-growing racial and ethnic population in the United States. My choice of a mixed-race identity goes beyond far the color of my skin.
Gail Lukasik is the author of “White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing,” four mystery novels and more. She lives in Illinois with her husband.
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