My mother is not black, but brown. Her father's mother was part Jewish and part black, and her mother's mother had enough Scottish in her that my grandmother was born with straight hair to go with her classically African features.
The proper term for my mother is actually "middle-class brown," which is a category of special meaning in the Caribbean. From the earliest days of colonial rule, "coloreds" occupied a special place in Jamaica. They formed a kind of proto-middle class, performing various skilled and sophisticated tasks for which there were not enough whites. This was my mother's class -- carpenters, masons, plumbers, small businessmen and civil servants. She and her twin sister and brother grew up in the tiny village of Harewood in central Jamaica. My mother's parents were teachers, and while they were by no means well off, they had the expectations of those who were. In my grandfather's library were Dickens and Maupassant. My mother and her sister were pushed to win scholarships to a proper English-style boarding school at the other end of the island; and later, when my mother graduated, it was taken for granted that she would attend university in England, even though the cost of tuition and passage meant that my grandmother had to borrow a small fortune from the Chinese grocer down the road. In my mother's first year at boarding school, she looked up "Negro" in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "In . . . certain . . . characteristics . . . the Negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man," she read. And the entry continued:
"The mental constitution of the Negro is very similar to that of a child, normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test."
All black people of my mother's generation -- and of generations before and since -- have necessarily faced a moment like this, when they are confronted for the first time with the allegation of their inferiority. But it is wrong to think that this meant the same thing to my mother as it might have to a young black child in, say, the American South around the same time. She was living in a country where blacks were the majority, where they held positions of power and authority. She was attending an integrated school, where many of the best students were dark-skinned. Most of all, she did not entirely associate the word Negro with herself. She was, after all, brown, not black. It is this, I think, that begins to explain what seems like the strange reaction my mother had when she first met my father's family -- which was to realize how similar it was to her own.
You wouldn't say that, of course, looking in from the outside. My father's father was in insurance. He owned a house in Kent, in the suburbs of London. He took the train to work every day. He loved long walks and dogs and gardening and wore tweedy jackets and small, wire-rim spectacles above a long Roman nose. My mother's father, on the other hand, was a large man who lived in a bungalow high on a hill surrounded by acres of Jamaican rain forest, and if you stood on his veranda and looked in every direction, the only sign that another human being lived within a day's drive was the church spire off in the distance. He rolled his own cigars, walked out in the morning and picked grapefruit off the trees in his back yard, and in his dotage would sit in a chair on his front porch with a cat on his lap and receive visitors from the surrounding villages. One of my grandfathers was the personification of the English middle class. And one of my grandfathers was the personification of the brown-skinned colonial petite bourgeoisie.
But it was my mother's feeling that these two things were not that far apart: that in their libraries they would read the same books, in their churches they would sing the same hymns, and in their hearts they had the same hopes for their children. My mother found in my father a kindred spirit, which was why it was so strange to her that their marriage set off so many alarm bells. In my mother's eyes, middle-class brown and middle-class white were really the same thing.
My grandmother, my mother's mother, was in favor of my parents' marriage. She had married a man lighter-skinned than herself, and was forever proud of that fact. In Jamaica, for a brown woman to marry a white man was an example of social mobility. But for a brown woman to marry a black man, well, now, there was a radical act. In my grandparents' house in Harewood, the family often passed around a penciled drawing of my part-Jewish and part-Scottish great-grandparents. The other side -- the African side -- was never mentioned. Brown trumped black. That fact meant that my grandmother never quite matched up to her fairer-skinned in-laws. "Daisy's nice, you know," my grandfather's mother would say of her daughter-in-law, "but she's too dark." My mother had a relative, whom she calls Aunt Joan, who was as fair as my great-grandmother was. Aunt Joan married what in Jamaica is called an Injun -- a man with a dark complexion that is redeemed from pure Africanness by straight, fine black hair. She had two daughters by him -- handsome girls with dark complexions.
But he died young, and one day, while she was traveling on a train to visit one of her daughters, she met and took an interest in a light-skinned man in the same railway car.
What happened next is something that Aunt Joan told only my mother, years later, with the greatest of shame. When she got off the train, she walked right by her daughter, disowning her own flesh and blood, because she did not want a man so light-skinned and desirable to know that she had borne a daughter so dark.
My mother, in the 1960s, wrote a book about her experience. It was entitled Brown Face, Big Master, the brown face referring to her and the Big Master, in the Jamaican dialect, referring to God. In one passage in the book she describes a time just after my mother and father were married, when they were living in London and my eldest brother was still a baby. They were looking for an apartment, and after a long search my father found one in a London suburb. On the day after they moved in, however, the landlady ordered them out. "You didn't tell me your wife was colored," she told my father in a rage.
In her book, my mother describes her long struggle to make sense of this humiliation, to reconcile her experience with her faith. In the end, she was forced to acknowledge that anger was not an option -- that as a Jamaican "middle-class brown" and a descendant of Aunt Joan, she could hardly reproach another for the impulse to divide others along racial lines. My mother did not find her marriage to my father any more radical than he did -- although for an entirely different reason: not because she was oblivious to the complications of color but because those complications were all too familiar to her.
"I complained to God in so many words: 'Here I was, the wounded representative of the Negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and equal with the dominating whites!' And God was not amused; my prayer did not ring true with him. I would try again. And then God said, 'Have you not done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are? Grateful that you are not black?' My anger and hate against the landlady melted. I was not better than she was, nor worse for that matter . . . . We were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and the exclusiveness by which we cut some people off from ourselves."
When my father took us all to the barn raising, I remember that I stood to the side, by the car. There were other children, Mennonite children, there as well, playing happily in the sun. But I didn't join them. I was not a joiner as a child. I quit the Boy Scouts after a week, refused my parents' invitations to go away to summer camp, and generally kept to myself and my toys. I didn't fit in. This was not, at least in the beginning, a reaction to the fact of my mixed racial background, because I never thought about my racial background when I was young. Back then, "race" and all that it connoted was something uniquely American. I would read the old Life magazine every week and see pictures of civil rights marches, or black protesters, or Angela Davis with her sky-high Afro, and my only thought was how foreign it all was: It was of a piece with the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon and baseball. One of my mother's friends -- a Jamaican woman -- spent some time in Atlanta and told my mother that the racism was so thick down there that you could "cut it with a knife." I was 6 or 7 at the time, and I was only dimly beginning to understand what racism was, but I couldn't get that image out of my head. Atlanta, I knew, was steamy and humid and fetid, and all I could think about was that it was the racism that was making the air so thick down there. The air was not thick in Canada. It was dry and light, blown fresh across the Great Lakes.
When I thought about what made me different, I put it down to other things -- to the fact that we had just come from England, and that I talked funny, or that I wasn't a farmer like almost everyone else in our little town, or that I didn't play hockey (which, in rural Canada, is rather like living in Munich and not drinking beer). Mostly, though, I didn't know, and it wasn't until I was well into my teens that I began to get an answer. I was a runner then, a miler, and I would travel around the province with my track club. These were the years of the first great wave of West Indian immigration to Ontario, which meant that whenever we went to track meets in Toronto -- where most of the immigrants settled -- there were suddenly all kinds of black faces that I hadn't seen before in Canada. I won't lie and say that I felt some great and immediate kinship with these West Indians. I am, after all, only partially West Indian. But they gave some definition to my alienation.
There was a West Indian on my track team -- a magnificent long jumper by the name of Chris Brandy -- who came up to me one day, looking closely at my hair and features, and demanded: "What are you?" The question was entirely unexpected, and I remember blinking and stammering, momentarily overwhelmed by that word what. I had always thought that my singular alienation was the result of who I was. But now it occurred to me that perhaps it was the result of something entirely external -- the result of nuances of color and skin and lip and curl that put me just outside the world of people like Chris Brandy and just outside the world of the people I grew up with in rural Ontario.
I am not like my parents. I do not have my father's gift for overcoming social barriers, nor my mother's gift for appreciating when differences are not relevant. I go back and forth now between my two sides. I never feel my whiteness more than when I'm around West Indians, and never feel my West Indianness more than when I'm with whites. And when I'm by myself, I can't answer the question at all, so I just push it out of my mind. From time to time, I write about racial issues, and always stumble over personal pronouns. When do I use "we"? In a room full of people I do not know, I always search out the ones who fall into the middle, like me, out of some irrational idea that we belong together.
I worry sometimes that this is the wrong thing for the child of a mixed marriage to feel. My parents conquered difference, and we would all like to think that sort of accomplishment is something that could be passed down from generation to generation. That's why we're all, in theory, so excited by the idea of miscegenation -- because if we mix the races, presumably, we create a new generation of people for whom existing racial categories do not exist. I don't think it's that easy, though. If you mix black and white, you don't obliterate those categories; you merely create a third category, a category that demands, for its very existence, an even greater commitment to nuances of racial taxonomy. My mother never had to think about whether she was black. She was. I have to think about it, and turn the issue over in my mind, and gaze in the mirror and wonder, as I was so memorably asked, what I am.
By virtue of my upbringing, I can safely say I am free of racial discrimination. I cannot -- without committing an act of extraordinary self-hatred -- ever believe that blacks are in any way inferior. But I am also, perhaps permanently, hostage to the questions of racial difference. Racial intermarriage solves one problem in the first generation, only to create another in the next -- a generation that cannot ignore difference the way their parents did. I put myself sometimes, in my father's shoes, back in the late '50s, and wonder whether I could have done what he did -- marry someone, bridge a gulf of human difference, with my eyes entirely closed..
Former Post reporter Malcolm Gladwell is now a staff writer for the New Yorker. This article is excerpted from "Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural," to be published this summer by Pantheon Books.