When biracial is black, and when it's white

i-6d42756c4aa9730988cd132016918860-biracial.jpgOn today's Talk of the Nation there was a show with the title, Obama And The Politics Of Being Biracial. Here's the intro:

President-elect Barack Obama defines himself as African-American. His mother is a white American, and his father is a black African. This hits a nerve with some people, who wonder why Obama doesn't use the term biracial to describe his race.

The obvious answer is that the United States Barack Obama looks black. Some of the guests noted this. That being said, I was a bit peeved with the fact that there wasn't even a nominal nod to the fact that there are many biracial people who are not of mixed black & white ancestry, and the conventions and dynamics which are operative in their lives are different.

A caller brought up Halle Berry, and how America seemed to have no problem with the fact that she identified as black. Halle Berry is a black actress, though she did note that she enjoyed the fact that her role in The Rich Man's Wife was not color-coded. But Halle Berry does not have the freedoms of someone like Jennifer Lopez, who is racially ambiguous enough to play a white woman in Out of Sight. But Jennifer Lopez is not "officially" biracial, so I thought I would make the point by contrasting Berry with two other biracial (if comparatively obscure) women who have been in films, Norah Jones and Kristen Kreuk. To my knowledge Norah Jones did not play a half-brown woman in My Blueberry Nights, while Kreuk is "white enough" to play Snow White for a Hallmark movie. Imagine if one of the Mowery sisters (biracial) were to play Snow White!

Obviously if you browse photos of Jones you won't be totally surprised that her full name is "Geethali Norah Jones Shankar," her South Asian features are pretty obvious after the fact. Similarly, the fact that Kreuk is half-Chinese isn't surprising either, like some biracial people different photos seem to favor either side of her ancestry. In Partition she even played a Punjabi Muslim woman.

With the election of the biracial Barack Obama perhaps there will a tendency to implicitly frame the "biracial" question around the black-white dichotomy. In fact, the way the term biracial is used it is often clear that the individual using the term is referring to the two classical races of the United States, black and white. But here's some quantitative reality:

According to James P. Allen and Eugene Turner from California State University, Northridge, by some calculations the largest part white bi-racial population is white/American Indian and Alaskan Native, at 7,015,017, followed by white/black at 737,492, then white/Asian at 727,197, and finally white/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander at 125,628.

This of course ignores the multiraciality of most Latinos in the United States, who are bracketed in their own catchall category. But the point is that this isn't 1950, blacks aren't even the largest ethnic minority. It's time to broaden the discourse. Barack Obama is recognized as a black man because the social power of black ancestry and appearance is great. But Obama has a sister. In the PBS documentary The Choice one of Barack Obama's colleagues from Chicago referred to the fact that despite his conscious identification with the black community, he still reached out to all people, and after all he did have a "white sister." Of course his sister is biracial too, her father just happened to be Indonesian, not African. Therefore, I guess an honest mistake?

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As the white (so much it glares) grandmother of a multiracial grandchild, I am in favor of mere beauty as a guide. My granddaughter is White (Scots/English/French) and Native American (enough to be on the rolls) and Filipino.

Is she white? Really, who cares anymore?

My granddaughter is White (Scots/English/French) and Native American (enough to be on the rolls) and Filipino.

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Is she white? Really, who cares anymore?

well, when your grandchild is old enough to start racking up tuition bills, the native american part might come in handy (i had a friend who was 1/8 native american who lived it up in college by sucking up a lot of scholarships).

I wonder if other multiracials change in appearance as they develop. I just checked my yearbook pic from senior year of high school, and I have somewhat, though not very, pronounced epicanthic folds there. Not super-Japanese, but it would make a person wonder.

They're totally gone now, though, and have been since at least 24 or 25. (Thank god -- I attribute the unsolicited attention I've gotten from girls since then to that single change. Large eyes are better than squintier ones.)

Now I don't really make a big deal of my 1/4 Japanese ancestry, not that I ever super-hyped it.

In very recent pics, Keanu Reeves looks whiter than he did in Bill & Ted's. Phoebe Cates looks whiter now too. Hmmm.

i think east asian people look more like babies. one of my brothers looked like a little korean kid when he was 6 months old (he was very light skinned, so he didn't definitively look brown). now he doesn't look like that at all.

And speaking of Halle Berry, google image search "halle berry yearbook," and she too looked more ethnic in high school. She has that fold over her eyes like Africans do.

Obama's h.s. pics look more African too. I wonder what's going on -- does multiracial ontogeny recapitulate colonial phylogeny?

Is Norah Jones 'biracial'? Have you decided that Indians are not 'Caucasian' (or 'Europid', or whatever)? How many 'races' are there in the world? Just kidding - but seriously, the concept 'biracial' presupposes that the two parents are assigned to two different 'races', and the criteria for this are not exactly clear.

Incidentally, a couple more cases of biracial (Indian-European) actresses who sometimes play 'white' parts are Indira Varma and Rhona Mitra.

Hey Razib,

After looking at that Kristen Kreuk, I found out at, she was half Dutch. Girls like her, half-Chinese or half Indonesian/half Dutch are very common in the Netherlands. The (mixed) Indonesian population is fairly large here, around 600000 or so.

They are sometimes called "Indo", but they are almost always considered to be part of White majority population. They intermarry at very high rates, speak Dutch, have the same culture, religion (or lack therof), a lot of the same history, customs, join the same schools, sport clubs, student bodies, etc. They even have the same family size, which matters in West European countries, because of low birth rates among the majority and the welfare state.

It's weird if you think about it, because Turks, who are racially more European than Indo's, are seen as non-Dutch outsiders -- even non-White. (They also consider themselves non-Dutch, btw.) In the US, Turks would be counted as White by the census, right?

There's an historical component at work here. In the days of segregation, and before that slavery, a person of mixed race was considered black. For example, the terms "quadroon" and "octaroon" originated in New Orleans and designated people who were one-quarter and one-eighth black respectively. These people were considered black by the dominant, white culture. And to paraphrase something said by Malcolm X, black blood must be the most powerful thing in the world because, if you've got one drop of it in you, then you're black.

Indeed, I've noticed some subtle differences between the perceivable ethnicity in younger vs. older photos of another celebrity as well: Michael Jackson (a pop singer). Probably most people wouldn't pick up on that, but I've noticed a slight trend towards more "white" features. Then, more "alien" features.

"after all he did have a "white sister."
Hillary?

I suspect this will (justly) fall foul of Razib's Meaningful Contribution Filter, but I do want to say that 'multiracial ontogeny recapitulates colonial phylogeny' is about the funniest joke I've heard all week:) Cheers, agnostic!

I wonder if you've noticed that many of CNN's female anchors in particular are biracial. Amanpour, Nguyen, Chetry(who can each be 'white' in appearance with the right make-up and lighting). This way they also kill two 'demographic' birds with one, er, stone. All three also have last names which, to the cognoscenti, give away something about their ancestry, and also signal the fact that their 'non-white' genes are all patrilineal. Even Sara Sidner, their Delhi Correspondent, although 'black' in America, appears on TV to be extremely light-skinned. Similarly Soledad O'Brien is black-white biracial who can look 'white' if made up right, as in the link, or, with different lighting, makeup and hair, 'black'. Ditto Zain Verjee, replace 'black' with 'South Asian'. I don't know if all this is entirely accidental, or represents a conscious preference; and whether, in the end, this is positive step or not.

The funny thing here is when we speak about people being bi-racial, we're really speaking about bi-cultural or bi-ethnicity. Because race, science has recently determined is a purely social concept. The fact that people can intermarry and produce an individual like a Halle or a Barack is proof that there is only one race: human.

Everything else is culture. That's why Barack and Halle are black or African-American. They're part of my culture because we share the commonality of African ancestry and the history of segregation and the one drop rule that was used to exclude people not fully white from white society.

The funny thing here is when we speak about people being bi-racial, we're really speaking about bi-cultural or bi-ethnicity. Because race, science has recently determined is a purely social concept. The fact that people can intermarry and produce an individual like a Halle or a Barack is proof that there is only one race: human.

Everything else is culture. That's why Barack and Halle are black or African-American. They're part of my culture because we share the commonality of African ancestry and the history of segregation and the one drop rule that was used to exclude people not fully white from white society.