Jim Crow's "One Drop" rule may still apply to biracial children today

Actress Halle Berry's reference to the Jim Crow

CHEVY CHASE, Md. — Academy Award winning actress Halle Berry is involved in a heated custody dispute with her ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubrey. Recently Berry revealed that Aubry has said some racist things in the past and has referred to her using the “N” word. She has also said that despite the fact that Nahla, their 2- year old daughter,  is 3/4ths white-(Aubrey is white French-Canadian and Berry is half white and half black)-according to an unspoken “one drop” rule, she is black for all intents and purposes.

The “one-drop” rule  was part of  the 1960s Jim Crow laws in the south which stated that if a person had “one drop” of black blood in them, she was forbidden to pass as white.  Consequently, having that one drop also meant she could not receive all the benefits and privileges allowed to whites.  Under the Jim Crow laws whites got better seats on public transportation, had better and separate public facilities, bathrooms, water fountains and other accommodations. Certainly in those days a child who looked like the very gorgeous Nahla would be required to use the facilities reserved for blacks.

Berry told Ebony magazine recently, “I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide-how she identifies herself in the world,” adding, “and I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That’s how I identified myself. But I feel like she’s black.”

This case illuminates an ongoing and existing struggle that many bi-racial children have to deal with: deciding what race or ethnicity to identify with, if at all.  That being said, there is little doubt that many bi-racial children have the features of the most ethnic elements of their heritage. Their skin tones are traditionally a blended but darker hue and usually they take on the most prominent features of either parent’s race. That may mean that for a half white/half Asian child, her hair color may be black or dark brown and she may have almond shaped eyes and olive undertones in her skin.  Half black and half white children often have browner skin tones, fuller lips and slightly coarser hair texture. This is not to say there aren’t some biracial children who have features that are exclusive of one race or the other, but it is generally not the norm. Genetics is a tricky thing.

In spite of how they look physically, children do not necessarily have to choose to identify with one specific race and can certainly fight and make the case for a new biracial identity.  The issue is a little muddy and unclear in the United States where racial politics have had such a profound and long lasting impact on its people and society. Current inequities and disparities are blamed on racial divisions and race-based policies and actions that date back to Jim Crow south and earlier. Indeed, when president Obama became the first black president of the United States, several people in my husband’s native Trinidad, a country of multiracial people, did not understand why people were only referencing Obama as being Black and not acknowledging his white side or status as a biracial individual.  Like it or not, the dynamics in America dictate the language assigned to persons of color and those who are bi-racial.

No doubt, since the president was sworn in, America has proven tha it is not in a post-racial era and race issues continue to divide us now as in the past, if not more.

It’s an issue that can be murky even among bi-racial siblings in one family.  For example, I have a friend with whom I attended law school who was very fair skinned and had very fine hair but who identified more with her father’s black side. She was active in black organizations and was the president of the Black Student Union in college.  She said people accused her of overcompensating for being biracial. They would tell her that  she went out of her way to behave even blacker than her black classmates to prove to them that she was indeed one of them despite having white parentage. She only dated black men and when I met her, she was dating a very dark skinned man from Africa. Her sister on the other hand chose a different route, and though she was darker and had coarser hair and looked more like her black father than white mother, she chose to identify almost exclusively with her mother’s race. Most of her friends were white; she only dated white men and did not really embrace at all the black social justice groups in which her sister was actively involved. 

Self-identification is not itself the issue or problem. Unfortunately, what happens is that society forces a child to pick a side. Though many try to deny that racism and differential treatment still exist in America and the world today, few can doubt that when it comes to racial profiling, standards of beauty and other superficial factors that are dictated or defined by race, people of darker hued skin tones are more likely thought to be black or Hispanic.

It is not rocket science that anyone who doesn’t visibly have clear Anglo-Saxon physical features may not be granted the same privilege that comes with those traits.  Associate Director of Wellesley College Center for Research on Women wrote an essay in 1989 that included a white skin privilege checklist to define some of the privileges of white skin color that people often take for granted.

While it is true that the one drop rule may be obsolete, it is also a fact that a child’s experiences with others in the world have an impact and can dictate how a child ultimately identifies him or herself.  It certainly does not have to weight or limit that child or her potential but there certainly isn’t anything wrong with acknowledging that these variances indeed exist.  It may be better to prepare a child to deal with these circumstances as they come up rather than to ignore the circumstances and let a child think he or she is growing up in a color-blind world.  We all know that we have a very long way to go to get there.

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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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