Dismantling the One Drop Rule

When Sarah* is at school or in the neighborhood, nobody takes a second look at her. They assume she is a typical five-year-old white girl, with fair skin and curly, blond hair. When her mother picks her up at school or takes her shopping at a local shopping center, a few eyes might be raised. With her light brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair, many incorrectly view her mother as a stereotypical Latina (she has often been misidentified by strangers, some of whom get very upset when she cannot reply to them in Spanish).

But when Sarah is picked up at school by her grandmother, or taken by her to enjoy a local playground, most people don’t bat an eye, simply assuming she is the family’s nanny. Since Sarah’s family lives in a middle-class community, nobody would question this assumption – one that has been made on several occasions. You see, her grandmother is African American – and her mother is biracial.

However, at some point Sarah’s classmates are going to express their utmost confusion: they wonder, if Sarah’s mother is Latina (as they assume), and her grandmother is African American, how come she is white? To add to their confusion, Sarah’s white father sometimes drops her off and picks her up after school.

In situations like this, Sarah’s teacher needs to help Sarah’s classmates resolve their confusion. Unfortunately, the teacher probably cannot help the other children in Sarah’s class. She probably did not take a multicultural class in college, but if she did, multiracial children would not have been discussed. The majority of multicultural textbooks simply omit these children; they are invisible. This is also true of college courses like child psychology, where race is an increasingly important part of the class content, but multiracial children are totally ignored. However, if multiracial children were covered in the teacher’s college classes, she would undoubtedly have been taught that Sarah is African American, and must be raised with a secure, single African American identity. She may have even been told that raising her as white is an affront to the African American community.

One of the oldest and most irrational legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow laws is still with us: the one drop rule. Because it was essential during slavery and the Jim Crow era to determine who was Black, and who was not, many states adopted this rule. The rule was even supported by several Supreme Court decisions (under the rationale of state’s rights). Astoundingly, in today’s climate of the ever-increasing number of mixed-race families, experts of racial diversity, multicultural educators, and heads of ethnic studies departments at our nation’s leading universities continue to insist that the one drop rule is valid, and that any person in the U.S. with any African heritage must be considered Black. Furthermore, anyone with any African heritage who somehow ignores or rejects this obsolete notion of racial identity is considered passing for white: a particularly onerous sin, denoting racial disloyalty and identity confusion. As the saying goes, Black blood is powerful stuff (and white racial purity apparently still sacrosanct).

Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, interracial marriages have dramatically increased in this country. The Pew Research Center study just reported that interracial marriages in the U.S. are now 4.8 million – one in 12 marriages. Sarah is one of a growing number of first, second and even third generation multiracial children from these marriages. The 2000 U.S. census was the first to allow people to designate two or more races; the 2010 census reported that 6 million people did so (2.4% of the population; 6.8% of children under age 18 claim a multiracial heritage). However, according to some researchers, it is estimated that at least 40% of Americans have some racial mixing in the last three generations, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King.

Added to these people with mixed heritage are new immigrants who come from countries that do not use the one drop rule. For example, the majority of people in Brazil who have some African heritage are officially classified by their government as pardo – brown (mixed – usually Amerindian, Afro-Brazilian, and European).

Another group that is challenging the one drop rule is Latinos. Some Latinos whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations have some African heritage in their past; new immigrants from south of the border bring with them a multiracial heritage recognized in their native country. Mexico, Central and much of South America have a history that includes African slaves; Brazil had five times as many slaves as did the U.S. However, while the U.S. census claims that Latinos can be of any race, most Latinos seem to avoid the confusion of the one drop rule, celebrating instead their combined Native and European heritage, and ignoring their African past.

Yet Sarah cannot celebrate her full heritage. In a society as fixated as we are on race, the new generations of multiracial children require teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and multicultural experts to help them embrace their full racial identity, and to help their peers understand their rich, multiracial heritage. If Sarah’s peers can be Latino and Dine (Navajo), or Irish, German and Italian, why can’t Sarah be white, African American and Chickasaw (her grandmother is also a member of the Chickasaw tribe)?

Sarah lives in a culturally multiracial world. Her parents and grandparents live in integrated communities. She helps her white grandfather with his vegetable garden, attends a British tea shop (her grandfather is English) and visits a nearby historical farm with both her grandparents. As she gets older, her grandmother will also expose her to her Chickasaw heritage. And her parents have enrolled her in dance classes that are attended by students from a variety of racial, ethnic and national backgrounds. Her school has many Somali and Latino students.

Liberation movements are all about challenging the past and changing society’s views. The Civil Rights movement challenged legal inequality and a view of Black inferiority; the woman’s movement demanded educational equality and the elimination of the glass ceiling; the disability movement advocated for public access and educational fairness; and the gay and lesbian movement is making us reconsider our views and laws regarding marriage. So why don’t we challenge and get rid of the one drop rule?

To say that Sarah is only African America, despite a white father, a biracial (black/white), mother and a white (English) grandfather, defies any kind of scientific or common sense.

*Sarah is an assumed name

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