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POV: black like i thought i was  KAL-@aol.com
 Oct 14, 2003 08:14 PDT 

 POV: black like i thought i was



By Erin Aubry Kaplan, LA Weekly

October 7, 2003

Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old high school principal in Chino whose

family emigrated from the segregated parishes of Louisiana to

central Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did mine. Like me, he is of

Creole stock and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color

spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates

the multicultural movement by centuries. And like most other black

folk, Joseph grew up with an unequivocal sense of his heritage and

of himself; he tends toward black advocacy and has published

thoughtful opinion pieces on racial issues in magazines like

Newsweek. When Joseph decided on a whim to take a new ethnic DNA

test he saw described on a 60 Minutes segment last year, it was only

to indulge a casual curiosity about the exact percentage of black

blood; virtually all black Americans are mixed with something, he

knew, but he figured it would be interesting to make himself a

guinea pig for this new testing process, which is offered by a

Florida-based company called DNA Print Genomics Inc. The experience

would at least be fodder for another essay for Newsweek. He got his

kit in the mail, swabbed his mouth per the instructions and sent off

the DNA samples for analysis.

Now, I have always believed that what is now widely considered one

of slavery's worst legacies – the Southern "one-drop" rule that

indicted anyone with black blood as a nigger and cleaved American

society into black and white with a single stroke – was also

slavery's only upside. Of course I deplore the motive behind the

law, which was rooted not only in white paranoia about

miscegenation, but in a more practical need to maintain social order

by keeping privilege and property in the hands of whites. But by

forcing blacks of all complexions and blood percentages into the

same boat, the law ironically laid a foundation of black unity that

remains in place today. It's a foundation that allows us to talk

abstractly about a "black community" as concretely as we talk about

a black community in Harlem or Chicago or South-Central (a liberty

that's often abused or lazily applied in modern discussions of

race). And it gives the lightest-skinned among us the assurance of

identity that everybody needs in order to feel grounded and

psychologically whole – even whites, whose public non-ethnicity is

really ethnicity writ so large and influential it needs no name.

Being black may still not be the most advantageous thing in the

world, but being nothing or being neutral – the rallying cry of

modern-day multiculturalists – has never made any emotional or real-

world sense. Color marks you, but your membership in black society

also gives you an indestructible house to live in and a bed to rest

on. I can't imagine growing up any other way.

Wayne Joseph can't, either. But when the results of his DNA test

came back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he

still qualified as a person of color, it was not the color he was

raised to think he was, one with a distinct culture and definitive

place in the American struggle for social equality that he'd taken

for granted. Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth:

Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4

percent East Asian – and zero percent African. After a lifetime of

assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a

single drop of black blood to qualify.

"My son was flabbergasted by the results," says Joseph. "He

said, 'Dad, you mean for 50 years you've been passing for black?'"

Joseph admits that, strictly speaking, he has. But he's not sure if

he can or wants to do anything about that at this point. For all the

lingering effects of institutional racism, he's been perfectly

content being a black man; it has shaped his worldview and the

course of his life in ways that cannot, and probably should not, be

altered. Yet Joseph struggles to balance the intellectual dishonesty

of saying he's black with the unimpeachable honesty of a lifelong

experience of being black. "What do I do with this information?" he

says, sounding more than a little exasperated. "It was like finding

out you're adopted. I don't want to be disingenuous with myself. But

I can't conceive of living any other way. It's a question of what's

logical and what's visceral."

Race, of course, has always been a far more visceral matter than a

logical one. We now know that there is no such thing as race, that

humans are biologically one species; we know that an African is

likely to have more in common genetically with a European thousands

of miles away than with a neighboring African. Yet this knowledge

has not deterred the racism many Europeans continue to harbor toward

Africans, nor the wariness Africans harbor toward Europeans. Such

feelings may never be deterred. And despite all the loud assertions

to the contrary, race is still America's bane, and its fascination;

Philip Roth's widely acclaimed last novel set in the 1990s, The

Human Stain, features a Faustian protagonist whose great moral

failing is that he's a black man who's been passing most of his life

for white (the book has been made into a movie due in theaters next


Joseph recognizes this, and while he argues for a more rational and

less emotional view of race for the sake of equity, he also

recognizes that rationality is not the same thing as fact. As much

as he might want to, he can't simply refute his black past and

declare himself white or Native American. He can acknowledge the

truth but can't quite apply it, which makes it pretty much useless

to other, older members of his family. An aunt whom he told about

the test results only said that she wasn't surprised. "When I told

my mother about the test, she said to me, 'I'm too old and too tired

to be anything else,'" recalls Joseph. "It makes no difference to

her. It's an easy issue."

After recovering from the initial shock, Joseph began questioning

his mother about their lineage. He discovered that, unbeknownst to

him, his grandparents had made a conscious decision back in

Louisiana to not be white, claiming they didn't want to side with a

people who were known oppressors. Joseph says there was another,

more practical consideration: Some men in the family routinely

courted black women, and they didn't want the very public hassle

such a pairing entailed in the South, which included everything from

dirty looks to the ignominy of a couple having to separate on buses

and streetcars and in restaurants per the Jim Crow laws. I know that

the laws also pointedly separated mothers from sons, uncles from

nephews, simply because one happened to be lighter than the other or

have straighter hair. Determinations of race were entirely

subjective and imposed from without, and the one-drop rule was

enforced to such divisive and schizophrenic effects that Joseph's

family – and mine – fled Louisiana for the presumably less boundary-

obsessed West. But we didn't flee ourselves, and didn't expect to;

we simply set up a new home in Los Angeles. The South was wrong

about its policies but it was right about our color. It had to be.

Joseph remains tortured by the possibility that maybe nobody is

right. The essay he thought the DNA test experience would prompt

became a book that he's already 150 pages into. He doesn't seem to

know how it'll end. He's in a kind of limbo that he doesn't want and

that I frankly wouldn't wish on anyone; when I wonder aloud about

taking the $600 DNA test myself, Joseph flatly advises against

it. "You don't want to know," he says. "It's like a genie coming out

of a bottle. You can't put it back in." He has more empathy for the

colorblind crowd than he had before, but isn't inclined to believe

that the Ward Connerlys and other professed racial conservatives of

the world have the best interests of colored people at heart. "I see

their point, but race does matter, especially with things like

medical research and other social trends," he says of Connerly's

Proposition 54, the much-derided state measure that seeks to outlaw

the collection of ethnic data that will be voted on in the recall

election next Tuesday. "Problems like that can't just go away." For

the moment, Joseph is compelled to try to judge individually what he

knows has always been judged broadly, to reconcile two famously

opposed viewpoints of race not for the sake of political argument –

he has made those – but for his own peace of mind. He's wrestling

with a riddle that will likely outlive him, though he doesn't worry

that it will be passed on to the next generation – his ex-wife is

black, enough to give his children the firm ethnic identity he had

and that he embraced for most of his life. "The question ultimately

is, are you who you say you are, or are you who you are

genetically?" he muses. The logical – and visceral – answer is that

it's not black and white.

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