Black Like I Thought I Was (Article)
Black Like I 'Thought' I Was
--- By Erin Aubry Kaplan, LA Weekly
The surprising outcome of a DNA test
proves a man's "race" ----- while
throwing his "blackness" into question.
Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old High
School Principal in Chino (CA) -- 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 " [categorized]
color spectrum, a common enough circumstance
in the South that predates the [entire]
Multi-Cultural 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
But when the results of his DNA test came back, he
found himself staggered by the idea that though he
[is] still . 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 unwelome--- truth:
Joseph was --- fifty-seven percent (57%)
Indo-European, Thirty-nine percent (39%)
Native American, four percent (4%) East
Asian -- and -- zero percent (0%) African.
After a lifetime of assuming "blackness ",
he was now being told that he lacked
even a single drop of `Black' blood .
"My son was flabbergasted by the results,"
'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 being a "black" man has
shaped his worldview and the course of
his life in ways that cannot 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 ...
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" [categorized] [Mixed-Race] man
who's been "passing" most of his life for `White'.
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,'"
"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
[Mixed-Race] "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
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,"
"It's like a genie coming out of a bottle.
You can't put it back in."
He ... isn't inclined to believe that the
Ward Connerly's and other professed
racial conservatives of the world have the
best interests of `Colored' people at heart.
"... 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 .
"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?"
The logical and visceral answer is
---- that it's not black and white.
- I've heard stories like Joseph's,
and... I happen to agree with him.
He's right- when you've been raised, all your
life, to believe you're one "race," and later
find out you're anything BUT... what DO you do?
Sure, you could drop everything you've been taught,
everything / everyone you've always known; but,
would that be logical, or HUMANE? I don't think so.
I agree with Joseph, as well, when he says he's not hiding the
fact that he's not "black," colorstill sharing the DNA test outcome
with his family (why lie, either?), but... for him to just up
and change his life all around in that dramatic of a manner...???
That doesn't even make sense, really. I don't know.
It's kind of how I feel about living my whole life
thinking I'm just "white," but later hearing that
I could have Native American ancestors, as well.
I've researched and read and dug,
and dug, for information. Nothing.
What DO YOU DO? Do you continue living as ONLY
"white" (I can't) or do you claim a piece of
heritage that you're not really even sure exists?
I don't know. I know, if I was as old as Mr. Joseph
and had always been led to believe that I was
"black" color, I would "stick with hat."
I don't think I'd be able to do that
with the "white" part, though.
If I later found out I wasn't JUST "white," I'd
have to change my ways. I'd be ignorant, otherwise.
That's just my 2 cents! Heather