AM I BLACK OR WHITE?
I am asked this question by various governments frequently. Driver license application, census form, scholarship application, etc.
While you would think the answer was clear in my genealogy data, that is not so. To be honest, I don’t know. Or, it depends where you are when the question is asked.
From the Civil War until 1910, Virginia defined “as white anyone who has no more than one-quarter black.” In 1910 the allowable fraction was reduced to one-sixteenth. In 1924 the definition of white was changed to “only the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” (Quotes from Randall Kennedy)
By the first definition, I am white – according to the official records. By the second definition, I don’t know. The father of one grandmother (one-eighth) is unknown. As to the “no trace whatsoever” proof – nobody in the world could do so. (And the current main theory is that all living humans originated in Africa.)
Who were your parents? Really. Who can you PROVE were your parents? If you were born in a hospital, the person listed on your birth certificate is most likely your mother – if the birth certificate was issued at the hospital by persons who witnessed your birth. But your father? It is just what the issuer was told. That couple may have been loving parents in your eyes, but you can’t prove they were your biological parents without a DNA test.
Go back before 1880 in PA, to a time when there were no birth certificates. My apparent ancestors lived mostly on scattered farms. The only “firm” record may be a baptism record at a church – and that is based on what someone told the preacher and whether he wrote things down properly.
Prior to 1550 or 1600, there are essentially no ancestry records in the Christian world except for the nobility.
The Commonwealth of Virginia now defines “white” by not defining it. Rather it defines four “other” groups:
Black. A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.
Not including a percentage, this appears to be a restatement of the 1924 law about “any drop.” However, alongside is
“Hispanic. A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American culture or origin, regardless of race.”
So if you are someone who migrated from Cuba but whose ancestors were all of “black racial groups of Africa” you seem to be in a quandary.
The other “non-white” groups defined by Virginia are:
American Indian or Alaskan
Native. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of
North America, and who maintains cultural identification through tribal
affiliation or community recognition.
Asian or Pacific Islander. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands This area includes China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, and Samoa.
This is a weird concoction: the “others” may be defined by recent residence, or current identification, or ancestry thousands of years ago. No consistent logic is at work in the minds of those writing laws and regulations in the Commonwealth. (Source for the definitions: http://www.va.gov/dmeeo/glossary.htm)
That the legal codes of the United States and the States continue to include such definitions, and that the question keeps being asked, is a pathology – sickness – that pervades American culture. We will only cure ourselves when the law stops trying to categorize people in racial terms.
Which is in no way to say that we do not still have a REQUIREMENT to compensate those who suffered centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, and those whom the government of the United States tried to cleanse from the continent. And I don’t mean some money payment. I mean proactive programs to compensate for earlier damage – programs like Head Start.
last update 18 June 2003