White man, white woman, white baby
Black man, black woman, black baby
Black man, white woman, black baby
White man, black woman, black baby
— From ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ by Public Enemy
In 1990, the song Fear Of A Black Planet hit radio airwaves and added unease to the delicate racial balance of urban community life. Those were charged times — the Brooklyn and Los Angeles riots; Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing; Ice Cube’s gangsta rap album, Amerikkas Most Wanted. It was a time when race relations were a hot topic.
My son, with his wild hair, ambiguous features and mocha complexion, serves as a case study of Public Enemy’s fallacious ethnic arithmetic. At birth his shock of jet-black hair made my papoose appear to be more Native American than Black. As he lost all of that lanugo hair, his features seemed more Caucasian — like his mother. Then, after his first summer in the sun, he looked ‘tan’, but his features remained ambivalent.
Almost every minority group my son and I have encountered has attempted to claim his features as their own. A random Latina immigrant drawn to my son’s charm went through a laundry list of possible Hispanic origins: “Dominicano? Puertorriqueño? Colombiano?”, and walked away vexed when she completed her guesswork and realized that I would not be forthcoming with an answer.
Most of the other gentle confrontations have been humorous affairs where strangers try to place his mishmash of physical characteristics. A Korean storeowner, whose shop my wife frequented during her pregnancy, described my infant son as “halfie-halfie” when she met him on one of his first outings.
Where minorities are eager to commandeer his cuteness, my son’s skin color and other enigmatic idiosyncrasies have caused inexperienced whites nothing but embarrassing moments since his birth. The most extreme was one tolerance-testing pediatrician, who on my son’s first check-up, postpartum, was so confused by his skin tone that he misdiagnosed him as jaundiced.
Misdiagnoses not withstanding, the white majority’s lack of experience with my mixed child has been filled mostly with laughable moments. From disbelief of my paternal status, “Oh, that’s your baby?”, to a warning not to get used to his loose curly tresses as “His hair’s gonna get kinky in a few months.” The latter came from the white mom of a dark-skinned little girl.
It’s not just the people that I encounter in my day-to-day fatherly duties that are making earnest attempts at understanding the new upsurge of mixed ethnicities. The MAVIN Foundation, staffed entirely by mixed-race individuals, took an introspective look at the culture then embarked on a crusade to educate the nation about the new mixed generation. And though in 2000 the United States only added the possibility for respondents to check more than one category to define their race, I feel this is a move in the right direction.
When contacted directly for a response to the relevance of Fear of a Black Planet to modern day multiculturalism, Chuck D. offers a reasonable polemic. “I’m in the airport,” apologizes the leader of the seminal rap group. He is currently on an international junket with the band and is forced to offer a truncated response. “2001 was a full 11 years after Fear’s release,” continues Chuck. “I really never believed in racial categorization, but knew that this is how I was viewed...the truth is that non-white is in a clumped category, but white is more clearly defined in America...”
Chuck D. presents the unfounded point most skeptics argue, that the U.S. Census Bureau simply herds then disregards the data of respondents who indicate that they are of multiple ethnicities. “The Census Bureau preserves all the information that people provide to it about their race,” says Ann Morning, assistant professor of sociology at New York University via an interview published on the mixed-race advocacy website, Swirl, Inc. “But when other federal agencies analyze those data, at times they must translate multiracial categories to mono-racial ones.”
When I contacted the United States Census Bureau for an update I was advised that no changes were to be made for the next scheduled collection of data in 2010. This leaves a lot to be desired from the Census Board and its subsidiary agencies, but is at least not a step backward.
Possibly the most commonsensical encounter I have experienced was while enjoying a stroll with my family. Half-drunk, a male blue-collar worker regarded my wife with an incredulous stare. His gaze was then directed at me and then lowered to subsequently observe our stroller-bound child.
He deliberated for a few seconds, then on reaching an inebriated moment of eureka declared, “Black and white make brown!” And I am left to think that if a drunken middle-aged laborer can realize the changes taking place in the racial schema of American society, our government and its slow-acting organizations can’t be too far behind.
DEZ WILLIAMS is an author and new dad living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He is currently putting the final touches on his male pregnancy guide ‘Men Are From Mars, Babies Are From Uterus’, but still finds time to write for his weblog, daddydowntime.com.