Charles Chesnutt often wrote about race, class, and passing. He identified as being black despite being able to pass as white.

Charles Chesnutt often wrote about race, class, and passing. He identified as being black despite being able to pass as white.

Conversations about race in America can lead to never-ending discussions, hurt feelings, and sometimes even breakthroughs. Blame it on our complicated past of slavery, racism, and legalized prejudice, but even approaching a frank discussion about race in this country can seem nearly impossible.

And yet we keep trying.

Recently, I spotted an article over on The Root which stated that Johnny Depp is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Key, a former slave who worked to secure her freedom in 1656.

This finding prompted one commenter to question whether or not Depp would “take an interest in his Negroid ancestry,” as if this new revelation about Depp’s distant relative should automatically prompt such an inquiry. The same commenter went on to wonder if the actor may have “some ‘plaining [sic] to do about his distancing himself from us.”

While I doubt anyone will rush to claim Depp as black (at least I hope not), how blackness gets defined in America continues to be rooted in antiquated notions of the one-drop rule.

According to Wikipedia, the one-drop rule is defined as:

“A historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as Negro of individuals with any African ancestry; meaning any person with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black.”

This rule–which has also been called the “one black ancestor rule;” the “traceable amount rule” by the courts; and the “hypo-descent rule” by anthropologists—was even cemented into law when Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, which was replicated by several other states. The law designated only two racial categories: white and colored. It reclassified everyone, including Native Americans, as “colored” because white Virginians felt many had African blood and were simply trying to “pass” as Native America to avoid segregation.

When pondering whether or not we should do away with the one-drop rule, it’s important to remember it was not created by those of African ancestry looking forge a shared kinship or by local/federal governments hoping to properly categorize the populace for the purpose of collecting census data (the terms “Indian,” “mulatto,” and “negro” were well established), but rather the one-drop rule was created to keep the white race “pure.” In short, it was merely another tool aimed at protecting white supremacy in America.

As Professor F. James Davis points out, the “rule” only applies to black Americans, not those of African ancestry throughout the diaspora.

Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world. In fact, definitions of who is black vary quite sharply from country to country, and for this reason people in other countries often express consternation about our definition. James Baldwin relates a revealing incident that occurred in 1956 at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held in Paris. The head of the delegation of writers and artists from the United States was John Davis. The French chairperson introduced Davis and then asked him why he considered himself Negro, since he certainly did not look like one. Baldwin wrote, “He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable legal point of view which obtains in the United States, but more importantly, as he tried to make clear to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice and by depth of involvement–by experience, in fact.”

Today, black and biracial Americans continue to grapple with these issues. Mixed-raced folks are often forced to identify as black or risk being ostracized by others (and some loudly object to this categorization), while some African-Americans are uneasy with biracial individuals being held up as standards of beauty and achievement for black folks as a whole.

Untangling the one-drop rule in America may be damn near impossible. It is so deeply rooted in our collective history that it would take generations to unravel.  Dismantling this system of thought would require many to rethink how we see and define blackness, which for many, especially biracial individuals, is an extremely personal choice.

But should we try? Should everyone with a black great-great grandparent or ancestor be forced to identify as black? And should we allow it?

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