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 who 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 and 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’s 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.