Ilustration by Shino Arihara
Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old high school principal in Chino 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 color spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates the multicultural 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.
Now, I have always believed that what is now widely considered one of slavery’s worst legacies — the Southern “one-drop” rule that indicted anyone with black blood as a nigger and cleaved American society into black and white with a single stroke — was also slavery’s only upside. Of course I deplore the motive behind the law, which was rooted not only in white paranoia about miscegenation, but in a more practical need to maintain social order by keeping privilege and property in the hands of whites. But by forcing blacks of all complexions and blood percentages into the same boat, the law ironically laid a foundation of black unity that remains in place today. It’s a foundation that allows us to talk abstractly about a “black community” as concretely as we talk about a black community in Harlem or Chicago or South-Central (a liberty that’s often abused or lazily applied in modern discussions of race). And it gives the lightest-skinned among us the assurance of identity that everybody needs to feel grounded and psychologically whole — even whites, whose public non-ethnicity is really ethnicity writ so large and influential it needs no name. Being black may still not be the most advantageous thing in the world, but being nothing or being neutral — the rallying cry of modern-day multiculturalists — has never made any emotional or real-world sense. Color marks you, but your membership in black society also gives you an indestructible house to live in and a bed to rest on. I can’t imagine growing up any other way.
Wayne Joseph can’t, either. But when the results of his DNA test came back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he still qualified as 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 unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian — and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify.
“My son was flabbergasted by the results,” says Joseph. “He said, ‘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, he’s been perfectly content being a black man; it’s shaped his worldview and the course of his life in ways that cannot, and probably should not, 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. Yet this knowledge has not deterred the racism many Europeans continue to harbor toward Africans, nor the wariness Africans harbor toward Europeans. Such feelings may never be deterred. 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 man who’s been passing most of his life for white (the book has been made into a movie due in theaters next month).
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.