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The Changing Politics of Racial Identity and Representation

13 Feb 2021 8:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From Executive Diversity Services

Was Barack Obama really America’s first Black president? There have been questions swirling for decades that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother was half-Black. Across the pond, people were celebrating that Meghan Markle’s son would be the first baby of color in the monarchy. Yet many believe Queen Charlotte became the first queen with African ancestry in 1761 when she married King George III.

Charlotte’s racial background was often downplayed, however, and diminished because of the negative associations with having Black ancestry at that time. Evidence of Eisenhower’s African ancestry is still unclear, at least in mainstream or predominantly white-owned media. Sources such as africaresource.com or baltimoreblackwoman.com are not so ambiguous.

What is clear is that whether it was the 18th century for Queen Charlotte or the 20th for President Eisenhower, African-mixed heritage was something that people who could, might choose to hide. Fast forward to 2020, however, and there are sites like ancestry.com that allow people to claim and add multi-hyphenates to their identities. We have a vice president-elect who is a proud Black and South Asian woman who embraces her racial and ethnic identities and cultural experiences that make her who she is.

Uncool. Cool. What’s Changed?

In the past, external discrimination engendered internalized racism and hidden identities. For example:

In the past, external discrimination engendered internalized racism and hidden identities. For example:

One Drop Rule: External Discrimination

Who defines who is Black or not, and how? In 1920 it was the census. According to the “one-drop rule,” which was commonly used in the South, if one had a known “single drop” of Black blood, that person was considered Black. The implications were far-reaching, from ridicule or even torture to second-class citizenship, because of having even one single drop of Black lineage in your DNA.

Brown Paper Bag Test: Internal Discrimination

Since the days of slavery, there has long been a so-called rivalry or internalized tension between individuals with a lighter complexion and a darker complexion. The Brown Paper Bag Test is a form of discrimination from within the African American community, by which one’s skin tone is compared to the color of a brown paper bag. The test was a way to decide whether an individual could have certain privileges. If they were lighter than a brown paper bag, they would receive privileges such as admission into certain groups such as clubs, fraternities, and churches. If they were darker, their access would be denied.

“Passing” for White: Hiding One’s Identity

For some of Black ancestry, if they could “pass” as white, they would. More than simple advantage, sometimes it was necessary for survival, such as for getting a much-needed job in an industry or location that would otherwise prevent them from being employed. Others might completely disavow their ethnic roots by choice. Some people would even move away from home to start a new life where nobody in their new community would know their “secret.”

Embracing Your Complete Heritage or Mixed-Identity in 2020

With the arrivals of Millennials there has been a transformational shift toward embracing one’s individuality and rejecting the idea of having to “pick” a single identity. Tiger Woods notably called himself “Cablinasian,” a word he made up during childhood to try to capture and convey his multiracial heritage, including Thai, African American, Chinese, and European. In 2020, for the first time, the US census form asked respondents who chose white or black for their race to give more information about their origins – for example, German, Lebanese, African American or Somali.

Certainly, people of color have always embraced their identity. And recently many young Black people have revived the mantra “I’m Black and I’m Proud” reminiscent of the Black Power Movement of the 60’s, in which “The Afro” was seen as a return to Black roots rather than adapting their appearance to fit into predominantly white styles. Hair has long been a hot point for this, as school or work dress codes have been challenged and modified to include more natural styles including dreadlocks or afros. In fact, September 15, 2020 was World Afro Day, designed to end discrimination against Afro hair in schools.

Gen Y athletes, stars, and online influencers, increasingly of mixed-race backgrounds, are paving the way, embracing their multi-racial, multi-cultural heritage as “cool.”

Caveat: Is It Only Cool When It’s Convenient?

Many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals often feel they must still adapt to dominant culture norms or standards in order to succeed, ignoring and even not acknowledging their own cultural expressions of beauty. Some still perceive that there’s an unwritten accepted level of ethnic showcase that’s “cool,” but only when there’s still an acceptable level of assimilation simultaneously mixed in.

These Issues Run Deep and Are Complex

Because these issues are so complex, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when thinking of the impact the country’s history still has on our present, and even more so when wondering how we can shift things for the better, especially in the workplace.

Public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson asks the U.S. to “reckon with its racist past and present” for there to be true change. His 2014 memoir is the basis for the recently released movie of the same name, Just Mercy, about the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson suggests that the U.S has an unresolved history that has diminished, demoralized, and punished individuals who were not white. And that history must be reconciled and acknowledged for the country to heal and for change to happen.

What Are Some Moves you Can Make Right Now?

Acknowledge the reality of our country’s history, even if it’s difficult to face (e.g., slavery, discrimination, and systemic racism)

Accept how said history has impacted perceptions of people of color and ethnic displays (e.g., someone wearing an evening gown vs. wearing a sari or a gomesi to a company gala)

Recognize, once more, how said history has impacted BIPOC views of themselves (e.g., desire to “pass” for white, code-switching to fit in) and in turn impacts the way they have to “behave” in the world and workplace.

Actively look for opportunities to look through a different perspective. Notice the thoughts you have about someone. Are you “othering” them? Are you making negative assumptions or associations based on what you see?

Systemic change can only be accomplished by being intentional in efforts to grow inclusion, both organizationally and individually.

Reprinted with permission from the Executive Diversity Services Blog: https://www.executivediversity.com/2020/12/28/first-black-president-in-us/

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