Opinion: Why One Drop Matters

Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 10:07 AM

What on earth does Halle Berry's child custody case have to do with Jim Crow?

That's easy. Race intersects with almost everything in America.

Today, Halle Berry is in a bit of hot water for talking about race the way we black people often talk amongst ourselves—honestly—to Ebony Magazine. "I feel like shes black. Im black and Im her mother and I believe in the one-drop theory," she told Ebony magazine in the March cover story.

The One Drop Rule is the colloquial term in the United States for the social classification, as black, of people with any African ancestry. We didn't come up with it. White people did. And it isn't just semantic. The Rule was put into law in the twentieth century. The best example of this was in Virginia with the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

It was reflected most clearly in the anti-miscegenation laws that strictly prohibited intermarriage marriage between blacks and whites, blacks and Native Americans, Native and African Americans intermarriage of any sort. But don't be fooled. The primary purpose of these laws was to preserve and protect the purity of the white race.

What was the one drop test? This is where it gets really nuts.

In some states, the test was parentage. For example, in one state legally colored — or black — could be defined as a person with one-quarter black ancestry, i.e. the equivalent of one grandparent. In another state, however, colored might be defined as any black ancestry before "the fourth degree," going back to great-great-grandparents.

Other states actually tried to parse it in with fractions: One-sixteenth, one-thirty-second. In Virginia, the Racial Integrity Act defined a person as black if the individual had any African ancestry, or one drop.

It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court outlawed Virginia's ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia and struck down the Racial Integrity Act. In effect, that decision declared the One Drop Rule unconstitutional:

[T]he State's legitimate purposes were "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens," and to prevent "the corruption of blood," "a mongrel breed of citizens," and "the obliteration of racial pride," obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy....we find the racial classifications in these statutes repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment.

It all seems rather silly, until you remember that none of this happened that long ago. Halle Berry was born in 1966, and this happened in her lifetime.

And so, lots of folks, of various ethnic heritages, including Halle and myself, have had to develop our own identities, in the context of this one drop reality.

With that in mind, let's consider the rest of what Ms. Berry had to say to Ebony Magazine, the part of the interview that has gotten far less attention than the One Drop Rule. "I'm not going to put a label on it," she continued, speaking about her daughter. "I had to decide for myself and that's what she's going to have to decide how she identifies herself in the world. And I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That's how I identified myself. But I feel like she's black."

Still don't get it? Well, I get it. I get it to the core.

I get it because I share something in common with Halle Berry. Like Halle, I had to choose my racial identity based on how others saw me. Like Halle, I have a white mother and a black father. Like Halle, my skin is brown in a country that, until the 1990s, recognized only "Black, White, Other."

Also, like Halle, I was born in the 1960s, grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement, awash in the shadows of Dr. King and Brown v. Board of Education. It was an America full of promise for me and for my brothers and sisters of mixed parentage. Unlike today, we were few and far between.

In 1954, the year my parents married, it was illegal in a majority of states for them to do so. That left the products of these unions illegitimate by definition and vulnerable by default.

We were called Mulatto when that term was still pejorative. We were also called Melungeon (a term so rare now that readers will no doubt have to Google it). Oreo, half-breed, half-nigger. And this wasn't just behind our backs. To our faces. Not just on the playground. In the classroom. Not just in the Deep South. Here, in New York City. Not just in the outer boroughs. In Manhattan. In places like Greenwich Village and on the Upper East Side.

So, Halle Berry may not choose her words as carefully as a politician, but this is the realpolitik she is talking about. She may not be as eloquent as a preacher, but this is the painful process of self-identification that people like us remember. This was a place where skin color and the fullness of your lips and the broadness of your nose could give you away. And, if we are to be honest about it, as Ms. Berry was, America is a place where these factors still determine too much.

Halle knows this will still be the reality for her daughter. I know she knows because I know it too.

A generation later, I see my young children step out into a more perfect union. But it is an America that is far from perfect. They have already encountered the N-word, slights about their hair and features and an overall culture that celebrates their Anglo Saxon great-grandparents (who were slaveholders) while discounting their African American ancestors (who were slaves).

Halle Berry may have chosen the wrong words but she makes the right point. It is important to read past her ugly custody case to have a larger conversation about race (one the baby's father apparently does not want to have). Her daughter will have to choose a racial identity, the way she had to choose a racial identity. In America, that means it will probably be chosen, at least in part, by the way people react to her. In America, her skin color (black or white) will be something that people use to define her.

I applaud Halle Berry's courage, if not her choice of words. When she says, "I believe in the one drop theory," of course, she does not mean to endorse racism. But she does have the courage to do something so few Americans can: talk about race.

There are those who will say that life will be different for Halle's children and mine. That the next generation won't think in terms of race. Consider the big stir created when the New York Times ran its piece last week about more young Americans identifying as mixed race, and the follow-up piece this week about how these mixed identities aren't fitting into the neat categories we use to track race. But I've seen it all before. In 1995, Lise Funderberg released Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. The book was wonderful. It stirred a great deal of controversy about whether we were headed toward new kind of country. I think we are. But in tiny baby steps — not by leaps and bounds.

Halle Berry and I really have nothing in common. But in America, we have everything in common. Because, America remains a place that is defined by race, whether it is the One Drop Rule something much more subtle, race is something that matters to us and matters to our children — children who are uniquely positioned to help their country someday move beyond it.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.


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Comments [28]

marilynn from London, UK

Thank you for an intelligent read, been called in UK, where born half caste,nigger etc...emigrated to USA @ 20 yrs, a bit different mulato,half breed & so on, after a rich & lucky life 30 years working for airlines I'm back in London where it all began, whole, happy & still looking good...Thanks

Aug. 10 2013 09:10 AM
Havah from Montreal

As an African woman living in QC, I can understand where Gabriel and Halle are both coming from:
-in the US because of the history of that country, Nahla will definitely be seen, judged and considered as black. The word also conveys cultural values specific to the AA community that Halle wanna pass onto her daughter. I'm African, my skincolor is black but I know that to an AA, I'm not black and I'm fine with it because I know the word doesn't only identify someone's phenotype, otherwise an Afro-Cuban will be called black by an AA and not an Afro-Latino. But to people not familiar with the intricacies of the US racial history, black designs any person on earth whose skincolor is black. Here's comes Gabriel's protest.
- In QC, there's this concept of visible minorities, stress on visible. As per the law, a visible minority is someone who doesn't look Caucasian and no offense but Nahla doesn't fit the description of a visible minority. As a black person who is aware of all the shades and hues our skincolor can be (think about the Tuareg people), I agree that it is a silly way to identify people but I digress. Aside from the fact that Nahla looks white, Gabriel is a Quebecer. His people's history have made them very touchy about their identity, they had to fight for their survival in North America, otherwise their fate would have been similar to the Acadian people. So don't even think telling and convincing a Quebecer that his kid has nothing to do with his culture, that she's black (definitely doesn't echo Quebecer) especially when her skincolor says otherwise. In Canada, Nahla is white, end of discussion unless she starts growing nappy hair, that's the way it is.

I for one, blame the 2 parents for all this misunderstanding. Unfortunately, we live in a world where race's still an issue. When you're in a mixed union, you ought to know about each other cultural background, to discuss these race issues. The whole "we love each other and it's enough" self-centered crap won't prepare your kids for what's ahead of them: always explaining why they're different, being forced to choose one group to identify or it's done for you. When I say mixed, I'm not talking about skincolor only but different religions, cultures, countries.., You need to have the talk: "what will be our kid's identity" and start explaining that to the child as soon as he's able to understand it.

Jul. 15 2013 01:32 AM
DR. Tashakarnoff

Do not have my notes with me for full refernce the 1860 US Federal Population Census was the first to recognize Native Americans. The Racial Integriy Act of 1924 had an major impact on the 1920 US Federal population census. Native American Indians and African Americans were put on census as (neg). Fire in the National Archives destroyed census records of 1890. The Racial integrity Act of 1924 was repealed about 1967.
Harvey Morgan a Va. member of government made it possible in 1997 to have Native American Indians get the information on the certificate of birth to reflect their true heritage. Before this act the cost was higher than people could pay. Just some interesting notes I have located as I search for my fathers ancestors. Maxein (Round Tree) and his father Robert Johnson. I never met my dads parents.
Dr. Tashakarnoff

Jan. 30 2013 02:52 AM
AllPeople from USA

There is actually no such thing as a so-called "Light-Skinned
Black" person ... but rather ... such individuals and groups
are actually people who are of a 'Multi-Generational
Multiracially-Mixed' (MGM-Mixed) Lineage that some may
have been pressured or encouraged to ignore or downplay.
People of Mixed-Race lineage should NOT feel pressured to
'identify' according to any standards other than one's own.
The legal -application of the racist-'One-Drop Rule'
(ODR) was banned in the U.S. way back in 1967.
Listed below are related Links of 'the facts' of the histories
of various Mixed-Race populations found within the U.S.:
There is no proof that a 'color-based slave hierarchy'
(or that 'color-based social-networks') ever existed
as common entities -- within the continental U.S.
It was the 'Rule of Matriliny (ROM) -- [a.k.a. 'The Rule of Partus'
(ROP)] -- and NOT the racist-'One-Drop Rule' (ODR) -- that was
used to 'create more enslaved people' on the continental U.S.
This is because the chattel-slavery system that was
once found on the antebellum-era, continental U.S.
was NOT "color-based" (i.e. "racial") -- but rather
-- it was actually "mother-based" (i.e. 'matrilineal').
There were many ways (and not solely the sexual assault
and sexual exploitation of the women-of-color) in which
'white' lineage entered the familial bloodlines of
enslaved-people found on the continental U.S.
An 'Ethnic' category is NOT the
same thing as a "Race" category:
Other Topics:

Dec. 05 2012 12:52 AM
Exotiq from Florida

Interesting article. Like Halle, and the author (who doesn't look like any trace of black or African American), I was also born in the 60's...I also have similar phenotype to the author of this article--light in skin tone, and have more European features. I can't speak for the author, just for my experiences in my life thus far. Since I wasn't born in America, I come from a racially mixed, Latin-Caribbean family of immigrants, of which I am an immigrant as well. With that in mind, I can't say that I identify with the notion that as a racially mixed person, growing up in America, of falling in line with the 'one drop rule'. I grew up in the southwest, among many Mexican Americans, for which I felt that I belonged. I wasn't singled out, so for me, I didn't feel the obligation to categorize myself as Black or African American, since I felt that I was living the embodiment of my Latin culture first and foremost. The issue to categorize yourself or identify yourself as one race or the other is a personal decision. As for me, I never felt comfortable calling myself black or African American, because I didn't fit the mold, nor did I live the lifestyle...My Latin Caribbean family ate Latin-Caribbean foods and listened to Latin-Caribbean music and we practiced our culture each and everyday, as we still do now. I always resented the expectation of a person (usually of the African American persuasion) expecting me to assimilate to their customs or identify--almost to the point of feeling bullied into it and if I refused, I felt ridiculed and accused of being ashamed of 'being black' or wanting to avoid my African ancestry. Like it or not, I'm me and no outdated rule is going to change that!

Nov. 22 2012 11:56 AM
AllPeople (AP) Gifts from USA

Here are good 'Reference' links for everyone who refuses
to accept the concept of the racist-'One-Drop Rule' (ODR)

Dec. 25 2011 05:19 AM
John Ortiz from san juan

The one-drop rule was created by slave owners in the 17th century, to maintain as slaves people who otherwise would be considered free. In the British colonies of America the rule was that a white person could not be a slave. English Common Law had a rule that said that the legal and social condition of a newborn was acquired from his father lineage. What that rule implied was that if the father was a free man, his children were going to be free, even if the mother was a slave woman. If a white person could not be a slave and a black slave woman gave birth to a white or light skin child, the inference was that the father was a free man and that child had a right to be free. Slave owners realized that this Common Law rule could be a threat to the ownership of some of his slaves, because since the establishment of slavery in the colonies, black and mullato slave women were giving birth to children that were white or with a lighter skin than their's mother. To prevent this, the North American British colonies were slavery was legal, adopted a rule that was applied in the colonies of Civil Law European nations with colonies in the New World. These countries were Spain and Portugal. In the colonies of those countries the rule applied was a rule that came from the days of the Roman Empire, called Partus Sequitur Ventrem in latin language. Partus means newborn, sequitur means following and ventrem means womb, the newborn follows the womb. If the newborn child came from the womb of a free woman he was free, if the newborn came from the womb of a slave woman he or she was a slave, even if the father was a free man and regardless of the skin complexion or phenotype of the newborn. The first colony to adopt this rule by legislation was Virginia and in the term of 20 years all the Brittish colonies that practiced slavery adopted this partus sequitur ventrem rule.

But now they had a problem, for one part there was a rule that said that no white person could be a slave and now they have this new rule that said that the condition of slavery of a newborn was going to be determined by the legal status of the mother regardless of what was the skin complexion of the newborn. What they were going to do with children of white complexion born of a slave woman? Which rule was going to be applied? If they applied the rule that said that no white person could be a slave, the child would be free. If they applied the partus sequitur ventrem rule the child was a slave. What did they do? They invented a new rule, the one-drop of blood rule, which said that if the newborn child was of white complexion or phenotype he could not be considered white because since he was born from a slave woman, that circumstance implied that someone in the child and mother ancestry was black, because whites could not be slaves, and that drop of blood from one of their ancestors would classify this newborn as negro or black, and as a consequence, a slave.

May. 08 2011 09:02 PM

"And, if we are to be honest about it, as Ms. Berry was, America is a place where these factors still determine too much."

Absolutely. There are two ways of determining whether her daughter is white or black. Would an ABC show with a white bachelor accept her as a competitor or if she were as good an actor as her mother would Vanity Fair put her on the cover of the Hollywood issue. If the answer to both is yes, she is white. If not, she is black!

"That the next generation won't think in terms of race."

Those folks should think again!

Feb. 23 2011 05:41 PM

Switzerland. Oh, please. Spare me the righteous ignorance. Your country is rife with racism; Arabs, Bosnians, etc. You simply "rise above it" because it doesn't affect your daily life. You're in the majority and racial identity is invisible to you. You have the privilege of being ignorant. But, please, spare us your idiotic rant.

Feb. 22 2011 10:58 AM
Christian from Switzerland

Wow, you Americans sure are a crazy people! ;-) I am still amazed at how dead earnest you can discuss these race theories. "3/4 white blood" ... It may be of interest for you to hear that over here in Europe, blood tends to be red.

Feb. 21 2011 02:38 PM
CCC from Michigan

The child has more white blood than black. Halle is only 1/2 black herself. So the child has 3/4 th white blood and from photos the child looks white.

Feb. 13 2011 10:56 AM
Mike M from New York

This seems odd:

A generation later, I see my young children step out into a more perfect union. overall culture that celebrates their Anglo Saxon great-grandparents (who were slaveholders)

Great grandparents of currently young children were slave holders? Really? I had my first child at 38, & I was a second generation youngest child. My son is 28 and his great grandfather was born in 1864. Even at 40 years per generation, great grandparents would have been born 120 years before their great grandchildren, so a 10 year old today would have had great grandparents born about 1880. Where did these anglo saxon great grandparents own their slaves? Not in the United States, however "imperfect" it still is.

Feb. 11 2011 03:42 PM
benravensfan02 from Baltimore, MD

I am a victim of divorce. My parents divorce was finalized 3 days after my 5th birthday, and these custody cases can get ugly. I have seen stories of 2 sided celebrities, where what you see in public is not how they are in private. This kid is mixed, it is neither black or white. I have 2 mixed cousins. I don't believe that Gabriel is a racist, the N-word accusation was just a low blow put out there by a desperate mother trying to hold on to custody of their kid. Remember when Denise Richards made the false claim that Charlie Sheen molested their kids? Desperate mothers, regardless of racial makeup, do these types of things in custody cases all the time.

Feb. 11 2011 02:05 PM
SSS from CT

I think that Halle Berry will get full custody of her daughter more than likely.
People need to talk about race. It is important for people who are black to identify with the black community --with the non-minority population this is not as important.
Halle Berry is a beautiful black woman and she will raise Nahla the same way.

Feb. 11 2011 11:53 AM

Reading these comments, it is somewhat depressing to realize how far we have not yet gone - how far we have yet to not go - and how unjustifiably self satisfied we are about it.

Feb. 11 2011 10:54 AM

I am white and my husband is black. We have three children, and we absolutely are raising our children as African American. The reason we are doing this is because our kids needs to be taught how to deal with the racism they will and have faced (they are 8,6,4). Their feet need to be firmly planted on the ground at a very young age and we do this in part by instilling a pride in African American culture.
Our children have to be stronger emotionally, more confident and more able to negotiate complex social situations than white kids. All the while they have to be respectful of their teachers (all white) and understand the value of education (Dad's a Dr.) As a white woman who has enjoyed a lifetime of white privilege I feel I would being doing my kids a disservice if I told them "don't forget you are white too," as this is NOT reality-because white people don't get discriminated against.

Feb. 11 2011 10:04 AM

@ Gregory from 30213
Does the white world you see Halle ancored in see her skin as brown or white? I have never heard a white person refer to Halle as white women nor can she pass for one. She feels the way she does because of the way she has been treated throughout her life especially within an industry as visually racist as Hollywood.

Feb. 11 2011 06:42 AM
Mother from west coast

My daughter, who is a year old is bi/multi-racial. I am white and her father, whom I am not together with, is black. While growing up, many people thought I was not white. They thought I was Mexican, Latina, Persian, Mediterranean, North African. You name it, I got it all. I have olive skin and dark features. I thought it would have been a lot easier if I could have identified myself as something other than "white".

I used to check the 'decline to respond' or 'other' box because many people did not see me as white and I certainly didn't buy into the 'white' culture, whatever that is…rednecks, Suburbanites, Wasps… so I thought it was a useless tool to categorize people. In my heart of hearts, I know that most of us have lineages that cross cultures, races or ethnicities. I believe that my dark features come from a lineage of Gypsy or 'Roma' ancestry. I still typically 'decline to respond.' Out of all honesty, if I were anything besides white, I may very well claim it to be my predominant race. I am someone who celebrates cultural ethnicities and diversity. Being that there are many more opportunities in schools and social settings to celebrate cultures of color, I would have loved to have been able to latch onto a celebrated culture of my own. But, now that I am a mother of a bi-racial child with a dad and a grandmother who are identifying her hair as 'black hair', and live in an America with a bi-racial president in office who check-marked black on the 2010 census; I'm starting to feel protective of my daughter's European roots. I want her to be proud of both her father's and her mother's heritages.

I understand that President Obama and Halle Berry were both born in a different time than my daughter. The one drop rule need not apply in my household because I respect the people that I come from, I respect myself and I respect my daughter. I hope that her generation, with it's already multiple and prominent shades of brown, will have a greater respect for each other, their differences and their diversities. My American daughter is both black and white. Those are the boxes I will mark until I find out if she has Native American blood, in which case I will also check that, or until she decides for herself which box or boxes she may or may not want to check. Until that time, I will bring her up to honor all of her heritages, American of African and African-American descent, and American of Slovak/Eastern-European decent. My daughter has a rich history of people on both her mother's and her father's sides. Neither one should be slighted. We need to stand up for who we are as whole people, take a 'Wholistic' approach in ourselves as human beings. To break down barriers, we must start with ourselves. That means knowing, acknowledging, accepting and LOVING our WHOLE selves, our WHOLE children and the people we all come from.

Feb. 11 2011 03:12 AM
nuna from Boston

Why are you still dating White men ??

Feb. 10 2011 11:34 PM

Bi-racial people, especially those who were raised by white people, think they're the only
*Diasporans grappling with their racial identity, when all Diasporans struggle with it. Being Diasporan in America, is like being a heavy female who has learned that only thin females are valued. The difference is that the heavy female can starve herself into conformity, while most Diasporans can't escape the physical characteristics that brand them as proper subjects for abuse.

The trauma of racism makes It easy for a person of African descent to confuse their attitude about their race, with their desire to escape abuse. Consequently, a Diasporan may claim they want to be white, when what they actually want is respected, fairness, appreciation . . .

I think the dilemma of the bi-racial child is that many of them feel an entitlement to be white, based on their white parent's status, until the response of other white people, forces them to withdraw. Like Jami Floyd said, she "had to choose (her) racial identity based on how others saw (her)."

I remember reading an interview in which Halle Berry described a childhood incident, in which she showed a white child a picture of her parents, and explained their racial difference, only to have the white child inform her that her mother could not be her mother.

Bi-racials experience a special exclusion because, it's a rare instance in which a parent can't share their status with their child. This is the case for bi-racial children who, depending on their appearance, can actually diminish their parent's status. This is a hard and painful pill to swallow.

So, while all Diasporans are struggling to escape the sting of racism, bi-racial people do have a unique emotional challenge, that other Diasporans, even those who have a similar physical appearance to bi-racials, don't share.

*Diasporan: A descendant of a survivor of the African diaspora

Feb. 10 2011 07:46 PM
Gregory from 30213

I understand everything that is written here. But, how can she use this argument when her life is anchored in a white world. Where will her daughter attend school? I bet not in a public school system. Where will she live? I bet not in a LA or New York ghetto. In fact, her daughter will enjoy all the luxuries of a Beverly Hills brat. The daugher in no way will identify with the black world. So, how can the daughter be disadvantaged or harmed by residing with her father. Nice try Halle, I am not buying this argument. By the way, I am a black man.

Feb. 10 2011 04:55 PM
Paul A'Barge from 78959

If you want America to get past race, you must start with yourself. Since you seem to value "getting it" so highly and all.

Feb. 10 2011 04:30 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"The One Drop Rule is the colloquial term in the United States for the social classification, as black, of people with any African ancestry. We didn't come up with it. White people did."

Could this be any more of a stupid comment?

Feb. 10 2011 04:13 PM
Kman from New York, NY

AWESOME! Thank you for this wonderful article. I've not only heard my family's stories regarding this topic,I've lived much of this too. When terms like mulatto, octoroon and quadroon were created to keep Blacks from being recognized as citizens and marrying outside their race, then Halle's comments are not far fetched. I wish people would speak more truths when it comes to race and this country and stop pretending we live in a color blind society. Kudos Ms Floyd for writing this valuable piece and even more respect to Halle Berry for speaking about race (despite all of the negative media comments).

Feb. 10 2011 03:41 PM
anon from Actually ON the Planet Earth

What a bunch of nonsense.

What Berry's statement was about was custody. "I am black and my daughter is black and her father is white and you need to give my daughter to me because white men can't raise black daughters."

If you had an ounce of intellectual honesty, that's the race issue you would be discussing

Feb. 10 2011 03:04 PM

What a boring topic

Feb. 10 2011 01:47 PM
Preston Calvert

The way to have race cease to be a factor in how we relate to one another is to STOP talking about it in every context. Let it go and assimilate.

Feb. 10 2011 01:17 PM
Thank You

I only hope that your "entire" commentary gets as much traction as the misleading and inflammatory race bites that some media choose to define Ms. Berry's interview

Feb. 10 2011 12:40 PM

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