I'm as confused by recent news concerning racial identity as anyone else. Rather than trying to offer any answers, I thought I'd share a few loosely related thoughts on the matter:

  • Taking a break on a road trip, my wife (Cacilda) and I stopped at a Denny's restaurant somewhere in northern California. A woman sitting nearby struck up a conversation with Cacilda, asking her where she is from. Cacilda's ancestry includes India, Iran, and Africa—so she looks like she could be from pretty much anywhere, but she explained that she'd been born in Mozambique. The woman clearly had no idea where Mozambique was, so Cacilda explained that it was in southern Africa. The woman thought for a moment, then asked, "So, is everyone there African American?"
  • My friend Martijn was born in Nigeria and spent his first few years there. He could have a Nigerian passport, if he wanted one. So he's African, right? Even though both his parents are white?
  • In some parts of Africa, albinos are believed to contain magical properties. They're killed so that parts of their bodies can be sold.
  • Barack Obama is routinely described as "the first African American president," despite the fact that his mother was white. He was raised by his white grandparents. So who says he's black? In most cases, the mother's identity is determinative of the child's. For example, if his mother had been Jewish, he'd be considered Jewish (by that community, if not himself). And his father—who wasn't a formative presence in his life—was African, not African American, so it's at least highly debatable whether Obama is truly our first African American president.
  • I have another friend who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mireille grew up mainly in Paris, where her parents emigrated due to political changes back home. She married a close friend of mine and they moved to San Francisco. I remember her frustration over how quickly Americans assumed they knew "what" she was simply because her skin was Congo-black. She considered herself to be more French than anything else, but of course, that wasn't what anyone assumed. I recall her being particularly annoyed by African Americans who assumed she shared their political perspectives simply because of her skin—and despite her having no shared historical or cultural experience with them at all. One of the strongest arguments made against Rachel Dolezal's claims to blackitude boil down to this line from a recent piece in the Boston Globe, "What bothers us about Dolezal is not that she’s taken on an identity she wasn’t born with, but that she’s appropriating a victim status she doesn’t seem to deserve." Fair enough, but Mireille (rightly) doesn't consider herself to be a victim of centuries of American slavery and racism. So are we going to rescind this Congolese woman's right to call herself black?
  • One night in 1988 or so, I was walking back to my ill-considered apartment in Spanish Harlem hand-in-hand with my mixed-race girlfriend. When we came to a group of young black guys hanging on a stoop, one of them stepped in front of me, the others closing around behind. He looked up and down and said something like, "You enslave us. You take our names. You take our dignity. And now you think you can take our women?"

​My first thought was that my girlfriend was actually Puerto Rican, as opposed to African-American, but that seemed a weak argument. I'd recently read a fascinating essay about the origins of voodoo and the cultural storms caused by the slave trade in the West Indies (it's called Hear That Long Snake Moan, by Michael Ventura. Highly recommended.) I instinctively decided to respond to my attacker's historical sophistication. 

I said, "I get what you're saying (I may have called him "Sir" at this point.) But I'm not white. I'm Irish. Until about a hundred years ago, the Irish were oppressed in many of the same ways your ancestors were. In fact, about 80,000 Irish women and children were sold in the slave markets of the West Indies. That's why Jamaicans like Bob Marley still speak with an Irish accent today."

He looked at me for what felt like a long, long time. Then he laughed. Hard. "Look at this mutha&*#%. He says he's not white!" He stepped aside and said a few words I'll never forget. "Alright. Have a good night, my brother."

About the Author

Christopher Ryan

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is the co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.