What is Race? Nature or Nurture?

With Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King’s race brought into question, it begs the question, what is race? Is it nature or nurture? Biology or social conditioning? Could someone be born of one race but claim to belong another if he were raised with a different culture that is not of the race that he was born to?

To be clear, Shaun King has hit out strongly about the people that wish to smear him and his family but someone Breitbart Report claims to have dug up photos of people who purport to be his biological parents and a sibling, all of whom appear to be white. Breitbart, while no friend of the progressive movement and is right of the Tea Party, made a convincing argument of Shaun King misrepresenting his race. Shaun King has come out strongly refuting those claims and said that he was being setup white supremacists who are trying to destroy the Black Lives Matter movement. 

King further explained that his family tree is complicated and that no two siblings have the same set of parents and sometimes the names of the biological father on the birth certificates is not the actual father, he also has no idea how many siblings he’s got. As a result of this expose, he was forced to lay bare his complicated family tree and many unedifying secrets. In short, he looks the way he does is because his mother is white and his father is a very light skinned black man, with whom his mother had an affair with, from his writing, it appears that his mother was or is married to a white man but had a child with a man who is not her husband. His family, though complicated, to the point of incredulity, it’s clear that he is no Rachel Dolezal, a true race impostor. Though Shaun King is a very fair skinned interracial black man who could almost pass as white should he feel inclined to, his life’s experiences is one of a black man, due to the heinous one-drop rule that the collective society has embraced. What’s important is he identifies himself as a black man and he’s experienced life as a black man and now he’s heavily engaged in activism to help the plight black people.

In another case of complicated race/parentage, I just watched the documentary ‘Little White Lie’ by Lacey Schwartz, she was raised as a white Jewish girl in Woodstock, New York, it was an overwhelmingly white town, though very liberal. The white people there, due to its homogeny, had the unique privilege of never having to think about race in their daily lives and interactions. So Lacey grew up as a white Jewish girl with all the rites of passage of a Jewish childhood such as Shabbat dinners and Bat Mitzvahs. One nagging thing that people couldn’t ignore was here corkscrew curls and her darker shade of white than the rest of her family. It was conveniently explained away by her great-grandfather who was Sicilian Jew with very curly hair and dark skin (a photo of him was presented). She essentially grew up as a white upper-middle class Jewish girl. From what she portrays in the film, she is a Jewish girl not just in name but her religious beliefs as well. Even after her coming out as black, she still participates in Shabbat dinners and her wedding was a Jewish ceremony.

But as she got older, the nagging voice in her head became a scream she couldn’t ignore. At the encouragement of her high school boyfriend who is also black-caucasian biracial, told her to get the truth from her mother and that the Sicilian grandfather story was a just that, a story to explain away the obvious. When she was 16, her parents divorced and the reason became clear. She was not her father’s biological daughter, her biological father was a black man from Queens and he was a family friend.

If there is anything white people do well is denial. White people have mastered the power of denial to any problem: drinking problems, drug taking, unhealthy codependent marriages, having a child in which that doesn’t belong to your husband but passing it off as his, these are the master trade of the white race. Even her high school boyfriend said so, he said he’s been around white people a lot (his family presumably), and they are ‘crazy’ and will ‘believe anything’ if they must, I got a good laugh from that. In other words, white people (especially those of a certain social class) will do anything to maintain that respectability and sweep all the ‘ick’ that is part of being human under the rug as Lacey’s mother had done.

Lacey Schwartz ‘outed’ herself as black when she applied to Georgetown University and instead of checking a box for her race, she just provided a photo. Based on that photo, she was accepted as a black student. And that was that, there was no going back. Georgetown University said she was black, therefore she’s black. However, if the audience thought this was her ‘moment’ of freedom to be herself, the audience is wrong. She loved being black and identified as a black woman but when she tried to get to know and get close with her biological father and half siblings, the connection wasn’t there. Even her half sister whom she most resembled, she felt no connection. She didn’t say it, but it’s her upper class Jewish upbringing getting in the way. She, simply, due to the conditioning of her upbringing, could not reconcile her family’s background to those of her biological father’s family. She is Jewish, they are Christian, she went to Georgetown and later to Harvard Law School, because her father (the one that raised her) could provide for her. It is unclear which life path her half siblings took. She benefited from white privilege growing up, despite not being white. When she asked each of her white relatives what they thought of her and her appearance growing up. They all said they felt something was off, but she was just ‘Lacey’ to them and they loved her. And true to the tenants of white privilege, they never thought about Lacey in terms of her race. She was just Lacey, their cousin or niece or grandchild.

Lacey Schwartz growing up in a liberal white town like Woodstock was largely shielded from the cruel aspects of being biracial in white America. She had a few instances where kids at school asked about her race, like the kid in kindergarden asked to see her gums because if she were black, her gums would be black too. She had white friends most of which she’s still friends with today. Her one white childhood friend said she felt she looked black but because she knew both of her parents, therefore she couldn’t have been black and didn’t think much about it. Was Lacey Schwartz shielded from the cruelties of  society because of her close knit and open minded Jewish family and their social class or was she a special case of being in the right family at the right time in history?

Shaun King is of similar age to Lacey Schwartz, and he has a far different experience growing up. Both the King and Schwartz family was dysfunctional, full of lies, cheating, denials and deflection but the Schwartz family was a well-to-do family and for all the dysfunction between her parents, Lacey enjoyed an affluent, carefree and happy childhood. She was included in all of the many activities that goes on in Jewish families. Her father, Robert Schwartz, whatever his personal feelings about his ex-wife’s betrayal is, raised Lacey as his own and even walked her down the aisle at her wedding. He loved the little girl that wasn’t his blood. Blood is not always thicker than water. Though he had difficulty talking about Lacey being ‘black’, it does not  change his feelings for his daughter. He of course had his own issues in the aftermath of his divorce and finding out his whole family was a lie, but he never walked away from his only ‘child’. I don’t think that Lacey gave her father enough credit for that.

So what is race? What if I grew up in Norway instead of the United States, and really love Norway, love it more than Norwegians love their culture, speak perfect Norwegian, identify with Norwegian values, eat Norwegian food, do Norwegian things, can I call myself Norwegian? More importantly, will other not so fervent ethnic Norwegians consider me a Norwegian or some biracial American girl trying to pass herself off as a Norwegian? We in America have complicated the race issue so much that we couldn’t even begin to make distinction in the gray areas. The insidious one drop rule has prevented black and white people to reconcile our differences. It made black people cling to their blackness and white people cling to their whiteness without any room for gray when life itself is full of grays. It leaves biracial children of all stripes and persuasions confused and angry at their plight of simply being biracial. What race should they identify with? When presented with an application form, which one should they check? Would it be opportunistic if they checked one and not the other if they felt it would suit them? Would omitting a race be seen as self-hating or opportunistic?

The actress Raven-Symone calls herself an ‘American’ refusing to address her sexuality or race because she loves ‘humans’, the reason she gave is she doesn’t want to place labels on herself. Tiger Woods calls himself ‘calblinasian’, a word he invented because he didn’t want to only identify as black. It’s fine if society calls him black but he wanted to be calblinasian, which includes all of his ancestry. These public figures have rubbed people, especially other black people the wrong way when they refuse to simply identify as ‘black’. But does it occur to people that perhaps these biracial or multi-ethnic people love all members of their family and not just the black ones, and perhaps they don’t want to cause offense or hurt feelings to their non-black family members? This one drop rule mentality has got to be changed in order for the country to move forward on race relations.

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