Shermer has had an abomination of a tweet called out by PZ Myers over on Pharyngula, and I’m sure most of you have read that. There are many good points to make about it and a number have been made there, but here I’d like to say something that hasn’t been mentioned yet over there. The tweet, if you haven’t read it, attempts to draw an equivalence between white pride and Black pride. This is actually a common tactic on the right, with many going as far as insisting that Black pride is worse as Black folk in the US should know better from their experiences suffering under white supremacy. And although I’m sure some truly believe this rhetoric, at its core it is dishonest. It is dishonest because it attempts to reframe behavior from one context, a Black context, in a white context. This leads to many problems, but it is particularly related to and relevant to the problematic historicization of the One Drop Rule in the US. Many people think they know the One Drop Rule. Many people think that they can categorically condemn it. I think this is too easy. I think it’s wrong, not least because most white people never even register awareness that there were always two, very different, One Drop Rules. Here, I’d like to offer some praise for one of them.
“If you identify by color …” begins Shermer’s tweet, calling out Blacks as responsible for creating Nazis or at least Nazi activism in the US.
Oh, but for Freud’s sake, Shermer, it’s WHITE people who have been creating these categories and fighting over the definitions of these categories for hundreds of years. It’s white people who have been identifying others by color, relentlessly. If you look at the people who got upset at the decision in Loving v Virginia it sure as hell wasn’t Black people. Systematic and even systematized rapes of black women by white men didn’t even give Black Americans the fucking option of a pure racial group. The ruthless and violent kidnappings, the death ships, the complete lack of control over where they ended up and with whom meant that new Black slaves and their Black American children never had the choice of maintaining the cultures and languages in which they and their ancestors had flourished.
They have been called slaves. They have been called negroes. They have been called coloreds. They have been called Black. They have been called people of color. But by whatever name, it is a group that white people created.
Black folk did not create racists; racists created the Black folk.
So Shemer is wrong, offensively so. He has history and social dynamics so backwards that he doesn’t even consider that what he’s doing is exactly the same as what many prominent racists have done throughout the history of the USA. Irredeemable racists are just going to exist among whites, argues Shermer. “It’s terrible, but It’s a fact of life” is his premise. The real problem, then, isn’t white folk defining the Black people. It’s Black folk defining themselves. Living life aware that white racists are keeping alive the idea of a coherent group of Black people is fine for Shermer. Living life aware that white racists are keeping alive the idea of a coherent group of Black people is evil and short-sighted when those living life aware are Black people.
Some people will hear echoes of Dear Muslima in Shermer’s insistence that a more horrible past necessitates silencing (certain) complaints about the present. But that’s not Shermer’s point. Shermer’s point is that racists are unchangeable and so lecturing the racists is a waste of time and energy. Shermer’s point is that the people who must be stopped are those Black folk – and other racialized peoples – who act to define amongst themselves, for themselves and for the world just who Black folk are and who they want to be.
So I want to take this moment to call out Black self-definition for reasons which Shermer cannot (yet) conceive. Throughout my life I’ve seen evidence that there’s still a One Drop Rule in effect in the United States. It’s not the old One Drop Rule that was codified into law here and there among white jurisdictions of the Fifteen Thousand Year Old World. No, that ossified, governmental rule is indeed gone. But there is a One Drop Rule still, and it needs to be called out for the most loving praise we can craft.
We white people, when we bother to look at the horrors of slavery at all, at the horrors of US apartheid at all, ongoing racism at all, we see the One Drop Rule as a horror of exclusion. It is used as an example of the most contemptible kind of racial and racist rejection. The One Drop Rule was a pushing away. The One Drop Rule pushed for the ultimate in intolerance, the ultimate exclusion. The One Drop Rule is remembered as a way to distinguish the people we wish had never been.*1 The One Drop Rule is unique in white US history.
But the One Drop Rule was never unique, however much the white US perspective on history might imagine it so.
I would like us to here remember that there were originally two One Drop Rules. When a baby was born with Black blood, white people pushed the child away; it’s true. But when white people pushed away the children they shared with Black people, the Black community welcomed them in. One drop and the white master threw you out of the big house? Sure, it happened. And the vast majority of times that it did, Blacks made space in the slave house. No place at the table for a child created by white and Black parents? Sure, that happened. But those children still hungered, and they most often were sated at the breast of a Black woman. Having escaped from slavery, it was inevitable that some Black men and white women would find love across the barriers whites had erected. Which grandfather was more likely to bounce a resulting child on his knee, the white grandfather or the Black one?
For hundreds of years now – hundreds of years – there has been a huge and consistent fraction of the Black community that overcame their history of mistreatment at the hands of white people to welcome into their families children with white ancestors. As long as white people have insisted that one drop of Black blood makes a human being into an outcast, a thing, a piece of property, there have been Black folk declaring that one drop of Black blood makes that same person family.
We white people of the US created the Black people of the US: without us, perhaps we’d see Igbo-Americans but not Black Americans. But it was Black people who created Black families, Black communities. And their example has not been lost on whites. More and more white people are seeing a single drop of their own blood creating a family connection with children they would in the past have rejected. There is a One Drop Rule of rejection and exclusion that has failed and deserved condemnation. But there is another One Drop Rule of welcome and of family, and it has survived. It has become an example from which many are now learning.
And so when Black folk stand together and announce, “This is my family. We are Black together,” it is only possible to hear this as a message of division and rejection and exclusion for those of us, typically white, who have only ever acknowledged a single One Drop Rule. It is only possible to treat Black communities’ self-definitions as racist, as part of the same ideology of hatred that Nazis embrace, when white privilege allows a person to forget that Black communities raise our children, that Black people are, quite literally, our cousins.
We cast aside human beings; we cast aside children. Black folk are forced, even today, to make statements of unity to salve the abrasions our children endured at our hands. It may be hard for white folk to imagine, but Black folk have embraced Blackness not out of racism but out of the necessities dictated to them by love – love for families, love for children. Black folk from the 1700s to today have created a love that latches onto the most minute of connections.
One. Single. Drop.
That drop makes you one; by virtue of that drop, you are no longer singular. You are family. You belong.
Let us, when we hear declarations of Black community remember again and consider again the One Drop Rule. Then let us not criticize it. If you can find your voice through your weeping at the beauty of this One Drop Rule, then let us praise it together. Let us praise it with great praise.
Happy Passover, everyone. Let us remember slavery, but let us be not bound by it.
*1: Yes, that sentence can be read in more than one way, from the perspective of more than one “we”.