In 1995, a journalist I know was interviewing the First Lady of Virginia, Susan Brown Allen, wife of the new governor at the time, George Allen.
As related to me, Susan Allen began talking about her research into her ancestry with the aim of joining the Daughters of the American Revolution. When the reporter asked if the first lady had done any research on the governor’s family, there was a hesitant response.
“You see,” the first lady explained, “George’s mother was born in Tunisia.”
“In Africa?” the reporter responded, surprised.
“No, in Tunisia.” Mrs. Allen answered.
“Yes, in Africa,” the reporter said.
The reporter’s take away from the conversation was very clear. George Allen’s mother was born in Africa, which made her “African.” And if George Allen’s mother was African, didn’t that make him an “African American?”
Racial pedigree for many “white” Americans is extremely problematic.
In the 1990s, when I was appointed by the court in Hampton, Va. to take depositions in divorce proceedings and recommend to the court whether a divorce should be granted, racial pedigree was a sticky problem for some “white” people who had to give sworn testimony before me.
Even though in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Loving v. Virginia that laws against interracial marriages were unconstitutional, many jurisdictions allowed parties to a divorce proceeding to swear that they were of the same race. This required under the old law to establish that the marriage had been legal in the first place. The logic was that if you had not been legally married, you could not be legally divorced and entitled to the rights that came with that. Keeping the assertion about race in the deposition testimony in the 1990s was legal nonsense because inter-racial marriages had been taking place legally in Virginia for more than three decades, but some die-hard white supremacist lawyers enjoyed having that language entered into the record for their white clients.
My way of quashing this foolishness was to ask the person stating that both parties were members of the white race to prove that assertion. I would explain to the person claiming to be white that they had 32 great-great-great-grandparents, and I would require them to identify all 32 and provide proof of the racial identity of all each of them. I would also explain to them that they were required to swear that their testimony was true to the best of their knowledge. And if they could not prove that they had knowledge as to the truth of their testimony, they would be swearing falsely.
Given the “one drop rule,” no “white” person in America can prove he or she is not Black, or that he or she is white.
Whiteness is a state of mind (and it could be argued that it is a mental disorder). But it has been used to justify the unjust enrichment of one self-identified group of people over others.
Race is ever present in the minds of Americans, whether in the minds of Black folks trying to survive in a racist society, or in the minds of white folk who self-identify as being normative in our culture. But racial classifications have no function as an element of physical science. Humans have intermingled too thoroughly and for too long.
As an example of this, it can be pointed out that while America is focused on the marriage of Prince Harry of England and Meghan Markle, one fact is being overlooked. Both Meghan and Harry have African ancestry. In 1995, PBS posted a report on its “FRONTLINE” website that documented that Queen Charlotte, Prince Harry’s ancestor, who was married to King George, III, the King of England during the American Revolution, was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a member of the “black branch of the Portuguese Royal House.”
Admittedly there seven generations between Prince Harry and Queen Charlotte, but in America, we have the one drop rule, which makes all these royals Black.
Queen Charlotte’s lineage should not be startling given the long history of people with African Ancestry living in England. It has been documented that as early as 1511 a black trumpeter was paid to participate in a procession commemorating the birth of King Henry VIII’s only son.
Throughout our history in America, there have been great efforts by some whites to ensure that Black folk are identified as the “other,” meaning not like white folk. But the truth of the matter is that there is no “other.” We are all connected by our humanity and a common ancestry that confounds notions of racial purity.
And because there are no “others,” contrary to what white supremacists would have us believe, we must push back against the notion that whiteness and race are anything other than social constructs, engineered to enrich one group of self-identified individuals at the expense of those who are excluded from that group.
Simply put, most, if not all, white folks are just passing.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.