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That Day I Got Schooled About the ‘One-Drop Rule’

Starting in second grade, I’ve learned again and again that ‘looking just a little bit Black’ isn’t a compliment or an advantage.

Like many people who wished they looked different — taller, thinner, bigger or smaller breasts — although I love the way I look, I’ve always wanted to be obviously identifiable as Black.

My father was Black, French and Cherokee. A Creole from Morrow, Louisiana, he was one of ten children in a family of rainbow shades. My mother was of Russian and Jewish extraction, born in London, raised in Chicago. I have my dad’s curly hair, almond-shaped eyes, wide forehead and high cheekbones. I have my mom’s olive coloring, ample breasts and narrow hips. The bridge of my nose has the same small bump as my mom’s, but when I smile, my nostrils flare like my dad. When I was looking for work as an actress in Los Angeles, I would describe my appearance to casting agents as more Fredi Washington Imitation of Life, than Kerry Washington Scandal.

Not that I’d ever want to pass, like the former’s character Peola Johnson did. Looking more “identifiably Black” would have muted the inane “what are you” questions. And the insulting assumptions. One of them is the belief that my look is an advantage, allowing me to shapeshift my identity and culture at will. The reality is my look has made me both a victim of and a witness to racial hatred. I’ve been called the n-word. I’ve also been among non-Blacks when they used the term, either in English or its Yiddish equivalent, to refer to Black people. My people.

“One drop of Black blood makes you Black in America,” my dad had told me that first day I was bullied. I pictured one drop of black blood flowing through my veins, defining my race.

I was first called the n-word in 1976. My dad and I had moved from Washington, D.C., to Manhattan Beach, California. I was in fifth grade and it was my first week at a nearly all-white elementary school. At recess, two boys, tanned by the sun and wearing colorful board shorts, hurled that hateful word at me. They did this seemingly as carefree as when they would leave school at the end of the day to go surfing.

I walked home alone. As many latchkey kids did back then, I waited for my dad, who was raising me as a single parent. I wanted to ask him the question now burning in my 10-year-old mind. What am I?

“You’re Black,” my father said, his tone defensive and tinged with the pain of what I know now was what he’d suffered as a Black man born in the early 1930s.

My father was a microbiologist. He’d talked about the racism he faced working in labs and as a professor at Catholic University and the National Institutes of Health. He told me stories about being afraid to look at a white woman the wrong way as a kid in Louisiana. And I remember our drive across the country, sitting in his emerald-green Jaguar XJ6, when he told me we couldn’t stop in Mississippi to eat because he didn’t trust that we’d be safe.

It wasn’t until after my father spoke to the principal about two weeks later that those boys stopped their racist bullying. Plus, another Black girl came to the school and became my ally. Linda had gleaming skin the color of onyx. She loved my Afro cut, the one my father fumed about, as it meant chopping off my long braids. We played at the beach together after school. And we bonded over being teased while learning to stand up for ourselves, as our fathers had done for us.

After I was born, when my dad called my grandmother with the news, the first thing she asked was, “How dark is she?” These words would taint my relationship with my grandmother until her death. I was probably the only Black person in her life.

“One drop of Black blood makes you Black in America,” my dad had told me that first day I was bullied. I pictured one drop of black blood flowing through my veins, defining my race.

Years later, I would learn the full history of the "one-drop rule, that dates back to Virginia in 1662, addressing the treatment of mixed-race people. The law defined a person with a single drop of "Black blood" as Black to maintain white supremacy and justify enslavement. For whiteness to remain “pure,” Blackness had to be deemed a contaminant.
When I called my mother that day and asked her the same question, she said, matter of fact, “In the Jewish tradition, if your mother is Jewish then so are you.”

But, as a kid, being Jewish only meant one thing — spending Passovers in Chicago with my mom and playing with my cousins. I always felt like the odd girl out. My cousins grew up in Jewish households. None of them had tasted my paternal grandmother’s gumbo and black-eyed peas. They didn’t know how beautiful I felt when my favorite aunt would visit and wield a hot comb because “your daddy is a mess with your hair little girl.”

Spending Passovers in Chicago also meant time with my maternal grandmother. She was a petite but round, retired seamstress with a slight Cockney accent. She was an avid reader of romance novels. Her crystal candy bowls were never empty and her sofa and lampshades retained their plastic covering. Grandma’s relationship with my mother felt tense. My mom was 19 when she married my dad, who was 32 at the time.

I remember one argument when my mother demanded that my grandmother relinquish control of the TV so that I could watch Roots. “It’s important for her to learn about this,” my mother explained. My grandmother eventually rolled her eyes and left the room.

Years later, my mother told me that just after I was born, when my dad called my grandmother with the news, the first thing she asked was, “How dark is she?” These words would taint my relationship with my grandmother until her death. I was probably the only Black person in her life.

I love my Jewish relatives. But the one-drop rule will always be my beacon for understanding myself and being honest about how I’m viewed in America.

This white, male filmmaker and journalist blurted out, “Why would anyone do crack? It’s such a n***** drug.” There was a pause. Shocked, I excused myself from the room. He must have forgotten who he was talking to.

After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in theater in 1988, I headed to New York. I had an agent, and I was classically trained. Still, in the 1990s, aside from Lisa Bonet, Jennifer Beals, Lonette McKee and Halle Berry, few actresses with my look got the attention of casting directors. I was too light to play Black or even biracial (parts that barely existed) and too “ethnic” to play white.

I was excited to land an initial audition, then multiple callbacks, for Weekend at Bernie’s II. The casting director called, relaying a producer’s question: Would I mind going to a tanning salon for a few sessions? They wanted to see if I could “darken up a bit.” This reminds me of the time when MGM studios asked the makeup department to darken Lena Horne’s skin when she played opposite Black male actors. Max Factor developed a shade especially for her called Light Egyptian. I ended my acting career that day. Best decision ever.

Fast forward to 1995. I was working as a researcher for a documentary filmmaker, a good friend of my (now ex) husband’s. The crack epidemic was full-blown, dominating news reports and entering personal and workplace conversations. I remember sitting at a long glass-top table looking out the living room window of our Washington, D.C., townhouse. This white, male filmmaker and journalist blurted out, “Why would anyone do crack? It’s such a n***** drug.” There was a pause. Shocked, I excused myself from the room. He must have forgotten who he was talking to. He spent the next few weeks apologizing, but my rage and disappointment remained.

Despite how I appear, no matter how light my skin is, I will never be immune to the hostility that comes from being Black in America.

My father’s explanation of the one-drop rule cemented the notion that whether someone recognizes me as Black or not is irrelevant. Moving through my life, that one drop has been my guiding light for navigating the world. Despite the fact the law was designed to segregate and denigrate Black people, I reclaimed it. Instead of it being a term of shame, I’ve taken pride in it and used it to empower me. The one drop clarifies the truth and helps me understand the playing field I’m on. Today, my husband is Black and I’m the mother of a biracial Black man, my son from my first marriage. So, despite how I appear, no matter how light my skin is, I will never be immune to the hostility that comes from being Black in America.

On occasion something will happen to me that I can’t explain. I’m rejected for a job I know I’m qualified for. I’m fired from a job when I know I did nothing wrong. I’m overlooked for a promotion. At these times, and even when a white person steps in front of me in a line at the grocery store, I always wonder, Did they do that because I’m Black? And then I’ll wonder, But do they even know I’m Black?

But, as my beloved sister (we share the same father; her mother was Black) says, “They may not know you’re Black, but they definitely know you’re not white.”

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