Race: What You See Isn't Always What You Get

Black is black and white is white, but what about Susie Guillory Phipps?

Phipps looks white. She always thought she was white. So did her first and second husbands. Until, at the age of 43, she discovered she was three-32nds black and therefore legally black according to the State of Louisiana.

And what about the Ramapough Mountain People of New Jersey? They have long been described as a predominantly black people of mixed race. But they consider themselves Indians and are asking the federal government for official recognition as a tribe, status that could entitle them to a casino gambling franchise 30 miles from Manhattan.

When it comes to race and ethnicity in America, it can all get very complicated - depending on who is defining whom, and why. People are not always what they appear to be. People are sometimes not what they want to be.

In reality, race is as much a matter of politics as biology; ethnicity as much an expression of fashion as fate. It can be transient, changing from time to time and place to place.

Sylvia Yu Gonzalez, 22, is a Mexican-Korean-American. She spent her early years in the barrio in Phoenix but when she was 12 moved to San Diego, where she attended mostly white schools. On the advice of a guidance counselor, she identified herself on school forms as Mexican-American for future affirmative-action purposes. But by the time she headed off to the University of California in Berkeley, "I pretty much perceived myself as white."

Berkeley, the citadel of multiculturalism, was less forgiving. Gonzalez found that in their lust for diversity, people insisted she identify herself racially, and that white obviously wouldn't wash. "It was really painful to me."

Gonzalez says she turned against her white friends but didn't want to choose between being Mexican or Korean, reluctant to give up either. Instead she chose the company of blacks and American Indians.

But a couple of years ago she found out about the Multicultural Interracial Student Coalition (MISC) at Berkeley, an organization of mixed-race students of all descriptions. She had finally found a place "where I could bring all of myself."

She now identifies herself as multiracial. "I will not be counted as monoracial," she says. "I will not play that any more."

While the Census Bureau is considering the plea of groups like MISC to add a biracial or multiracial category on the next census, until now people of mixed ancestry have had to choose which part of themselves to claim. And over time that can change.


"A lot of people want to become Indians," says Dr. Lathel Duffield, chief of tribal enrollment services for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "We get a lot of letters saying `I'm a descendant of the Blackfoot,' or `My grandmother was an Indian princess with the Blackfoot Tribe.' Only there is no such thing as Blackfoot. There are Blackfeet out of Canada, but no Blackfoot."

Different tribes have different requirements for membership. Some require only that an individual have at least one Indian ancestor, others stipulate a certain "blood quantum."

But for the purposes of the 1990 census, an Indian is anyone who claims to be an Indian. The result: a 38 percent jump in official Indian population in the 1980s. In Alabama the Indian population soared by 118 percent, and in New Jersey it rose by 78 percent, figures that bear no relation to the birthrate.

"It's fashionable to be Indian. We have a word for them - `wannabes,' " says Holly Reckord, the anthropologist in charge of analyzing whether a group of Indians applying for federal recognition is authentically a tribe.

" `Dances With Wolves' really increased our load," says Duffield.


If some who like to think themselves Indian may find the actual criterion too stringent, some people who are defined as Hispanics find their category uselessly loose.

What is Hispanic? When it comes to school integration or affirmative action, it's counted as if it were a race, as in "white, black or Hispanic."

But Hispanics are not a race. Hispanics can be white, black or Indian, and quite often a combination thereof. On the 1990 census, slightly more than half of Hispanics described themselves as white, three percent as black and 1.5 percent as Asian, mostly Filipino. The rest said they were "other race.'

More accurately, Hispanics are a geographic group. For affirmative action purposes, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines Hispanics as all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

Yet even that definition is not universally recognized. The Boston Public Schools does not consider someone from Spain to be Hispanic for affirmative-action purposes. In San Francisco, a Mexican-American firefighter charged it would be "ethnic fraud" for Spanish-Americans - who are after all whites of European descent - to benefit from a program intended for the disadvantaged.

There lies the enduring conundrum of affirmative action: A program designed to improve the lot of those who have historically suffered discrimination can inadvertently benefit those who have suffered none of the hardship but simply shared membership in some ersatz "race."


It is with blacks that any fluid notions of race and ethnicity run splat into a wall. It is the iron law of American race relations - the so-called one-drop rule. Anyone with any known African black ancestry is black. Period. And the rule has an implicit corollary, according to sociologist F. James Davis: "It's better to be anything than black."

Davis, the author of "Who Is Black?" says the one-drop rule is the effective standard, whether by statute or case law, in every state of the union except Hawaii, where being mixed-race is the rule rather than the exception.

But this stark line between black and white cannot undo some rather basic genetic facts of life.

Physical anthropologists have estimated that about a quarter of the genes of American blacks come from white ancestors and up to 5 percent of the genes of the white population are from African ancestors.

The one-drop rule is unique to America. Everywhere else - even in South Africa - there is official acknowledgment of mixed-race people. The 18th century Spanish colonialists had 64 categories covering precise permutations of white, black and Indian commingling.


Susie Guillory Phipps claimed it wasn't until she saw her birth certificate in 1977 that she learned that the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Statistics had her down as "colored." Phipps said she had been raised white, schooled white, lived white, looked white and twice married white. She went to court to have her race legally changed.

But it turned out that Phipps' great-great-great-great-grandmother had been a black slave whose owner had freed her in 1762 after she bore him four children. By the time the state of Louisiana was finished with its racial arithmetic, Phipps was counted three-32nds black, well over the one-32nd standard by which someone could legally be considered black.

For nearly a decade Phipps fought to have her race changed. But she lost in the Louisiana courts, and in 1986 the Supreme Court refused to review her case.

Interestingly, Davis and others say the rigid divide between black and white was not a precursor of slavery but a consequence of it and a way to try to secure slavery's future.

Columbia University history professor Barbara Jeanne Fields argues that blacks were conceived of as a race - separate, distinct and, because they were slaves, inferior - in order to justify the outrageous anomaly of slavery in a republic that proclaimed liberty and justice for all.

The final irony of the rule, though, is that a standard intended to cement blacks in a subordinate caste is now mostly upheld by the black community.


For reasons of pride and solidarity, blacks insist that anyone with black blood is black and that anyone who would deny that reality and try to pass for white, or even mixed race, is a traitor to their race. Davis notes that Alex Haley only traced his black "Roots," neglecting to trace his white ancestry back to the British Isles. For very practical purposes it is also important to blacks - for example in the calculation of their voting-rights strength - to be counted in as great numbers as possible.

For white middle-class Americans, ethnicity tends to be less stressful. Rather it is largely a "flexible and symbolic and voluntary" pursuit, according to Harvard sociologist Mary Waters, the author of "Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America." For example, people of Polish, German and Irish ancestry can pick and choose at will which, if any, heritage they want to identify with in order to feel special or proud or part of a group. All the while those same people can remain comfortably ensconced in being white, a designation that Queens Collegepolitical scientist Andrew Hacker says has demonstrated "remarkable elasticity."


Early on, Irish and Italian Catholics were not considered altogether white, but they are now, says Hacker. He sees the same merging into white of many Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Asian Indians, whose skin may be relatively dark.

Hacker says that even many Far East Asians, if not literally white, are being accepted as effectively white. He predicts that the offspring of the growing number of Asian-white marriages will come to be considered "a new variant of white."