Right-wing media has been abuzz over the past few weeks with rumors that Black Lives Matter activist and writer Shaun King is not actually black. Breitbart and other more mainstream outlets like the Daily Beast compared King to Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP leader whose parents revealed she was white earlier this year. The harassment escalated so much that King finally published an emotional personal account Thursday evening, explaining that his biological father is an unknown black man who had an affair with his mother.
The harassment of King recalls a long American tradition of telling multiracial people what their identities can and cannot contain. The notorious “one drop rule” — which legally declared anyone with black ancestry, no matter how light-skinned or blue-eyed they were, as mulatto or colored — was central to maintaining a white supremacist hierarchy in the South well into the 20th century. Many people who could get away with it “passed” as white so as to enjoy the privileges of segregated services closed off to black people.
Though much has changed since then, multiracial people are still met with efforts to categorize them in one race — especially if they have any black heritage. “By the time I reached middle school, I fully identified myself not even as biracial, but just as black,” King wrote in the Daily Kos. “Every friend I had was black, my girlfriends were black, I was seen as black, treated as black, and endured constant overt racism as a young black teenager. [emphasis added] Never have I once identified myself as white. Not on forms, not for convenience or privilege, and not for fun and games, have I ever identified myself as white.”
As has been pointed out frequently, hard definitions of “black” and “white” have little to do with a person’s actual heritage. Because of intermarriage and rape during slavery, most African Americans have about 24 percent European ancestry, while about 10 to 15 percent of white Southerners’ racial makeup contains African ancestry.
Long past the days of slavery and segregation, Americans have continued to worry over where multiracial people fit in our rigid racial hierarchy. An expansive Pew survey on multiracial people found that most respondents are routinely interrogated about their racial makeup, often when meeting someone for the first time. When President Obama, perhaps the most prominent biracial individual alive, checked “black” on his 2010 census form, the media erupted in speculation about what it meant. Was he ashamed of his white heritage?
Those who now affirmatively choose their non-white identity are breaking with generations of multiracial people forced to identify as black or hide their mixed heritage to be treated humanely. That may be why right-wing activists are so unsettled by Obama, King, and Lowery, light-skinned men raised by white mothers, rejecting their access to whiteness. Not only is King identifying with a race long believed to be inferior, he’s actively trying to take down the white supremacist structures that encourage him to take advantage of white privilege.
An increasingly popular line of thought claims that racism will naturally be extinguished by “the browning of America,” when all races are blended and the “post-racial” American dream finally becomes reality. The attacks on King suggest it’s not as easy as that. Even now, as mixed race people become the norm, they report that they endure racial slurs, are stopped by police unfairly, or face disrespectful service from businesses. The people who want to draw lines will always find new boundaries to sketch out.