He was a snappy dresser with slicked back hair and a pencil mustache. A crack bandleader, musician and legendary talent scout, he was dubbed the “Godfather of R&B.”
But Johnny Otis’ greatest performance was an audacious act of defiance he orchestrated offstage.
Most people who saw Otis perform during his heyday in the 1950s thought he was a light-skinned black man. He used “we” when talking about black people, married his black high school sweetheart and stayed in substandard “for colored only” hotels with his black bandmates when they toured the South.
This could be awkward
Johnny Otis, though, wasn’t his real name. He was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes to Greek immigrants in Northern California. He grew up in a black neighborhood where he developed such a kinship with black culture that he walked away from his whiteness and became black by choice.
“As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he wrote in his 1968 book, “Listen to the Lambs.”
“No number of objections such as ‘You were born white … you can never be black’ on the part of the whites, or ‘You sure are a fool to be colored when you could be white’ from Negroes, can alter the fact that I cannot think of myself as white.
“I do not expect everybody to understand it, but it is a fact. I am black environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally, and intellectually.”
Otis wouldn’t be such a mystery today. He was a pioneer in what people now call “racial fluidity.” It’s the belief that race, like gender, is a choice, not a biological identity you’re assigned at birth. Racially fluid people reject the box they’re put in and craft their own identity.
If picking one’s race seems impossible, consider this example: former President Barack Obama. The nation’s first black president doesn’t fit the conventional definition of black. His father was from Kenya, in east Africa, and his mother was white. At one point, some in the black community said Obama wasn’t really black since he wasn’t a descendent of slaves from West Africa.
Not anymore. Obama said he chose his African-American identity, in part, because of how he’s perceived and because “black was cool.” Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official who was born white but now identifies as black, is another example of someone who chose her own racial identity.
Her decision continues to be controversial; word of a Netflix documentary on Dolezal is generating backlash on social media. “Oh hell no!” tweeted New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. “When PERFORMING blackness gets more attention than actually BEING BLACK”
Racial fluidity, though, isn’t confined to people in the headlines. The US is entering an era of mass “racial migration” some scholars say: Scores of Americans are leaving old racial categories behind for new ones.
“For a broadening circle of people, ancestry no longer determines identity,” Rogers Brubacker writes in his book “Trans,” which explores the parallels between gender identity and racial identity.
You may be racially fluid and not even know it.
Have you taken a DNA ancestry test that’s caused you to alter your racial identity? Are you a biracial or multiracial person who routinely changes your identity depending on your circumstances? Were your ancestors, say, Latino or Asian immigrants, but you now identify as white? Or maybe the outside world has categorized you as “white,” but that’s not how you define yourself.
Then you might be racially fluid.
This racial migration is supposed to be good news for many people. The more we blur racial lines, some have argued, the more racism will lose its sting. How, for example, could a white man remain hostile to Latino immigrants after he learns his first grandchild is Latino?
Combine racial fluidity with another trend – the US is projected to become a majority-minority country by 2044 – and many envision a Brown New World where there will be such a bewildering gumbo in the nation’s melting pot that a racist would get exhausted trying to hate people who look different.
It’s a tantalizing vision of America’s future, but what if it’s not just a mirage, but a giant con?
What if racial fluidity leads not to less racism, but to more?
That’s the warning being issued by many who study racial fluidity – including some who are racially fluid themselves. They say people are naïve if they believe expanding the menu of racial choices will lead to more tolerance; that racism is deeper and more adaptable than people realize.
A brown-skinned man with a white mother can gush all he wants about his DNA mix, but that won’t stop him from being racially profiled, says Rainier Spencer, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written extensively about mixed-race identity, including his own.
“If I stand on a corner holding a sign saying, ‘I’m racially fluid,’” says Spencer, “that still doesn’t mean I’m going to get a cab.”
Can interracial love save America?
I am one of those naïve people Spencer talks about.
I am racially fluid. I am the son of a black man and a white Irish woman. Biracial or multiracial people like myself have challenged America’s “either/or” approach to race long before someone coined the term racial fluidity.
I define myself as black. But sometimes I say I’m biracial when describing my family. When asked about my race on forms, I check different boxes depending on my mood. Race has been an inescapable subject for me since I was a kid. It permeated the world I grew up in.
I’m from a West Baltimore neighborhood that’s become a symbol of America’s racial divisions. Race riots erupted there in 2015 after Freddie Gray, a black man, died after police arrested him. The HBO series “The Wire” was set on my street corner. Growing up black in that place could be difficult. Being biracial was even more complicated.
It was a life of racial whiplash.
I experienced racism from my mother’s family. They rejected me and my younger brother at birth for being black. I didn’t meet any of them until I was in college. And they disowned my mother for being with a black man. When my father first tried to date my mother by visiting her home, her father answered the door and called the police, telling them, “I don’t want this nigger trying to see my daughter.”
I also experienced prejudice from blacks. I got into so many fights as a kid for having a white mother that I grew ashamed of her. I told my elementary school teachers that my mother was black. I dreaded the thought of walking with her in public. I just wanted to blend in.
I, too, yearn for a world where race doesn’t matter. I grew up in an era where racial blurring wasn’t cool. Biracial kids were called “mixed-nuts.” People said we were too confused to form a stable sense of self. It was an updated version of the “tragic mulatto” myth – pitiful figures trapped forever in racial limbo.
But then I started hearing people talk about America’s changing racial landscape. Obama was elected. And the tragic mulatto morphed into another stereotype – the magic mulatto. Biracial people like Obama became symbols of a post-racial America, people who would serve as “living bridges between races” as the country moved toward a new era.
That hope still lingers. In a recent New York Times essay marking 50 years since interracial marriage bans were overturned, Sheryll Cashin said people who pursue interracial relationships “are our greatest hope for racial understanding.”
Cashin, a Georgetown law professor, says such relationships chip away at white supremacy because they encourage white Americans to empathize with other races.
“Eventually, a critical mass of white people will accept the loss of the centrality of whiteness,” writes Cashin, author of “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy.”
“When enough whites can accept being one voice among many in a robust democracy, politics in America could finally become functional.”
Is such a world inevitable? I’m not so sure.
As I delved into the world of racial fluidity, I realized that treating race as a choice invites dangers people rarely consider.
Start with DNA testing. The surging popularity of genetic testing kits has literally placed the concept of racial fluidity into millions of American homes. The home genetic testing market in the US generated $117 million in sales in 2017 and is expected to grow to $611 million by 2026. Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com market their kits as tools for transcending racial categories, a way of “looking beyond differences, seeing commonalities.”
But these tests can actually reopen racial wounds.
That’s what I discovered when I heard of the odd story of H. Bernard Hall.
What the DNA kits don’t tell you
Hall is tall, lanky and wears dreadlocks. He’s a member of the revered black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi; loves hip-hop; and says when he first read “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois in college, “I thought he was telling my story.”
Hall’s DNA ancestry test, however, told him another story, one he wasn’t prepared to hear.
Hall has a white mother and a black father, but he wanted to get more in touch with his black identity. He decided to participate in a DNA ancestry project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, where he is an assistant professor of English education.
“I really wanted to get a clearer sense of my Africanness,” he says. “I wanted to know my connections to the African continent.”
Instead, the test virtually annihilated his identity. He was so stunned when he got the results that his reaction was recorded in a New York Times article that spotlighted the DNA project.
“What are you trying to do to me?” Hall said. “You have caused a lot of problems in my family.”
Hall thought the test would show he was half African, half European. Instead it read: 91% European, 5% Middle Eastern, 2% Hispanic, and less than 1% African and Asian.
“It makes you rethink everything,” he told me later. “I was always looking for belonging and affirmation, and I thought finally science was going to affirm what I wanted to know. I thought I had a chance to fill in some of those gaps. It just opened more questions.”
One of Hall’s questions: What would happen if he shifted his racial identity? He had always defined himself as black. It’s why he and his wife, who is also multiracial, insist on calling their two young sons black, not biracial.
“Even if I’m just 1% African, my momma used to tell me, ‘If the cops stop you, they’re not going to ask if your momma is from Ireland,’ ” he says. “Even though I know that race is a social construction, it is as real as oxygen.”
Many people treat taking a DNA ancestry test as an adventure. Some post live videos on YouTube and Facebook announcing the results. Others send invitations to meet with “DNA relatives” who share the same ancestors. It all sounds like so much fun that some call this trend “recreational genomics.”
But there’s another side to DNA testing they don’t talk about in brochures: It can be traumatic. One black woman who live-streamed her DNA results was shocked to learn she was 26% British. She was confused until she realized why: If some white man had not raped a slave, she wouldn’t exist.
Hall’s DNA test evoked another ugly memory from slavery, when lighter “house Negroes” were pitted against darker “field Negroes,” he says. Some multiracial people today still buy into that thinking, that the lighter their skin the better, he says.
Hall saw his DNA results as a potential trap – an excuse to renounce his solidarity with black people and back it up with science. He wouldn’t be the first one to do so. There is a history of racially ambiguous people of color “passing” for white to avoid discrimination.
“That’s the thing about identities,” he says. “When you say what you are, you’re also saying what you aren’t.”
How racial fluidity can be used as a weapon
Saying what race you aren’t can have immense political implications.
Consider the act of “checking the boxes,” or selecting your race on forms. Multiracial people like Hall could opt out of checking the “black box.” But doing so could make it easier for institutions to conceal racism, some civil rights leaders say.
Those check marks are used to enforce voting rights and civil rights laws. They’re used to redraw congressional districts. They are especially important for uncovering covert forms of discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.
Hall, for example, is concerned about police brutality against men of color. After the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Hall posted videos on YouTube talking about the police shooting and his own experiences with law enforcement.
If more multiracial people like him picked “white” on forms, though, it could make it more difficult to monitor racist police practices.
The U.S. Justice Department relied on racial classification statistics in its 2015 report that detailed how the city government in Ferguson, Missouri, systematically violated the constitutional rights of its black residents by treating them more as sources of revenue than citizens to serve and protect.
The following year, a federal appeals court struck down a North Carolina voting rights law it said used racial classification statistics to target blacks with “almost surgical precision.” Recent court battles over Native American voting rights also have hinged on racial classification numbers.
This reliance on racial categories to track discrimination is why civil rights groups fought so fiercely to oppose the creation of a “multiracial” category in the 2000 Census. Some saw it as a back-door maneuver to diminish the political power of racial minorities such as blacks, Asians and Native Americans. (The 2010 US Census offered a “some other race” category, which met with less resistance.)
Spencer, the UNLV scholar, echoes Hall’s argument. He is biracial but checks “black” on forms because he says it makes it easier to fight racism.
“If more people say ‘I’m fluid’ and decide not to check the boxes, then we’ve lost our ability to track discrimination,” says Spencer, author of “Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix.”