Walking While Black

Everyone has heard about the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida. Hundreds of columnists, TV pundits, and anyone with media access has written about how a black kid walking in his neighborhood was killed by a White or White/Hispanic man named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious. Suspicious may very well have meant black.
Do you remember “Driving while Black” a few years back? It meant that if you were black and the police stopped you, your best bet was to adhere to a certain set of unwritten rules. Black parents handed it down to their black children. Some people call it the “Black Male Code.”
I was raised in a mostly white, neighborhood in the suburbs of Detroit. The father of my children—my former husband—was raised in a predominately white area of Ohio, but his family was black. He was also 15 years older than I, so his historic perspective of how a black male conducts himself in a potentially dangerous situation was different from mine. Civil rights strides had been made in those years.
When he went out running or even just working in the yard, he always had his identification with him. At first I questioned it; I was naïve. He explained to me that there was always a chance that he would be questioned or confronted by a white “authority figure,” meaning a cop. He felt safer having his identification stuck in a back pocket or a sock.
Being a white female, I had never thought about it, and certainly never worried about it. Then we had children. Then I got it.
When our multiracial son was about to get his driving permit, we had “the talk” with him. If he was stopped by a police officer he was to keep his hands on the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock hour positions. No sudden movements. Do not argue. If the police officer asked for some documentation, explain that you are going to get it out of your back rear wallet or the glove compartment. When you do move, move slowly. Whatever you do, do not be perceived as a threat and of course, always carry your identification with you.
He said, “You’ve always told me I was multiracial—two races—why does “driving while black” mean me?” I explained to him that his self-identification is one thing, but how he appears to someone can be completely different and yes, someone could assume he was black, so he had to act accordingly. Be on the safe side, son.
Parents of multiracial children are not stupid. We understand reality and we know we have to educate our kids about the reality of how people may view them. I know a girl who has a white mother and a black father and people are forever talking to her in Spanish because she “looks” Hispanic to them. They assume something that is not true. In fact, in this girl’s background, Hispanic is about the only thing she is not!
When President Obama came into office, he said he self-identifies as black. That is his right, his choice, and he has that option. What bothers me is the reason he gives for choosing to be black—because that is how people see him. Yes, it makes me feel less comfortable with a world leader who is so easily swayed by what other people think. Think about it.
Then there is the other reality. Obama said publicly that he thought of his children when he thought of Trayvon Martin. He said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The reality is that DNA is a funny thing and sometimes genes have a way of skipping generations or making someone’s brown eyes blue. We all know someone who looks absolutely nothing like their parents or siblings. The truth is that our President doesn’t know that his son would look like Trayvon or anybody else.
In a perfect world, the color of someone’s skin would not matter. But consider that in the 1990s, when we were fighting to have the ability to check more than one race on our census forms, one of the possibilities our United States Census Bureau was considering was a “skin gradation chart.” Think about that one. 
After we finished talking to our son about driving while black he assured us that he understood and would take our advice to heart.  “But,” he said, “I call it driving while multiracial.”

Category: Trayvon Martin · Tags: ,


3 Responses to “Walking While Black”
  1. Ms. Graham,

    Barack Obama has been proudly identifying as black long before he became President. In fact, his reasons for identifying as black are nearly identical to your reasons for advising your son about the “Black Code”… perception.

    Many individuals of mixed-ancestry identify based on what scholar Nikki Khanna refers to as a “reflected assessment.” Meaning they identify based on how they think they are perceived by others. This identity has nothing to do with ones relationship with ones parents (e.g. rejection), but rather ones relationship with their social environment. Please read Dr. Khanna's excellent article, “'If You're Half Black, You’re Just Black': Reflected Appraisals and the Persistence of the One-Drop Rule” for more on this.

    I find it quite acceptable that as a world leader, President Obama is swayed by what other people think. We live in a democracy. Think about it.

    You are quite right when you say that President doesn't know if his son would look like Trayvon Martin. However, we do know that Obama himself–not his imaginary son–would be the one who would look like Trayvon (at his age… with a hoodie.) Think about it and think about why the President chooses to identify the way he does.


    Steve Riley (http://www.MixedRaceStudies.org)

    • George A. Winkel says:

      Steven F. Riley encourages individuals to self-identify by “reflected assessment” –of what other people think of them. Individuals such as the late author, NY Times book critic Anatole Broyard would get a “reflected assessment” of “white man.” And why not? That's who he was. (Broyard died in 1990 and later was pilloried by Henry L. Gates for “passing for white.”) Gates also disparaged as “passer” Jean Toomer (author of Cain, who preferred being “just American”). Other such “individuals” included Anita Hemmings (1897 Vassar grad) and her husband, “outed” by their great-granddaughter, Jillian Sim.

      Increasing numbers of individuals hear themselves asked by other people, “What are you?” They (as my Eurasian son) can create their own “assessment.” It is not “reflected” onto them –except for these attempts by Riley, Gates, and their ilk –racial grievance academics who waste careers fortifying hypodescent and the endogamous color-lines.

      The “One-Drop rule” (myth) that Riley promotes is not casual “reflected” racial assessment. It purifies “whiteness” into racial essentialism; it tries to make even remote, invisible African ancestry an indelible stigma –a social curse –tending to keep Negroes on a political-ideological plantation, their marriages endogamous and their progeny Black-identified (& politically subservient). Riley wants to hold “any black” in a pariah caste with no hope of freedom (sans resort to “passing” –maybe to “white Hispanic,” where “black blood” talk is dropped?)

      “Multiracial” well names the rapidly growing community of people of all conceivable racial, ethnic blends (& including interracial marriages). Multiracial peoples melt the impermeable color lines and form living bridges to the once alienated “different races.” I hope this multiracial movement will grow and consume the whole controversy.

  2. AD Powell says:

    One of the worst enemies of multiracial identity is Steven F. Riley, a black advocate of forced hypodescent who presents himself as an expert on mixed-race issues:


    Like the black-identified academics who spend their careers opposing the movement with constant lies, Riley claims to believe that everyone who “looks black” to any idiot in the street IS “black,” but also insists that anyone with some black ancestry who “looks white” isn't REALLY white but a lighter kind of “black.” Hypocrites like Riley constantly accuse activists of the Multiracial Movement of “racism” if they refuse to spend every waking moment condemning whites and glorifying blacks as the ultimate victims. Their true purpose is to derail the movement by putting a moral stigma on those who dare to advocate for themselves.

    It was the NAACP who led the war against freedom of racial/ethnic choice, not “whites.” Riley and his ilk want to mislead people of good will by cloaking themselves in the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement. They actually have the nerve to condemn the Multiracial Movement as contributing to “white supremacy.” Well, the real white supremacists were smarter than Riley and company. They knew the importance of multiracial family ties in undermining a racial caste system – that's why they outlawed them with anti-miscegenation laws. Riley and his allies are worried that there is too much racism against blacks and NOT ENOUGH RACISM to force the uppity part-black multiracials onto the “one drop” plantation.

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