Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah is the featured speaker at Syracuse University’s Martin Luther King celebration this Sunday. Noah’s life story as the son of a South African mother and European father has struck a chord with many on campus. SU journalism professor Elliott Lewis explores the ways biracial Americans are answering questions of race and identity.
“I grew up in South Africa during Apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family …” wrote Trevor Noah in his book “Born a Crime”.
Noah tells the story of coming to terms with his identity as the child of an interracial couple. It’s a theme New Yorker Jami Floyd can relate to.
“I always refer to my ‘illegitimate birth.’”
Floyd’s mother is white; her father was black. Her parents married in Illinois in the 1950s, when interracial marriages in the U.S. were still banned in more than half the country. The Supreme Court struck down those laws with a landmark ruling in 1967. Floyd was born three years earlier, in 1964.
“We weren’t considered valid children. They used to call us mixed nuts, and Oreos, and half-breeds. I got that insult a lot, and other things I cannot say on the air.”
That journey – of growing up biracial in the United States – is something I’ve written about before as a journalist. It’s a journey I have lived all my life. Both of my parents are olive-complexioned, mixed-race people of black and white ancestry. My father’s birth certificate listed his race as mulatto – an old term once used to refer to someone who was half-black. But conversations in our home about being mixed were rare. As an adult, I settled on the term “biracial” to describe myself. It seemed to fit me best given my life experience. Not so for Jami Floyd.
“As a child, there was no question in my mind or anyone else’s mind that I was black.”
TWO SU STUDENTS HAD DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES WITH THEIR RACIAL IDENTITY
For Floyd, that’s just the way it was. For college student Lyssa Thomas, however, it’s a different story.
“When I was growing up, I referred to people of color as ‘them’ as if to say I wasn’t included.”
Thomas is a senior at Syracuse University. She says though her parents were never married, she grew up living with her white mother during the week, staying with her black father on weekends, and learning to navigate two different worlds.
“At my mom’s house, I talk like a white person, and at my dad’s, I talk like a black person. I don’t know what, I don’t know how to differentiate those two things. Apparently, everyone else does.”
“There is a term for what you’ve described,” I told her during a conversation. “People call it Code Switching.”
“There’s a term? Awesome. Okay. So, yeah, that I guess,” said Thomas.
Thomas, who is now 21, says up until the age of 17, she thought of herself as white. Here, she’s reading from an essay she wrote called “The Day I Turned Black.”
“The day I turned black, everyone told me I was not. I speak white, I dress white, I have white skin, white freckles, and a white mom. It didn’t matter when I reminded them of my nose, hair, lips, or father.”
Thomas says her shift toward identifying as black came about as she grew closer to her dad and more distant from her mom. She describes the relationship with her mother today as one filled with racial tension.
“People all the time will be like, ‘Well, how can your mom be racist? She had a baby with a black guy.’ Liking one black man is not the same as liking brown people.”
Jason Gruber is also a student at Syracuse University. He’s a senior in the Newhouse School at S.U.
“I completely identify as kind of a biracial person.”
His father is a black man from Barbados. His mother is a white Jamaican. He grew up in an integrated community on Long Island.
“I never ever I had to feel like I had to identify as one thing. Because everybody around me were so many different things, that I didn’t feel like I needed fit in in one particular place because we were so connected and so ready to intermingle with one another.”
Gruber says things changed when he got to college where he felt had to choose a side. He says he’s found acceptance in black communities as a biracial person, but --
“There’s kind of like a ‘you don’t know our struggle well enough to be able to identify as fully one of us, but you can enjoy your time here. You can have a nice stay.’ You know what I’m saying?”
Full disclosure. Gruber and I met because he was a student in my class this past semester. I was curious as to what his reaction was upon seeing me.
“So when I heard your name, Elliott Lewis, I was like, ‘This professor is going to be white; this is going to be another white professor.’ When I seen you, I was like, Hmmm, I don’t know. It’s kind of throwing me off a little bit…. You have such a professional way of speaking. Then again it still wasn’t easy to identify you…. I was also like, I don’t particularly know what he could be. Then once you introduced yourself as biracial, I was like, oh, it makes sense. Yeah, we’re here, we’re here. We see each other.”
Jason Gruber, Lyssa Thomas, and Jami Floyd all mention the one-drop rule as having an influence on how America sees race, and how other people see them. The one-drop rule, which dates back to slavery, put forth the idea that anyone with any trace of black ancestry could be considered black, though legal definitions of blackness actually differed from state to state. The rule’s relevance today is a matter of debate.
RESEARCH ON BIRACIAL PEOPLE AND FAMILIES LACKING
For scholars of ethnic studies, discussions around biracial identity have evolved. Paul Spickard is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Mixed race studies didn’t exist when I was coming up.”
Now, they do. Spickard and I met last spring at the 5th annual “Critical Mixed Race Studies” conference, held just outside Washington, D.C. Back in 1989, Spickard published a book called “Mixed Blood,” which challenged earlier narratives about the struggles of multiracial people.
“All the sociologists had written was that mixed people were crazy, that there was a tension between the races in them and they felt out of place and all other kind of things. And there are some ways that interpretation is reflected in people’s existence, but…”
Spickard says those studies didn’t line up with the interracial families he knew.
“They didn’t seem messed up to me.”
Today, old narratives are being rewritten with a more nuanced view. And Jami Floyd is doing some of the rewriting… A news anchor at the NPR station in New York City, she hosted a series of forums over the last year-and-a-half on race, family, and identity.
“I guess the question is, who doesn’t have one drop of black blood…,” said one participant during one forum.
“I want people to understand that it’s not ancient history. It’s our reality. Not because we’re angry, but because the progress that has been made is tremendous. I am so hopeful for what we can do in the next decade, in the next 20 years, in the next 50.”
There’s a reason for Floyd’s optimism. Her parents’ interracial marriage lasted nearly 60 years.
Trevor Noah is the speaker at Syracuse University’s Martin Luther King Celebration Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. Elliott Lewis is a professor in S-U’s Newhouse School and wrote the book Fade , examining multi-racial identity in America