Feb 9, 2011
“I feel like she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.”
– Halle Berry in 2010
“I don’t think it should matter what the color of one’s skin is. I think it’s really important to me to be part of movies that reflect modern society. In modern times we are mixing races and having families and loving each other. I’m of a mixed-race family so it’s very normal for me.”
– Halle Berry in 2008
You could argue that Halle Berry is not the ideal source for insightful academic discussions of race, identity and multiracial identity. But I would respond by reminding you that Halle Berry has lived as a mixed-race woman for 44 years. Her father left when she was four and she was raised by her white mother, and Ms. Berry has often talked about the moment when she was forced to decide how to describe herself, as either black or white, and she says that she didn’t “feel white.”
In fact, based on the stats, Berry’s racial background is probably less than half African American. Since we don’t have good information on her father’s heritage, we don’t know for sure, but almost 60 percent of African Americans have at least one white great-grandparent. The truth is, most blacks are multi-racial.
So, why does this matter? Why do we care about Halle Berry’s family tree? Because she’s famous and so every controversial thing she says becomes front page news. And her latest now-widely-tweeted comment seems to justify her views on race by using a Jim Crow era rule that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1960’s.
I find it distasteful in the extreme to gossip about someone’s private business. But it’s probably important to mention that Berry’s comments come within the context of a bitter custody battle over her young daughter, and that she’s accused the child’s father of racism. He reportedly thinks of the toddler as white and becomes angered when the girl is described as black. So, that’s the background on the top of which Halle Berry is painting her vision of race as conforming to the one drop rule.
But let’s give Ms. Berry and her child the privacy they deserve and deal with this larger issue of racial identity and mixed-race family. And to that end, let’s consider how offended we would all be if some white male had announced that he thinks Mariah Carey is black because he believes in the one-drop rule? We would call him a racist, and worse. So is Halle Berry a racist?
We all know that a drop of black blood doesn’t make you black, any more than Michelle Obama’s white great-great-great-grandfather makes her Caucasian. It was a controversial topic when Edna Ferber wrote “Showboat” back in 1926. A character in that novel is accused of miscegenation because his wife is part black; he cuts her hand, drinks some of her blood, and avoids arrest because he then has black blood inside him. Ridiculous, right? Absurd.
In the 1920’s, the one drop rule was used by the prejudiced white majority to discriminate against and oppress the black minority. It caused a vicious identity crisis among African Americans. If everyone with a drop of black blood was legally black, then a whole lot of African Americans were trying to “pass.” Now, perhaps the concept is being turned on its head. Is Halle Berry a more appropriate parent for her child because she is black, and her daughter is black?
We could tie ourselves in knots trying to untangle the many complexities of racial identity, so let me simply address this with pure science. There is no “race gene,” it’s a biological myth. That doesn’t mean race isn’t real, it means it is a lived experience, rather than something we are born into. As Larry Adelman, Executive Producer of “Race – The Power of an Illusion,” so eloquently put it: “The factors that lead to differential outcomes between races live not in any ‘racial’ genes but in our social institutions and practices. It’s easy to confuse the two. But doing so… displaces our attention from those discriminatory practices to the ‘nature’ of the victims. Blindness to the continuing impact of racism can be just as harmful as believing that race is biologically real. They both let society off the hook.”
I’m multiracial because my life has been shaped and guided as much by the poultices and potato pancakes of my Jewish grandmother as by the spirituals, collard greens and “Brer Rabbit” stories of my black grandfather. My heart broke over the discrimination and injustices suffered by my beloved grandfather because of his brown skin. I punched a classmate in the eye in elementary school when he called me a nigger. But I also sipped kosher wine that tasted like cough syrup on Passover and celebrated the rebirth of Jesus at my other grandparents’ Methodist church.
My sense of myself as a mixed-race intermingling of many cultures has nothing to do with blood or DNA or family trees, and everything to do with the way we spoke to each other when I was growing up, the way we celebrated, the way we mourned, the music we listened to, and the books we read.
There is no one drop rule. It doesn’t work for the proverbial drop in the ocean, and it doesn’t work for humans. Race is a lived experience, and Halle Berry’s daughter hasn’t had a chance to live it yet.
If you’re of multiple races, you have a different challenge, a unique challenge of embracing all of who you are but still finding a way to identify yourself, and I think that’s often hard for us to do.
– also Halle Berry
NOTE: I check email at 9am and 3pm on weekdays. If you need to reach me urgently, please call. Thanks!
Celeste Headlee (she/her)
Author, Speaker, Journalist
Author of Speaking of Race
Author of We Need to Talk
Author of Do Nothing
Host of the podcast “Women Amplified” from the Conferences for Women