Is Halle Berry black?
Black by popular demand
Bitchy comments about Halle Berry's colour show that society is still uneasy with those of mixed parentage
Thursday November 21, 2002
Who is black, white and red all over? Halle Berry: Oscar winner, star of the new Bond movie - and, so some have argued, downright fraud.
If critics had their way, she would be scarlet with shame. She was heralded as the first black woman to take the Academy award for best actress, yet her weeping tribute to "women of colour" was apparently a ruse - the implication being that she trades on an ethnicity to which she has at best a partial claim.
The volume of such bitchiness has been growing in the US. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter accused her of "mau-mauing her way" to the award. "It's interesting that Berry makes such a big deal about being black," she wrote, pointing out that the actor's black father abused and then left her white mother. "Clearly, Berry has calculated that it is more advantageous for her acting career to identify with the man who abandoned her rather than the woman who raised her."
Now the London Evening Standard has joined in: "Halle's no black beauty," read the headline, while the (white) journalist helpfully informed us that the star "isn't exactly black". The writer's central point - that those with cafe-au-lait skin fare better in Hollywood than their darker sisters - is unquestionably true.
But by her criterion, half of black culture's most prominent figures are guilty of imposture, from Ms Dynamite to Frederic Douglass, Paul Boateng to Billie Holiday, and Langston Hughes to Louis Farrakhan. Each black; each with one white parent. Black by choice, but also by demand.
We still have mixed feelings about mixing races. Once it both enthralled and appalled us; now we pretend it does not exist. Berry, Boateng, Farrakhan et al are discussed as if they were of wholly black parentage, even - confusingly - where white mothers or fathers get a passing mention. This wilful blindness reflects cultural anxiety. In the past, white fears of "contamination" were so potent that miscegenation was a subject of endless fascination.
Now that we're supposed to be living in a happy rainbow universe, we avoid the topic altogether. To recognise the existence of mixed-race families more openly would be to admit the possibility of a genuinely diverse society, where people of different cultures live together rather than side by side. If the far right see that as their worst nightmare, the rest of us should admit that it remains a dream. We claim to like difference, but on the whole we prefer it at a safe distance.
Berry's critics are attacking her for a choice she never made. Imagine the reaction if she had dared to describe herself as white. She would, presumably, be in denial. How perverse! How terrible! Authors and filmmakers used to adore the theme of light-skinned mulattoes who "passed themselves off" to avoid prejudice. To black writers it was understandable but tragic. To their white counterparts it was often disturbing, provocative or plain uppity. Either way, the message was clear: it was bound to end in disaster. Suicide was a likely fate; at the very best you could hope for exposure, or guilt.
To claim to be white was to deny your true self; "a drop of midnight" outweighed pints of "white" blood in your veins. Our ancestors catalogued each tiny variation: their categories went as far as octoroon, someone who was one-eighth "negro" (and not, as you might think, seven-eighths white). Mixed-race children learned to embrace the identity once foisted on them. Treated as black, they became black - and proud - identifying with the family most likely to welcome them. Now, it appears, half black is Not Black Enough - not even to whitey. So they are frauds if they pass as black people, too, though none denies white parentage. No wonder Berry sounds so weary of the subject: "No person in my whole life has ever thought that I was white," she told Movieline magazine.
Having "passed" as both white and Asian - usually because of others' assumptions rather than by choice - I could be seen as a full-time fraud. My eyes are not round enough for one; my skin is too light for the other. But identities need not be exclusive and I refuse to accept the racist premise that my white inheritance is insignificant. I am proud of both sides of my family, and know that both have shaped me. I see myself as British Asian, but I am also what I look: mixed race.
And I am one of a growing number. More than one in 20 under-fives has mixed parentage; last year, the term made its first appearance on the census form. In truth, of course, everyone is mixed race: there is no such thing as the ethnic purity the far right seeks to preserve. But as long as race remains an issue, "mixed race" will be a category as valid as black or Asian - albeit a category with a large span and imprecise borders. Where cultures bleed into each other there are always unique strengths as well as tensions. We share, explore and, most importantly, develop in new ways.
A mixed-race identity is no less plausible than a black British or British Asian one. And no less valuable.