Rethinking My Racial and Ethnic Identity

My maternal grandfather died more than two years ago, but he’s only recently become a real person to my family. The more time that goes by, the more we learn about him. Just yesterday, my mother shared something with me that she learned from my grandmother that threw me for a loop: My grandfather was part African American.

I always assumed (and so did my mother) that my sister and I were fairly normal descendants of a family of Hungarian immigrants with a sprinkling of Western European on my mother’s side thrown into the mix. We grew up eating Hungarian food, hearing Hungarian spoken, and celebrating Hungarian traditions.

Now that I have this new notion of where I came from, I can’t help but feel a bit betrayed by my family for not discussing our African American heritage openly. And now that my grandfather is gone, I feel a sense of lost opportunity to get answers to really hard questions I have about my family. I can’t also help but feel cheated out of a whole different set of traditions and food that I’ll never have access to now. As a 25 year-old adult, I thought I was in a place where my identity and heritage were pretty solidified. Now I have to rethink everything I assumed about my racial and ethnic identity, even though I haven’t changed at all.

I’ve tried to do some math to figure out just how much of me is African American, but I can only speculate on the missing limb of my family tree. If one of my grandfather’s parents was African American, that makes me 1/8 Black. If one of my grandfather’s grandparents was African American, that makes me 1/16 Black. At what fraction does it stop mattering when I try to conceive of myself as a whole person made up of different ethnic and racial components?

For as many questions as it raises, knowing that I’m at least fractionally African American explains things I’d always wondered about. Even though my sister and I are paler than pale and fry in even indirect sunlight, neither one of us has typically “white” hair. Now we have a much better explanation for why hair products made for white women never worked for us. I always had to buy the products in the teeny-tiny African American section of our local grocery store if I wanted my hair to look even remotely normal, and my sister has given up use of any product at all, save for an occasional defrizzer or straightener. Neither one of us can wash our hair that often without it breaking off, and the only over-the-counter hair dye I can use with success has women of color on the package. (Incidentally, it’s located at the very bottom of the hair dye shelf in all the drug stores.)

On a more serious note, knowing my grandfather grew up before the Civil Rights Movement makes it pretty clear why it was so important for him to live in a white neighborhood. Instead of being a curmudgeony old racist like I always assumed, he probably lived in fear of being called out as being African American. Perhaps he lived in terror that someone who knew his African American relative would recognize his family as members of the Black community, and not the white family they were living as.

According to the “One Drop” rule, anyone with so much as one drop of African American blood (no matter what the actual percentage) was to be considered African American and not white. That would have constitutionally rendered my grandfather and his immediate family 3/5 people under the U.S. Constitution. Despite the legal changes, civil rights, and heightened tolerance today’s African Americans experience, it’s hard to change after your family has carried such a dangerous secret for so long. I’m not sure how the laws vary by state, but I think some of the Southern states might consider me legally Black. It’s a lot easier to forgive my grandfather’s outright bigotry as a measure of overcompensation, now that his secret has been revealed posthumously.

I’m not different, but I’m looking at the world a little differently. I’m giving some serious thought to the idea of “passing.” That’s what it used to be called when an African American had light enough skin to “pass” as white, but to do so meant giving up all family ties and living completely as a white person. My grandfather’s African American relative must have done that at some point in his or her life; otherwise I would have grown up on the other side of the color line. And I can’t help but wonder at the person I might have become instead. As I still mourn my grandfather’s death, I also mourn the part of myself I’ll never quite understand.

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