Even though he was born of a white mother and an African father, Barack Obama is commonly referred to as the first black president. That’s a sign, sociologists say, that America’s “one-drop rule” — a vestige of the United States’ segregationist past — is still with us.
Under the one-drop rule, a person with even minimal African ancestry (one drop of black blood) was considered black. In the Jim Crow South, such people were denied the rights and opportunities accorded to whites — unless they had sufficiently light skin and Caucasian features to conceal their African ancestry and “pass” themselves off as white.
Racial “passing” still takes place today, University of Vermont sociologist Nikki Khanna reports in a new study, but in different ways. Light-skinned people with African ancestry might pass themselves off as white or as black, depending on the situation. And biracial people with one white parent and one black parent are more likely for various reasons to identify themselves as black and even to conceal their white ancestry, Khanna said.
A person’s racial identity is determined not just by society; it also can be self-defined. Even people who regard themselves as biracial often are inclined to pass themselves off as monoracial, Khanna reports in an article, co-written with Cathryn Johnson of Emory University, published recently in Social Psychology Quarterly.
“While passing during the Jim Crow era involved passing as white,” they write, “we find a striking reverse pattern of passing today — only a few respondents situationally pass as white, while the majority of respondents describe situations in which they pass as black.”
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