This Shows Why There Are Few Simple Answers to the Question: What’s Your Race?

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tags: racism, Race, Rachel Dolezal



Pearl Duncan has an upcoming book about DNA and ancestry.

I want everyone reading this article to first answer the question, What race is listed on your birth certificate, on your parents’ birth certificates, your grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great great-grandparents’, and so on?

I ask that you do this, as I have asked when I speak at colleges about DNA, ancestry and genealogy, because the level at which we participate in a discussion about race depends on what is listed on these certificates. The information about race on our birth certificate pretty much colors our experience and our exposure to, and participation in the racial discussion, whether or not we know it.

Many are surprised at how race is noted and how race is recorded in America and that the description is in flux. And has been in flux historically. I like Jelani Cobb’s article in The New Yorker magazine, that whatever we may think of the Rachel Dolezal case, her own lies or distortions are not as great as the nation’s and the world’s original lie about race. So what was the original lie, and how is it noted in records and has been noted in personal records historically. In his article, Jelani Cobb says, “Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter.”

So how is race noted in my family’s records? I did not know what was on our certificates and in our records until I did extensive genealogical research and confirmed the information on the birth records with DNA comparisons. Race is generally parallel with the continents where our ancestors originated and settled. Having found birth records dating to the early 1700s in the Americas in Jamaica in the Caribbean islands, to the 1200s in Scotland and England, and family names and folk records to the 1400s in Ghana, West Africa, I can assure you that the history of race and how race is noted in birth records is changing and has changed over the years in the United States and in different parts of the world.

Having interviewed hundreds of people about my family’s ancestry, let me describe what’s noted on our birth certificates. The early birth information is noted in church records and the modern information is noted in government civil records on birth certificates. My ancestral European ancestor’s records state no race. And I have dozens of these records. What is unique about these birth records is that on some of them, especially the early ones, the father’s name is stated but there is no mother’s first name – she is noted simply as Mrs. Her Husband’s Surname. These fathers were powerful lords and some of the wives and mothers died in childbirth or were replaced, Henry VIII-style – so many, that clerks in the local parishes and the ministers in the churches did not even bother to state the mother’s first name. Unearthing the mother’s first name on some of the earliest birth records was one of the most challenging and most expensive parts of my genealogical search. I paid many local genealogists in Scotland and England to dig and keep digging.

My ancestral African ancestors’ birth information came from interviews of my Ghanaian ancestral cousins who share the same surname and nicknames as those that survive among my African American ancestors in Jamaica who were Maroon slaves who escaped, rebelled and preserved their original names as nicknames. What I discovered from the interviews is that my African ancestors in Ghana were from families that had patrilineal traditions and the fathers had multiple wives.

The information I have from my Ghanaian ancestral cousins comes from interviews and folk traditions, not from written birth records, but I know from my interviews with Ghanaian government officials that the birth records do not state a race. I traced our family names to the Akuapem people in Ghana. According to the officials, the modern birth records state the “Child's name; Sex; Father's name; his occupation, nationality and religion; followed by Mother's maiden name and nationality; child's birth-date and place where born; informant and relationship to child; date of registration; signature of registrar.”

The most significant information I uncovered about race was noted on birth certificates in the government civil records and in church birth records that come from my Caribbean and American ancestors. My research found that the notation of race on American birth certificates was standardized nationally only in recent years. The short form birth certificate that parents now take home has no race noted, but the long form in the government’s records, the long form used for the Census, does.

The process is complex and continues to change in the U.S. Previously, racial notations were determined by each state, but there is now an attempt to standardize the notations, and not have race noted differently from state to state. Currently, race is noted as the race of the mother. The complex discussions about how to note the race of multi-racial children is ongoing, and the variations of what is stated from state to state is still a challenge. Up to 1989, as standardized practice, the race of the parents was noted on the birth certificate. The mother is interviewed at the time of the child’s birth. Some states showed race on the short form, which parents took home and some did not. If the parents were of different races, the race of the non-white parent was noted as the child’s. If neither parent was white, the father’s race was noted as the child’s. Rachel Dolezal’s short form birth certificate had her race noted as white in Lincoln County, Montana, and her parents say they are her biological parents, and they are Czech, Swedish, German and a trace of Native American.

My understanding of the complexity of racial notations on birth records comes from a review of my ancestors’ British Jamaican birth records. From 1726 when I discovered a birth record of an ancestor, born to a Scottish noble merchant, John Smellie, and an African mother, Ann Roberts, their child, “ye George,” was noted as a mulatto; the records of his extended relatives up to Emancipation show that race was noted. Their birth records note race using words that measure each drop of blood and ancestry. These labels appear on dozens of birth records up to Emancipation in Jamaica in 1838. After Emancipation in 1838 no race notations appear on my ancestors’ or my family’s birth records – not on mine, my parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great great-grandparents’. But prior to 1838, prior to Emancipation, race on my ancestors’ birth records is noted as: african, negroe, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. Some use Spanish designations: sambo, terceron, mustee.

My response to the Rachel Dolezal case is that her parents have a birth certificate that provides Rachel Dolezal’s race. In a TV interview, her mother held up a birth certificate and said their daughter’s race is noted on the certificate as white. I remember the first emails I received from people after I gave a speech and asked everyone in the audience to check their birth certificates. One lady wrote to me, still in shock, because she said her birth certificate said, “Colored.” Born in a southern state, she had lived in New York since she was a child and had never read her birth certificate.

We arrive at a discussion of race depending a lot on what is noted on our birth certificate and in our ancestors’ birth records. Many European Americans born to ancestors who arrived through Ellis Island have “white” noted on their birth certificate, but there is no race noted on their parents’, grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ certificates and records. Some new immigrants arriving in America from other parts of the world have a similar experience, whether their certificate says white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Island. The Census is still figuring out how to note Native American.

In December 2000, in an effort to standardize racial descriptions, the Director of the Division of Vital Statistics issued a document stating “specifications for collecting and reporting” racial information on birth and death certificates. The specs had to be clarified in a letter dated February 2001 because so many state offices had questions, especially about the Division’s description of how to collapse the multi-racial category into one race on the long form when mothers insisted that their children were multi-racial. The discussion continues. And it is complex and controversial.



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