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Two months before he died, the long-time New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard summoned his grown son and daughter to his side and struggled to reveal to them a secret he has concealed from them all his life: he was black. From the days of Greenwich Village in the 1940s to his ascension in the ranks of literary elite (he landed at a job with New York Times in 1971), he maintained the facade, broke tie with his blood family, and defied his racial identity.

In One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Bliss Broyard writes:

“I reasoned that given the pervasiveness of racism in America, it’s impossible for a person to escape its effect. Of course I was a racist, meaning I made judgments, valuations, and assumptions about people based on what I perceived their ethnicity to be. After all, fitting information into categories is how we make sense of the world. Perhaps if people felt less apprehensive about acknowledging their racist thoughts, then they could move on to addressing them.”

This quote totally hits home. Flinging the racism issue aside, stereotype or racial profiling is what really gets ingrained in our mind. Subconsciously we would try to identify which particular stereotype of African Americans have fueled the belief that black men are dangerous, or black students are not as smart as white ones, or the Chinese have no manners, or they have no regard for sanitations, blah blah… Couldn’t any of the encounter have been a singular incident? Couldn’t I have just as easily judged the individual with the preconceived stereotype?

I stop for a moment and about about the labels that are attached on me either in a preconceived manner: Chinese, smart science guy, a nice guy, college grad, politically apathetic, unhygienic, antisocial, introverted… These labels go on to a horrifying infinity that they become means with which we make sense of the world. Think about how pathetic it would be if we have to categorize every single person whom we meet like filing our blog posts under certain tags and categories.

Bliss not only examines her father’s choices and the impact of this revelation on her own life, it confronts me, a reader, to make a pledge to myself to not look at people and judge them with stereotypes. Although this is easier said than done, I’m grateful she has pointed me to the right direction. Complete review of the book should be up soon.

14 Responses

  1. Have you read Philip Roth ‘The Human Stain’? The main character Coleman Silk has the same secret – funny and sad at the same time.

  2. seachanges:
    The Human Stain was the first thing that came off my mind when my friend told me about this book. In the memoir, Bliss Broyard actually mentions and quotes from Human Stan. 🙂

  3. Very poignant and disturbing.

    And the remarks that follow so very true. It’s always good to be reminded–through various sources and experiences–to relate to all individuals outside of those preconceived characteristics we all harbor in varying degrees; and to realize that all qualities and attributes one might name are spread over all humanity. Avoiding stereotypes is admittedly difficult; attaining the wisdom, maturity, and insights which lead to tolerance and embracement is certainly among the most worthy of life’s goals–it’s a life-long effort. Of course, we experience let downs, frustrations, disappointments. We realize we have once again failed to achieve our ideals, or in our turn we become the target of prejudice, malice–there are always be situations wise to avoid. And hopefully, we avoid harming others.

    To be sure, there are some very rich and affirming exchanges awaiting us if we learn when, where, and how to reach out.

    Thank you for sharing your own thoughts and experience.

  4. As a Black mother of a boy who could pass, this issue really hits home. I look forward to reading this one.

  5. I spoke to a lady who met the author. The author was in New Orleans to find out what her black relatives did. She was able to trace that side of the family to the 1800s.

    Passing for white is sad. I understand the reason but it means cutting yourself from so many people.

  6. Greg S:
    Thanks for the thoughtful input. Sometimes I wonder why stereotypes play such a significant and influential in our society. Stereotypes spawn from over generalization of people or circumstances. Stereotypes become a collective opinion that a majority adopts in people or circumstances. They can be thought of as short-cuts of accommodating different culture and traditions. But like you say, in order to break away from these inveterate notions, it takes a mindset on everyone’s part to attain that wisdom and understanding.

    Thank you for stopping by. 🙂 I always wonder how people chose to pass at the first place. What drove so many individuals to reject their black ancestry in the first place? In the wake of the Civil War, African Americans felt hopeful about their future. When and how did the scales tip so that the hopefulness became outweighed by despair?

  7. Isabel:
    That’s right you’re in New Orleans! You would have heard about Bliss Broyard. I’m reading the part where she traced to a point that might have brought mixture of blood into the Broyard family. Despite the disconcerting fact that certain members, including her father, chose to pass as whites, their relatives and the people in the community seem to be very close to one another.

  8. What an interesting point you make about comparing racism to blog tags.

    I notice living here in the south again, that not only is there prejudice between black folks and white folks, but among the class lines as well. Rednecks, white trash, etc. have their own set of stereotypical markers here…as do obese people. There is even a statement that says these days it is only politically correct to joke about trailer trash, gay folks and fat people.

    Can’t wait to read the rest of your review.

  9. I heard about this on NPR a while back and really want to read the book. What an amazing and heartbreaking situation.

  10. Angie:
    I can’t speak for the rest of the country but in San Francisco people tend to me more aware of accommodating cultural difference and diversity. But given that, sometimes it’s inevitable to not think of a situation without ethic factors. Recently a SF city supervisor was accused of lying about his residence address. Immediately the Chinese community retaliated at the city attorney for making charges against Ed Jew out of racial ulterior motive. As for the gay issues, again, San Francisco embraces the LGBT community like nobody does but I can see how we, consciously or unconsciously, label and pass judgment on people base on their color, sexual orientation, and physical appearance because it’s so much easier to judge than to make the effort to get to know someone.

  11. Andi:
    The book intrigues me to think, despite we always say America is a melting pot, that most Americans are not just black and white in this country. Most of us belong to this infinity of traces that were buried along with the generations in the past.

  12. I’ve been reading his essays and book critique but had no clue that he was partially black. Now I’ll have to go read this book. Thanks for the review.

  13. Call for Papers: “Crossing the Line”
    Backintyme Publishing is now assembling an essay collection titled “Crossing the Line,” to examine instances when individuals or groups with slight known African slave ancestry were accepted into U.S. society as “White.” Details and authors’ guidelines are at http://backintyme.com/crossing.php

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