Halle Berry and Nahla, Not So Mixed and Not So Happy

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...full text also available on Huffington Post

As we await the results of the 2010 Census it's tempting to think that our growing comfort with categorizing people as multiracial has erased racism and the fear of interracial relations. But in a recent interview with Ebony Magazine, Halle Berry says that we're neither as mixed nor as happy as we'd like to think.

In the interview Berry addressed her ugly custody battle with Gabriel Aubry over their 2-year-old daughter, Nahla. Allegations are circulating about the couple's different racial philosophies, including the use of racial slurs, and their anxiety over Nahla's racial categorization in the press. Berry told Ebony that "I feel like [Nahla is] black" because of the one drop rule and because children follow the condition of their mothers. In other words, Berry sees herself and her daughter as black because they are of partial African American ancestry. However, some say that Berry misses her own point about racial classification because her mother is white. Other sources say that Aubry sees Nahla as white and that he thinks Berry should demand a retraction whenever Nahla is identified otherwise. Aubry’s views on race could be different than Berry’s due to the fact that he is not from the US and may see race differently than Americans do.

The racial overtones of the Berry-Aubry custody battle fly in the face of countless blogs and newspaper articles that celebrate multiracial individuals and families, especially when they can demonstrate loyalty to all aspects of their backgrounds. For instance, in 2005 the Associated Press reported that "multiracial scenes are now common on TV ads." These ideas are made even more popular with recent headlines that read "More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race," in the New York Times and "Where Interracials May Take Us" in the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles Times' Eli Steele went so far as to write that today's multiracials are "naturally more diverse than any amount of social engineering in neighborhoods, schools or offices can achieve" and that they are ushering in a new era of racial reconciliation.

Note the word "naturally." If we take a step back in time we will find that many, including the US Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, used the word "naturally" to justify and promote racial segregation and inequality. Now, many are using this same terminology to suggest that mixed race people are, by nature, non-racist and capable of promoting large-scaled racial healing. Some even suggest that multiracial families can promote the end of race and racism because of their biological backgrounds. The beauty of thinking this way is that it allows culture to masquerade as human nature without any justification.

This popular-but-flawed way of thinking equates racial progress with racial mixing and ignores the fact that interracial romantic relationships still experience higher rates of failure and different kinds of challenges than same-race relationships. That's why we can have multiracial families selling car insurance, pasta, and video games on one hand and, on the other, have Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry's rancorous custody battle.

I predict that the issue of Nahla's public racial identification will become increasingly important to contemporary race-talk. It is easy to see how coverage of this story might follow the usual script where Nahla will play the role of the "tragic mulatto," who is confused about who she is and how she fits in. Or, "naturally," she will play the only other role available—the role of racial healer because of her multiracial background. Either way, it is easy to see how making racial victims or racial healers out of multiracial people really only serves to let everyone else off the hook. When we realize that racial reconciliation is everybody's job, not just a job for multiracials, then we might all be a little more mixed and happy.