1. Race is bullshit. A meaningless line drawn in sand by men bent on world domination and oppression. It was introduced as a fixed notion, an unchangeable, undeniable fact of world order. Yet from the moment of race’s conception, the amazing diversity of body types, cultures, and traditions on the African continent alone complicated race’s claim on classification. In New Orleans, the city of my birth and upbringing, the color line was never an obvious fact. There were those of us whose skin tone made us undeniably black, but then there were others, others who walked the color line and could decide on which side they wanted to live. What is this thing called race, that counts only sometimes, yet is taken as gospel by every American alive? What is race to a New Orleanian with white skin, gray eyes, and Creole parents?
A phenomenon created in the “New World,” Creole was first used to differentiate Europeans born in Caribbean colonies from native Europeans. Tainted by “animalistic” African energies, these Caribbean-born whites were somehow “altered”. They were still classified as white, but by virtue of their uncivilized birthplaces, they were marked: white soiled by black. It wasn’t long before “new world” Europeans (almost exclusively male) began the process of miscegenation. The enslaved Africans who cultivated the land and built white wealth were forced to birth children from the seed of their enslavers. These offspring, along with other enslaved Africans widened the definition of “creole” by melding European traditions with African customs. “Creole” became the language born of the mixture of European and African tongues.
In New Orleans, Creole came to define a specific community whose African ancestors bore mixed race children. These mixed race children intermarried, creating a specific group that appears both black and white. As my grandmother, Aline St. Julien states in her book Colored Creole: Color Conflict and Confusion in New Orleans, “Creole ranged in color from white to dark brown with a lot of yellow and “teasing tans” in between.” To be admired in the Creole world, one had to pass the ‘brown paper bag test’, the lightest Creoles had the honor of choosing whether they wanted to be a ‘passe blanc’ (one who passed for white). My grandmother remembers growing up Creole as a wonderful cultural experience and a time of confusing identity crises. In her words, “I have been struggling toward [knowing my identity] ever since elementary school. When I finally got my mother to answer that inevitable question which most parents of our class dreaded and evaded for as long as possible, I was told that I was a Creole. My mother really believes that we are not Negroes.” One of the strongest elements of the Creole social code was the open admonition for younger Creoles to “keep … in [their] class.” This indoctrination ensured a cultural purity, making the Creoles of contemporary New Orleans a powerful cultural force.
With black, white, and Creole as my background of racial diversity, I have mistaken whites for blacks. In New Orleans, white skin doesn’t mean white heart and blue eyes doesn’t mean you’re not black. People who most Americans would identify as white are clearly Creole to New Orleanian eyes. Stand a white person, a black person, and a white-looking Creole person next to each other. The black person might say, “look at my skin, I’m black. My skin is what separates me from those two.” How does the Creole separate him or herself from the white person? It is in the context of this Creole conundrum, that I reject race as the ultimate definer of humanity. From all appearances, the Creole person and the white person are of the same race. The distinction between their identities is housed in their cultures. All things being equal, race quickly becomes a meaningless marker. The element that stands fast in the midst of race chaos is culture. How does my Japanese, East Indian, and African American roommate identify herself? Certainly not by her race, her race doesn’t exist. She identifies herself by her culture. How does my Pacific Islander, European American, and African American friend identify herself? Not by race, her race doesn’t exist. Race is bullshit; it is culture that counts.
Published in When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories © 2002