Royally Racist: The Fear Behind the One-Drop Rule to Preserve Whiteness
March 11, 2021
By Yaba Blay
The ripple effects from the truth bomb of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry will take a while to settle. During their two-hour talk, the royal couple revealed the royal family’s concern with how dark the skin of their child, Archie, would be when he was born. Also, Archie will not be granted a title or protection. Put two and two together, and the reason is clear. Racism is a hell of a drug, isn’t it? Not even Markle’s perceived proximity to whiteness, granted to her as a biracial woman, can protect her son. We may live in the woke times of the twenty-first century, but the royal family’s “concern” is a fear is as old as the slave trade their ancestors took part in. As Yaba Blay writes in One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, it’s a historical fear, steeped in colonialism, over preserving the purity of whiteness and the superiority ascribed to it.
The US Census reveals much about the country’s perspective on race. It counts people according to how the nation defines people, and historically, those people counted as Black have been those people with any known Black ancestry. Blacks are defined by the one-drop rule. No other racial or ethnic group is defined in this way, nor does any other nation rely upon this formula; the one-drop rule is definitively Black and characteristically American. It should make sense then that the origins of the rule are directly linked to the history of Black people in the United States, and as such, our discussion of the one-drop rule begins during the period of colonial enslavement.
Within the context of colonial enslavement, Blackness—prototypical and phenotypical African features such as dark skin, a broad nose, tightly coiled hair—were the undeniable markers of inferiority. These features served to immediately communicate one’s position within the social power structure, and in the context of enslavement, whether one was free or enslaved.
If you were White, you were free; if you were Black, you were enslaved. Simple.
However, this seemingly simple social order soon became complicated by the rampant increase in amalgamation—the mixing of the races. The lines between White and Black, free and enslaved, became more and more blurred. Even though the mixing was extensive and extremely common, from the beginning it was always discouraged. For example, in 1630, only eleven years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, “colonist Hugh Davis was sentenced to be soundly whipped ‘before an assembly of negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.’” Any White person, male or female, suspected of interracial sexual contact was publicly punished.
Racial mixing posed a number of potential problems. At a time when Blacks far outnumbered Whites, Whites were afraid of losing control over the enslaved population. But what really lay beneath their physical fears were their psychological ones. In order to maintain White supremacy, Whiteness had to remain “pure.” White anxieties about racial mixture were rooted in eugenics and scientific racism, both supposing that the White race was the superior race, that physical and mental traits were tied to heredity, and that racial mixing thus not only lowered human quality but further threatened the survival of the White race. Within this framework, Blackness was considered a contaminant, one poisonous enough to taint and further cripple an entire gene pool. The one-drop rule would be critical not only in the defense of the White race but in the concentration of White power.
Given the shamelessly disproportionate amount of power and privilege assigned to Whiteness, the lines between who counted as White and who did not had to be unquestionably clear. Maintaining a firm color line would require the institution of what would later be called “anti-miscegenation laws”—laws that defined marriage (and sometimes sex) between the races as criminal. Because Blacks were already enslaved, in reality these laws reflected an attempt to police the behavior of Whites:
In many of the colonies . . . interracial marriage was formally prohibited; those who engaged in interracial fornication paid a double fine; those who intermarried were banished; those who performed marriages for mixed couples were punished; Whites who engaged in interracial marriages were enslaved; offspring of such marriages followed the slave status of the mother if the mother were Black and were enslaved anyway if the mother were White.
The idea that children born to enslaved mothers would take the status of the mother reflected a significant break with traditional English common law that held that children take the status of the father. However, as we will continue to see, laws changed frequently to maintain White supremacy. Essentially, if a White man were to impregnate a Black woman, the law took him off the hook; he did not have to support or even claim that child. At best, if the mother of the child was his property, he gained not a child but additional property and another source of labor and income. Thus, the law inadvertently sanctioned the sexual abuse of enslaved women. In fact, on some plantations, a select number of enslaved women were reserved specifically for breeding with White men since Mixed-race “slaves” brought higher prices at the market. Defining White-descended children born to enslaved Black women as “slaves” suited the need to control the population, increasing the number of exploited laborers while limiting the number of free Blacks. By limiting who had access to privilege, particularly that of freedom, Whites were able to further concentrate White power.
The punishment for White women who had consensual sex with Black men was much more severe than the penalties given to White men who raped Black women. The responsibility of maintaining the purity of the White race lay in the hands (and wombs) of its women, the literal bearers of the next generation. White women who had children by Black men were not only disgraces to their race but to their nation. Many were banished from the colony; many others were themselves enslaved. Conveniently, traditional English common law was upheld in these cases, and Black-descended children born to White women took the status of their Black fathers. In both cases, racially mixed persons would be assigned to the status of the lower group, thus the term “hypodescent”—“hypo” meaning under, defective, or inadequate. A White mother could give birth to a Black child, but a Black mother could never give birth to a White one.
Obviously, White/Black sexual liaisons continued, and the Mixed-race population grew rapidly. The general term used during the antebellum period to describe people of mixed racial heritage was “Mulatto.” Taken from the Portuguese and Spanish term mulato meaning “young mule,” the term reflects not only the disdain with which the referents were held but the way in which race was conceptualized at the time. As we know, a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey—a hybrid of two different animals—and as hybrids, they are sterile. To refer to children born of interracial sexual relationships as “Mulattos” pointed to the conviction that Whites and Blacks were two distinct beings and the related belief that if they were to mix, their offspring would be sterile and thus useless. True, we know that those of mixed racial heritage were not at all sterile; but this process of naming reflected a projected value system more so than an actual truth. Again, what lay beneath their physical fears were their psychological ones.
What would happen if one’s social status—free or enslaved—were no longer obvious based on physical appearance? What exactly were “Mulattos”? If there were only two racial categories, White and Black, which one did they belong to? By one colonial observation, Virginia was “swarming with Mulattos,” a situation that likely forced the state to quickly put laws into place to address the “problems” it posed. Virginia was the first state to outline a formulaic definition of race in its ban against interracial marriage. In 1705, it defined a “Negro” as the child, the grandchild, or great-grandchild of a “Negro” or anyone who was at a least one-eighth “Negro.” By this definition, “Mulattos” were Black. Other states soon followed. At different times up until the twentieth century, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, and South Carolina all relied on a one-eighth rule, while Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas defined anyone with “any blood of the African race in their veins” as Black. While legally many Mixed-race individuals were considered White in many states at various points of time, socially most Whites regarded anyone with any Black ancestry as Black. The message was clear: No matter how White you may appear, if there is but one drop of Black blood in your lineage, you will be considered Black and treated accordingly.
About the Author
Dr. Yaba Blay is a scholar-activist and cultural creative whose work centers the lived experiences of Black women and girls. She has launched viral campaigns including #PrettyPeriod and #ProfessionalBlackGirl and has appeared on CNN, BET, MSNBC, and NPR. Dr. Blay’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Ebony, Essence, and The Root. A thought leader on Black racial identity, colorism, and beauty politics, she is a globally sought-after speaker and consultant. Connect with her online at yabablay.com.