Review by Sheila Havard
Book: “The Pigment of your Imagination” by Joy M. Zarembka
This book sprung from the author’s gradual realization of the absurdity of racial labelling. When Joy was born, the hospital nurse recorded her as being black against the objections of her Quaker parents, one a white American of mixed European descent and one a black Kenyan. They wanted her to be classified as belonging to the human race, but the hospital form did not provide such an option. Eighteen months later, at the same hospital, a different nurse checked the “white” box when her brother was registered. Both siblings had the same physical appearance.
People naturally tend to classify. It simplifies a complex world and helps them understand and control it. As a young adult, categorized in the United States as “black” given the widespread application of the “one drop” rule, Joy was astounded that her mother’s family in Kenya immediately assumed she was “white”. (Applied uniformly, the “one drop” rule often applied in the USA, that is, automatically classifying anybody with one drop of black blood as “black”, would make every human being on earth “black” since homo sapiens originated in Africa!) To quote the author: “Race like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.”
This book is a travelogue and a compilation of oral histories. The author’s methodology involved interviews with 200 first generation mixed race members of 80 families in four different countries: Britain, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Jamaica. There was no random sampling: interviewees were self-selected, that is, on being contacted by the author, they agreed to be interviewed. Working class families may be underrepresented. In some countries, the author met with a large number of refusals, generally because those solicited felt that race was of no consequence and resented the imposition of American racial concepts. Each country has its own unique history of race relations and indeed its own unique terminology for classifying racial groups. For instance, people classified as “coloured” in Zimbabwe, would fall into the “black” category in the United States. People of mixed race are widely referred to as “brownings” in Jamaica.
A number of intriguing questions are raised by the book. Does the concept of race depend on the individual’s perception or society’s or an interaction of both. Race is not primarily a biological construct. Genetic theories have been discredited. There may be a greater genetic difference between a West African and an East Africans than between a German and a Korean. Perception of race is social, and varies arbitrarily according to the observer’s own cultural norms.
The hierarchical structure of race was invented by Europeans in colonial times who found it beneficial to craft a classification system that created and maintained their power and privilege. Branding certain categories of people deemed “primitive and inferior” by means of such categories justified treating them inhumanely. The conclusion is that race is a human invention and doesn’t exist objectively; it is an insignificant categorization of the human species.
The individual stories that form the core of the book shed intriguing light on how mixed race parents and children view themselves – black, coloured, mixed race, white, etc. – whether they choose to identify with a certain racial group and, if so, with which. Individuals who look white may feel more culturally affiliated with black society. Some with typically black features may choose to identify with whites. Reasons for doing so may include economic and social benefits. Some mixed race interviewees maintained they got the best of both worlds by freely mingling with all racial groups, providing them with access to more than one culture and fluency in more than one language.
Parents adopted different approaches to introducing their mixed race children to concepts of race. Some avoided the topic or only brought it up when it fell naturally into the conversation. Others intentionally acquired “black” toys to offset the prevalence of “white” toys and raise their offspring’s awareness. There was a concern that children moving away from home to study needed to be aware of the racial situation in their foreign destination.
This book makes fun reading for anyone interested in the history of race relations in Britain, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Jamaica and of course for those fascinated by race as an individual and societal concept.
In conclusion, to quote an interviewee: “The concept of race is faintly ridiculous. I really think race is God’s own little personal joke on humans!”