Not Quite White

Steven McCarthy © 2020

On the face of it – on my face, literally – I am a white man. 

Imagine the surprise then, when I reveal to people that my mother is African-American. In 1958, the year I was born and “one drop” mattered to those advocating for racial hypodescent, my birth certificate declares: “father: Caucasian / mother: Negroid.” (My parents were married in France, where miscegenation was not illegal.)

Carolyn Dolly Baskerville McCarthy, 1952

Carolyn Dolly Baskerville McCarthy, my mother, was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee under the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. Her cultural identification, lived experience and worldview was solely as a “negro” or “colored” person, to use the era’s terms. When she went to New York City to study classical piano and earn a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in the late 1940s, her light complexion defied easy definition: “are you Puerto Rican?” 

My mother’s ancestors descended from one of the three Baskerville slave plantations in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Yet the 1870 US Census listed Douglas Baskerville (my great, great grandfather, born ca. 1820), his wife Lucinda and all six of their children as “mulatto.” This term fell out of favor years later, bifurcating twentieth century racial categories into the binary “white” or “colored/negro/black.” This continues today with the simplistic “white” and “people of color.”  

Douglas Baskerville, 1918

My son gave me a 23andMe genetic testing kit for my sixtieth birthday a year and a half ago. The results were both affirming and surprising. My 22% percent sub-Saharan African ancestry included genetic fractions from Nigeria, Congo, Guinea, Senegal – the latter a place I visited last March, including a trip to Gorée Island, a major slave shipping post. A 12% portion identifies me as part Ashkenazi Jewish, new information that helps explain a blank in the family tree of my mother’s maternal grandfather. As my father’s Irish forebears kept generations of relations to those “within the clan,” roots to the Emerald Isle are beyond dispute. I’m an American mutt, and proud of it! 

The subject of racial and cultural identity has been a topic within my art and design for two decades. I am particularly interested in racial, and therefore social and cultural, hybridity. The concept of epigenetics has also been explored – the notion that our ancestors’ experiences and traumas can chemically impact our DNA. The Irish potato famine. Chattel slavery. The Holocaust. 

Diversity is a complex and evolving topic. I take an expansive view: ideological diversity is relevant (for example, I am a secular humanist); socio-cultural-economic diversity has impact (I worked in a steel mill, have a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, own two houses); diversity of lived experience matters too (I have been to six continents – including living in Ethiopia for two years, where locals wanted to touch my straight hair – am the father of two, a widower, and my late wife was an immigrant). 

Last year I read Heather MacDonald’s book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. I wanted to “get inside the head” of another point of view regarding diversity – racial yes, but also gender identity, religion, immigrant status and so on. I preceded that book by reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Point being, I want to be open-minded and resist dogmatic positions. I’m mixed, and as a contrarian, why shouldn’t I engage in a mix of viewpoints? 

Recent scholarship and teaching in diverse settings include giving a lecture titled “Minnesota Design and the African Diaspora” at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal (attended by former Senegalese ambassadors to the USA, Great Britain and Canada); leading a hands-on workshop in creating book structures for a class of fifth-graders – all African-American – at a school in inner-city Detroit (while doing a short-term residency at the University of Michigan); and serving on a panel titled “Decolonizing Design: Considering a Non-Western Approach to Design Pedagogy” at the College Art Association annual conference in Los Angeles. 

My most recent artist’s book, Project BiNary – in which oppositional terms for race, gender, religion, etc. collide – has been exhibited nationally and collected by two University of California campus libraries (Berkeley and Riverside). Artist’s book Black Baskerville parallels the stories of English typographer John Baskerville and my slave ancestors from the Baskerville plantation in southern Virginia – it was shown in the Meditations on Emancipation nationally juried exhibit. DAD+MOM, a poster and video about Barack Obama’s racial background, was created for the invitational exhibit We the Designers, and shown at the National Press Club, Washington, DC and the AIGA Gallery in New York. I’ve written about racial bias too, as in an essay titled Retrogressive for Eye magazine’s blog.

Living in Minneapolis–St Paul – my hometown, and the epicenter of the nation’s reaction to George Floyd’s unwarranted death – has heightened issues of race recently into polarized absolutes for those seeking “moral clarity.” Claims of racism abound, mostly justified. Yet what might be correctly defined as social, cultural, class or ethnic bias is conjoined with racism in a binary way. 

As a white-looking man I am easily lumped with those with white supremacist attitudes and privileges, whether covert or overt. (I have always associated the term “white supremacy” with the KKK, neo-Nazis, David Duke, Richard Spencer, confederate flag wavers, etc., and find it off-putting when it’s used to describe white people in general.) This is why I keep telling my story: a story of nuance, complexity, hybridity, upended expectations, surprise, delight, heritage and pride. My racial makeup, and the ways I’ve addressed it though creative scholarship, is a single path into the issue of racial equity. 

Carolyn, Steven, Alice, 1991

I’ll finish with a reminiscence. In 1972, my eighth grade teacher took our “Minority Studies” class to a James Baldwin lecture that was held in Stuttgart, Germany. But before that, she arranged for us to meet him at a reception at the officer’s club on the military base where we lived. I asked Mr. Baldwin to autograph a cocktail napkin, now one of my most revered graphic objects. He signed his name and one word: “Peace.”

Steven McCarthy (MFA, Stanford University) is a professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota. Learn more:

By Steven McCarthy
Published July 7, 2020
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