Halle Berry Cites 'One-Drop' Rule in Battle Over Whether Her Daughter Is Black or White

Custody battle underscores debate over racial identity in a biracial nation.

February 8, 2011, 4:53 PM

Feb. 9, 2011 — -- Halle Berry said she is in a war of words with her ex-partner, Gabriel Aubry, about their daughter's racial identity.

Berry, 44, is the daughter of a white mother, who was a psychiatric nurse, and a black father, who was a hospital attendant in the same ward. Aubry is French-Canadian and white.

The couple is in the middle of a bitter custody battle over their 2-year-old girl, Nahla.

"I feel she's black. I'm black and I'm her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory," Berry said in an interview with Ebony magazine.

The "one-drop" rule refers to Jim Crow laws passed in the South during the 20th century to further disenfranchise African Americans.

It varied from state to state, but generally, if a person had "one drop" of black blood, they were forbidden to pass as white.

"I'm not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that's what she's going to have to decide -- how she identifies herself in the world," Berry told Ebony. "What I think is that that's something she's going to have to decide."

"And I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That's how I identified myself," she said. "But I feel like she's black."

Berry's remarks underscore an ongoing debate about racial identity in a country that is becoming much more multi-ethnic.

One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data from 2008 and 2009 that was analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

The United States is having a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage, one that is expected to accelerate, according to a report in The New York Times.

Dionne Ford, a writer from Montclair, N.J., is black and her husband is white. Their two daughters, 11 and 9, consider themselves biracial.

"To some degree, we are shaped by society but ultimately how we see our identity ourselves is deeply personal to us," she said. "It's a journey and it evolves."

One of her daughters struggled with her racial identity when she was younger. "She decided she was white, but black in the inside," said Ford.

She described how she felt about her daughter's ambivalence in an essay, "Black on the Inside," that was published in Brain Child magazine.

"It was tough," said Ford. "I wanted her to identify with me, but I still had to respect her."

"With her butterscotch skin and thick copper-colored curls, it's easy to see that white is only half the story," wrote Ford. "Her father is white, with his Irish grandmother's freckled skin and red hair and his Finnish grandfather's long limbs and blue eyes. I am black, cocoa-colored like my grandmothers from Arkansas and Mississippi. I want Desiree, as a biracial child, to self-identify, to not let others box her into some container too small to hold all of her."

Biracial Daughter Insisted She Was White

Ford, 41, said she tried to answer her daughter's questions honestly. "I did tell her she was not just white, that she would always be both black and white. But I never told her she had to choose one or the other."

Today, her daughter has embraced her black roots. "I am sure that has to do with growing up and understanding where she comes from and also being in a community where others are biracial," said her mother.

Ford's own background is racially ambiguous and she has devoted much of her time writing a blog about her family history, "Finding Josephine."

Her grandfather was the grandson of a slave and her master.

"There was so much intermixing going on that it got to the point where it was easy for people who didn't have much black blood to pass as white," said Ford. That was the case with her grandfather, who "looked totally like a white man."

"When I asked him if he was white, he was very clear that he would not have ever called himself biracial or anything like that. One has to understand he came up in a time that if he had tried something like that there would have been a punishment for being caught passing."

Sometimes, he pretended to be white to get better-paying jobs. "Not as a CEO job, but for his dignity, so he could walk through the front door," she said.

Ford is critical of the racial tug-of-war between Halle Berry and her husband.

"When a child sees how inflamed either parent gets about her race, that sends a message that something is wrong," she said. "There is always potential damage to the child, getting the message that it's not OK to be either black or white."

Ford's husband, Dennis Kurrti, said he doesn't "draw a line in the sand" about his children's racial identity the way Halle Berry did.

"They probably qualify as black by any census," Kurrti, a 52-year-old property manager, said of his girls. "I tell my daughters, it's ridiculous to assume everybody doesn't have blood from everybody else."

Halle Berry Raises Questions About Biracial Children

Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, was raised in a racially charged South. Her mother was white and her father was black.

"I was born fewer than 10 years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act," she said. "My mother was from the West and when she first came, she said, 'Why are there two pools?' My father said, 'Jim Crow, Diana, Jim Crow.'"

The term biracial was unheard of then. Today, Americans come in all colors and ethnicities. But the word "biracial" is "meaningless because race and culture and language and identity are all a social construct," said Harris-Perry.

The "most contested" biracial construct is being black and white," she said. "This sounds nuts, but it's impossible to achieve whiteness."

"When people passed at the turn of century, it was because there were real and violent and political consequences to being a person of color," she said. "They passed with great danger and fear and cost. You risked everything -- marriage, job and economic security. You can't just tick off white as an identity that has been protected and policed and legislated for hundreds of years. It carries with it a package of privileges and opportunities."

Linda Tropp, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts with a specialty in prejudice and group relations, recognizes that African-Americans still struggle with race, but that one day it might change.

At one time during the 20th century, the Irish were considered the "missing link" between apes and humans, a attitude that was described in the book, "How the Irish Became White," said Tropp.

Italians and Jewish Americans faced similar attitudes.

"In the future, when we become more a multiethnic and multifaceted society, there might not be a term white -- or it won't mean the same thing as it does now."

"I'm not being overly optimistic or blind to reality," she said. "But the significance and rigidity may change over time."

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