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Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of “The Invisible Line"

In "The Invisible Line," law professor Daniel J. Sharfstein uses the stories of three families to explore the fluid nature of racial identity in America.

By Stacie Williams / February 23, 2011

"Race has never been about biology and blood," says author Daniel J. Sharfstein. "Plenty of white people have African blood.... [W]hat do categories of black and white mean? "


Race has never been an easy concept in this country; the rigid constructs by which people judge black and white have always left room for individuals who could move across either side of the line. Today, more Americans are choosing to identify as multiracial; that segment of the population has grown 35% since the 2000 Census.

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Exhibit A: The president of the United States, who has a white mother, but chooses to identify himself as African American.

Vanderbilt University Associate Law Professor Daniel J. Sharfstein analyzes the constantly evolving perceptions and experience of race in his new book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. Sharfstein uses his legal background to fill in the shades of gray and highlight an American experience, which for many changed with the stroke of a pen, or with hair dye.

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I recently had a chance to talk with Professor Sharfstein about his book and questions of racial identity in America.

What prompted you to look deeper into this idea of racial constructs as a choice?

In ’93, when I was still in college, I volunteered on a voter project while I was in South Africa. People [I worked with] said to me that the government had classified them as African, all except for one who was classified as Colored. "I’m as African as everyone else," she told me. But when the first census was taken, the constable who assigned class to citizens knew this woman’s dad … and out of respect for her father, changed their designation from African to Colored. From “A” to “C.” That one word – just one letter – changed her life dramatically.

Race was supposed to be concrete. To see how categories could bend … was really a revelation to me. I returned to the States wondering if that had happened here.

Why view this story through a legal angle?

I think of race as a series of rules. Some are mandated by legislatures, ruled by courts, or are informal rules. At the same time, race is something people experience every day. Understanding how they live it and think about it meant I researched court documents, and saw how legal rulings generally deferred to people’s every day experience.

What was it that made the stories of the three families you chose to follow so particularly compelling? Haven't many people crossed the race line the same way that they did?

I chose these three families because they were [both] typical and extraordinary. These families represent the diversity and range of people who crossed the line from black to white through class, geography, and social positions. There is such a rich historical record about the [Wall, Gibson, and Spencer] families [that allows us] to move beyond genealogical facts and think about who they were and what they did.

What did you find most interesting when comparing attitudes between the 1700s and 1800s, when the bulk of the narrative takes place, to present-day?


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