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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.

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When looking at the Kentucky family, the Spencers, Jordan Spencer was visibly dark. He dyed his hair and every time he would sweat, the dye would run. There were constant reminders that this man was different. At the same time, the community still saw him as white, and decided that you could have a dark white man. These communities were capable of a lot of tolerance … on an individual level. Americans were exercising tolerance but at the same time, they chose to hate.

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Did you find that people’s reactions were overwhelmingly negative upon finding out these families had African American ancestry?

Certainly, like O.S.B. Wall’s great-grandson [Thomas Murphy]. But the attitudes certainly evolve over time. People who were in denial make peace with the history. I understand Murphy’s reaction as a recognition of denial. But through years of working on his family history, he has a much stronger sense that this is his story. He’s become a tireless researcher and is committed to getting the story out, and I think that says volumes.

How key is the role of the Census in gauging how many more people are keeping their racial identities fluid?

As a country, we’re committed to principles of equality. The Census has an important function in figuring out how things are going – how well we’re living up to the principles of equality and anti-discrimination. On one level, how people self-identify is an interesting measure of how far we’ve come. On another level, it’s not completely related to larger societal issues we’ve made a commitment to overcome.

Have your opinions on racial constructs changed with Obama in the White House?

I think this country has changed a lot in the past couple decades and the way in which we understand the color line has been changed. As people have embraced multiracialism, its raised interesting questions about people who have been able to discover they have African Americans in their family history. I think these new ways of understanding identity are playing a role in how people are understanding their heritage. But I do think the election of Barack Obama is a major moment in the history of race. Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood. I’m looking at this history of migration across the color line and what do categories of black and white mean? These categories have been proxies for hierarchies and discrimination … for having a full set of rights as citizens.

Stacie Williams is a Monitor contributor.

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