Gabrielle's Tale

Is she white? Black? Baptist? Jewish? None of the above? All of the above?



When the U.S. census of 2000 was taken stock of recently, it turned out to be considerably more than a numbers game. For the first time, people interviewed by the head-counters were allowed wide liberty in how they chose to identify themselves ethnically.

Unlike the census of 10 years earlier or of any previous time, one could slip the narrow boundaries of racial classification and claim to be a member of more than one race and, for that matter, of more than one ethnic group.

This was more than an exercise in P.C. In a time of increased intermarriage and disaffection with old hand-me-down identities, it is simply becoming less and less realistic to confine Americans to the simple categories of the past.

Take, for example, the case of Gabrielle Elise Buring. She is a pert 12-year-old who has done all her growing up so far in Memphis -- which, almost by definition (and certainly by reputation), is as racially polarized a place as you can find in North America -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Memphis is also one of the better-known capitals of the Bible Belt.

The city has its share of aspiring young thespians, of course, and though Gabrielle wants to join their ranks someday, she shares with most other citizens of Greater Memphis a preference for some of the verbal distinctions now under challenge. She shuns the unisex word "actor," for example, preferring to be known as a future "actress." Why? She shrugs. "It's more feminine. It just sounds better. It conveys the right image."

Typically Southern and conservative, she is. And an object lesson of a new way the 21st century may come to regard the question of ethnic origin.

For Gabrielle doesn't see anything especially needful in other familiar ways of categorizing people. When asked on the occasional form to designate herself by race, for instance, this child of the 21st century avoids the two main and accustomed possibilities and opts for the category "Other."

In that, she is like a growing number of other children of the middle class, restless with labels that are, both literally and symbolically, black and white. When the categories are broader or less fixed, she inclines toward the designation "racially mixed."

After all, Gabrielle has a mother who is, by the old vocabulary, "white." She has a stepfather who would still be considered by most people to be "black." As it happens, her birth father was also of African-American descent. Being a child of divorce who hasn't seen her father since the age of 2 is a more important fact to her, though, than anybody's racial identity.

She has searched her memory for any incident that might be considered racially troubling, for any slighting treatment, for any overheard insensitive remark directed at either her or her mother and stepfather (an LPN and a restaurant supervisor, respectively) and can't find one.

"It's never been a problem for me at all," she says. In Memphis, Tennessee? "Oh, I know there are supposed to be problems. I've seen it on TV and read about it in magazines and the papers. But I've never experienced any of it. I honestly can't recall a single thing."

All that comes to her mind are the advantages of having had mixed parentage. She attends Campus School, a laboratory facility attached to the Education Department of the University of Memphis. The school accepts only a limited number of applicants, and she knows that she got in because she was considered "biracial," a category -- considered a necessary component of the school's goal of diversity -- that was in short supply at Campus.

She reflects. "And another nice thing about being racially mixed is that nobody would ever possibly consider me a racist." (One must bear in mind that the term itself is one she knows only as an abstraction.)

As if having had two black fathers and a white mother weren't enough potential complication, Gabrielle also considers herself -- without ever having been to a temple or synagogue -- Jewish. She knows that her mother (the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother converted from Christianity) was Jewish and grasps the tradition that in Judaism one's maternal line is the determining factor.

But this, too, is of no great moment. She has been to her stepfather's Baptist church many times but, unlike her mother, who is on the verge of accepting Baptism (in both the upper-case and lower-case sense of the word), will keep to the Old Testament faith.

It is only, oddly enough, in matters pertaining to race that Gabrielle sees no reason for accepting brackets or categories or delimiting terminologies. "I fit in anywhere I am, basically," she says. "When I'm around blacks, I probably act 'black.' When I'm with whites, I probably do 'white' things. That's what my friends tell me, anyhow. I'd never noticed it myself."

"Plain" With Blacks, "Preppy" With Whites

How would she describe the difference between acting black and acting white? "Well, I think I act plainer around black people, and more 'preppy' around whites. I know that's true because a black friend and a white friend both told me something like that. Independently of each other." She tries to avoid thinking in stereotypes, though, pointing out that "some blacks act like whites, some whites act like blacks."

In any case, Gabrielle feels at home, as she says, in virtually any kind of company. She divides her time, on an almost 50-50 basis, between her own home and a nearby one occupied by maternal grandmother Jerry Cocke, a fifth-grade schoolteacher and a convert to Judaism who still keeps kosher and whom Gabrielle calls "Bubby."

Bubby's husband, David -- "Day-Day" to Gabrielle -- is a lawyer, an Episcopalian, and the recent past chairman of the local Democratic Party. He dotes on his step-granddaughter. It is an open secret that one reason for Gabrielle's spending as much time as she does at the Cockes' home is that it is, unlike her own, a smoke-free environment.

Again, she is not without firm preferences and strong convictions on some matters. It is just that race in the familiar black-and-white sense is not one of them.

An all-A student and member of one of the city school system's CLUE classes for the academically gifted, Gabrielle, whose life has clearly given her broad chameleon-like experience, expects to do well at her chosen career of acting.

"My teacher thinks I have a lot of potential. He thinks I could be a writer, too." The one thing she has little experience at, racial distinctiveness, is something she has to try to understand intuitively. "I sort of understand what life must have been like for my parents. Even after Civil Rights, I'm told, everything didn't work just right.They were able to be together, but they were around some people who were still ..." She looks for the right word. "... headstrong."

The only racial profiling Gabrielle countenances is one that she and her peers at school, the racially mixed and the racially unmixed alike, indulge in. "Whenever one of us is telling the others about a new friend they've met, the rest of us want to know, 'Are they black or white?' You know, just so we can form the image."

It is something of an irony, of course, that Gabrielle may typify a new kind of future American, who -- both by example and by stated preference -- makes the task of forming a defining "image" more and more difficult. And perhaps beside the point.

· More info on the developing race for Shelby County sheriff in 2002:

A candidate who promises to be a formidable competitor for Republican votes in the suburban heartland of Shelby County is longtime Bartlett alderman Mike Jewell, who is also a veteran member of the Sheriff's Department, serving currently as a field commander in the department's fugitive-transport unit. Jewell, a former vice chair of the Shelby County GOP, plans a formal announcement sometime in May.

Another rumored candidate is former Memphis police director James Ivey. (One of his successors in that job, former director Melvin Burgess, now director of security at Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, is still being talked up for a race, too.) Also still thinking about it is Memphis city council chairman E.C. Jones.

· The gubernatorial trial balloon sent up recently by state Rep. Larry Scroggs, R-Germantown, took a hit of sorts last week when U.S. Representative Van Hilleary of Tennessee's 4th District, generally considered the Republican front-runner for his party's 2002 nomination for governor, released a list showing him to own endorsements from a majority of the state's Republican legislators.

Of the 33 signatories from both chambers, four were Shelby Countians. They were state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville and state Representatives Tre Hargett, Bubba Pleasant, and Paul Stanley. Hargett and Pleasant are from Bartlett; Stanley is from Germantown.

In a release sent out by Hilleary, it is noted that Norris was elected a county commissioner in 1994, the same year Hilleary was first elected to Congress. "We were elected to public office at the same time, so we have that in common," the freshman senator is quoted. "But our friendship grew when I became a Senator and saw Van in action. He has momentum because he understands Tennessee."

Standard endorsement boilerplate, but it still translates into the fact that Norris, who has been handed several significant tasks by his party, including the office of caucus parliamentarian, had been sewed up quickly and firmly by the fast-moving Hilleary, who followed up the release of his endorsement list with a fiery speech attacking a state income tax, teachers' unions, and TennCare and with yet another release this week, claiming to have raised half a million dollars for his campaign.

Scroggs, who hopes to appeal to the same ideological base of conservatives as does Hilleary (and who broke publicly and somewhat bluntly with his early patron, Governor Don Sundquist, on the issue of the governor's tax-reform proposals), will be hard put to catch up.

Said Stanley, one of Hilleary's sign-ups: "This has got nothing to do with Larry. Van, whom I've known for a while, just asked me for a commitment way back when it first looked like he was running." ·

Memphis, Nashville Rank High in Governmental Efficiency

It is no secret that Memphis and Nashville engage in a rivalry that often reflects credit on neither city. And the question of which one is up and which one is down can be argued either way, depending on the yardstick used.

The newest measure, performed by the Reason Public Policy Institute, in conjunction with the Nashville-based Tennessee Institute for Public Policy (TIPP), shows both cities ranking high in a study of (are you sitting down?) efficient use of government services.

And, for the record, Memphis is a notch ahead of Nashville, standing fourth among the nation's 50 largest cities with the state capital coming in a step behind, at fifth.

TIPP is the think tank -- alternately considered libertarian or conservative in its sympathies -- whose heavily researched rankings of Tennessee's school systems recently made so many waves. And the Reason Institute is indisputably libertarian in its orientation.

TIPP president Michael Gilstrap hopes in the near future to arrange an appropriate ceremony in Memphis commemorating the new rankings and involving principals in the Herenton administration. · -- JB

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