Her name is Gabrielle Elise Buring. She is a 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 Òactor,Ó for example, preferring to be known as a future Òactress.Ó Why? She shrugs. ÒItÕs more feminine. It just sounds better. It conveys the right image.Ó
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 doesnÕt 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 ÒOther.Ó 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 r the designation Òracially mixed.Ó
After all, Gabrielle has a mother who is, by the old vocabulary, Òwhite.Ó She has a stepfather who would still be considered by most people to be Òblack.Ó As it happens, her birth father was also of African-American descent. Being a child of divorce who hasnÕt seen her father since the age of two is a more important fact to her, though, than anybodyÕs 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 canÕt find one. ÒItÕs never been a problem for me at all,Ó she says. In Memphis, Tennessee
? ÒOh, I know there are supposed to be problems. IÕve seen it on TV and read about it in magazines and the papers. But IÕve never experienced any of it. I honestly canÕt recall a single thing.Ó
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 Òbiracial,Ó a category Ð considered a necessary component of the schoolÕs goal of diversity -- that was in short supply at Campus. She reflects. ÒAnd another nice thing about being racially mixed is that nobody would ever possibly consider me a racist.Ó (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 werenÕt 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 oneÕs maternal line is the determining factor. But this, too, is of no great moment. .She has been to her stepfatherÕs 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. ÒI fit in anywhere I am, basically,Ó she says. ÒWhen IÕm around blacks, I probably act Ôblack.Õ When IÕm with whites, I probably do ÔwhiteÕ things. ThatÕs what my friends tell me, anyhow. IÕd never noticed it myself.Ó How would she describe the difference between acting black and acting white? ÒWell, I think I act plainer around black people, and more ÔpreppyÕ around whites. I know thatÕs true because a black friend and a white friend both told me something like that. Independently of each other.Ó She tries to avoid thinking in stereotypes, though, pointing out that ÒSome blacks act like whites, some whites act like blacks.Ó
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 material grandmother Jerry Cocke, a 5th grade schoolteacher and a convert to Judaism who still keeps kosher and whom Gabrielle calls ÒBubby.Ó BubbyÕs husband, David --ÔDay-DayÕ to Gabrielle -- is a lawyer, an Episcopalian, and the chairman of the local Democratic Party. He dotes on his step-granddaughter. It is an open secret that one reason for GabriellsÕs spending as much time as she does at the CockesÕ 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 systemÕs ÔCLUEÕ 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. ÒMy teacher thinks I have a lot of potential. He thinks I could be a writer, too.Ó The one thing she has little experience at, racial distinctiveness, is something she has to try to understand intuitively. ÒI sort of understand what life must have been like for my parents. Even after Civil Rights, IÕm told, everything didnÕt work just right.They were able to be together, but they were around some people who were still. . .Ó She looks for the right word. Ò. . .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. ÒWhenever one of us is telling the others about a new friend theyÕve met, the rest of us want to know, ÔAre they black or white?Õ You know, just so we can form the image.Ó
It is something of an irony, of course, that Gabrielle may typify a new kind of future American, who Ð both by example and by stated preference Ð makes the task of forming a defining ÒimageÓ more and more difficult. And perhaps beside the point.