Hollywood Actress Halle Berry On Race, Ethnicity, Family & America's 'One-Drop' Rule


FOR ACTRESS HALLE BERRY, winner of the 2002 Oscar for Best Actress, in Monsters Ball, race and ethnicity created conflicts within her early background. Later, as a parent, she classified her baby Nahla's mixed race heritage as 'black' under the tenets of the 'one-drop' rule.

IN DEFINING THE ETHNICITY of herself and her daughter Nahla, actress Halle Berry invoked the notorious 'one-drop' rule, which defines 'black' as anyone with any degree of African heritage. By Ben Arogundade.


FILM STAR HALLE BERRY was born on August 14, 1966 in Cleveland Ohio. Her mother, Judith Ann, a former psychiatric nurse, was born in Ohio to English parents, while her father, African American Jerome Jesse Berry, was a hospital orderly in the ward where her mother worked. The couple soon moved to America, but divorced when Berry was four-years-old, after which Jerome left, and she and her elder sister Heidi were brought up by her mother.

Throughout her childhood Berry had difficulties with her biracial background, constantly feeling torn between both extremes of her ethnicity. “When we lived in the black neighbourhood, we weren't liked because my mother was white. In the white neighbourhood they didn't like me because I was black,” she told Lesley O’Toole in the Evening Standard. “That was the beginning of my trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be. If they wanted me to be the clown, I’d be the clown. If they wanted me to get straight A’s, I’d get straight A’s.” At the same time, many of her classmates in school assumed that Berry was not of mixed parentage, and often did not believe she actually had a white mother. All these issues had such an impact on the film star that she found herself in therapy at the age of 10.

It was in her junior high school years that questions about her mixed race identity came to a head. Berry, who won an Oscar in 2002 for her role in the film Monster's Ball, told James Lipton on Inside The Actors Studio, that “trying to be in the middle, trying to be both, just isn’t working for me. It’s just further ostracising me from either group.” It was not until she consulted her mother that she was finally able to come to terms with things. She suggested that the most practical solution was for her daughter to identify with the group that most resembled her aesthetically, because this was how she would be perceived within American society. “I made the decision early on to accept that I was really a black woman with a white mother, and that that was OK,” said Berry. Her decision was reinforced by the fact that at certain points in her life she’d suffered discrimination at the hands of people who saw her as black rather than white.

But no sooner had this been settled than the issue of race and ethnicity flared up again in February 2011, when Berry announced that she considered her then two-year-old daughter Nahla — from her relationship with white French-Canadian male model Gabriel Aubry — to be “black”. “I feel she’s black,” she told Ebony magazine. “I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.” The “one-drop rule” to which Berry referred were a series of laws passed by white racists across America in the early twentieth century, which dictated that any person with as little as “one drop” of “black blood”, were legally to be classified as “black”, thereby restricting their rights as citizens. Berry was criticized in some quarters for endorsing this outmoded law devised by bigots to oppress African Americans, the last vestiges of which were finally abolished in the late 1960s.

But the reality of racial politics within America is such that famous African Americans of mixed heritage are often vilified for not affirming their blackness under the legacy of the one-drop rule. In 1997 golf champion Tiger Woods was heavily criticized by sections of the African American community when he declared himself, not black, but “cablinasian”, a word he’d invented himself to describe his Asian, African American, Native American and Dutch background. Within Afro-America there is a clear sense that light-skinned multi-ethnic celebrities such as Berry, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Williams and Jennifer Beals have little choice but to declare themselves black in order to avoid accusations of selling out or denying their ancestry.

Like many celebrities of biracial origin, Berry has expressed hopes of a world not defined by ethnicity. “The question should be, why should it matter what color anyone is, or what heritage they identify with? If people would just learn to look at everyone equally and stop trying to label one another, the issues of what we are all made of would be null and void.”

BLACK BEAUTY by Ben Arogundade is out now.



The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Halle Berry mixed race?” each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Halle Berry black?” each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Halle Berry ethnicity” each month.

*All figures for “Halle Berry's Ethnicity According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

RACE AND ETHNIC ORIGIN in America remain hot subjects. Film celebrity Halle Berry and her daughter Nahla - classified as 'black' under the terms of the 'one-drop' rule, despite her mixed heritage. Below; Halle Berry (left) and her elder sister Heidi as children.

OSCAR NIGHT JOY: Actress Halle Berry's parents are of mixed ethnicity and nationality. Her mother Judith Ann, pictured above on the night of the 2002 Oscars, is of English heritage, while her father, Jerome Jesse Berry, is African American.

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