What Does "Race is a Social Construct" Actually Mean? A city council candidate says he's black. But his opponent accuses him of being a white man pretending to be black. If race is simply a social construct and not a biological reality, how do we determine someone's race? And who gets to decide? We tell the story of a man whose racial identity was fiercely contested... and the consequences this had on an entire city. | To learn more about this episode, subscribe to our newsletter. Click here to learn more about NPR sponsors.
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White v. White?

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White v. White?

White v. White?

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ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: Dearest listeners, it is Alix, and I'm here to ask for your support. Not your financial support - although if you have not donated to your local public radio station, perhaps you should do that. But anyway, we are here because we are asking you to help us out in two simple ways. One, if you're listening in Apple Podcasts, please take a moment and leave us a review. It helps other people to find the show.

And two, tell a friend about the show. Or, better yet, tell a bunch of friends about the show. We even made a little INVISIBILIA starter pack in the form of a Spotify playlist with 10 of our favorite episodes from the last five seasons. They can be listened to in any order, and it's a great introduction to the show. So search Spotify for best of INVISIBILIA, and thank you.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Yowei Shaw. So recently, I read something that made no sense to me. A writer was arguing that one day, we might start seeing Asian people as white - Asian Americans like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Apparently, this happened before. In the 20th century, a version happened with the Irish, the Italians and Jewish people. But really? Asians? Like, what? No one's going to notice my hair and my eyes? If I cough in public, no one's going to hold me responsible for coronavirus? I needed to process. And I went to talk to someone who is Asian but in high school did everything he could possibly do to make himself white, this guy I spoke to last season about dating as an Asian. I'll call him C.

C: Yeah, I think that's never going to happen (laughter). It's bull****.

SHAW: To be clear, today, you couldn't pay C to be a white guy. But back in high school, he thought that white equaled the best, and so he treated his body like a lab rat. Like, he watched hours of himself on video, trying to rewire his micro-expressions so he could match the white people around him.

C: I would try to be, like, oh, like, when I think, I should put my hand on my chin or something like that (laughter).

SHAW: And to look like a super-jacked, sexy alpha white male, he worked out every single day.

C: I was always, like, scrawny, small, skinny Asian kid, OK? - ectomorph. And then I became humungous. I had giant traps.

SHAW: But no matter how much he tried, people still didn't see him as white. He'd be out clubbing with his bros, and girls would call him Jackie Chan. Or there was the time he drew a self-portrait in art class on a large piece of paper.

C: And I drew myself with big eyes. And I remember my white friend telling me explicitly - he was, like, you don't look like that. And I was, like, I don't. Like, why do I draw myself this way?

SHAW: Did you think you could actually change your race? Like, people would actually start to see you as racially white?

NELL IRVIN PAINTER: No, no, no. What do you mean by white?

SHAW: Nell Irvin Painter is a black American historian who wrote a book called "The History Of White People." I called her up to get her take on what I'd been reading in social science journals like The Du Bois Review that one day, some Asian Americans could get put in the white box because they're marrying white people, and their mixed babies could identify as white or because they go to white schools, live in white neighborhoods, and so they might already be functionally white.

Do you think that's actually possible?

PAINTER: No. What do you mean by white?

SHAW: Dr. Painter kept interrupting me, though, because she thinks the question, will Asians become white? - is just too simplistic.

PAINTER: OK. You're talking about racial whiteness, again, as if it's a thing like a box. And you're, like, in one or out of one. And that is not how it works. In American society, it has been our ideology of race that it's something physical, unchanging and permanent. And I'm saying that the meanings of whiteness or blackness or other esses (ph) - those meanings change over time.

SHAW: So with Asians - with everyone, really - it's all about how you define the box. If by white, what people have in their heads is wealth and success, then sure, there's a huge range in the Asian community. But if you look at median income...

PAINTER: Asian Americans are the richest.

SHAW: But if by white, you mean your Americanness will never be questioned - like, never asked, where are you really from?

PAINTER: No.

SHAW: Dr. Painter says you just can't predict how the boxes will shift. Take Irish Americans, who are now uncontroversially (ph) white. In the 19th century, they were seen as a different kind of white.

PAINTER: And there was a whole ideology of the inferiority of the Celtic race.

SHAW: Or take the fact that nearly 10 million people listed their racial identification differently on the 2010 census than they did in 2000.

PAINTER: Yes.

SHAW: Now, I know at any given moment, it doesn't feel, to a lot of people - especially black people in this country - that the boxes are fluid. And Dr. Painter agrees that there are limits to how much the boxes can change. But she says if you consider the long arc of history, the only thing we know for certain is that we can't know what the boxes will look like exactly in the future because we are the ones making and remaking them all the time.

If you did suddenly become white, like, what would be the first thing you would do?

C: Huh. OK. I would amass wealth and power and use that power to disseminate the truth about, like, race.

SHAW: So you would be, like, a spy.

C: Yeah - like a mole and, like, a virtuous demagogue.

SHAW: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Hey, everyone. This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: So maybe you've heard this phrase - race is a social construct. But I think for a lot of us, what that means is pretty abstract. So today, our producer Yowei Shaw is going to show us how race is constructed on this very intimate emotional scale.

ROSIN: Yowei is going to take us back to 1983 to Stockton in Northern California, where the struggle to decide which box a man fits into ends up having political consequences for the entire city. Here's Yowei again.

SHAW: Mark Stebbins was running for city council, and Jennet was his campaign manager - also his wife, which gave her extra authority to tell him what to do when they showed up at the church that day.

JENNET STEBBINS: Definitely how to dress (laughter) because he was a farm boy, and the blue jeans are raggedy.

SHAW: So what did you tell him to put on that day?

J STEBBINS: You know, casual slacks and a shirt. You know, take the blue jeans off and the T-shirt. Comb your hair. And I sprayed his hair with some little oil to hold it down because it springs up.

SHAW: Jennet remembers the vibe at the meeting being mellow, easygoing. Mark had a few minutes to give his spiel, answer questions from the community - a totally mundane cheese and crackers meeting except for what happened next.

J STEBBINS: So as Mark got up, someone in the audience said, what race are you? And Mark stopped for a few minutes and looked. He said, a human race. Well, we understand that. But what color are you? You appear black to me. Are you black? And he said, yes, I am a black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: This might seem like an offensive question to ask, but to some people in the room, it was an important one. For starters, the meeting was for the local chapter of the Black Political Association (ph) of California, which was trying to get more black people into office in the '80s. And there was the inconvenient fact that to a lot of people who knew Mark Stebbins, he appeared to be white.

How did people react?

J STEBBINS: Silence. And the only person making a noise was Ralph (laughter) muffling a laugh.

SHAW: Ralph - that's Mark's main opponent in the race, who was there that day and did not think that Mark belonged in the black box.

RALPH LEE WHITE: Some of them he convinced - you know, oh, man, he's black. Look at his hair. And I'd say, Negro, please.

SHAW: I've seen pictures of Mark from back then. And besides looking deeply '70s with gold aviator glasses and a mustache, Mark does read racially ambiguous - beige-ish skin, blue eyes, ginger-brown afro - but when it comes to other stats, maybe less ambiguous. Mark was a community gardens coordinator who'd lived and worked in the black community of Stockton for years. He had a black wife and several kids, was an active member of the NAACP.

So how to decide?

J STEBBINS: Yes, I knew it. I knew he was a brother.

SHAW: Then someone else in the audience said...

J STEBBINS: What difference does it make? He's part of the community.

SHAW: And Ralph grumbled...

WHITE: You know, anything that you see a bunch of black people in, if there's a crack there, some white folks are going to try to get in.

SHAW: Whatever the case, there was enough disagreement that the president of the group, the Reverend Bob Hailey, decided to hold a formal vote.

BOB HAILEY: I carried the meeting on, and I said, OK. The meeting is closed, and now it's time to make a decision. Everybody who think Mark is black, say aye.

J STEBBINS: If Mark was black, you could say it was an injustice, part of a long tradition of black people who can pass for white having to defend their authentic blackness. If Mark was white, you could say it was an even graver injustice - a white guy pretending to be black who snuck into a black space and wanted to take a seat away from a black representative.

Either way, it was a sight to behold - a group of people essentially filling out by committee a box on the census for the man standing before them. One guy at the meeting, a black judge, apparently laughed so hard, he fell out of his seat.

HAILEY: You know, the judge - he said, that's the first time I've ever seen a man hold somebody to being a certain race. He laughed about that for years, you know what I mean?

SHAW: The vote was close, and some remember about a dozen people voted nay, he's not black. But then 15 called out aye, he is black - a ridiculous moment in history that might have been forgotten except that it went on to help remap the power structure of the entire city - the question being, was Mark Stebbins black like he said he was? Or was he white? What was the right measure? And who gets to decide?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Most holy and everlasting Father, we come to say thank you for what our ears have heard and our hearts have felt. Thank you to God for what you've said today.

SHAW: Now, I'm not from Stockton. I'm not black. And when I was there reporting this story, people didn't let me forget that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

SHAW: Like, one afternoon, I was waiting for a gathering to get out and, as things finished up, started chatting with the guy next to me. He pointed to the pink, angry wounds all over his arms and told me he'd been dragged by the police from one squad car to another. I was totally appalled, just shaking my head at the brutality. And then Ralph, the man I had come there to interview, started chuckling as he watched us because, as I quickly found out, the guy's story wasn't true - a motorcycle accident, actually. He was punking (ph) me in the darkest way possible.

Are you serious?

WHITE: Yeah. You believe that, you'll believe anything.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: Oh, my God.

SHANNON SULLIVAN: It sounded good, all right?

SHAW: Why'd you do that to me?

SULLIVAN: I was getting you warmed up for the interview.

WHITE: (Laughter).

SHAW: It's only fitting that my instincts would be tested by Ralph, a man who trusted his instincts, which told him that Mark Stebbins was lying about being black. And allow me to point out that Ralph is a black man whose last name is White. As someone said in Stockton, you can't make this [expletive] up.

WHITE: (Laughter).

SHAW: So Ralph Lee White - that's Mark's main opponent in the city council race who saw the shenanigans go down at the meeting all those years ago.

WHITE: No. He ain't black. He's white. He ain't got no Negro blood in him nowhere.

SHAW: Here's how a guy like Ralph defines race. He just intuitively knows. So picture whatever your most un-PC uncle says at Thanksgiving and kick it up a notch, whether it's cheap stereotypes...

WHITE: One, he couldn't dance.

SHAW: ...Or weirdly fixating on visual features, like Mark's afro, which Ralph thought was clearly the result of chemical intervention.

WHITE: All the chemical he was putting in there to make his hair stay curly and nappy.

SHAW: How do you know that he was doing that?

WHITE: Because I know our hair.

SHAW: But mainly, Ralph just knows in his bones who's part of the family and who's not, "Survivor"-style.

WHITE: When you're raised up in a black community and a black family, you always know. It's, like, you don't have to tell a cat that dogs don't like cats. Hell, the cat know that.

SHAW: Ralph has always depended on his instincts. He started out working the fields of Stockton, picking tomatoes and apricots before making his money as a bail bondsman, becoming a civil rights activist and one of the first black people to get on Stockton City Council in the '70s.

WHITE: First of all, I have a Ph.D. in manipulating and hustling. I was the less educated person on the council other than my Ph.D. But the rest of them had nothing to do in that field. So they was bookworms. But I was better than a book. I knew how to manipulate. I knew how to hustle my votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: For 12 years, Ralph represented an extremely poor district in South Stockton made up of mainly Latinos, Asians and black people in a city that was rigidly segregated and majority-white back then, a game of cutthroat race monopoly that Ralph knew instinctively how to navigate to win, like him or not...

WHITE: Everybody there likes Jesus.

SHAW: ...Whether that meant calling people son of a [expletive] and mother [expletive] in council meetings or staging theatrics that would put the Real Housewives to shame, like the time he rounded up reporters at City Hall and told them on camera he thought everyone in city government should take a drug test. In fact, he'd do it right now - like, right there in front of them with a doctor standing nearby.

WHITE: Yes, right there in the room with all the cameramans (ph). Right, I mean, I didn't turn towards them, you know, like they do now. Got turned to the back and peed in the cup right in front of them. Give me that cup right there. Got the cup, sit it right there, peed in it, turned around and gave it back to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: All this to say when Mark claimed to be black at that meeting in the church, Ralph trusted his gut that something didn't sit right. He shrugged it off, though, because he wasn't worried about the election. But against all odds, on November 8, 1983, Mark did manage to beat Ralph in a city council race, knocking the city's most famous and polarizing black civil rights leader off his throne.

WHITE: Wasn't so much as embarrassing to me as it was to my people to be so dumb.

SHAW: You should know that a bunch of people, black and white, told me that even though Ralph had done a lot of good, forcing the city and local businesses to hire more black people, by 1983, his reputation had suffered. In certain corners, people saw Ralph as self-serving and were itching for a change. But to Ralph, Mark had to be a white guy cheating. There was no other way to explain why Ralph had lost.

WHITE: He claimed it to win. He claimed it to buy the votes. He wasn't doing it because that's the way he felt - that he's black.

SHAW: Ralph launched an official campaign to recall Mark from city council, alleging racial fraud. And pretty soon, the story was everywhere - People magazine, Ebony, The Washington Post, New York Times. I heard the story even made headlines in Singapore and Germany.

WHITE: I'm going to recall this bastard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So did Mark Stebbins lie to the people of Stockton about being black? Did he pull one over on the black community? When NPR's INVISIBILIA returns, why don't we ask his wife?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. Today, we're investigating the anatomy of a racial construct, looking at the case of Mark Stebbins from 1980s Stockton and why there was so much confusion about his race. We're now going to hear from Jennet Stebbins, Mark's wife, who was also involved in local politics, and see how she constructs race in her head to come to a dramatically different conclusion about Mark than Ralph. Yowei picks up the story.

SHAW: It takes a special kind of person to not be fazed when it seems like the entire city is cracking jokes about your husband, asking all kinds of intrusive questions. Jennet says one reporter with zero shame even asked if she could be alone with Mark in a hotel room.

J STEBBINS: I said, that's up to him. And Mark declined. He said, no. She wanted to see my private parts.

SHAW: You're kidding.

J STEBBINS: I'm not kidding (laughter) - to see if his hair matched. I said, why didn't you show it? And I said, put it all out there. You (laughter) - I said, give us something to look at (laughter). And he said, you're crazy (laughter). And I said, I'm game.

SHAW: It's the kind of situation a lot of people might find unbelievably offensive given our painful racial history. But Jennet has dealt with her share of cruelty. And she mostly claps back with a withering smile. For instance, when Jennet was having problems as a real estate broker in 1980s Stockton with white people not wanting to buy her houses because she was black, she came up with a crafty tactic - just pretend to be the maid when you show the house.

SHAW: You ever pull one over?

J STEBBINS: Sure did.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: Which is all to say Jennet is not someone you can easily trick, especially when it comes to race. From the moment she met Mark, she had questions.

J STEBBINS: And I kept wondering - I said, what is he?

SHAW: So one night a few dates in, at the risk of being rude, she asked Mark point-blank.

J STEBBINS: I said, what race are you? And he said, what race do I look like to you? I said, well, you don't look quite - you look like a high yellow Negro (laughter) - what I said to him. And he just kind of looked at me and smiled.

SHAW: So Jennet assumed she was right. And that was it. That was the end of the race conversation for years, even when Jennet and Mark got married. Just like Ralph, she didn't need confirmation. She knew Mark wasn't a white guy, in part because she knew she wasn't attracted to white guys.

J STEBBINS: Frankly, I didn't trust white men - you know, growing up in the South, and with my great-grandmother - when she was 12 or 13, she had her first baby by the slave master.

SHAW: When Jennet heard about the brutal rape from her great-grandmother, she knew she could never be with a white man because of what they represented.

J STEBBINS: Smiling in your face, soft hands, kindness - but treachery.

SHAW: Do you think you would've fallen in love with him if he was a white man?

J STEBBINS: If he was, I could be friends with him. Like, now I can joke and laugh with white men. But I'd have no desire.

SHAW: Oh, wow. So, like, if he actually was white, you don't think you would have gotten together with him?

J STEBBINS: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: It's a powerful story to hold in your heart about race. And in Jennet's mind, it was clear. There were so many signs.

J STEBBINS: His hair is a dead giveaway.

SHAW: So you've never seen him do anything to try to make himself look more black. And meeting Mark's family was more confirmation.

J STEBBINS: All of them had ruddy skin and nappy hair. And when you sit and you look at them now as they age, you could see people that are not really white.

SHAW: And then in 1983, Jennet was watching her husband answer questions at the meeting in the church when Mark finally uttered the words, I'm black.

Was this the first time Mark had explicitly said what his race was in front of you?

J STEBBINS: Yes. It just confirmed what I always felt. He was more than a white boy. But now it made me feel good to be with him when white folks start looking. And I've looked back at them - I said, oh, that's OK 'cause he's black.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: Did you actually say that?

J STEBBINS: I sure did.

(LAUGHTER)

J STEBBINS: I was naughty.

SHAW: Of course, we know what happened next. Mark won the city council race, and then Ralph accused him of pretending to be black. Then everyone started talking, with rumors flying about Mark's parents being white. I asked Jennet how she made sense of it.

J STEBBINS: Sometimes, it's best to adopt your surroundings. It would not have bode well being in the state of Washington, and your classmates are all Caucasian. Your neighbors are all Caucasian. And, you know, you have the Klan up in Washington state. There'll, you know, be a white mother birthing a black child.

SHAW: And what is the proof?

J STEBBINS: I don't know. He ain't never say.

SHAW: Did you ever want him to just clear it up with the proof?

J STEBBINS: It didn't bother me. It still doesn't bother me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: I asked Jennet if maybe the stakes are just too high at this point if Mark was lying after all these years. But she didn't agree. For her, even if a DNA test said that Mark had zero African ancestry, it wouldn't change a thing.

J STEBBINS: Of course, because the proof to me is his being himself and what I've experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Well, I guess my first question is, what race did you see your dad as growing up?

SUZANNE KAUHANE: White.

SHAW: This is Suzanne Kauhane, Mark's daughter. A bit of background - Jennet is actually Mark's third wife. But the first woman he married is Suzanne's mom. She's white.

KAUHANE: So it was a trip, let me tell you, Yowei, because when I was growing up, like, here I am a white girl with a white mom and a white brother and a white father but with kinky-ass hair.

SHAW: Suzanne was just 10 years old in 1983 when she heard the news that her dad thought of himself as black, which was ridiculous to her because as unshakable as Jennet's belief that her husband is black, Suzanne is 100% certain that her dad is white, as is Suzanne's mom.

KAUHANE: My mom thought he was crazy. I just remember that statement all the time. Like, your father is crazy.

SHAW: Suzanne can't remember her dad ever explicitly talking about his race, but he didn't need to. As far as she was aware, she was 100% Polish on her mom's side and Irish, English and Scottish on her dad's side.

J STEBBINS: I didn't see the connection to any black lineage.

SHAW: And Mark's afro - the subject of so much heated debate - to Suzanne, that was just the Irish in him. The curl was just a feature of Irish ancestry.

KAUHANE: Yeah. But when we were littler, it was bigger, right? He had bigger hair. He had bigger fluff (laughter).

SHAW: In Suzanne's mind, the proof is in the ancestry. Race is just about DNA - simple as that. But actually, Suzanne also constructed a story of her dad's race for very specific emotional reasons. Back in the '80s, she had no idea why her dad would think he was black. But she remembers the controversy being a total ruckus - friend's parents asking her what was up with her dad and kids on the playground razzing her, making fun of her dad for possibly being a little daft.

KAUHANE: Yeah, your dad is black. You don't look very black.

SHAW: But that wasn't what gouged a hole in her heart. Some info to know - Suzanne's mom and Mark broke up when Suzanne was just an infant, and he went on to marry his second wife, a black woman who he had two kids with. And suffice it to say Suzanne didn't see her dad much.

KAUHANE: At 5, I was asking my mom, like, where's my father? Why isn't he coming around? And by 10, I kind of was, like, yeah, well, he's not coming around, so...

SHAW: So to Suzanne, it was clear what was going on. When Mark said he was black at that fateful meeting in the church, her dad was choosing his black family over his white family.

KAUHANE: Because you didn't pick me. So if you are choosing to be a white man claiming yourself black, you're not picking to be with us. You're not proud of us. You're not here for us. You're not basically wanting us in your life.

SHAW: And maybe it has to do with race in your, like, 10-year-old head.

KAUHANE: In my 10-year-old head, yes.

SHAW: Right.

KAUHANE: Not in my 46-year-old head today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Suzanne only came to terms with her dad decades later, when she came up with a theory about her dad's racial identity. It starts with her moving to Hawaii and marrying a native Hawaiian man, becoming devoted to the local community in the exact way her dad had gotten involved with the black community in Stockton. She learned the language, got into surfing, dancing the hula, went to protests to the point where she found herself strangely in the same position as her dad.

Did people start to see you as native Hawaiian?

KAUHANE: Absolutely. I was 100% committed to learning the culture and participating in it and becoming not a white girl from Stockton but a little local girl in Hawaii, in Maui.

SHAW: And did you ever take the step that your dad did and, like, claim that identity?

KAUHANE: Never ever. I think if I didn't have my father as an example to kind of be who he was, I would have easily probably been absorbed and maybe even taken on the identity of a Hawaiian person.

SHAW: Why not?

KAUHANE: Because it wasn't my right to claim.

SHAW: Of course, this is just a theory. And Suzanne has never run it by her dad.

KAUHANE: I don't know if my father ever gave a clear explanation of why he thought he was black to anybody in the first place. Have you found that in anything or anywhere?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So whose definition of race will win? Will it be Ralph's, Jennet's, Suzanne's? Or is there another way to think about race that will get us closer to the truth?

MARK STEBBINS: You cannot define race.

ROSIN: After the break, we finally get answers from the man at the center of the mystery himself. This is INVISIBILIA from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This is NPR's INVISIBILIA. Yowei continues her story about a man who is a Rorschach test for race.

SHAW: It's one thing if you lose once. It's another when you lose twice. After losing his longtime city council seat to mark, Ralph publicly accused Mark of being a white guy pretending to be black. And yet the voters of South Stockton decided to stick with Mark in the recall election. But Ralph, being Ralph, didn't give up so easily.

WHITE: I had to win. If I had to pick up the stick and hit him, I picked up the stick and hit him. You know, throw a rock, I'd throw a rock.

SHAW: For one thing, he decided to make sure voters saw what he considered hardboiled proof. He'd gotten his hands on Mark's birth certificate, which stated that Mark's parents were white. And he'd already given it to the press. But now Ralph told me he printed loads of copies and posted them on cars and doors all over the district - essentially, a birther stunt.

Did the certificate prove it to people? Was that enough for people?

WHITE: Oh, yes, it was enough for them. It's right there in the thing. All you got to do is drop a card on a black person, and they're going to believe it. So that stopped all that - well, he's half-black. Well, I used to do his hair, and I know a black person's hair - blah, blah, blah, blah. He played the race card. I played the race card coming back.

SHAW: A second recall election was held. And this time, Ralph beat Mark by less than 75 votes, putting an end to the race controversy in the media but not the mystery of Mark himself.

OK. U-Haul, men's realty, notary public, Stebbins of Stockton.

Mark still lives in South Stockton and now runs a U-Haul rental business and works as an electrician, general contractor and notary.

Hey. Are you Mark? Hi. I'm Yowei. Pleased to meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)

SHAW: Sorry - didn't mean to slam that.

He's 77 today with no more afro - just a receding halo of gray, frizzy hair, though his barber told me there's still a strong curl on the bottom. Mark has never fully explained himself to the media about what exactly he meant all those years ago when he said he was black at that meeting. So I asked him.

M STEBBINS: I did not mean as a classification.

SHAW: So what did you mean, then?

M STEBBINS: What I said.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Turns out it's especially difficult trying to figure out someone's racial box when they happen to be philosophically opposed to the very idea of boxes - any kind of boxes, restraints or rules. Take seat belts, which I think most people can sign up for. Well, Mark doesn't believe in them, much to the annoyance of his wife, Jennet.

M STEBBINS: I don't want to.

J STEBBINS: It's the law, and it's for your safety.

M STEBBINS: Not necessarily.

SHAW: Or take the kind of narrative boxes that a reporter might try to fit a subject's life into.

M STEBBINS: Don't try to make any kind of earthquake event because there isn't any such thing.

SHAW: Mark even objects to the very label I'm boxing him into at this second.

M STEBBINS: You're trying to put me in the category of somebody who doesn't like categories.

SHAW: (Laughter).

So it only makes sense that Mark would not be the kind of person who got down with racial boxes.

M STEBBINS: You cannot define race. There's no scientific characteristics that define race.

SHAW: Mark's sisters told me that he grew up in a white family in a white rural town in Washington state. And in old news reports, Mark acknowledged this, too - though he told me race never came up in his family.

Did you understand yourself to be any race at all early on?

M STEBBINS: No. I was not taught nor did I particularly deal with any kind of understanding. It was just - you know, that's like asking, what did you understand about the sun? It was there.

SHAW: And then in the '60s, Mark left town and went to Washington State University and started getting involved in racial politics. And in the midst of going to protests and pickets, he took a sociology class that debunked the idea that each racial group was biologically distinct - that the idea that there were clear and immutable differences between the races - that that was all a bunch of baloney, which by now is a mainstream belief backed up by genetic science.

OK. So yes, my eyes and hair and skin look different from maybe your eyes and hair and skin. But those visible differences are superficial variations. Genetically, we are all more alike than different. We're all descended from Africans. And as our ancestors spread across the Earth, genetic mutations occurred, as they always do. And some got passed along because they were useful, like melatonin (ph) to protect against too much sunlight.

That's how over time, different populations develop certain characteristics. But these are minor. There's no black people gene or white people gene or Asian people gene.

M STEBBINS: The idea that race is a construct is a conclusion that I've formed looking at all of my experiences and all of my information that's - that I've taken in. It's a false frame put on a picture.

SHAW: You might think, easy for someone who can pass for white or black to talk so casually about race being a construct. But Mark wasn't casual about it. Mark lived as a conscientious objector but with racial categories.

M STEBBINS: I see them being as a problem, as causing problems, as being, you know, endemic to the violence.

SHAW: Here's how it worked. When he walked through the world, Mark says he tried his hardest to not use race as a lens for seeing anyone. And definitely, he tried not to use race as shorthand for any stereotypes.

M STEBBINS: I didn't see you as a particular member of a particular group.

SHAW: And with his own identity, Mark just stopped talking about his race. On the census, he checked the other box. And with people, he just let them think whatever they assumed he was - white, black, Latino. And when people directly asked Mark what race he was, he wouldn't answer. Or he'd sidestep and say...

M STEBBINS: There's only one race, and that's human.

SHAW: A strategy that worked up until that fateful meeting in 1983, when the answer I'm human finally wasn't enough. In that moment, Mark felt forced to choose a box even though he didn't believe in any of the boxes.

Why did you go on to say I'm black then?

M STEBBINS: OK. So somebody at that time was asking me to choose a box. And, you know, and you asked me yourself. Are you - where do you fit? So that's a box on me.

SHAW: Why this box?

M STEBBINS: That's the one I fit in (laughter).

SHAW: For what reasons?

M STEBBINS: It's not a - one reason. It's a choice. You gave me three donuts. Which donut do you want? Which one do you choose?

SHAW: Mark denies ever saying he was black to try to get more votes. He joked that he should have said he was Latino if he wanted to do that since he speaks Spanish fluently, and Latinos made up the largest group in that district. At that meeting, Mark says he was just trying to explain he was on their side.

M STEBBINS: But also, I said I'm black as a classification. Yes, I fit in your classification of black.

SHAW: OK. OK. What do you mean? OK. I didn't realize that.

M STEBBINS: That I fit in it - I see your classification you put out there. Even though there's no validity to it, no scientific definition of it, but you know, I'm part of that classification. Yes.

SHAW: Does that mean you have black ancestry?

M STEBBINS: I didn't define it.

SHAW: It seems like Jennet thinks you do.

M STEBBINS: I wouldn't say no (laughter).

SHAW: I feel like you're playing a game with me (laughter).

M STEBBINS: I am.

SHAW: I'm laughing in that moment, but talking to Mark was as crazy-making as it sounds. One moment, it seemed like he was playing games with race. But then he'd suddenly sound deadly serious about it.

M STEBBINS: Race is a death issue in this country, not a game. You can be killed because you're black. You can be killed because you're Asian.

M STEBBINS: I interviewed Mark maybe five separate times about the African ancestry thing, and he never explained or provided evidence. It was hard to put the pieces of Mark together, and it seemed like there were pieces he hadn't put together himself.

SHAW: Do you think any part of you was trying to get away from whiteness?

M STEBBINS: I don't know.

SHAW: Do you feel like in your life you've had any white privilege?

M STEBBINS: No, not particularly.

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SULLIVAN: First of all (laughter), that struck me as a really white thing to say.

SHAW: So in trying to make sense of Mark, I talked to a bunch of race scholars - Jackie Scott, Paul Taylor, Shannon Sullivan, G. Reginald Daniel and others. I told them the facts of the story you're hearing now, and they pretty much all brought up points that sounded a lot like what I'd heard some years ago about Rachel Dolezal. Maybe you remember her - the former head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane who has white parents and got in trouble for portraying herself as black.

SULLIVAN: So yes, it's constructed. But that doesn't mean individuals get to just make up what races are.

G REGINALD DANIEL: You just don't come out of the blue and just make up shit. That's what he did.

SULLIVAN: Blackness all of a sudden starts to be some nice clothes that white people can put on now and then when they want to.

PAUL TAYLOR: Even if he did not intend to, quote, "mislead," unquote, people about his race...

SULLIVAN: It's deceptive. It also seemed very convenient for him.

TAYLOR: I can say I opt out. The world ain't going to respect that.

SULLIVAN: Wait. He said he doesn't have white privilege? I mean, ironically, by thinking he could opt out, he so sedimented himself in the category of white people. Maybe you don't understand fully how race works, and you don't understand fully then how to start working against that.

SHAW: And, yeah, I definitely had a version of these voices running in my head as I was reporting, and so it was satisfying to hear these critiques laid out with such authority. But then this thing happened where I was talking to Nell Painter about Mark - the historian who put me in my place at the top of the show. And she did not seem interested in discussing anything having to do with Mark's racial identity.

PAINTER: There is no objective rightness here. There is no scientific rightness here. However, you have told a story of race, race, race, race, race. And this is part of our American witchcraft.

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SHAW: Our American witchcraft - in other words, the ideology of race in this country is so powerful that even after months of thinking about race as a construct, I still felt the need to track down the truth about Mark's race as if there's only one acceptable answer.

Why is it important that we understand that race is a process that we are always doing to each other and ourselves?

PAINTER: Well, I think we have so much despair now about where we are within discourses of race. And I think if we understand that we make race daily, monthly, that things change, and we can change them.

SHAW: Now, I personally happen to think that racial categories are extremely useful for tracking things like discrimination. And many people, including me, get something important from our racial identity. But still, it's a hopeful idea - that we don't have to just stick with the racial map we've been handed in this country. I want to believe it, but I'm not sure I do.

Do you think that there could be a day in the future where we don't see race anymore in this country?

PAINTER: No. Race - black-white race is too deeply embedded in American culture. You know, slavery is in American DNA. Racial categories and racial thinking are so deeply, deeply embedded it'll never go away. However, it has changed. So for instance, before the Civil War, the vast majority of black people were enslaved. And even if things are really, really bad after, it's not slavery. Before the Civil Rights Act, things were really, really bad for black people. And things changed afterwards. Maybe things are only really bad.

SHAW: It's kind of a feedback loop. So, for example, laws can change daily realities for people, which can then change the categories - what we mean when we say black or white - which can then potentially lead to new laws and change daily realities again down the road. So Dr. Painter thinks we shouldn't just circle around the identity question because it can distract us from other questions we should be asking.

PAINTER: What I'm putting forward is in this narrative, the questions I just ask you about - political activism, about the neighborhood - was he able to act on those promises? That is to say, what kind of a city councilman was this? That is not the story.

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SHAW: So I checked. Did Mark's being elected change in any way the day-to-day reality in South Stockton? Well, Mark was only on city council for about a year before Ralph beat Mark in the second recall election and took back the seat. So he didn't really have time to do much. And several people, including his own wife, told me that Mark was not a particularly wise politician. He often got in his own way, saying things that got him in trouble. But if you zoom out, I'd argue that the whole controversy around Mark's race ended up playing a small role in a cascade of events that ultimately led to a law that diluted the voting power of black people in South Stockton.

I spoke with local reporters, historians, political insiders and voters - both black and white - and while no one blames Mark, here's what happened. The court ended up finding that Ralph had intimidated voters and cheated by tampering with absentee ballots, and he was removed from office. And that, plus Mark in the headlines and some other political scandals, plus a lot more screaming at council meetings, motivated a group of concerned citizens to take action. The group, led by influential white community members, wanted to bring back, quote, "decorum" to city government and to make sure someone like Ralph wouldn't make it onto city council again. And so they fought to change the voting structure to give the city at-large final say over who represented each district, which, depending on who you ask, was either totally necessary or totally discriminatory.

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SHAW: In theory, citywide voting was supposed to make sure that city council represented the interests of all of Stockton. But practically speaking, people told me it also meant you needed more money and connections to the Stockton establishment to successfully run a campaign.

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SHAW: It's hard to say what would have happened if that voting change had never been made. But in 2015, a grand jury report called out its own city for neglecting South Stockton and not allocating resources appropriately for many years, which helped lead to a depressingly familiar set of problems - an abundance of potholes and broken streetlights, unchecked slumlords, almost no banks or grocery stores.

In 2016, Stockton finally went back to district elections to avoid a possible lawsuit over violating California's Voting Rights Act. And the same year, the city elected its first black mayor, who coincidentally was born and raised in South Stockton - a good year for South Stockton in many people's eyes.

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SHAW: As for Mark, it seems like the black community in Stockton, at least the people I talked to who were old enough to remember him, they've decided to evaluate him in a way that Dr. Painter might approve of - to my complete surprise.

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BOOKER GUYTON: If you want to identify as black, that's your business.

JANIE REDDISH: I didn't see a difference it made.

THADDEUS SMITH: He's always been black in my mind.

KIMBERLY WARMSLEY: When he talks about, like, four years ago, an African American man like myself wouldn't be here, I'm like, OK (laughter). But he knows the issues.

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SHAW: To be clear, Mark has run a couple more times for office in South Stockton, and he hasn't gotten elected again. But when it comes to being a member of the black community, I heard stories big and small about Mark helping to nab a landlady for not renting to black people, Mark helping with safety issues in the neighborhood, Mark helping so many families set up their own garden. But mostly, when I spoke to black people who were around in the 80s, even Ralph, I heard them talk about how after all these years, Mark's still here.

REDDISH: And I think he's proven his point because all these years, he's never changed. He's never decided on white again. I look at the long haul. You don't stop doing what you say you're going to do if you care. And he never stopped, in my opinion.

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TOMMIE MUHAMMAD: I don't know who you've talked to, but I want to give you the truth. Yes, it made a difference for me.

SHAW: This is Tommie Muhammad, a retired minister of the Nation of Islam. I thought, surely, the black nationalist guy would have something to say about this whole Mark business. And he did. He didn't like the thought of Mark possibly lying about being black maybe to get black votes. And he found Mark's whole opting out experiment to be pretty annoying.

MUHAMMAD: I don't know what Mark is. I mean, to this day, I don't know if Mark is black or white.

SHAW: But Tommie didn't get stuck on the black-white debate. As we sat there at the Comfort Inn I was staying at, it was obvious that Tommie had other pressing things on his mind. See, Tommie had gotten lost on his way over.

MUHAMMAD: When I came, I told you when you call - I said, oh, I know where Lathrop Road is. I'll be there. But I got lost because of all this development. All this was farmland. I worked all this land. I worked all this land. Golly, bringing back all kinds of emotions here.

SHAW: Tommie had worked the fields of Stockton as a teenager, crawling on his hands and knees. So he knew the history of the city well and what was at stake.

Can I ask, why are you crying?

MUHAMMAD: Because of - racism was deep embedded in this area in a way that - it's not like it was in the South. In the South, it was very obvious - hanging tree or whatever. But the courthouse could hang you. And your whole life can be destroyed by a police officer or two riding a car, see this black man, young black man.

SHAW: This desperation in Tommie's voice - it holds a lifetime of painful personal facts about race. Getting called the N-word by a fourth-grade classmate and slapping him, only to then get slapped by the teacher. Then in college, getting wrongfully charged with armed robbery. And then in his 40s, losing his younger brother to gang violence when he was mistaken for someone else and shot - which is why Tommie cares more about what Mark does rather than what he is because there are just so many problems to fix.

MUHAMMAD: Ralph and Mark - it got to where it didn't matter to me because maybe Ralph could do something better. Maybe. If not, we'll find out. Maybe Mark could do something better. If not, we'll find out. It got to the point where it didn't matter.

SHAW: In other words, in this particular local equation of rights and wrongs at least, it happened not to matter which box Mark wanted to be in, as long as he kept showing up.

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SPIEGEL: That's producer Yowei Shaw.

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SPIEGEL: So since we first reported this episode, a lot has changed. Perhaps you've noticed there is a global pandemic and a lot of people alone and isolating, uncertain about what is to come. And in this moment, we at INVISIBILIA have decided to try to create a little bit more of a community with our listeners. So after the break, we are going to bring you responses to last week's call-out that we made to everybody who heard the podcast some of which actually made us feel a lot better. Stick around.

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SPIEGEL: So last week, we told the story of Joy Milne, a woman who can smell diseases like Parkinson's and cancer. And as part of that show, we talked to a woman named Alison Williams, who has Parkinson's, who gave us some advice about how to go about living your life when the future looks scary. She told us not to think so much about how things would end but instead just spend your time focused on the next right thing that you can do. So we asked our listeners to call in with their next right thing that they needed to do. And we got responses from all over the world - Florida, South Korea, the U.K., Colombia. Really, thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who called us. We loved what you had to say. And here is a small number of those responses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello, INVISIBILIA. The next right thing for me to do is to take the poop out of the shoes of my 2-year-old daughter. She stepped in some dog poop, and my husband and I have been leaving these shoes wrapped in a plastic bag on our kitchen table for the past three days silently arguing about who should take the poop off. I feel like it's his responsibility because I'm seven-week pregnant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi, Alix and Hanna. I'm a line cook, and I lost my job because restaurants are barely making enough money to stay in business, let alone keep their staff on. My next right move is to write a blog about how to cook economic and comforting food in the kitchen while we're all stuck inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I am a new doctor in the Seattle area. The next right thing involves celebrating the incredible work that is done by all of the people that keep our hospital afloat - not just the doctors and nurses, but also the custodial staff who keep our hospital clean, the cafeteria workers who keep us fed, the security guards who keep us safe.

UMED: Hello. I'm Umed (ph). And my next right thing is because we're in, like, a coronavirus pandemic and we're doing school from home, I think I should be nicer to my teachers because they're probably under a lot of stress right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The next right thing for me to do is to leave my immediate family in these uncertain new times and drive 1,000 miles to take care of my ailing father. He was a dad who didn't really take care of me when I was growing up, but he's now very likely facing the end of his life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The next thing I want to do is using part of my time for study (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The next right thing to do, OK...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Say hello to people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Houseplants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: No new clothes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Setting up the home jewelry studio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Just to hug my kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Take a hot bath.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Growing lots and lots of flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Push-ups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Convince my 13-year-old cousin to try a fried turnip.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Making a lot of food for my family in case they're stuck at home without me for a long time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Tell him I love him and that I can't wait to hold him in my arms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: (Singing) I'm about to leave my program, and I'm feeling just fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Offering to wipe down a cart for an older person.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Confront that business and the way that it is f****** over those people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Do a short walk before I feed my kitty cats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: Cocktail and margarita party on Facetime with two of my best gal pals.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: My next right thing was an unexpected job change to a farmhand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: My boyfriend Daniel is throwing me a surprise video conference birthday party with all my friends and family. And he thinks I don't know about it, but I do. And so my next right thing is to feign surprise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #25: And that's it. Good luck, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: Stay safe, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #27: Wish me luck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #28: Ciao.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #29: How do I turn this off?

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SPIEGEL: Thanks for sharing, everyone. Take care of yourselves. Take care of the people that you love. And just hold on. We can get through this.

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SPIEGEL: NPR's INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our show today was edited by Anne Gudenkauf and Deborah George. INVISIBILIA is produced by Kia Miakka Natisse, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our podcast manager is Liana Simstrom. We had help today from Alec Stutson, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Cara Tallo, Rachel Carbonara, David Guthertz and Oliver Whang.

ROSIN: A huge shoutout to historian Philip Merlo for invaluable help with research. Also, Benjamin and Janie Reddish, Anthony Theard, Willie Easter, Bishop Booker Guyton, Gloria Allen, Thaddeus and Mae Smith, Kimberly Warmsley, Jimi Choice, Mike Fitzgerald, Bob Benedetti, Rich Ibarra and everyone else we talked to in Stockton, thank you. Also, special thanks to all the race scholars who you didn't hear in the episode but who were so, so helpful - Ann Morning, Nadia Kim, Van Tran, George Yancey, Kris Sealey, Camisha Russell, Charles Mills, Tomas Jimenez, Carlos Hoyt, Greg Smithsimon, Wendy Roth, Ranier Spencer, Jennifer Bratter, Rogers Brubaker (ph) and so many more people.

We also had help from Emily Bogle, Sarah Knight, Nick Fountain, Jingnan Huo, Michael May, Ariel Miller, Emily Vaughn, Darryl Perkins, Parth Shah, Terence Samuel, Jerome Socolovsky, Jeanette Woods, Chloee Weiner and Kiarra Powell, fact-checking by Hilary McClellan and Ayda Pourasad.

SPIEGEL: Our technical director is Andy Huether, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Music for this episode by Stephen Antony Beasley and Blue Dot Sessions. To see an original illustration for this episode by Leonardo Santamaria, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

And now for our moment of non-Zen.

C: If you gave me a brand new puppy, I would still feel, like, a loyalty to my old-aged dog.

SHAW: It's interesting that you just compared your Asian identity to an aging dog.

C: Maybe that was a bad analogy (laughter).

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SPIEGEL: Join us next week for more INVISIBILIA.

[CORRECTION: In a previous version of this podcast, we incorrectly referred to melanin as melatonin.]

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