On Sunday, CNN premiered the fifth installment of Soledad O’Brien’s Black in America series, this time stepping back and posing the question “Who is Black in America?” in an exploration of racial identity. The special highlights how colorism and accusations of “acting White” have served as divisions within the Black community, causing feelings of rejection for many light-skinned Blacks and perpetuating discrimination against darker skinned Blacks.
What might be most interesting about this conversation, however, is that it took place before a largely White audience who no doubt has their own idea of who is Black, regardless of what those interviewed had to say. While the report focuses on how the Black community defines Blackness, many White people have taken up the mantle of assessing Black bona fides as well. As someone whose identity has been called into question mostly by White people, I hope the report served as an opportunity for White America to stop weighing in on Black authenticity and start listening.
White acquaintances have put me under the microscope to examine my hair, light skin, and features for inconsistencies with their notion of Blackness. They’ll declare I’m not Black, and insist that I claim being White as well. In reality, I have no problem acknowledging having White ancestry, but my White relatives seem like relics of the past. More like people who made a pit stop on the family tree, rather than people whose stories and lessons were passed down generations. I have no reason to think of myself as anything but Black. A quick history lesson could clear up any confusion, but to these people, seeing is believing.
My interests have also been assessed against a list of approved Black activities. A White friend once called me “White washed” for being interested in Buddhism (so many things wrong with that claim). And as I was offering my perspective on an issue, a friend suggested that we ask “someone who is really Black.”
White people who feel entitled to weigh in on Blackness seem to base their notions of race on what makes them most comfortable. They hold a caricature of Blackness in their minds, and anyone who deviates from that image challenges how they have come to see the world. Professor Yaba Blay, featured prominently throughout the report, explains through her work on the (1)ne Drop project that “when met by people who self-identify as ‘Black,’ but do not fit into a prototypical model of ‘Blackness,’ many of us not only question their identity, but challenge their Blackness, and thus our potential relationship to them.” In other words, if they can figure out what box to put me in, they’ll know how to treat me.
Having your physical appearance scrutinized and personal identity denied is nothing less than objectifying. When White people examine and define our Blackness, it harkens back to the days of commodifying Black people based on how we look. While many Black people indulge in the “Black enough” debate, having a White person reject your Blackness suggests that it is a matter under their purview, not even something for us as a people to wrestle with. It suggests that our ability to formulate an identity is nothing but an illusion, and stereotypes, not personal experiences, govern who we are. Such beliefs are grounded in simplistic notions of race that neither honor our individuality nor the complex history that binds us as a community.
What these White people need to realize is that implicit in their accusations that I am not Black enough is the notion that Black people’s options and interests are supposed to be limited while theirs are naturally boundless. The issue isn’t whether I’m similar to them; it’s their failure to recognize that they’re similar to me. A Black person. That we are allowed to have things in common. That what makes me Black isn’t how much of an “other” I am, it’s the fact that I am profoundly shaped by being a member of the African Diaspora and know no other story. It’s in what I care about and in the work I do. It’s in how I feel, how I think, and how I express myself. So, who is Black? I am.
Tracey Ross is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and completed her Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Her writing focuses on women, race, and urban policy, and has been featured in Clutch, Racialicious, and The Hairpin.