Undefining Blackness

I haven’t decided what conversation was more demeaning to have growing up: a white person saying they were blacker than me or a black person saying I wasn’t black enough.

There are easy ways to define what is and what is not “black.” We can now identify Black names. Black music. Black neighborhoods. Black churches. As an “Oreo,” I knew these did not apply to me.

When thinking through this article, I consulted with my personal Cornel West on all racial matters: my former intramural flag football teammate and friend, Sam. He was born to Nigerian father and Jamaican mother. He lived in a predominantly white suburb in Maryland. He played soccer. He was, by many standards, a fellow “Oreo.” Now a degree-holding, Taye Diggs-resembling, confident black man I admire, he has come a long way toward embracing his identity. But he wasn’t always this way. He described his childhood mentality in an e-mail thusly:

I bought those horrendously baggy Southpole jeans and Tim(berland) boots to try and fit the mold. My jackets had to have a baggy hood that covered my face like some Sith Lord. I listed as many rappers as I could under the ‘Favorite Music’ section on Facebook and MySpace. I even looked at other black people’s profiles to see what rappers they had so I could listen to a YouTube song of theirs and claim I liked them too.

When I first read his candid admission, I laughed. Our stories felt so similar. Our confusion was equally shared. It sounds silly now, but for some African Americans, we are either born black or we have to work at it. Discovering this distinction can be painful and even harder to fix.

As I grew older, I decided to not worry about not being black enough. If someone defined blackness as being “inarticulate, ill-mannered and intimidating,” I agreed with them. I am rightly not any of those those things. Additionally, I took no responsibility in making someone change his or her understanding of blackness. Above all, I reasoned, I represented only myself. I represented my character. I was responsible for my choices. I refused to be tied down to popular ideas of blackness.

Which is not to say I did not seek to define blackness in my own way. In my search for blackness, I demanded richness, nuance, and complexity. I knew blackness was more than the easy definitions. Yet I am realizing now that this search for complexity was equally fruitless.

It is clear now that how I understand race personally is almost completely irrelevant. How we understand it collectively is entirely important. Customizing definitions of blackness that fit my character ignore realities of race and have consequences I can’t allow.

When Sam and I step out in our physical or metaphorical hoodies, it doesn’t matter what songs are on our iPods, it doesn’t matter how few days we missed from school, it doesn’t matter the things we contribute to our community. We engulf the best and worst definitions of blackness, whether we fit them or not. We have no choice. In those moments, nuance, complexity and richness are meaningless. Blacks of all intellectual and emotional capacity must accept this.

Now, there are some who argue that there is no such thing as race. My sister, who took the verbal dismissals of her blackness much harder than I did, grew to embrace the idea that it was unfair to define her as a black woman; that it limited her choice to dictate how people could respond to her. There is a value to that sentiment. Race does not and should not dictate what anyone values.

There is also a thought that racial enlightenment comes from transcending the mention, thought, and reaction to race. We are all humans, some conclude, and that is enough. That in moving beyond blackness, I have evolved into the next phase of human cooperation. I can’t accept this.

But this rejecting of a racial identity as a solution for community harmony is faulty on two fronts. Don’t deprive me the opportunity to live out being the legacy of courageous men and woman of all races who made my story of blackness a reality. Acknowledging this legacy in blacks, or anyone, should not make you uncomfortable. Setting ourselves apart from that legacy does not celebrate my identity. It neuters my history.

More importantly, this definition of blackness has massive consequences on those who never had a chance to define it at all.

I watched Boyz n the Hood for the first time recently. Nothing in that movie reflected an identity I could relate to. I never juggled weekends between parents. I never felt truly threatened by my neighbors. I never lost a friend. John Singleton didn’t set out to show my narrative as a black man. But I was moved, understanding how dismissing blackness has consequences I never realized.

If blackness is limited to those from South Los Angeles and the like, they’ll be easier to structurally dismiss by society. I can’t let that happen. I don’t deserve justice more than someone in Bed-Stuy because America might feel slightly more comfortable with me dating his or her conceptual daughter. I don’t deserve a thorough education because I don’t make society clutch their metaphorical purses when I walk by.

I didn’t rise above any stereotypes because I set out to with perseverance and strength. I got lucky. I didn’t keep my parents together. I didn’t determine that I would be blessed with teachers that cared. Which isn’t to say I didn’t do my part to capitalize on the opportunities I had. But if not for forces I had no say in determining, I might be no different than those I previous blamed for giving blacks a bad name. Pretending that I am “more than black” only proves that I’ve surrendered the role of defining blackness to those that don’t care about black people in the first place.

Which is why I’m not going to let the world accept the easy definitions of blackness, thinking that they never applied to me or that they don’t matter. I’m not going to fit a mold of blackness I think I earned or worked for. The definitions of blackness matter as long as I let they define blacks I might never see or interact with. I will represent them as much as they represent me.

If you’re going to define what blackness means, you’d better add me, a Coldplay-loving, baseball-watching, piano-playing writer, to the equation. TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • Darcell

    Thank you!

  • Fobioh

    i love this in so many ways. thank you!

  • Teaandbiscuitsplease

    ‘OREO’….LOL in London we call it a ‘cocoanut complex’

    -said Black person is not percieved as really that black by black people or white people therefore ‘Brown on the outside and white on the inside’. I have been called this, purely on first impression because of speech or mannerisms like people sometimes expected me to walk in rooms rotate my neck and click my fingers at every statement made.

  • Nat

    This should be a stand-in for any race, i.e. White people shouldn’t be ashamed of their whiteness and Asians of their asian-ness (?). Haha. It is the myriad of cultures that make up our communities that makes them so vibrant and interesting. Embrace your individual identity, and your heritage in the process. 

    • http://twitter.com/honeyjinx buki o

      white people shouldn’t be ashamed of their whiteness but they definitely need to be aware and own up to what buying into the system of whiteness means. 

  • Joja

    Thank you!

  • Guest

    Thank you. As a black female in England who has experienced the same thing, this is a very refreshing article to read. I also went through all the same stages as you.

  • dani

    this is me (except I’m female). Thanks.

  • http://omgstephlol.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

    This is fantastic, thanks for writing it.

  • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnamariaPhilippeaux

    This is the story of my life, basically. I still take great offense when the comment is made that I am not black simply because of some of my values and the way I choose to live my life. It’s often made by white friends and peers who lack the intelligence and sophistication that would enable them to realize that this comment is racist, and above all, ridiculous, but it hurts a little bit more when it comes from their black counterparts. Regardless of how I speak, what I wear, and how much Thought Catalog I read, I  I will always be black, so fucking deal with it. Black people deal with enough oppression from everybody else, so it will never make sense to me how some are willing to take that further and turn on the ones that “don’t belong.” Clearly this is sensitive for me! But this was written very well, so thank you for it. 

    • Anonymous

      Nailed it.

      Also, this is an excellent piece. Too bad not many TCers will read it (not enough 90s nostalgia or stories about how living in NYC is the best!!11one!)

      • Jessica

         ha! exactly

  • Myssie

    This article says it all. I wish I could make this required reading for every person who has stood in my face and told me that I’m not black – especially if they reinforced it with an “I’m blacker than you.” Black people come in all shapes and sizes, all sexual orientations, all religious orientations and backgrounds. Black people are so much more diverse than how we are shown on TV or other forms of mass media. I wish people would open their eyes and minds and try to stop putting people into boring little boxes.

  • MP90909

    Eloquently put. Have you read much about “The Huxtable Effect?” I think you’d enjoy it.

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    As a hodge-podge of genes who identifies as Black, I always found it a little suspicious that the Klan agrees with most of the items on the *Mainstream Definitions of Blackness* list.  I also think it’s funny that there are third-generation Italian-American, or German-American,  or Swedish-American kids being encouraged to think of Shakespeare’s work  as part of their general cultural inheritance, whereas Black kids in the same classrooms, whose ancestors have, in many cases, been speaking English for ten generations, are not.  Our segregationist practices didn’t stop with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you see. Most of the racially-segregated country clubs are in our minds, these days and that’s harder to change.

    Also: re: hip hop: it may have started out as a regional (Black/ Hispanic Brooklyn) cultural practice, but now it’s just a lucrative global advertizing artifact and it is already half-way to being as “white” as Rock-n-Roll. Black kids think it’s the key to authenticity because white advertisers encourage them to.

    Nothing in America is as authentic as class/money but we aren’t always comfortable admitting that… possibly because the vast majority of us are not near the top (or even the middle) of that hierarchy. Maybe, in the end,  Race is an enduring meme because so many under-privileged whites still have *that* little memento of privilege to cling to, while it gives Blacks an identity we wouldn’t otherwise have as perpetually-excluded Americans…?

    As I always say:  the topic of Race is a double-edged sword without a handle. 

  • Jack

    Really refreshing to read this. I’ve been thinking lately about how irritating the converse of discussions about ‘white privilege’ can be – namely the conception that black people, especially black males, are incomparably disadvantaged, hardened, angry, etc. I’m proud to be black, and I don’t deny that there are still major racial issues in the US, but it’s frustrating that many people seem to think that to have that pride requires me also accept a a personal narrative that I can’t relate to. My life has been fantastic, and I’m not going to disown that in order to constrain myself within outdated racial constructs. It’s frustrating that American society seems so eager to force black Americans into a monolithic identity that an increasingly large number of us just don’t fit into. The belief that academic achievement; taste in music, clothing, etc.; and one’s demeanor must fit within the bounds of racial identity is so antiquated – so why are we still dealing with it? Claims that being ‘sophisticated’ or ‘well-spoken’ or even attractive are elements of ‘whiteness’ is racism, plain and simple. I could rant about this for hours, but really just wanted to post to say I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who’s thought about this.

  • Jessica

     thanks for writing this, robert! especially in a place like thought catalog. this is me and my life, except i’m female.

  • http://twitter.com/Neil_Dubs Neil W.

    Great article. As an an educated black man and the son of two Nigerian Immigrants with masters degrees I can relate wholeheartedly. The funny thing is, I didn’t even grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood, but still have had similar experiences. My hometown is probably about as well mixed as a town can get, but because I was in honors classes growing up and spoke articulately (my mom was a grammar school English teacher so speaking properly was kind of a point of emphasis) I was still called out by blacks and whites as not “really” being black. So in response to your article, lets start adding more to the “definition” 

     I love hip hop, Rick Ross, ASAP Rocky, Kanye, and Schoolboy Q are some of my favorites. But I also love rock, grew up playing in a pop punk band, and have played Bamboozle and the Warped Tour. I played basketball,  baseball, and Football my entire life, but I was also captain of the Saxophone section of my High School marching band, and captain of the men’s Epee squad of my High School Fencing team. I’m an Eagle Scout and never touched a drop of alcohol until my first semester of college, but ended up joining a fraternity and playing rugby at the Ivy League university from which I graduated. Despite my love for all things “fratty” I also love romantic comedies,  Japanese anime, and can solve a Rubik’s cube in under a minute. All of these things define me. And I am black. Thus, all of these things define being black. 

    Yeah, lets keep adding to the definition…

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

       “I was still called out by blacks and whites as not “really” being black.”

      It just blows my mind how people can’t see that they’ve internalized Jim-Crow-type racism with this kind of attitude. Like we’re The Black Borg! What’s your name, “Seven of Nine”? If it’s obviously racist/reductive/ offensive to claim to know how someone can think/behave if they’re “really white” or “really Asian”, why is it okay for *us* to have to go through a Race Detector (and pat-down) every time we meet new people? Give it another hundred years, I guess…

blog comments powered by Disqus