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Who Is Black?

Updated: Jan 10

An important question at a time when our sense of identity and belonging are at odds with the identifying-majority.

It was a question posed to me when I attended an open day at Birmingham City University (BCU). I went to find out more about their exciting new undergraduate course (it's in its second year now) called Black Studies.

On the day I met the 'UK's first professor of black studies', Kehinde Andrews. We had a mock lecture which began with two questions 'what is black? 'and who is black?'

After the question, the room of four or five young men and women of colour went quiet. I leaned over, and said to a young light skinned queen, 'this is hard.' This question was simple, yet the answer I was seeking seemed so complex.

After some thought, I spoke up and was quickly shot down. I said 'to be black is to identify as black'. Others (everyone) disagreed and Kehinde came back with the example of Rachel Dolezal. Rachel is a white woman who recognises herself as being black by pretending to be black,  and so that means she isn't black.

Rachel D. before and after her transition.

Who, Then, is Black?

Another young, mature beige-skinned chick said, 'skin colour' and we agreed.

We moved on through the mock lecture, but that answer and the question lingered, as well as other queries, such as:

  • Skin colour, so obviously that excludes white people?

  • Does that mean everyone who has black skin is black?

  • What about Asians, i.e. Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who have dark brown skin?

  • How black i.e. how dark skinned do you have to be to be black?

  • So maybe there are other physical characteristics as well as skin colour that are associated with being black, albeit stereotypical in a westerns eyes, e.g. coarser hair, thicker lips and broader noses?

What About Me and My Blackness? I felt closer to an answer having a had a conversation about identity and heritage with an older English gentleman who works with Africans in Kenya. When he mentioned a young black man we both were familiar with, to help identify him, he said 'he's proper black' (emphasis his). That comment didn't sit well with me, so I made a point of saying there's a 'diversity of blackness,' which he enjoyed and laughed at agreeably. In reality, arguably, no one's skin is literally black.

Moreover, I said people have controversial views about people with mix-d heritage. They often want to define what race you are. His argument about being 'proper black' was that genetically and aesthetically I wasn't as black as the other fella. His point about the link between my race and my genetics is tenuous at best (it sounds persuasive). Furthermore, the failure of scientists to point out a substantial correlation between the patterns in DNA variations between us and the physical characteristics that visibly distinguish us from each other disproves his point.

To me, this implied his distinction implied that I wasn't 'proper black'. Which lead to more questions of:

  • I was still black, what kind of black?

  • Wait, am I black anymore?

I finished the conversation and for the next few days felt a little off. Haunted by that statement. I don't take things personally, well I do my best because at the end of the day it's the way he sees the world. It's his opinion according to his beliefs, so it's not really about me, it's about him. 

To use a metaphor: he's living the movie of his life with his eyes, and I refuse to be a bit player in it. As Don Miguel Ruiz says in his book the Four Agreements, about 'The Second Agreement: 'Don't Take Anything Personally':

"they create an entire picture or movie their heads, and in that picture, they are the director, they are the producer, they are the main actor or actress. Everyone else is secondary actors or actress. It is their movie. The way they see that movie is according to the agreements they have made with life. Their point of view is something personal to us. It's not anyone's truth but theirs."

"You're Not Proper Black, but You're Not White Either." - Never Live Someone Else's Truth Moreover, that's a significant thing to recognise, mainly as a person of colour: not to live someone else's movie. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post as minorities, we are often at odds with the identifying-majority, i.e. mostly straight white men and women, who have for centuries tried to define, degrade and dehumanise PoC.

However, I still wanted to critique his POV and so discussed it with my partner, dad and brother.  I concluded that 'proper black' is similar to saying, half-caste. 'Caste is derived from the term caste, which comes from the Latin castus, meaning pure, and the derivative Portuguese and Spanish casta, meaning race. Half-caste acknowledged as being entirely derogative and dehumanising in its usage today.

What of proper? Proper means of what is correct, genuine, appropriate and acceptable. So 'half-caste' has just evolved into the inappropriate euphemism 'proper black'. Instead of labelling mix-d people in terms of what we supposedly are, they're defining us in terms of what we are supposedly not.

Solution? It's nothing new, PoC use it. Dark skinned for 'proper black' people and 'light-skinned' for the rest. It might be a matter of semantics to you, but it isn't to me. 

Also, what black person really is black? Like jet black. In the same way, what white person's skin is literally the colour white? Arguably none at all.

A point I can't resist mentioning before ending this post is the widespread belief that mix-d race or lighter-skinned people have historically always had a pretty better deal than black, dark-skinned people in Western society. I agree to the extent that we've been offered privileges, particularly within slave systems that darker-skinned folk haven't, i.e. house Negroes vs field Negroes; where the house negroes tended to be proffered for lighter-skinned. I absolutely agree that being dark-skinned is a harder road to travel and every I have would've harder to come by had my skin been darker.

"Posterity will and is bearing reproach on the identifying-majority."

That's not always the case as Afua Hirsch in her latest book 'Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging' reveals. Some of Europe's famous philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, thought racial mixing 'would degrade the good [white race]' (1). Nietzsche denounced the fate of mix-d race babies due to the supposed their consequent inherent 'disharmony of habits and value concepts' (2). 

Rockefeller Foundation, the British Colonial Office and the Carnegie Corporation, each considered leading philanthropic organisations in their time; all 'backed studies into the presumed social anarchy that would be caused by the racial mixing' (3).

Finally, the Euro-American white upper-class elite thought the mixing of the races would lead to the degradation of white humanity. For instance, in the 1925 guidance issued by the Home Office, openly sought to discourage at all costs white women from having relationships with non-white men, warning them of a long list of supposed awful consequences (Bland, 14).

Posterity will and is bearing reproach on the identifying-majority. My role and hope as a minority, using Tutu's Fourfold Path of forgiveness as a model, contrary to popular opinion isn't about white-hating or generalising about white people (I'm generalising about white racists) to induce white guilt or white anger. No. Instead, I'm telling stories of my personal experiences and naming the hurts that have come out of them. The goal of the fourfold path is forgiveness and the renewing or releasing of relationships, not reverse racism.

Anyway, back to us, back to black. As we find ourselves at odds with the identifying-majority, as people of African Origin, we would do better in pursuing self-determination. This is the second principle of Kwanzaa also known as Kujichagulia. This principle is a call "to recover and speak our own special truth to the world and raise images above the earth that reflect our capacity for human greatness and progress."

I encourage you to define, defend and develop yourself instead of allowing or helping others to do this. I define myself as Black Biracial because it's specific; mixed race isn't a race.

To en-able you to do this start with your shared African Carribean heritage, shared social experience and our shared memories.

1. Julie K. Ward and Sam L. Lott (2002), Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, John Wiley & Sons, 159.

2. F Nietzsche (1881). Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Cambridge University Press (2206 edn), IV, 274.

3. Frank Furedi, 'How Sociology Imagined "Mixed Race"', in Parker and Song, 23-41.

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