Are You Sure You’re Black?

Am I black? It’s the subject of some debate.

At least once a month, someone somewhere will ask me what my ethnicity is. “African American” is the answer. And then comes the follow-up question: “You’re not mixed?” I don’t mind answering so much as what happens after. My answer goes something like this:

Well, slave-holders kept no records, so it’s really impossible to know the ancestry of many African Americans in any detail beyond the fact that their ancestors were slaves. But it is a fact that slave masters raped female slaves, producing mixed-race children, so who knows?

Awkward silence. But if it’s awkward for the asker, imagine what it’s like to know your great-great-grandfather was considered property under United States law and be reminded of that fact every time you write your last name. Al Sharpton (of all people) said it well. The point is that many black people in the Americas may be multi-ethnic by some definition, but that history was discarded. And in that history lies the double-edged sword that our ethnicity is at once defined and obscured by the horrors of slavery.

So, it’s particularly ironic that, once I made up the list of The First 11 Black Videogame Stars, I realized that I had become the judge of who is black. (It’s not like I could ask.) Some folks were in, others out, some “borderline” cases were fudged. (A few folks mentioned Torque from The Suffering, but he sure doesn’t look black.) And then there was the Jade debate. “Hey, Jade. Are you sure you’re black?”

The experience of determining blackness (with a few hundred of my closest friends) really got me thinking about the nature of race in a way I hadn’t before. As someone who grew up in the United States keenly aware of my racial identity, I never considered the fact that, well, being black means something quite different around the world. Here it’s governed by one drop rule and all the awful history that goes with it. Alternate definitions abound elsewhere. But it always seems that the darker your skin, the lower your social status. Is there a place that’s an exception? I’d love to hear about it.

It makes me smile to imagine a colorblind America, but bits like Sentencing Project and Kiri Davis’ Girl Like Me remind us of how far we have to go. Failing that, I at least hope some future Genographic Project will tell me where my ancestors came from. The next time someone asks me my ethnicity, I’d love to say “I’m Ghanaian and Dutch. Now let me tell you about my great-great-great grandparents…”

For more on the worldwide definitions of blackness, see black people.

6 Responses to “Are You Sure You’re Black?”

  1. 1 davo

    It’s amazing that you say this, because here in the south (as is probably expected, who knows?) your social identity is determined by how you act. I was raised in the Midwest, and to anyone but Midwesterners, it’s obvious.

    So everyday I’m barraged with questions and statements like

    “Why (do) you act so white?”
    “You talk like a white boy”
    “Do you even date black women?”


    But never once have I been asked ‘are you mixed’ because my skin is typically dark (well, it’s lighter but not darker dark). The idea here is, if you act black you’re black. Even if you’re inherently white.

    Great post.

  2. 2 Jason

    Interesting. It’s sad that people seem to think of you in terms of stereotypes but the upside (if there is one) is that you don’t play into them and so force folks to rethink the boxes they put people into. It’s hard for me to imagine having to answer those kinds of questions daily. I think I would flip after a while!

  3. 3 judy

    About ten years ago I spent a month in France researching the lives of immigrant African women. While there I was amazed to discover something I was not looking for: that at that time in France, the Africans the French really despised were those from North Africa… people who, in my view, didn’t look very different from many French. Surveys also showed that the French had more positive feelings towards those Africans from sub-Saharan Africa, people with very dark skin. This is probably due to the fact that Algeria used to be part of France, and that the Algerian war for independence lasted eight brutal years. It is also very likely due to the fact that at that time there were many more North Africans in France than sub-Saharan Africans. But, finally getting to your question (“Is there a place that’s an exception” to the social rule”the darker your skin, the lower your social status?”),
    the answer is “yes,” and I saw it in France. It was a good reminder to me that the creation of categories of people called “race” is basically about the creation of a caste system, not biology.

  4. 4 Jason

    That’s fascinating. Separating the notions of race and caste helps make it easier to think all this through. I wonder how many cases like the one you describe exist vs. color-line breakdowns. There is a caste system in India, for instance, but I’ve also heard Indians talk about “black Indians.” And in Vietnam, women cover their skin all summer to avoid getting tans because it’s not “beautiful” to be dark. I wonder if that was there before Hollywood films arrived there to teach them that good and bad are defined by skin color. I bet many a thesis has been written on this. I’d love to hear more.

  5. 5 mike

    has anyone ever heard a haitian, jamaican, or a dominican like sammy sosa say im not black.i guess what they are trying to say is that their not african american. but it is still obvious that they are descendents of africa.

  6. 6 Jason

    Mike, no I hadn’t heard that but it’s interesting. Can you provide a link? I’d like to read more.

    Could it be that because they are in the US, they are reacting to the particular definition of black we have here and saying they don’t accept that?

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