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March 15, 2007

Are You Sure You’re Black?

Posted in: Race

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.

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