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.

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