Who's black and whose black?

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 17, 2009 12:00am | Post a Comment

As Black History Month rolls on, I asked myself a question that may seem stupid to most people: Who exactly is black and who is not? And how is it decided? Does the individual or society determine what we are or is it a combination of both? Are there other factors? Is this the Family Feud or actual objective science?

In 2009, all rational and educated people now accept that race is a human construct, which isn't to say that it's meaningless. As long as people are treated differently (preferentially, discriminatorily or just differently based on presupposed differences) on the basis of race, how society constructs and applies that race is worth thinking about. And, ideally, there shouldn't be any shame in recognizing broad cultural differences either. Why should "white pride" be offensive? Pride in er-one, I say. Minor caveat: to even assume that American society has reached a consensus on race defies reality – that's why Dave Chappelle instituted the racial draft. So step with me into a blog of shadows and substance, things and ideas into, to coin a phrase, The Twilight Zone.


 Alicia Keys
Barack Obama, Halle Berry and Alicia Keys all chose black

Some people argue that race is primarily a self-identification. If someone views themselves as black, provided they have some Sub-Saharan ancestry, then that's their right. Barack Obama, Halle Berry and Alicia Keys all have one white and one black parent. All were abandoned by their black fathers and raised by single white mothers. All consider themselves black. I'm OK with that I suppose, in part because society tells them that they're black as well... except for Alicia Keys. I honestly thought she was a white girl with cornrows until I saw that she was in The Secret Life of Bees

Of course, there's a notion that people of bi-racial backgrounds have to identify with the dark side, because of the racialism of American culture. But is it possible that identifying with one's black side can actually help? When Geraldine Ferraro suggested that, she was branded a racist by Obama's people. But when someone as white as Halle Berry accepts her Oscar on behalf of all the "...nameless, faceless women of color" I had to wonder what really gave her the right... and what the hell she was talking about. Could it be that she's just trading on her blackness to get ahead?
Morgan Freeman with pink cotton candy                        Morgan Freeman thought he was part Choctaw, but these people may actually be                      

Here's a question: what if what you believe you are is wrong or you just don’t know? You are what you are, despite what you’ve been told or tell yourself, whether you know it or not. Morgan Freeman (incidentally, one of the most vocal critics of Black History Month) thought, as many black Americans do, that he was part Native (Choctaw in his case)… how else to explain his features? High cheekbones, wavy hair... Then his DNA said, “uh-uh" and it turned out he was just part white. As Chris Rock said, “It’s easier to say, ‘We got a little Indian in us’ than, ‘We got raped a few times.’”

Damn it feels good to be Zulu! Oprah's real people, not getting any schools any time soon

What if you really really really want to be something you’re not at all and you know it but refuse to admit it to yourself? Oprah Winfrey’s xenocentric worship of all things Zulu led to her telling a J’Berg audience that she was Zulu, then trotting out her proof: she likes Spur fries and Nando’s Chicken (I’m not making this up). I wear white jeans and love chile rellenos but that doesn't make me Mexican! As if that wasn't enough, a DNA test had proved Oprah was Zulu... so she said. Poo-pooing historians were quick to point out that Zulus probably weren’t taken by anyone as slaves, and that if they had been, it wasn’t to North America. Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Zulus even said, “I hate to tell Oprah this, but she is sorely mistaken.” Her actual DNA test came later and traced at least one branch of her family tree to the Kpelle people, of (big surprise) West Africa. You could tell she was gutted. But Oprah is, if nothing else, a stubborn survivor and altruist who’s nepotistic in spirit, if not reality. Why else would she keep building schools in KwaZulu-Natal and not the Kpelle homeland? She didn’t even give her people the Ugg boots, iPods or Blackberries that she rewards her relatively wealthy television audience with. Eff them!

Wallace Fard Muhmmad and Ali G "Is it cuz I's black?"

What about Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam? Born Wallace Dodd Ford (according the notoriously smear-happy FBI... take it with a grain...), his heritage was a mix of Polynesian and white. But this is the guy that taught that whites were a race of devils created by the mad scientist Yakub on the isle of Patmos, whereas blacks were divine. Looking at a picture of him, it’s hard to believe that anyone thought of him as black, but it was, as they say, a different time.

In the end, claiming that you're something isn't everything. For that matter, almost all white Americans claim to be "part Cherokee." Some may actually have a drop of Native ancestry, but that doesn't mean that you suffered for it or that it defines in any measurable way who you are. In reality, two thirds of self-identified white Americans have black ancestry, on average 2.3%. About 80% of self-identified black Americans have white ancestry, and it's usually closer to 20%. Yet at this point in history you rarely, if ever, hear white people talking about how black they are or vice versa. So we have to, at the end of the day, accept that who we are in society's eyes isn't entirely up to the indivual-- otherwise everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick's Day, Goths really are vampires and I want to be Mintakan.
I’ve also heard the idea put forth that you are what you have to defend. Even if you're only a quarter black, but people treat you differently because of your blackness, then that's how it's decided -- you're black! I find this notion of race depending wholly on societal perceptions as, whilst having some validity, being even more problematic than the self-identification argument. For one, it gives society (and especially those who treat people differently based on their ethnicity) way too much credit. Society, as a whole, is pretty stupid and, broadly speaking, incredibly uneducated.

In America, almost all black people have a high degree of white heritage and are still considered black. It started with the one drop rule, where people were treated as black even if their blackness was invisible to the naked eye. Since then, the fraction has shrunk as America’s general view of blacks has broadly moved from racially prejudiced vilification to racially prejudiced lionization. With the exception of a few people scattered on the plains, most Americans no longer patronizingly view blacks as subhuman property (as they did in the past); rather, they are seen as exemplars of authenticity to be imitated and co-opted into pop culture. At this rate, I predict that in 30 years we’ll have come full circle back to the one drop rule with people bragging about being 1/16th black as a symbol of their realness.

George Herriman and Jacko, black when born but subsequently white... I think

Another issue I have with leaving it up to American society to tell us what we are is that it gives validity to the phenomenon of passing. If you’re convincing enough to fool people into thinking you’re something you’re not, then you are. Tootsie was a woman. George Herriman, the genius creator of Krazy Kat, was a light-skinned Creole who grew up in New Orleans. Practiced at sniffing out the slightest blackness as New Orleanian officials were, he was listed as "colored" on his birth certificate. As a teenager, however, Herriman and his family moved to L.A., where the racial dynamic was markedly different and people weren't so capable of recognizing faint traces of blackness. Herriman had only to wear a hat and everyone agreed he was Greek. On his death certificate he was listed as "Caucasian." If we completely accept the “you are what you have to defend” argument, then George Herriman was born black and turned white, like Michael Jackson after him.

Grey Owl, Iron Eyes Cody and Yul Brynner, all people of color... the color white

Although it's controversial to suggest that being something other than white could ever benefit someone's career in this white supremacist world, some evidence is available that it has been done. Canadian conservationist Grey Owl was born Archibald Belaney in Hastings, England – although he claimed he was Apache because we all know that the red man has, across the racial board, an intrinsic understanding of the land. Iron Eyes Cody (né Espera de Corti) did the same, famously crying at the sight of litter in ubiquitous PSAs that aired in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Russian Yul Brynner (né ???? ?????????? ???????) claimed he was born on Sakhalin of Mongolian parents, an exotic background that made it only natural for him to play Egyptian, Thai, Native American and even a robot.

Pinky (1949)

Not only can people be deliberately fooled, but others are just wrong. Former Amoeba employee Jaideep Dasgupta was Bengali by heritage, Canadian by birth and bald by nature. But, as a dark man with a shaved head in America (save a very faint mohawk) he was often assumed to be black and would entertain us with tales of police drawing guns on him (suspecting him of planning to break into cars for walking on the sidewalk while on his cellphone) and customers asking him about breakdancing documentaries – and then expressing to him that they weren’t just asking him rather than his co-workers because he’s black. That’s considerate.

Icelanders who've gotta, just gotta be part Inuit... except for the platinum blond girl
Sometimes people, even when confronted with the facts, still refuse to accept them. For example, Bjork’s schoolmates used to tease her for her appearance by calling her “China Girl.” So that makes her Asian? Obviously not… but there has to be an explanation for her Asian appearance! She’s from Iceland, right? OK -- case closed, she’s obviously part Inuit. Only there never was an Inuit population in Iceland. In fact, before the Norse and Celts came, the only animal living on the iceland was the arctic fox... uh, ok. The fact is, epicanthic folds aren’t that uncommon for Scandinavians and Poles and aren't indicators of Asian heritage, but are an evolutionary development that possibly developed to protect arctic and desert peoples' eyes from intense sunlight.
So, in case I haven't convincingly made my point that society is a poor judge of someone's background, think of the Salvadoran who's referred to as Mexican, the straight guy who gets gay-bashed, the Coptic Christian convenience store attendant who was murdered after 9/11, having been assumed by his attacker to be Muslim. The attacker was also apparently unaware that, at least around here, most convenience store workers are South Asian Sikhs and not Muslim, not Arabic and not Middle Eastern. I think it’s pretty safe to say that nearly all Asian-Americans have been assumed to be Chinese, Japanese or Korean at various times. See, society isn't the hottest judge on TV.

Rosario Dawson, Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey... racially confusing


On top of all this, sometimes society just doesn't know what someone is and the need to ascribe race borders on unhealthy. What race is Rosario Dawson considered to be? I remember someone writing to the Sunday supplement to ask what Paula Abdul's background is. Fair enough, with a name like Abdul she could be Arab! Thankfully, she’s Mizrahi Jewish, which we’re pretty OK with now, so she's OK. Later the same questions arose when Mariah Carey started singing… we needed to know what her background was before we knew whether or not she was authentic and to what degree.

"The Irish Frankenstein," Oscar "Darkness" Wilde, Bono on the case

Who’s considered black has changed over time in other ways too. Even in the 19th century, Irish people were considered to be black in England, which says more about English racism than anything else. In other words, when Oscar Wilde moved to England, people locked their carriage doors when they saw him crossing the street. Some Irish still cling to this notion of their being not-just-metaphorically black... will someone please tell Bono to shut up already?

Othello, the real Othello and Azeem the Great, Robin Hood's token black Moorish friend (accuracy be damned)


Further back, in Elizabethan times, anyone darker than snow was pretty much “black” in Europe. That’s why Othello remains pretty much the only chance for white actors to still don blackface and not get in trouble. Or, for the more PC aware, it's a chance to employ black actors in Shakespearian drama.
Nowadays, because of this nonsense, token black sidekicks in films set in the distant past are often explained as being the white hero’s Moorish bro. But are Moors black to modern society or are we still, for the most part, so ignorant and unexposed to actual Moors that we just are willing to assume they are, kind of like how Sacha Baron Cohen was able to convince so many people that, as Borat, he was Kazak, despite looking strangley Jewish and speaking broken English peppered with Yiddish and Czech? For the record, Moors are a Berber people who live in North Africa, especially Morocco (hence its name). The name “Moor” comes from the Maure Kingdom, a Numidian kingdom located in present day Tunisia and Algeria. DNA analysis has shown that their ancestors come from expectedly diverse backgrounds, but most Moors don’t consider themselves black. Only one or two years before Othello was written, the Moorish ambassador to the King of Barbary stayed in London. So Shakespeare probably knew what Moors looked like first hand, and when referring to Othello as black was just being Elizabethan English.

Mani (in Thailand), Native Australian girls and a Papuan man


While people tend to talk about colorism as an historical preference for lighter skin (brown bag parties, blue vein societies, skin-lightening creams, &c), there’s no way to deny that others aren't just as prejudiced in the opposite direction. The programmers at PAFF (L.A.’s Pan-African Film Festival) often choose to show Oceanic films, quantifying African-ness with skin tone and facial features – not shared heritage, history, culture or context. In doing so, the mere reality of being dark-skinned is what's most important, not a shared, broad African cultural history. (Personally, I don't think that all these people "look African" just because they're dark.) By this transracialism, Australo-Melanisians (including the Negritos of Southeast Asia, the Melanesians and Australia’s indigenous peoples) are presumably, as dark-skinned people, more African (and black) than light-skinned, actually African-descended people like Sinbad, Colin Powell, Quincy Jones, Ice-T, Alexander Dumas, Malcolm X and certainly black albinos, right? By this sort of shoddy logic, because dolphins look superficially like sharks, they must be fish.

 Acting white, acting black and... I'm not sure

Some people from all backgrounds find it cheekily amusing to view blackness as a behavior. This allows black people to confer blackness (or at least honorary blackness) on select non-black people. Yet, this is usually done for a person whose behavior suggests a narrow, reductive view of what it means to be black and white on the part of the person bestowing the blackness. For example, Toni Morrison famously referred to Bill Clinton as the first black president, a joke that you heard more than once during his presidency, apparently because he was poor, adulterous and likes McDonalds.

Sure, Bill Clinton talked about his affinity with black people and milked it for all it was worth, same as many Democrats (e.g. Jimmy Carter). It's the same as Republicans (having given up on winning over blacks) who've lately tried hard to suggest and exploit their affinity with the less-party-committed Latino voter by dropping in a couple of Spanish words here and there (e.g. "See say pway-day!"). Of course, once elected, Clinton didn’t do much that suggested any special concern for blacks, completely ignoring the Rwandan genocide and reforming welfare in a manner that raised child poverty to its highest level since the ‘60s at the disproportionate expense of black people.

Hidden within the notion of "acting black" is a presupposition that truly being black means conforming to a set of stereotypes that we all know and is basically shorthand for acting urban and poor. That’s why, when speaking about upstanding, multi-millionaire blacks, guilt-ridden, non-black people feel the urge to condescendingly and mawkishly express their amazement and approval. As Joe Biden said of Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man." Yeah, I love that story.

I remember The Cosby Show being subjected to considerable criticism for daring to depict successful, rich black people. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that most of the criticism came from black critics, who felt that one man portraying a well-off black father in a functional family absolved white people of guilt whilst simulatenously failing to address persistant racial inequality by its portrayal of one well-to-do family. I see the point, but TV has a long history of portraying dysfunctional, buffoonish, impoverished black people and being enraged at the Cos's suggestion that black people could succeed is colonial mentality at work, if you ask me. Since then, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Bernie Mac Show and Baldwin Hills have failed to raise eyebrows with their focus on rich black Americans in functioning, loving families, which suggests that times are changing.


Amerie Rogers
The Rock, Amerie, Tiger Woods and Crystal Kay (aka ????????)
So, by Chuck D's famous mathematic equation, white parent + black parent = black baby. But what about blasians? Chuck D is a baby boomer, a group that primarily (still) views the country in bi-racial terms of black and white. But younger people are often more aware of the multi-racial reality that we live in, yet we still tend to ascribe a single race to most people. In the '80s, many bi-racial couples sought to have bi-racial added to the census and found considerable resistance from older Americans not wanting to see their racial team dwindle in numbers. So, while I'm sure most people consider Tyson Beckford, Ne-Yo and Naomi Campbell to be black, Tiger Woods, Amerie and the Rock seem more problematic. In the past, most of our Asian, black and white people were decidedly so, having come from far east Asia, west Africa and northern Europe respectively. But once established, the children of immigrants tend to not keep it in the ethnicity, muddying the waters of racial construction.


Then there are those ethnicities that exist in the blurred boundaries between widely accepted racial distinctions. None of these groups have much presence in the US, so why bring them up? Because their existence further problematizes the construction of race.

Rashaida girl, two Berber girls, a Taureg girl and a Nubian wedding

Humankind didn't evolve in racial bubbles with clear dileneations between Asians, blacks and whites. Long before the transatlantic slave trade, black Africans were interacting and mixing with non-black cultures in other parts of the world. East Africans traded extensively with Arabs, Persians and Indians and many trace their ancestry to these distant corners of the planet. Other Africans were forced into slavery and sent primarily throughout Arab lands but also as far as China. Still other black Africans mixed and melded with non-black neighbors, resulting in ethnicities that have characteristics of both blacks and whites, such as the Rashaida and Hadhramis, who have throughout history lived on both the African and Asian shores of the Red Sea. Other groups, like the Eritreans, BejaBerbers, Taureg, Somalis and Nubians (and many others) developed from a mixture of black and white peoples.

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