How Black Must One Be to Be Black or Not Care?


“Hey, you’re black, right?!”

No matter whether it’s Minneapolis or Chi-town, when I walk in the neighborhood, brothers’ll greet me with a nod or something – a signal that says, “Yeah, you’re one of us.”

After a few years of accepting that social reflex with bemused misgiving, I find myself asking “why?” Why accept that? It isn’t bad.

Still other people from other countries, or who are older and better-travelled, no matter their color or features, ask if I’m from the Middle East or from somewhere like Morocco, or India. They don’t assume anything. They make me smile even grin and then chuckle. They are cosmopolitan. They understand life outside of the United States’ typical prism of color obsession.

At the heart of this is that I do not look Black. What is it about these disparate and myopic worldviews? Of course, that begs another question that is simple and opaque at once: what does Black look like?

Will Wright

Will Wright

That may be the more important and illuminating question or concern; how Black must black be to be…Black vs simply straddling the colors, the boundaries by one’s own whim and wit? How typical or conventional must one look? How fully must one conform to Anglos’ (white people’s) image of Black in order to be either Black or to pass away from it?

It may be that each of those competing questions is as important as the other.  I simply have yet to understand why North Americans of African descent do not question that someone as ethnically ambiguous as I do, may not call himself Black or half any of African in his heritage or experience.

I suspect that these questions may have sprouted while reading Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s The Passing of Anatole Broyard, a chapter and essay from his book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.

Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard

Many years ago, I decided to discard that “one-drop-rule” chip from my shoulder – I was going to ignore North America’s demands; I was going to be multicultural and colored or “of color.”

As with far too many phenomena, Anglo America appoints itself to define and encode that. As bizarre, hard, and contradictory as it might be, I chose to occupy that fluid multiethnic crevasse during the turn of the century.  It coincided with the 2000 U.S. Census.

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3 thoughts on “How Black Must One Be to Be Black or Not Care?

  1. Lee McLaurin says:

    I think that the more important question to be asked is that as a person of “mixed race” background, why is it that only those who are “accused” of being African-American seem to be the only members of the group questioning what it means to be African-American? I know many mixed-race people, and I never here the ones who look white complain about being assumed to be white. I find that very telling. I wonder that if you looked white enough to pass, Asian enough to pass, or whatever you other half is, would you question those who would assume you to be members of that particular racial group? Further, the majority of African-Americans born in the US could claim to be something other than black couldn’t we?
    I’m a medium-light brown black man with with an Irish name; I am, however, unashamedly, unapologetically, black. My features would never allow me be mistaken for someone white, but strangely would you look at me if I claimed to be white?How much would that muddy the water, and make you no different than other blacks in this country who claim black as their ONLY ancestry?

  2. Saffron says:

    Interesting problems crop up when humans try to segment and object-define (imply non-contiguity) that which is actually a field (contiguous). There are no sharp divisions between races, only blurring and shifting from one arbitrarily nominated “norm” to another.

    I’m a blue eyed blonde with very white skin. Change my colouring and I’d be almost identical to my Polynesian great grandmother in appearance. Maori (Polynesians) don’t like that I’m legally considered Maori as well as European. I’m an ‘impostor’ in their eyes, getting all the political benefits of being Maori and none of the negatives they usually experience.

    A friend is very dark. Maori consider her to be one of them. She’s 3/4 Scottish white. She doesn’t consider herself to be particularly Maori.

    We shouldn’t have to accept the opinions of others being imposed upon us in this manner. If we hunt back to 100,000 years ago we could all call ourselves Africans. Where is the line drawn with these people? Appearance only? Genes only? We are what we, the individuals, identify with.

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