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What is “black”? – part 1: skin colour

I’ve been picking on religion too much with my Monday ‘think-piece’ notes, and neglecting the other part of this blog: discussions of race and race issues. In February, 2010 I participated in my yearly tradition of observing Black History Month by doing something scholarly. I decided to share some of my thoughts and findings, which was part of the impetus for starting this blog. For the next six weeks, my Monday posts will be specifically about race and race issues. I’ll then get back to writing about whatever I feel like.

This post originally appeared on Facebook on Monday, Feb 1st, 2010.

This will be perhaps the most difficult, most contentious, and least comprehensible of my posts on race so far, but it underpins all of the subsequent ones, so I am going to do my level best to present it first.

I want to be clear from the outset that this is, by no means, an authoritative or “official” answer to the question of blackness. Like all of my notes it represents my opinion only. I try to base my opinions on careful thought and consideration and, when I can, reading the opinions of scholars. Black means many things to many people, and each person’s experience of black-ness is individual to them. It’s like trying to define what art is: each person’s experience is different, but it is important to attempt to find some common features among the several definitions.

I will first discuss what black isn’t along some common misconceptions: black as skin colour, and black as social code.

Anyone who asks knows that I consider myself to be “black”; not “mixed” or “half-black”; while those are technically true and I have used them to describe myself in specific circumstances, they are not how I self-identify. It seems rather elementary that if I have one black parent and one white parent, that makes me half-black – fractions don’t lie. I had this said to me, in so many words, by a black guy I worked with at a summer co-op program at UofT medicine back in summer, 2001, who told me that to qualify as “black” one needed to have two black parents. I asked him if he was “pure black” (his words, not mine), a question to which he responded, somewhat irritatedly, that he indeed was. I asked him then why a) we had the same skin colour; and b) why he had freckles. “Black people don’t have freckles,” I told him “that’s a white people thing.” Indeed, it turned out, that some of his relatives were white on his mother’s side.

So he and I were left with a fundamental conundrum: his parents were both “black”, and yet he had white ancestry. Mulling this over, we came to the conclusion that blackness was not simply a question of heritage, although that certainly played a role in it. The idea of being “pure” black was summarily dismissed as frankly ridiculous (and indeed, a little insulting) since black people don’t all come from the same place (except insofar as all people come from the same place). We needed to establish a new standard for blackness that went beyond simple arithmetic.

A second illustrative example came from that same co-op program. I met a girl named Aza at this same conference. She is of Somali decent, and is about as dark-skinned as a person gets. She also has long, wavy hair (naturally, not due to relaxer), a small nose and delicate features – in other words she doesn’t “look black”. These were the words she used to characterize the reactions of other black people to her, saying that because she didn’t have an afro, big lips and a big nose, she clearly was some alien species, heretofore unknown on the Earth. Until she came to Canada, in fact, Aza didn’t know she wasn’t black. It took the combined, learned wisdom of a bunch of Caribbean kids to tell her that even though she was from Africa, she wasn’t “black-black” (again, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried).

Another example: a close friend of mine self-identifies as black. Like me, she is technically “mixed” and I am not sure if she sees her race in the same rigid fashion that I do, but I digress. Her father is a white man from Scotland, and her mother is a black woman. What makes this a particularly fascinating story is that my friend’s mother, for the longest time, did not self-identify as black. The reason for this, as was related to me, is that the mother was adopted and raised by white parents. Doing the best they could in the times in which they lived, my friend’s mother was raised to regard herself as white, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. This was certainly no mean feat, as it creates a strong cognitive dissonance. At the time the phenomenon was known as “passing”, which is a phrase that has dropped from the common lexicon in the past 20 or so years. She (the mother) had children with a(nother) white person, who were, according to the progeny theory, one quarter black (or some fraction thereof).

First of all, being one quarter black means that you are 75% white, which means that unless you are rounding in an extremely conservative manner, you’re ostensibly a white person. However, a cursory glance at either one of the children (both smokin’ hotties, incidentally) shows that clearly these girls aren’t “pure white”, even though mathematically they are. In fact, nobody would mistake them for a “white person”, instead asking every mixed kid’s favourite question “what are you?” My friend struggled with the issue that while she was clearly at least part black, she had two “white” parents. It took many years for her to work out in her own mind what her racial identity was and meant.

The idea of blackness as the colour of one’s skin or one’s parental makeup is insufficient as a definitive criterion for identity. There are many shades of blackness – everyone has probably heard of “light-skinned black” versus “dark-skinned black”. In antiquity, people of mixed heritage were all described as “black” – indeed, all people who were non-white: East-Asian, South-Asian, Native, Polynesian, etc. were all termed “black”. Blackness was, in that time, a departure from the natural state of being for humans, which was (of course) white skin. The discovery that humankind descends from black people was still a couple of centuries away. In the United States, a convoluted taxonomical system was invented to classify people of mixed heritage – Google the word “octoroon” for an example of the thinking at the time. In South Africa in the 1980s under apartheid, the “non-white” definition was especially prevalent, with people being socially ranked according to the lightness of their skin.

So as I explore the idea of what it is to be “black”, the first step has to be to throw out what is the most intuitive definition – that black is measured by the colour of a person’s skin, or by their genetic heritage. According to a definition set down by Mendelian genetics, there’s no such thing as “pure” black, and any attempts to classify “parts” of blackness are therefore absurd. Similarly, we are all happy calling both Will Smith and Eddie Murphy “black”, although they have remarkably different skin colouration. A more comprehensive definition is clearly needed. In next Monday’s post, I will discuss the idea of “blackness” as a purely self-identified phenomenon – that if someone calls him/herself “black”, then he/she is, regardless of the colour of his/her skin.


  1. says

    A really fascinating piece, and just as important, it seems to me to be an honest piece.

    There is of course, no genetic basis for race, as the scientist Rita Levi Montalcini and other pointed out. [See: http://www.bretthetherington.net/default.aspx?pageId=128.

    Your point about the “cognitive dissonance” that can happen is an important one because one of the greatest problems with ideas of self-identity and self-knowledge is facing up to certain truths that have a sometimes unpleasant taste.

    This also partly explains the custom amongst many black people in the past with the use of the phrase “She has good skin” meaning “She has light skin.” I don’t know how much this is still in common thinking anymore but obviously it created mountains of agony in the field of self-esteem.

    Obama was probably smart enough to know that his chances of getting elected President were strongest if he never referred directly to his skin colour, which suggests that ‘race’ is at least partly subconscious in the public mind.

    Race as a genetic fact does not exist but it certainly does when seen as a cultural factor. In a sense it cannot be separated from what called be called ethnicity, such as the Jewish people. Memes are passed down through relatives across generations so there is very likely to be a genetic basis for certain personality traits.

    I look forward to your next blog on the theme.

  2. says

    I don’t know about ‘good skin’, but Chris Rock did an entire feature film about having ‘Good Hair’. Really quite an eye-opener, I learned a lot.

    I wonder how much behaviour is hard-wired into genes, and how much of it is the societal environment. Maybe there are so many confounding factors (history, racialization, technology) that it can’t be teased out. I tend to think that the surroundings play a bigger role than we give it credit, based on my sparse understanding of psychology.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Daniel B. says

    Crommunist, I think your definition of race overall makes a good deal of sense. I do want to question one of your statements, though: that “In the United States, a convoluted taxonomical system was invented to classify people of mixed heritage – Google the word “octoroon” for an example of the thinking at the time.”

    In my judgment, the concept of “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and the like are not really of U.S. origin. Such words were sometimes used in the USA, but they’re essentially foreign concepts, derived from Spanish words and imported through the British Caribbean. The key point is, in the USA, mixed-race people were treated exactly the same as “pure” black people. In the days of slavery, mixed-race people were enslaved (at least if their mothers were slaves, which they almost always were). In the days of segregation, they were confined to the blacks-only facilities. In the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, where the Supreme Court formally approved segregation, Homer Plessy was an “octoroon” who looked white, but had to get off the whites-only train car when he revealed his “black” ancestry. The official line in most of the Southern states was that “one drop” of black blood made a person black.

    In contrast, in the Spanish and British Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, etc.), the amount of “black” ancestry actually made a difference: mulattoes ranked above blacks, quadroons above mulattoes, octoroons above quadroons, and whites above everybody in the social scale. In the U.S., “colored” simply meant all “black” people, including mixed race ones. But in the Caribbean, “colored” meant only the mixed race people, and “colored” people jealously guarded the distinction between themselves and “blacks”; many of the “colored” reached the middle class, ran businesses, owned black slaves, and aspired to marry further up the racial hierarchy.

    My explanation for this difference between U.S. and European racism is that Europe didn’t have any ideological objection to ranking people into an extended birth hierarchy; birth-class hierarchies were endemic in Europe and declared to be God’s will. But in the U.S.A., we had rejected the idea of birth hierarchy and said that “all men are created equal.” So, to justify enslaving black people from birth, we had to pretend that black people weren’t men. Because of our small-R republican ideology, we couldn’t rank mixed-race people into an extended hierarchy; we had to decide whether they were “men,” and therefore equal, or “not men,” and thus fit to be slaves. Our choice of “not men” haunts us to this day. President Obama can be accurately described as “black” because the USA has treated all biracial people as “black” for generations. If he’d been born in Haiti or Barbados, those countries would not have considered him “black.”

    Do you think this is a reasonable explanation?

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