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What is “black”? – Part 2: self-identity

I have allowed myself to become too focussed on religion, and so I am posting some essays on race and race issues that I wrote for Black History Month in February, 2010. This is part 2 of a 6-part discussion of what I see as significant questions in the discussion of race. This post originally appeared on Facebook on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010.

Now that we have done away with (hopefully to your satisfaction) the idea of blackness, or indeed any racial identity, as being based on skin colour (or other characteristics) or heritage as being the sole explanatory factor for what black means, there’s another idea of black identity that I’d like to discuss. Namely, this is the idea that being black is simply a matter of self-identification – that if you think you’re black, then you are black.

I’ve mentioned the idea of people “self-identifying as black” a number of times, particularly in my previous post. This speaks to the idea that what someone calls him/herself speaks more to her (gender non-specific, I’m just tired of him/her… too cumbersome) “real” racial identity than arbitrary taxonomic classifications based largely on trying to quantify someone’s non-whiteness. But does that mean that what someone calls herself is all it takes? Are we all just whatever we say we are?

We’ve all heard the phrase “wigger” – a white person who appears, by all counts, to self-identify as black. They walk black, talk black, engage in stereotypically black activities, listen to black music, etc. etc. Assuming for just a moment that it is possible in any measurable way to walk, talk, or live “black”, as though black people were some homogeneous group, would a wigger’s self-identification qualify them for “black status”? Is a black person who works as an actuary or the head of the air and space museum or is a worldwide polka champion really just a white person with black skin?

It is fairly clear that the self-identification criterion is, on its own, insufficient to categorize people. It lacks what is known in the sciences as face validity – the extent to which something appears to make logical, rational sense. Some things that lack face validity – quantum physics for example, are saved by the fact that they have real internal validity – that is, they are based on observable scientific phenomena that, despite being hard to fathom, are in fact real descriptions of what is going on. Since racial/ethnic identity is not based on these underlying scientific principles (fun fact, there’s more genetic diversity in people of African descent – black people – than in those of European descent – white people), the lack of face validity is enough to reject this idea out-of-hand.

To summarize the above paragraph: if you don’t look black, you ain’t black.

Tiger Woods is perhaps the best-known example of the self-identification paradigm. Tiger Woods was raised by his Thai father (edit: thanks to Adrian Anantawan for pointing out that his mother is Thai, and his father is black), which is where he got his unusual name. Tiger self-identifies as Thai, and has said so in interviews. Little problem: Tiger Woods is a black guy. His self-identification is not sufficient in this case to be a practical measure of his blackness, whether he likes it or not. I’m coming precipitously close to tipping my hand on my final definition of blackness, which is a topic for my next post, so I’m going to stop here.


  1. Jessica says

    I’m looking forward to the last piece, because I can’t guess how it will resolve the notions of “looking black isn’t blackness” (post one) and “you have to look black to be black” (post two re: wiggers) and “he’s black if he looks black” (post two re: Woods).

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