What is “black”? – Part 3: my working definition

This is part 3 of my 6-part discussion of race and race issues that was originally written in February, 2010 for Black History Month. This post originally appeared on Facebook on Friday, February 5th, 2010.

Hopefully, if I have been persuasive enough, you agree with my premise that “blackness” is not merely a description of someone’s skin colour or heritage; nor is it simply the group with which someone identifies most strongly. Neither one of these methods is completely up to the task of encompassing and describing the phenomenon of blackness that, at first brush, seems almost simplistic in its… well… simplicity.

As a side note: if you’re confused right now about what it is to be black, congratulations. You’re now one step closer to knowing how it feels like to be black.

So we’ve got two methods, both of them wrong. Is the truth somewhere in the middle? Is there some sort of interaction between these two factors that, when properly looked at, produces “black”? The short answer to this question is both yes and no (you can start beating your head against the wall now. I’ll wait). Yes, blackness can be seen as a combination of how others see you and how you see yourself; however, no this is not a sufficient or reasonable end-point.

Let’s start with the good news. In my Chris Matthews post (author’s note: this was a short essay I wrote about my reaction to Chris Matthew’s moronic comments during Obama’s first State of the Union) I tried to provide a quick one-sentence definition of what “black” means. I said something along the lines of it being a sociological pattern that is ascribed to black people, which is about as circular a definition as you’ll find outside of theology. This is because it can’t be fully discussed until we are in this head-bangingly frustrating position of having rejected both “defined by others” and “defined by self” as plausible definitions. So the good news is that we can finally start fleshing out this definition a bit, to a place where it is at least workable.

“Black”, in my mind, is an externally-attributed label. It is what happens when someone looks at your skin and your features and pronounces you something. Obviously this is not a formal proclamation or even an overt statement of fact, it’s merely a reflection of the accumulated views of other people in a racial context. As my dad said to me when I was very young “you can talk about half-this and half-that as much as you want – doesn’t change the fact that when they look at you, they see a black person.” “Black” carries with it a whole host of associated stigma, which is a topic for a subsequent post, but it is definitely a label that is applied to someone, based mostly on the colour of their skin and heritage.

The second feature of this definition is that at some point a black person must self-identify as such. There must be, in many cases, a deliberate reach for (perhaps “connect with” is a better approximation) blackness. The further removed you are from the black community (in my case, in my friend’s case, in countless others), the more difficult this reach becomes. Some people, like Tiger Woods, deny this reach and instead self-identify somewhere else. This is where their self-identity comes up against their identity as prescribed by society; they are told that they aren’t what they think they are, and that the decision has already been made for them. It’s undeniably cruel and un-enlightened, but it’s really just like any other form of self-identity. Even though the idea of “true self” would maintain that the only thing that matters one’s own definition of who he is, the more pragmatic approach recognizes that it is influenced by his interactions with society. Racial identity is no different.

Lawrence Hill, author of a few novels on race including, most famously, The Book of Negroes illustrates this very well in his book Black Berry, Sweet Juice. In it, he talks about the role of “minority” in places that are not white-dominated. Briefly, he argues that in places like Nairobi, Kenya – or indeed any circumstance in which there are few white people around – people don’t self-identify as “black”. They are merely “people”, or, more precisely, they self-identify in ways that do not include a black/white distinction. Basically, there are almost no “black” people in rural Africa. One becomes a member of a racial grouping only when defined in contrast to another, just as (for the most part) you and I don’t self-identify as “mammals” except in the context of comparison to non-mammalian species.

Most of you should have, by now, recognized that this is the shittiest definition of anything ever. It’s full of circular arguments, unsupported assertions, and so many exceptions as to make the rule virtually moot. For example, what if a person who is 1/8th black is raised as a black person, though to all appearances he is white? Technically speaking this person has just as great a claim to blackness as anyone else once he has established his pedigree. This isn’t just a hypothetical – Sean Daley, better known by the rap alias “Slug” is half of the hip-hop group Atmosphere, and is exactly as described. How does the definition apply to someone like him, especially since he engages in a “stereotypically black” pursuit?

The reason why the best definition I can think of is such a terrible one is because “race”, as we know it, is not a scientific entity. There’s no more rigour to racial studies than there is to old-style taxonomy – classifying things based on what they look like, rather than their genetic heritage. Sure, it might apply 80-or-so percent of the time, but when it becomes necessary to apply it systematically, it quickly falls apart. Think of it like the sky. The sky is not a real thing. There’s no point at which you fly upwards and encounter the part of the atmosphere that is “the sky”. It’s simply a colloquial phrase used to describe a visual phenomenon that is, by and large, useful for crude description. Race isn’t based on anything we’d call science, it’s simply a carry-over from a time when we lacked the sophistication and enlightened ideals we try to apply today.

I want to point out at this point that this does not mean “race isn’t real”. Race is “real” just like the wind is “real”. Sure, it’s just a descriptive phrase used to crudely describe an underlying phenomenon, but tell that to the guy that just lost his house in a hurricane. Race, while not a scientific concept, is nonetheless experienced by people on both sides of an act of racism – for them it is very “real”.

So when we try to apply a systematic technique to the question “what is blackness” we come up woefully, and predictably, short. Blackness is defined simultaneously externally and internally. This may prompt us to ask “wherefore, then, black history?” If “black people” aren’t a homogeneous group, isn’t the classification of “black” history completely arbitrary? Predictably, perhaps, the answer is “yes and no”. Black people in North America (and indeed, most parts of the world) have a partially-shared cultural heritage insofar as we are all treated as “black people”. We face similar struggles, we rise and fall similarly with each other’s successes and failures, even when there is no familial or social connection between us. For the moment it can be useful to think of, focus on, and learn about our shared history and identity until such time as we have, as society, been able to resolve what it means to be anything.

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