You’ve wondered this to yourself a million times.
Sure, you’re Black. At least, partly. But are you Black enough?
Black enough to claim it. Black enough to celebrate Black History Month. Black enough to be angry. Black enough to want reparations. Black enough to join your school’s Black Student Union. Black enough to call your child Black. Black enough to give back to the hood without it being cringe. Black enough to call Black people out. Black enough to use certain language in good company. Black enough to make fun of Black people. Black enough to say Black is beautiful. Black enough to align yourself with the Black experience. Black enough to choose rest over protest.
The short answer is, yes.
But you need the long one.
The historical and political context of race matters.
Anti-Blackness is the heart of racism. It maintains a caste system based on skin tone and ancestry.
An example of this is the one-drop rule, which was used during slavery to classify mixed race people with at least one Black ancestor as “Black.” Doing so made them legally enslavable.
There have also been laws that police interracial relationships. The Racial Integrity Act enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1924 prohibited interracial marriage and deemed people could only be Caucasian if they had absolutely no other “blood”. This was in law until 1967 when Loving v. Virginia, when a court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
Around the world many societies historically have and continue to regard some races or ethnicities as superior and others as inferior. Hypodescent refers to how children of interracial parents are automatically assigned to the subordinate group.
These perspectives and practices are deeply embedded into societies and are hard to shake.
Experience also matters.
“As a bi-cultural Black woman, I am sometimes black, never fully white, sometimes not black, but always mixed. I’ve held this line of tension in my body for as long as I can remember, and the notion of straddling worlds always made sense to me. What has, at times, been the source of frustration and even despair (where do I belong?) has become something I embrace as a liminal space of non-identity and non-belonging that has powerful creative potential.”
— Karine Bell
I recently attended a social identities workshop at a yoga studio facilitated by my friend Stephanie Hicks.
She introduced the major identity categories - race, nationality, language, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, etc. - and asked us a series of questions about which identities influence our experience in the world and in the yoga community. She placed signs in different spots in the room, each labeled with one of the identity categories listed above.
We were invited to move to the piece of paper that represented our answer to each question. For example, which of these identities do you think other people notice first about you?
Quickly, it was apparent to all of us that although we were likely quite diverse on paper our experiences differed by race. Question after question, those of us who identified as Black remained at the ‘Race’ sign.
We talked about how, no matter which other identities might be relevant in a situation, we were always, always, always acutely aware of race. In social settings, when navigating systems, and more.
Now, of course, we were a group of mostly, if not all, African-Americans who speak English and hold other privileges, like being able to afford yoga classes and gear.
But at the end of the day, there’s only one way we’re seen in America.
At the same time, our group talked about how our individual experiences hold nuance based on our skin tone.
Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against people with darker skin within racial groups. Colorism exists in many cultures, not just in the Black community, but keep in mind that anti-Blackness is the heart of racism.
Colorism in Black communities is like anti-Blackness within anti-Blackness.
What about prejudice against light skinned people?
If you have a lighter skin tone and have faced prejudice or discrimination because of your skin tone, this is not colorism. Reverse discrimination is not a thing.
Yes, this is still color/skin-based prejudice or discrimination, but it is not the same flavor of anti-Blackness that shapes colorism.
This can be a hard spot for mixed race folks, who have experienced bullying or ostracization for being lighter skinned. It’s ok to hold sadness and grief and rage around these experiences; the color prejudice we experience is definitely a part of the larger context of anti-Blackness and the ways colonialism and white supremacy seek to separate us from one another.
Finding other light skinned people to talk to about this can be comforting, and I definitely have darker skinned friends who have the capacity to hear some of this, but I wouldn’t go complaining about it front and center at the Black Lives Matter protest.
Intersectionality & Privilege
Being mixed and Black doesn’t mean you aren’t Black. In fact, historically / systemically you are Black.
And your Blackness is nuanced.
All Blackness is nuanced, to be fair. Black people are not a monolith.
Your specific positionality (which is also influenced by your other identities) probably grants you a certain kind of privilege.
Learning how to use your privilege from a place of community care, and not from shame or guilt, is key to engaging in anti-racist efforts.
Like my example above about the Black Lives Matter protest: I might choose to go to the protest, but that doesn’t mean that I - as a light skinned person - need to be centered as the face of the movement.
Of course, this might be different if the protest is happening in my neighborhood or if I’ve been directly personally affected by the police brutality that sparked the protest in the first place. You have to exercise discernment to make wise choices and be prepared to pivot if need be.
Layers, Not Fractions
Your identity is layered, complex, and beautiful. You don’t have to “put parts of yourself away” in order to fit in and belong, but the intersectionality of your identities deserves intentionality.
This is one of my very favorite quotes on mixed race identity and I share it often:
“I am not ‘Half Japanese’ and ‘Half Lithuanian Jewish.’ When I’m singing a Japanese folk song, I don’t sing with half my voice, but with my whole voice. When I’m taping together my grandparents’ Jewish marriage contract, worn by time but still resilient, it’s not half of my heart that is moved, but my whole heart. I am complete, and I embody layers of identities that belong together. I am made of layers, not fractions.”
- Yumi Thomas
You deserve support
This is admittedly a lot to sort through and hold.
Remember that you don’t have to do this alone. Find community and consider working with someone like me (!) who specializes in supporting mixed race individuals.
As a Black biracial woman, I know this experience all too well. I’m always honored to be welcomed in on someone’s journey. If you’re ready to lean into support book a complimentary consultation.
Photos by Chris F, Armin Rimoldi, and Ron Lach