But You Don't *Look* Black…

by universeexpanding. Cross-posted from Entropy, Inc.
In response to my post about the HBO documentary “The Blacklist” a friend of mine commented on how shocked he was that Slash of Guns n’ Roses is half black. Like me he had assumed Slash was Jewish or something. He commented that he thought Slash was “on that Jennifer Beals type shit” and didn’t want people to necessarily know that he was black. He went on to say that he was kinda bummed that Jennifer hadn’t married a black man and that he thought it was a shame that she and Slash felt the need to hide their blackness. He seemed to have trouble seeing them as biracial and instead insisted upon seeing them as “black people who are passing”.

I kept my composure (mostly) but I was more than a little annoyed, especially since this type of conversation is all too familiar for me. My father is Portuguese and my mother is mixed black (her father is east indian and her mother was part carib indian). I’m a typical Caribbean mutt. Aside from navigating the colour hierarchy established during colonization this was pretty ordinary stuff when I was at home. When I went to Canada for undergrad it was a whole different thing. People not only wanted to know my racial pedigree, but would challenge me and basically demand to see my bonafides if I said something that didn’t match whatever their hunch was. Who I was depended on who was looking at me. And knowing this was at the heart of the argument I ended up having with my friend.

Being a black person who has never had to defend the visual reality of his blackness my friend was just not getting what it meant to be biracial or multiracial especially if your appearance is racially ambiguous.

Is this your image of a prototypical black woman? Is she even visibly part black? If she told you that she has intimate and personal knowledge of the black experience would you doubt her? Is someone who looks like she does readily accepted as black, in the social and cultural sense of the word? All of these questions are the ones I wanted my friend to ask himself. It is these things that affect the identity that is ascribed to (especially publicly) of people who don’t neatly fit into a box. I find it unsurprising that people who find themselves in this position choose not to force the conversation and just let people believe that they are what they see. In this article about the evolving attitudes to multiracial people, Heather Tarleton voices her frustration with how appearance affects the identities that multiracial people are acceptably able to take:

Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you… You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are.’ And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”

We hear again and again that race is not a genetic reality but a social one and I think multiracial individuals highlight this. This really great study by Brunsma and Rockquemore (2001) explores how biracial individuals navigate and establish racial identity with respect to their skin colour and their interactions with society. They found that biracial people chose from among 4 identity options: a) singular (either black or white), b) border (exclusively biracial), c) protean (sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes biracial), d) transcendent ( no racial identity). These choices were mediated by self-perception of their skin colour and features, negative experiences they had with black and white people, and situational contexts. Despite the popularity of hypodescent theory among people like my friend only 13.7% of the 177 people sampled identified as black. 64% identified as biracial. Of these 74.3 % experienced negative treatment from whites, but 60.4 % reported negative treatment from blacks. 62.5% reported that their choice of a biracial identity was unvalidated by members of their society and community. For biracial and multiethnic people saying you are black or white may have less to do with what you *want* to be seen as or what you *are* and far more to do with what other people will allow you to be.

And it is this very point that makes it so hard for me to understand why he is upset at Jennifer not shouting about being black from the hilltops. We say people should claim their blackness, but we won’t allow them to be anything but black. They are not allowed to be biracial. But at the same time we don’t fully allow them to be black either. It’s a double bind that leaves them sitting on the outskirts of every group. Faced with that kind of decision would you be in an all-fired rush to be black?

I can’t help but think that some people’s lack of acceptance of biracial or multiracial identity is that deep down they are thinking “Aw, that nigger just trynna feel special.” But that’s just the thing, they aren’t trying to feel special. If anything by questioning the authenticity of their claims to even partial blackness society makes them into a separate group even if they didn’t want to be one. Even if it’s only by this reasoning it becomes clear that to be biracial or multiracial is something different from being black or white, something different but just as valid.

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  • Full-on black person here.

    I’ve heard this perspective many, many, times over the last year or so. And I think it’s a valid critique of the challenges multiracial people face.

    I also think you hit it with the “Aw, that nigger just trynna feel special” bit.

    However, I’ve pretty much always claimed multi-racial folks as black, simply because to me, blackness contains such an amazing amount of variety due to all the mix-ins (sorta like Coldstone).

    But then again, you do have your Slashes and Wentworth Millers and Rashida Joneses, none of whom look black unless you’re being diligent about spotting the blackness (which is a whole other story).

    I see my comment is more random musing than actual comment. But good post, at any rate.

  • Grump

    I agree with you based off my experiences as well. I never diminished the other race or culture that biracial and multiracial people possess. For generations, in the most extreme cases, being “Black” in America was defined by the 1/32 rule. That if one had one drop of African blood, they were “Black”. But that was defined by the “other” and not the self. I believe, historically, that there has been a greater tolerance within the Black community for mixed heritage people than compared to other groups. This just shows you that The Black Experience is not singular or monolithic, which is what the HBO special tried to show everybody.

  • aisha

    This subject always fascinated me. As person who is not of recent mixed descent I’m always caught off guard when I’m asked are you “mixed”. When I say no I get the following reactions

    1) yes you are you just don’t know it
    2) oh you just regular black (yay!)
    3) oh i assumed you must be because of your skintone and the way you talk
    4) hmm, you don’t look like regular black people

    This race thing is so complicated.

  • aisha: I once spent a good 20 minutes trying to convince someone that I am *not* part asian. He actually got mad at me! On some “oh you probably are and just don’t know it”. *shakes head*

  • Grump

    I always wonder who it is making these statements. As though they might not be from, or even familiar with, our community.

  • Grump: Which statements do you mean?

  • Grump

    Those who question your heritage to that extent. Yes, people will ask you about it, but to damn near start a formalized inquiry is a bit ridiculous.

  • I’ve gotten it from PoC and others, it depends on what they were guessing you were and what you reply. From other black people I usually have to deal with people not believing I have a parent who isn’t black. I had a close work colleague who didn’t think I was telling the truth till he happened to see pictures. PICTURES. *smh* From white people and black people it’s been stuff surrounding whatever exotic ethnicity they have mentally chosen for me. But you’re right Grump it’s surprising how personal and invasive some people get with the questioning if you let them.

  • Melissa

    I had a dream about Slash last night, and I know nothing about him. I wound up finding your post. Hahaha. I really love what you’ve said here. I’m multiethnic. White, black, red and yellow. Caribbean mutt on one side and a Euro-Native mix on the other. More often than anything, it’s assumed I’m Hispanic when I’m not. I’ve come to realize most Hispanics are mutts, but they are lucky in that they can say, “I’m Hispanic.” Saying, “I’m a mutt” seems degrading. Mutts are dogs, not people. I wish we had a term for ourselves so people could just shut up about it. I had to fill out a police report once and my friend said, “Just put down Indian! Your mom looks Indian. Just pt that.” Meanwhile, her children are half black, half white, but identify as black because they look black. Lucky them. I now have Slash on my list of cool people because I see how people all over the net spend their time questioning if he’s black enough. It’s disgusting. America is soo behind the times.

  • raj

    well folks,
    reporting here for the lower-class, midwest-american-born-and-raised, east-indian dad and german-american mother camp, looks like this color thing is a problem. i am about halfway through my 22nd year and frequently encounter the inquiries into my why-i’m-brown status. from every which god damn ethnic camp.
    i could go on and on about this and i usually would, but perhaps i’d be preaching to the choir in the case of the readers in this particular blog. suffice it to say, i s’pose, that ignorant folks always trippin. sucks that we’re so nice to them. i don’t know though, recently i’ve just been calling folks out on their shit. talkin about “durka durka,” c’mon people.

    great post, by the way. stumbled it.

  • tabitha

    since i’ve been nominated to speak on behalf of the blacks i’d like to begin by telling all the mulatto people to take it easy. i keed. i keed. a great deal of black ppl grow up insulated within their communities. the mixed kids we grew up with were ‘just black’. you might know they momma is white but they never seemed to relate to that half of the fam. it could be they just wanted to fit in and we let them. we were too young to know the intricacies of identity politics. i think those childhood categories followed a lot of ppl into adulthood where they seem to just be confounded by folks claiming their other half. personally, i was in my second year of college before i met a bi-racial person who wanted to be seen as such… the silly questions are probably not meant to be offensive. they’re just natural inquisitiveness. i know it’s hard for a log of folks to see this but, black people can be just as naive about race as white people. the questions i’m reading here remind me of my freshmen roommate asking me why i don’t wash my hair everyday or why i always wear lotion.

  • Naomi

    With regard to your ethnicity that you stated, being of east indian, portugese and carib indian decent. When you make reference to being black are you talking about as in a brown coloured person or someone of African decent.

  • Naomi: My mother is of African descent as well as East Indian and Carib, so I’m referring to black as being at least partially of African descent.

  • dr_om

    Everybody has valid points but personally I do not see anyone as an ethic type. I simply see people as people. Color means nothing to me. I think that if more people did this there would be no racial in/equality.

  • Natural Brown Sugar

    I’ve claimed all 3 of my heritages since asking my mother why our family didn’t resemble others. I feel that to not claim my Native American Indian heritage is to disown most of my great grandparents, who overcame so much during a time when people still wanted to “kill the indian, save the child.” I claim my African American roots because that comprises most of my father’s ancestry. AND! Although my White ancestors put themselves in our bloodline due to force (for the most part) that is a cultural reality.
    The history of America is in my blood, from crossing that land bridge, the Dutch landing in Jersey and going native (haha), freemen fighting in the civil war, marching in DC for equal rights, to asking Rhode Island and CT for gay rights. Not everyone can say that!

  • Pingback: We Contain Multitudes. « PostBourgie()

  • Annoyed

    Dr._Om, that is a wonderful attitude…but it isn’t the world we live in.

    In my world, people are not simply people. I’m constantly being judged/disrespected because I happen to be an ethnically ambiguous multiracial woman.

    The harsh truth is that people like to label and classify one another. They determine whether they want to include or exclude you. They decide whether to reject you or accept you as “one of them”.

    Don’t oversimplify reality by claiming that you view everyone in the same way. Most people have made it perfectly clear that they do NOT see me as just another person.
    They seem to feel entitled to an explanation of why I look, sound, and behave the way I do. I’m confronted with more stupidity on a daily basis whenever I walk out the door.

    Then if you don’t respond in ways that satisfy their “natural inquisitiveness” (to quote Tabitha), they have a problem with you.

    I don’t walk around asking people to explain why they look a certain way…because it is none of my business.
    I’ve always felt that questions and queries about my “race/ethnicity/nationality” are inappropriate. It just isn’t something you ask people, no matter how curious you might be.
    I see that as only slightly less offensive than asking somebody how much money they earn or if their hair is real.

    In my opinion, people ask these questions because they want to know what kinds of comments they can make about other ethnic groups around you. They want to be able to feel “comfortable” with you on a racial basis. It is ridiculous.

  • gwenniepooh

    You see the real problem is that race is a socialogical construct for the purpose of exploitation. Only where Western Colonization came in and polarized people groups does this soicultural destinction become problematic. Do any research on genetics (legitimate) and you will find there is no scientific basis for the construct. It is socio political. Can a dog have anything else but a dog? No. No matter what type of dogs mate, they still have dogs as the end result. This is the same for people. It is better to identify people based on their socialization and culture. What it really means to be black has to do with one’s cultural and social upbringing and the culture an individual chooses to identify with. It is costly to identify yourself as Black from America. If you live on the continent of African it would be better to identify with your African Heritage. It is all a sociological scam. Black people have been biracial as a race every since slavery began. But biracial is not a race. It is a social construct. Three fourths of African Americans are multiracial due to slavery. Most African Americans are African decent, Native Amer decent, and European decent. This happpened because the white slave owners took black women for their sexual pleasures and fathered a nation of these type of people. The Native Americans use to help run-a-way slaves and take them into their tribes and they would marry and have families. This stuff is nothing new. The offspring of white slave owners were black because a law was written that stated if you can trace african ancestry 4 generations back and find African you are black. Search the “one drop rule.” This is still probably on the records in some southern states. From this standpoint it is not your decision to be biracial but it is what the law says you are. This was done to keep the slave owners offspring from suing and demanding their rights and rights for their families insofar as inheritance of property and other matters. This biracial stuff ain’t nothing new. Now it is new because these generation of mixed people are coming from legalized marriages and relationsips.

  • Leah

    I think its interesting because I can totally relate to what this blog is saying…
    The odd thing about it is…
    I have been through it too. People trying to guess what my racial background is etc…
    Ive had it from whites,blacks,asians and latinos…
    Noone ever guesses it right…

    My mom is a very light skinned black woman, and my father is dark skinned black.
    I know my mom has white in her family, but that goes down our family tree and on to my great great grandfathers mother who was part Sioux Indian…
    With it being that far down the line…I never really thought of myself as anything other than a black woman. But ppl always need to know what race I am…
    Its annoying. Even after I say to them “I am black, not mixed” they think I am lying.
    They always think I am part Asian or Latina. I’m not saying its bad or good…its just dumb because I am not half and half at all

  • Interesting post. I’m what people would consider “biracial” (Black mom, White dad) and I’m fair-complexioned. People have told me that I look like everything from Mexican to Russian to Italian, which I am actually descended from considering my father was of Sicilian heritage.
    For me, I basically regard physical appearances as trivial in the end. Cultural upbringing can often be very different from how someone appears. That’s why there are biracials out there who look Black but can more closely identify with White culture (I’ve encountered quite a few) and very pale ones who feel as Black as Malcolm X, lol. 😉

    Personally, I identify as both black and mixed-race. Considering my Black family were of various mixed bloodlines as well, along with most of the Black community, I don’t see the two terms as being exclusive of each other.

    • Thank you for your very intelligent post, Tori. I really like the points you make about the fact that who people identify with doesn’t always match how they look. And I strongly support your choice to identify as both mixed-race and black. I think that this is the best way to honor the specificity of one’s family without also trying to distance oneself from other black people (who don’t appear multiracial even though almost all of us are if we look back far enough).

      I did want to make a quick note on your Malcolm X joke. Malcolm wwas called Detroit Red because he was so light. If I recall, his mother had a white father. She may have been the product of a rape. But I haven’t re-read in a while. So “as black as Malcolm X” is funny in more ways than you realize. I guess it goes to show your point that the most important racial identification is a chosen political affiliation. In terms of politics, I’d gladly kick Ward Connerly out of the (black) race and take someone like Tim Wise in.