“Black” or what? : The Power of Self Definition

As a light skinned African American woman, I’ve grown up with questions about my “authenticity”. When people look at me, they assume I’m Latina or mixed. Very few people have met me without questioning what race I am. I tell them I’m Black, and they usually respond with ‘That’s it?’ or ‘Really’. Sometimes I tell them I do have some Native American heritage, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I want people to think about the question they’re asking me. I want them to linger in their moment of racial ambiguity in meeting me and possibly question their own assumptions of what a Black person (or anyone really) is supposed to look or even act like. I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with genuine curiosity. Feel free to ask me instead of assuming you know what or who I am. What bothers me are the questions: ‘Really? That’s all?’

The last time I checked, people are diverse and in this day and age, with inter-mixing, it is difficult for you to look at someone and assume their racial/cultural backgrounds. We can be all shapes, sizes and shades. Since when did people assume that black people can’t have long hair? Why do they suddenly have to be “mixed’?

So when I went to college, I thought I was leaving all of that behind. I thought I was entering into a world where I could be me, a person, instead of ‘the light-skinned girl”. I was wrong. There was someone who said that I “wasn’t a real black person” because I had white friends. That made me think. So now I’m “not real”? I didn’t deserve the honor of being called Black? I was just a little girl from the city. I was on my own for the first time and I was already facing a crisis. Is this what the world had in store for me? Would no one accept that I’m Black? Was I always going to be separated from my own race by other members of that race? Would I never be claimed by my fellow African Americans? My parents are Black. Their parents were black and their parents were black too. When did something get lost in translation with me?

Weeks went by, and I had something of a realization. Yes, I had white friends. So what? What does that have to do with my lineage? When did I allow someone else the power to tell me what I was going to identify as? I realized that my own Blackness is not defined by what someone else says it is. Maybe we all have to come up with our own ideas of what it means to be Black. But I believe those standards should be for ourselves, not for imposing on others. For me, Blackness is loving who I am, inside and out, and appreciating anyone who doesn’t ask twice when I tell them I’m Black. If you identify as Black, I encourage you to find the power in defining yourself. Because I found that other people’s definitions just didn’t apply.

 

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