The Problem with Being Labelled Black – Part 2

The picture attached to this blog is from National Geographic and apparently the look of the average American in 2050.

Many years ago I sat down with a friend of mine. She is biracial. I was lamenting the fact that I disliked when other black people or bi-racial with black in them looked down their nose at other blacks. She asked me why I would consider biracial as other blacks. That hit me in the gut for a minute that on a subconscious level I was guilty of applying the 1% rule and automatically co-opting someone who was biracial as black.  On reflection when writing this series of articles it made me realise that so much is done on a subconscious level from media and the wider community to further install that kind of thinking.

Many proponents of black history don’t even realise that many of the icons, especially in American history held up as black icons are indeed mixed race. Frederick Douglas. Booker T Washington. W E Dubois. Mary Seacole. Samuel Coleridge Taylor, etc. Indeed let’s look at some modern ones and ask the question why are bi-racial people like Obama, Halle Berry, etc defined as black

  • Lewis Hamilton (biracial) was hailed as the first black winner of Formula 1.
  • Tiger Woods (biracial) was hailed the first African-American champion when he won the Masters.
  • Halle Berry (biracial) was hailed as the first African-American to win best actress from the Oscars
  • Barack Obama (biracial) was hailed as the first black/African-American president of the United States.

 

Let’s start with Barack Obama.
Many Whites and Hispanics in America see him as mixed race whilst most Blacks see him as black. Interestingly although he does not speak out on this much his speech after the acquittal of George Zimmerman over Trayvon Martin’s death including the following lines.

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.”

Lewis Hamilton wrote how important it was for him to be seen as being F1’s first black driver. He states that

“When I first started in Formula 1, I tried to ignore the fact I was the first black guy ever to race in the sport. But, as I’ve got older, I’ve really started to appreciate the implications.

It’s a pretty cool feeling to be the person to knock down a barrier – just like the Williams sisters did in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf.”

Halle Berry in a custody battle over her daughter with her ex partner Gabrielle Aubry told Ebony magazine

“I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory…. I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide — how she identifies herself in the world,”
“What I think is that that’s something she’s going to have to decide … And I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That’s how I identified myself,” she said. “But I feel like she’s black.”

Of the list Tiger Woods is the only one who has out-and-out identified as Cablinasian (a portmanteau of Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian) rather than black or African American.

Personally I think it very sad that one has to chose a colour. That it has to be an either or. But this is evidently the way of the world.

It is clear that the term or grouping of Black is clearly also a political term. Black Music.(or urban music as it is now called) Black Film. Black Athletes. Black History Month. Whilst I recognise the historical frame in which this is set and how in many genres like music where many people of African or Caribbean descent blazed a trail only for corporates to push out and promote those who are white as the acceptable face. From Elvis to Eminem. From Lisa Stansfield to Ziggy Azealia. And how could forget the inventor of twerking Miley Cyrus (tic)

In fashion, low riders morphing from gang bangers to skater boys, to language where bling and tunnup become mainstream, much of these trends have had their genesis within the black community. And depending on who is telling the story it is no wonder that the label black has become a reactive one as a source of identity against “white privilege and patriarchy”.  At least in countries such as England, North America, etc.

In college/university any grassroots political movement that pushed back and was non white was considered black. At my alma mater it made for a heated discussion when one of the Black Caucus members remonstrated with a Jewish student who wanted to join the group and said it was discriminatory to exclude him yet waxed lyrical as to how I or others could not join the Jewish society.

So where does this actually lead you may ask? What is wrong with the label black, and if we don’t use it what other term should we replace it with? How else does one distinguish between racial and ethnicities.

Well for me I don’t think the labels will ever change. It is what it is. It may morph every now and then and take on a new label, but it does seem to be set in stone for now and will be for a while to come.

My honest preference is that my country of birth or place of citizenship is enough of an identifier. As a starter. This does not minimise or take away from one’s heritage but I can assure you my Caribbean family see me a lot more as British than they do Bajan or Grenadian. Also why should I have to identify as Black British or someone as White British or indeed Mixed British, whatever the heck that means? Being defined as English or British should not be hampered by, or indeed influenced by, what pantone I am.

But I do believe the system of dividing our society, and I mean worldwide not just this part of the hemisphere, by colour and race is so deep within the psyche that only a huge evolutionary shift in our species would actually change it. Labels are here to stay, we just choose individually how we react to them. Whether like me you have a problem with the limiting nature of them or are just cool. C’est la vie.

In the meantime I guess it’s about unlearning the biases and having open conversations like this to see what we are thinking.

Coffee?

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