The American Monopoly on Blackness

I’m not really sure who’s Black anymore. Sure, a little deductive reasoning could probably clear up most confusion. But these days, it’s just too much work. I understand that ethnicity and race are tricky things. Factor in nationality and we might as well be talking about to, too and two. Not only are these concepts riddled with underlying issues beyond our control, but they also evoke a lot of emotion. Maybe it’s the historical context surrounding how our people came to be subject to racial classifications in the first place that continues to dredge up emotions.

I could be digging too deep, but in my three decades of life, I’ve yet to hear, witness, participate in, or be made aware of any other racial group engaging in the sorts of verbal sparring that take place within the Black community. I’ve never met a “more white” person or a “less white person.” I’ve never met a “real Asian” or a “fake Asian.” And I’ve never crossed paths with a Native American who wasn’t very clear about the fact that they were indeed Native American. But the varying degrees and gradients of Blackness that we’ve created and the ongoing debate about what they all mean make that level of clarity almost impossible for us. Take myself for example, I didn’t know I “wasn’t Black” until middle school. It was then I learned that having an African parent somehow made me less Black. And to think, all this time I thought Black simply referred to a person or persons having African ancestry, whether recent or distant. Imagine my surprise in learning that my Nigerian father was also not a Black man. And if he wasn’t Black, as Black as he was, then who was?

It was at that time that I was introduced to all the many ways a Black person could be disqualified from their Blackness. Foreign accents were a given, a “white” sounding vernacular, eating specific foods, not eating specific foods, not knowing certain songs, being of mixed raced (the breakdown of the mix determines the level of Blackness), being from Latin America, Europe, Africa, or really any place outside of the United States, voting for trump, listening to Taylor Swift, etc. Now those last two might be legit, but when did Black Americans become the authority on Blackness? To this day, I find comments under my articles cavalierly dismissing my perspective because a Nigerian could never understand what it means to be Black. A seemingly contradictory statement in and of itself, but who defined what it meant to be Black in the first place and what good does it do our community as a whole to wield Blackness as a means of excluding one another? Don’t our global experiences as non-white people automatically lump us under the umbrella of second class citizens, which is essentially why the classification exists in the first place? And what would motivate us to use Blackness as a means of excluding diversity within a community that has experienced discrimination based on their differences alone for centuries?

It’s often implied that a connection to the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a requirement for social identification with Blackness. We operate as if the further back a person can trace their lineage, the less Black they become. Even when that lineage reveals more people with brown and Black skin. This is evident with situations like the public scrutiny of Daniel Kaluuya, the U.K. born, Black African actor who starred in the film “Get Out.” Although the white characters and viewers seemed to be very clear about who the Black people were on the screen, there was some backlash from prominent Black American actors and viewers alike once it was revealed that Kaluuya was not American. Essentially, the argument boiled down to American Black people having a better understanding of racism and white supremacy and a more authentic experience with both. As if not being American excluded Kaluuya from being Black or somehow allowed the authenticity of his Blackness to be called into question.

We’ve witnessed celebrities with Latin American roots like LaLa Anthony, Cardi B, Rosario Dawson, and Zoe Saldana publicly making statements in declaration of their Blackness. Fighting to prove that they can be both native Spanish speakers and Black women and they’re absolutely right. These identities are not in opposition of one another nor should we treat them as such. You would think that with our eagerness to invite white people to imaginary cookouts and distribute Black passes to honor white mediocrity, we could find some room in our community for those of us who are actually Black by birth, not by trial period. Not only do we see people in these circumstances fighting to defend their positions within our social community, we see them fighting to defend their positions within their cultural communities where often times the color of their skin is unwanted and unwelcome. As Americans, we know this feeling all too well. Seeing bloody Black bodies sprawled across our Facebook feeds almost on a daily basis, we know the consequence of having Black skin in unwelcome places. And as we mimic white supremacy in all its forms, our community has also become an unwelcome place for some Black skin.

Although rarely discussed with candor, the historical ramifications of slavery and the fact that it left an entire group of people without a reachable homeland to connect to plays into this debacle as well. The belief is often that if you can default your nationality to a country outside of the US, then you forfeit your right to Blackness. This is essentially the rhetoric that declares, “You’re Kenyan? Oh, I thought you were Black!” or “Drake isn’t even Black, he’s half Jamaican and he’s from Canada,” as if these identities are mutually exclusive. And if we defaulted to our nationalities for social identities, wouldn’t being an American override being Black in the same fashion?

Well, once we get into what constitutes being just an American, we hit a couple of snags. I’m Nigerian by ancestry, American by citizenship, and Black by social classification. But make no mistake, I could never just be an American because this country has reserved American-ness for white people. No matter how many generations I birth in this country, they will never fully be American. Instead, they’ll always be some sort of pseudo American, maybe Black American, maybe Nigerian American, maybe African American, but they will never be just American. Why? Because being American is synonymous with being white and there is only one way to be white as we all know, and that’s by having full European ancestry. Once you mix, you lose your claim and that should surprise no one. Whiteness, in general, has always had a history of being exclusionary and, despite our being victims of these exclusionary systems and structures, we mimic their existence within our own communities. Creating unattainable expectations and embedding stereotypes into our own social identity. The fact that Black people of other nationalities can default to their countries of origin has no bearing on the racial classification that we’re forced to operate within. We do not get to deduct Blackness from people because they’re not Black the way we would prefer. And we don’t get to condemn people for not mirroring our views and life experiences. These exclusionary practices creep up in our online discussions, in our activism, in our parenting, in our day-to-day interactions, and they weaken our domestic and global communities. After all, how can we establish strong communities if we can’t even agree on how we all belong to them?

This isn’t just about the labeling of race, it’s also about the ownership of race and the belief that one must wield his or her identify like a weapon to strengthen its validity. As if someone being less Black somehow makes you more Black. The last thing we should be using against one other is this debilitating concept of race that we didn’t even create.  We were many things before we were Black, we don’t stop being those things simply because white supremacy would have us believe there is no value in them. Race has been weaponized against us in this country and around the world and it’s time we had the discussion about how we’ve learned to weaponize race against each other. With that we can have the forward-moving discussion outlining what conscious decisions we need to make in order to be an inclusive space for all Black peoples from every inch of the globe. After all, there’s no use in us fighting for a better view from the ship if it’s taking us all to the same destination.

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