When I was 11, I noted one day after a cold, ugly winter that it was actually warm enough for me to wear shorts to school. I had only worn long pants all season and I had no trace of a tan, but the tint of my skin never crossed my mind. Minutes after I sat down in class, one girl, her complexion darker than mine, turned to me and said “Your legs are so white!”
Cue the mental record-scratch.
My legs were white? Impossible. My mother is Black. My father is Black. I am Black. End of story. But my poor, 11-year-old self was less than certain. It was the first time I asked myself why I wasn’t Black enough, but not the last.
I had always known that non-Black people didn’t think I was Black enough. I straighten my hair. I speak in a way that conforms to their perceptions of “educated.” I don’t have Lebron James’s phone number. So the idea that another Black person would diminish my Black identity seemed unthinkable. Apparently I wasn’t Black enough for anyone.
But my Blackness is not composed solely by the color of my skin or the features of my face. Biology did not create my Black identity. Society did. It was society that told me how to speak or how to look to be Black, regardless of my say in the matter.
Despite the fact that this identity was thrust upon me without my consideration, I do not shun my Blackness. I choose to embrace it, because I am the one who decides what my heritage means to me. I am the one who chose to look at Black history with pride and to look in the mirror and feel pretty in my skin. That is Blackness. It is embodying the Black identity as I see fit and not having to doubt my ability to suit anyone else’s perceptions of who I should be.
Although I have no reason to doubt my own Blackness, it seems that my self-identification may not be enough for others in the Black community. As they they fight to show the beauty of this race and demolish the barriers of racism, at times their efforts force the divides within the community to grow wider. When people ask themselves what it means to be Black, sometimes, the question becomes “How Black is Black enough?”
“Biology did not create my Black identity. Society did.”
This is the most dangerous question. Like racial slurs or prejudicial actions from non-Blacks, this question holds the power to degrade a Black person’s self-worth. When someone asks this question, they imply that somehow, one person’s Black heritage does not have the same value as another’s. As if somehow, they have no place in the Black community despite accepting their Black heritage themselves.
If you do not relish the taste of soul food, are you Black enough? If you cannot sing along to popular songs by musicians of color, but you love country or heavy metal music, are you Black enough? If you wear your hair straight, if you do not watch BET, if someone else’s experience of Blackness doesn’t match your own, are you Black enough?
For the sake of our race, we cannot continue to ask such a toxic question. To question another person’s Black identity can make a person believe their own race has no love for them. It excludes them from their own culture by destroying their self-worth, and in doing so, it weakens the bonds of the Black community.
If we have preconceived notions of what Blackness means, we must abandon them. Just as the bigoted stereotypes pushed upon our race hurt us, these preconceptions will only do us harm. They will divide our community in a time when unity is our greatest strength.
Blackness comes in infinite forms. No one “talks white” or “talks Black.” We speak as we please and we are Black because our Black heritage has value in our lives. The Black girls with straight hair do not hate their race, just like having green or pink hair doesn’t solidify one’s racial identity. People of mixed race can own their Blackness without question, and those with the darkest skin and kinkiest hair have as much a right to feel beautiful as anyone else.
When we push for equal representation for our race, we must not forget equal representation within our race. If we try to measure Blackness, we will only exclude those who deserve the same respect we do.
We all ask for equality. We all deserve respect. We are all Black enough.