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My Blackness Has Been Questioned All My Life

Her Voice

How do you define "Blackness"? Or "being Black"? Can this truly be defined?


My mother is Italian, full-blooded. My father is Black and possibly Native American. He'll never do one of those 23andme kits and besides that we no longer speak. But his whole life he's identified as Black; therefore, for the sake of this article we will just say he's Black. I grew up identifying as Black as well – my father used to say, "you'll never be confused with your mother and you're not identifying as "other". You're Black." As a former militant for Civil Rights during the 60's and 70's, he taught me that I was Black before anything else.

So imagine my surprise when I entered school and realized that nobody thought I was Black. With my "good" hair and reddish complexion, I was called everything BUT Black.

"Are you an Indian?"

"You look Puerto Rican."

"You can't possibly be Black."

"What ARE you?" (Yes, not who? What?)

Of all the things I was called, the worst would be a "mutt." By some stories I heard, that is probably tame; however, it didn't make it hurt less. Teachers would ask if I needed to identify as "other" because they knew my mother was White; however, my father would absolutely forbid it and tell me to identify as Black. Being called anything but Black would confuse me – how can I not possibly be what my father said I clearly was?

Most demographic choices have changed to "two or more races" and when that is a choice, I choose it. If it's not a choice, I still choose "Black" or "African-American." It has been instilled in me to never choose "other" because I'm not an alien, I'm still a human being and I want to be identified as such. There's an importance in belonging. As an adult, though, the surprise in my Blackness is still there, especially as I work in Corporate America. Among White or non-Black colleagues, there's always a disappointment that I identify as Black or at least identify that my father is, in fact, a Black man. To be fair, this has not been all of my White or non-Black colleagues; however, it has happened at every job I've been in by at least one or two of them.

"Really? I would have never thought you were Black. You look (insert race here)."

"Your features are so exotic, though."

"You're Black? Oh. (cue side eye)"

But as an adult, I've been most surprised at the backlash from Black people themselves. Part of it, I get. For a long time, there were Black women who said they'd never have a baby with a Black man because they wanted their babies to "have good hair" or "be pretty" and didn't identify Blackness as having those qualities. Of course, this is not only false, but to be blunt, ignorant. Black IS beautiful. Flat out. Babies of all races, in my opinion, are beautiful (don't you talk about someone's kids). There's no truth to the contrary. For centuries, Black people have been told their features are ugly, unfavored and unattractive - and this has been especially true with dark-skinned Black women.

They've watched Black men themselves move towards light-skinned complected women or women of other races for the same reason their aforementioned counterparts have. They've deemed them as favorable and beautiful – leading some dark-skinned women to bleach their skin or put on makeup to make themselves lighter, so that they'd be identified as attractive enough to garner the attention of those men. To say dark-skinned women are unattractive is a damn lie. I see beautiful Black women in all shades on a daily basis and I'm proud to see them clapping back on the lies that have been said about their beauty and flipping those standards on their heads.

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While I support that pride, what I don't support is how this pride in Blackness has turned into, a lot of times, a disdain in biracial or multiracial women, like myself.

I've been flat out told by Black women that I'm not Black and cannot identify as such because my mother is White. By proxy, my children aren't Black either, even though their father is, because they say I'm not. In saying I'm not Black, they also vastly discount my identification in the struggles of being a Black woman because they can't possibly equate to the struggles of being a "real" Black woman.

They've told me, even though I grew up in the inner city and went through public education in the school that was identified as the "ghetto" school in the area because the population was predominantly Black, that my features made it easier on me to be successful and not be judged as harshly as my darker skinned classmates. Although I am college educated, they attribute any accomplishments I've made to my "lack of Blackness." And so on and so forth.

I haven't had it any easier in life because of my mixed genetic makeup.

At one point, I encountered not being able to identify with any one race. Too "white" to be Black. Too "black" to be White – even though I never identified, or wanted to be identified, as anything other than Black or, at least mixed. I longed for acceptance and, in some way, as I grew up, I was afforded that acceptance by friends of all races. It's easier to be multiracial today, as there are more children now than ever born as such. But the fact is, I am a Black woman. My father was right – I will never be confused with my mother. I am okay with that – and why shouldn't others also be okay with that?

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My Blackness isn't questioned when it comes to my salary, nor is it questioned when a non-Black woman sees me and clutches their purses. It didn't stop a White woman from calling me a "Black bitch" at a gas station last year. My mother's race hasn't made it any easier on me to be successful or stopped the struggles I've encountered at every turn in my life. Nor does my mixed race make me, by default, more beautiful, attractive, or better than any other woman who identifies as Black.

So the question, again, is who gets to define "Blackness" or "being Black"? Who gets to identify who I am and who I consider myself to be?

In my opinion, I do.

I define who I am. I always have and always will. I am proud of my Blackness. I am proud of my "mixed-ness" (new word that I just made up). I am proud that I've had the same struggles, because I can identify with and fight for my brothers and sisters to eradicate the problems and atrocities we still deal with today. I believe in justice for all and know that there are times I don't get that consideration just like any other Black woman. I don't expect, or want, or even accept, special treatment because of my genetic makeup. I will always be quick to correct anyone that doesn't believe in my Blackness, no matter who they are or what their intention, because I am proud to be who I am.

At the end of the day, we have better things to argue about right now than who is Blacker than the other, and enough to overcome than to identify standards of beauty within our community.

We are all beautiful. We are all worthy. And that's all that matters.

xoNecole is always looking for new voices and empowering stories to add to our platform. If you have an interesting story or personal essay that you'd love to share, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us at submissons@xonecole.com

Featured image by Getty Images.

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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