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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.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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