The Complications of “Black” Identity

“Black” is a loaded word. It has come to be associated with such negatives as death and mourning (wearing black to funerals), rejection (black sheep), being tarnished (black spot on one’s record). It has also come to be associated with a racial category – those who appear to have ancestry or distinctive phenotypes (physical features/appearance) of the African diaspora. Black, is a loaded word. Being considered a Black person, is a loaded experience. There is so much context – history, present, ideas, and stereotypes – associated with being Black.

Part of that history particular to the USA is the Black Power movement that insisted that “Black is Beautiful” and who declare in a *James Brown voice* “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!” It’s beautiful to see the pride with which many Black Americans wear their “Black.” However, not all of the African diaspora are comfortable with the term “Black.” Not all of those who would fall under that category want to use it. Black is not always perceived as an inclusive term, sometimes it is understood (and used) as a term of rejection.

The term “Black” is fraught with confusion, misinterpretation and controversy. While in the USA it has been reclaimed and is spoken with pride, in many other countries no such reclamation occurred, and the word is still slung at people of the African diaspora as an insult or a weapon. Thus when Black/African diaspora people in the USA encounter African diaspora from other places such as the nations of the Caribbean, Britain, countries of the African continent, countries in Latin America, they sometimes meet resistance when they try to describe them Black.

British researcher Uvanney Maylor[i] found this when she attempted to gather Black university staff for focus groups and found many people were uncomfortable with the term “Black” and with research studying the experience of “Black” university staff. Some of the reluctance to self-identify as Black came as a result of interpretation; some people interpreted black as a description of literal skin color to which they did not identify since in fact African people come in many shades of skin color. Others were of the (misguided) impression studying racial issues would perpetuate racism; some respondents commenting that labels like “black” and “white” should be eliminated, and others expressing concern about being singled out by their institutions which in itself highlighted the need to have a discussion about race.

Interpretation of the word “Black” can go in many directions, some of which sever the term completely from the idea of being African or being American. Some Americans use the term “Black” rather than “African American” as a rejection of the idea that they are “African.” They do not want to be associated with Africans or Africa. So rather than being an inclusive term, sometimes “Black” is understood as a rejection of any possible “African” ancestry, Africa, and all peoples associated with the continent. Some use “Black” instead of “African American” as a rejection of the idea that they are “American” because of the long history of second class citizenship and mistreatment of Black and African diaspora by the USA. Here the descriptor “Black” becomes a political statement of resistance.

The Black/African diaspora live a struggle, unique in its details, common in its sources: racism and the ideals of white supremacy. From colonialism to colorism, the African diaspora worldwide suffer oppression from the same idealistic source manifested in a startling variety of ways. White people do not even need to be present to perpetuate the continued damage being done by racism and white supremacy, so ingrained are they.

Black/African diaspora people with certain phenotypes are considered the same race and our struggles come from the same sources, but that does not negate our autonomy and right to define our own identity. The African continent is home to many nations, ethnic groups with diverse cultures, religions, philosophies, appearances and languages. Then, when we look beyond the continent to the diaspora around the world, the diversity is exponential. There is no single image of what is “African,” so it’s okay if we do not all want to use the same words to describe ourselves. Perhaps it is time to extend the courtesy of asking people who appear Black or of African descent how they would prefer to be identified racially and ethnically if it ever comes up, and respecting what people express as their preference.

Defining ourselves is the reason the descriptors Black/African diaspora people have called themselves has been, and is always evolving. However, we do not all have to use the same terminology in order to be in solidarity with one another. The Black/African diaspora is diverse. We include many ethnicities which incorporate varied nationalities and cultures. As such we have diverse ways of describing ourselves and diverse opinions about what is insulting or uncomfortable. Furthermore we don’t have to always identify as one single descriptor. Sometimes, depending on the conversation, what I am trying to convey, or my mood I can identify as Black, African diaspora, Afro-Trinidadian, or using a descriptor that doesn’t indicate race at all but talks about ethnicity and culture like Trinbagonian. None of them are wrong and none make me less “down for the cause.” Self-identity can also change. When I first arrived in the USA ten years ago I didn’t consider myself Black. Now it’s one of my strongest identities.

In addition to the complicated nature of the term “Black,” there are also stereotypes associated with people identified as “Black,” just as there are stereotypes associated with “African,” “American,” “Caribbean,” “Hispanic” and any subset of these descriptors. The biggest problem with these stereotypes is that we believe them about each other. Even though we are seen as being the same race, there is still so much intra-racial divisiveness that result from all these stereotypes. Overcoming the stereotypes we have of each other, being careful about the kind of “us” and “them” language and generalizations we use, taking the time to support each other, be compassionate, and learn more about and from each other, is more important than agreeing on one name to call ourselves. Being united doesn’t mean being the Borg or having a hive mind. It means recognizing and appreciating our diversity while coming together in solidarity to overcome our common struggles against racism and white supremacy in all their forms.

 

[i] Uvanney Maylor. What is the meaning of ‘black’? Researching ‘black’ respondents. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 2009; 32(2): 369-387.

 

© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved

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