Since I’ve been living abroad, I’ve realized there are certain phenomena that can only be found in the U.S., like gigantic food portions and poorly designed public bathrooms. And now, thanks to Rachel Dolezal, we can add something new to the list: people pretending to be Black. I’m almost certain she would have been unable to pull off those identity shenanigans if she wasn’t living in the U.S. — even with her perfected storytelling, hairstyling and assimilating skills. Plenty of folks would have questioned and blown her cover ages ago.
In the U.S., we’ve mastered rather fluid concepts of Blackness. As baffling as it may seem for non-Americans, most of us tend to be able to recognize a Black person, regardless of complexion or other more subtle characteristics. We can sense it, feel it and recognize it without talking about it. So if you say you’re Black and you look sort of Black, then you’re Black.
Apparently, even a white woman can slip through our radar, unquestioned for years.
Quite the opposite is happening in other parts of the world. If you identify as Black with lighter skin or otherwise vague features of Blackness, you’ll be asked to explain yourself. When I’m outside the U.S, walking around as a lighter-skinned Black person, I’m not sure exactly how much time I spend justifying my Blackness. But it’s definitely a regular thing. In fact, it’s as frequent as it is irritating.
In the Netherlands, where I’ve lived since 2011, questions from (mainly) white Dutch people tend to linger around a vague discomfort: “Where are you from? I mean, where are your parents from? I mean, where are they really from?” And sometimes they get straight to the misguided and ill-informed point of justifying my light skin: “Your skin is so fair. Is one of your parents white?”
This race-designating dance can be exhausting. But at least I know my lines: “I’m Black.” Occasionally I follow that with a brief history lesson: “There was this whole slavery thing.” Typically the awkward questioning ends there.
In Paramaribo, Suriname, where I lived for nearly a year, it could get more intense. I fielded questions about my color on a seemingly daily basis. And since these questions usually came from Black people, they tended to probe deeper. Comments were often along these lines: “If you don’t have a white parent, you must have a white grandparent. Someone in your family is white. And I insist on knowing who it is.”
So although I would have preferred to walk away from all conversations of this type, I would add another line to my script: “All eight of my great grandparents were Black. Just take my word for it.”
But sometimes people wouldn’t take my word for it. One man in particular insisted that I tell him my true identity. He refused to believe that I would choose to identify as Black when my skin color told him a different story.
“Are you from the U.S.?” He asked as a typical opener after hearing my accent. “Where is your family from originally?”
He accepted none of my script. “Your people weren’t all Black. No, that can’t be. You look too white,” he said with a smile, as if he paid me a compliment. “You must have a white parent. Is it your mother or father? … Why would you tell people you’re Black when you’re not all Black. You should claim your entire heritage.”
I was carrying grocery bags in both hands, sweating, feeling tired and just about two blocks away from reaching my air conditioning and a lemonade. The last thing I felt like doing was defending myself in race court. But I was angered by the notion that my lighter skin entitled him to redefine my identity within his limited understanding of Blackness. So I responded with weak retorts like, “How dare you? My ancestors were all shades of Black.” I’m not sure he was ever convinced.
Having grown up in a place that never questioned my blackness, I’m still thrown off when I’m abroad and asked to prove it. So I almost have a sense of relief when I return to the U.S. and this proof is no longer required. In the U.S., I don’t need a crisp and clear justification for my identity when I walk down the street. And I certainly don’t need to carry pictures of my great grandparents to verify my Blackness.
But now that Rachel Dolezal has thrown off everyone’s race radar, the case for light-skinned blackness in the U.S. might be getting as tricky as it is in other countries. So just in case, I’ll go through some family photo albums. My great grandparents – all eight of them – will have to come to my defense. Because, frankly, I’m tired of talking about it.
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