Black Is The New Black
Aug 12, 2013

Navigating ethnic identity in the modern era

I've been Black my whole life. Well, kind of, anyway.

I consider myself blessed to come from a family of incredible diversity in appearance. Like Yaba Blay's 1ne Drop Project illuminates so beautifully, one's blackness is often a matter of personal declaration instead of a socially or politically-acceptable reality. From my father's chocolatey skin to my great-aunt's bluish-green eyes, I was surrounded by visual extremes throughout my childhood and never questioned or shunned my ethnic identity. Growing up in 1970s and 1980s Chocolate City was great in that way. You assumed everyone was Black, unless they told you otherwise.

It wasn't until I came to Penn that I realized my ethnic heritage was more "in question." Freshman year, I got an unsolicited verbal invite to join the Bi-Racial Kids Club. The look on my face was initially more from my shock that such a thing existed, let alone that anyone should think I identified this way and would want to unite under that umbrella. A ride up to NYC with classmates landed me in a world where people randomly started speaking Spanish to me on the street, assuming I was Dominican, and Latina elders fussed at me for daring to speak English in their presence. An Egyptian gentlemen who worked at my dorm took an instant liking to me because I reminded him so much of his baby sister and, admittedly, I did look quite a bit like her when he showed me a family photo. It was then that I developed a theory about the advantages of being "universal beige," a complexion that finds comfort in blendability in many spaces around the world. Not that blackness is a bad thing, but beigeness brings less risk of instant discrimination and seems to soften people's perceptions of one's conformity to stereotypes. Being beige gives me a few milliseconds more of neutrality. A luxury, one might say, though the reality may feel far less comfortable.

Years later, after enduring instances of men asking me which one of my parents is white as a means of starting conversation, and being welcomed as a suitable mate by a former boyfriend's mother because I was lighter than him, spoke Spanish well and had a fairly soft grade of hair, I understand that my reality is the murky ethnic water into which many young people now find themselves. In an ever-diversifying world, my complexion creates more quandaries in those who struggle with or openly embrace their prejudices. Is it more offensive to refer to me as a slur that assumes I am "just" Black, multiracial or Latina, if insulting me is your goal? When I am partying with my diverse set of sisterfriends, the puzzled looks on the faces of men who come over to flirt with us are highly amusing, as they grapple with what angle to play that will be most receptive. In this odd, tense, ever more ethnically-integrated 2013 America, perhaps it is revolutionary to just be Black. To stand firmly in a description, a cultural reality, an awareness that does not demand deciphering.

I've been Black my whole life, at least in my own mind, and it really matters not what anyone else thinks about that. I own it. I appreciate it. And I intend to spread that gospel of inclusive love to all of the Gen Y babies who need it, and the elders who unknowingly alienate youth who have a different idea of what Blackness means. The struggle continues.

Here is last week's playlist: