I hate when dark-skinned folks go out of their way to say they are “not just black.” There are a whole list of non-black terms folks use to circumvent such an identification. The most popular ones are: “bi-racial,” “mixed,” – or even nationalities such as “Dominican.” Listen. All of that is cute, but we need to be mindful of the fact that there is a difference between how we identify and how we are identified.
Identity is an internal and individual matter. When the Census comes around, we can ‘check’ as many boxes as we’d like. We can post flags from a bunch of different countries on the bumpers of our vehicles. Theoretically, we can be as dark-skinned as Wesley Snipes but tell everyone we are “not black.”
But at the end of the day, we are over-determined by structures of power that position us from the outside. Being identified is an external and systemic matter. Quite frankly, how we identify ourselves is irrelevant to the oppressors who have already identified us. Neither our opinion nor our consent is required in a system of domination (the masses of Africans, of course, did not agree to their enslavement, but they were still slaves). We are whatever the police officer who pulls us over says we are. We are whatever the boss who can hire or fire us says we are. We are whatever the loan officer at the bank who oversees our application says we are. We can identify as “bi-racial” or “mixed” or any other non-black term our hearts desire … but none of this is connected to a system of power. The police officer, the boss, and the loan officer have the power to make sanctioned decisions over life and death. We do not. When they see us, they see niggers and treat us like them, irrespective of our ability/willingness to acknowledge it.
Thanks to advances in modern technology, DNA analysis can tell us what region(s) of the globe we are “from.” We can submit saliva samples to Ancestry.com and find that we “are,” for example: 34% European, 33% Native American, and 33% African. The results make us feel good, as individuals, but how do they help in the faces of white supremacy and anti-blackness? To be clear: I sympathize with the desire to “belong” and be “from” a place, and be situated within a historical archive. But there comes a time where we need to admit that these tests and their results are problematic for at least two reasons.
First, the very practice of using DNA technology to pinpoint where people are “from” and who they “are” re-biologizes racism. It is important to remember that racism began as a (religious) project of blood purity whereby blackness was viewed as an obvious and automatic taint to the body politic. For centuries, white folks used the register of science to legitimize their domination (i.e. eugenics). This modern-day facelift, replete with ruses of diversity, upholds and entrenches racial logic (and neoliberal capitalism) by connecting it to discourses on “identity.”
Second, it promotes a conflation of identity and lived experience. Let’s look at two hypotheticals. It is undoubtedly true that a woman with fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes lives the experience of whiteness. Yet, when she receives her results declaring she “is” 20% Western African – she can now say she is “bi-racial” or “mixed,” etc. This is disingenuous because at the level of experience, she still benefits from being identified as white. A gross potentiality here is that of exoticism; whereby white folks can lay claim to being members of non-white communities to “spice up their lives.” Such tests promote ignorant, non-reflexive racial understandings that are thoroughly unhinged from power. This ultimately makes it more difficult to challenge systemic racism; because it is now easier for white folks to deny their whiteness.
Similarly, a man with dark skin and kinky hair lives the experience of blackness. When a police officer sees his blackness and pulls him over for that reason and that reason only, it does not matter that he “is” 34% this or that. He has been identified as black. What now? Should he reach for his Ancestry results!? I wouldn’t advise it: that would just give the officer a reason to shoot him because – let’s face it – he was probably reaching for a gun!
Identifying as non-black is a symptom of anti-blackness. Resisting identification with blackness does not make us less likely to be identified as black. It just means we are less likely to confront a brutal reality that dominates us nonetheless.