Identity I: Judging Blackness

The topic of identity is one that I hope to be able to delve into from time to time on this blog. My national identity is quite clear but the same has never been true for my cultural identity.  For a while, I thought I was beginning to understand it and how it affects various aspects of my life  but I’ve gone through major changes in the last couple of years that have opened up this question again in a way that I was not expecting.  As a result, I am very interested in issues about identity. Originally my questions were was mostly in the area of culture but more recently race has come into it as well. Perhaps I’ll start my discussion there.

For the first time in my life, I am having to think seriously about being black.  It’s not something that I ever paid much attention to before and I don’t know that I like doing so now. Let me put it this way, I have a Nigerian identity but not a black one. Why? I only became ‘black’ with all the connotations that classification carries, when I moved to a country where it mattered. If you ask average Nigerians who they are, they might answer by telling you about their nationality, their tribe or their village but I’m pretty sure almost nobody would define themselves by their race. So having to think about what it means to be viewed by others through a lens that I don’t necessarily apply to myself has been a big and often uncomfortable adjustment.

Over the course of the last US election, I started to pay much more attention to the issue of race in America particularly after egregious conduct by some of Obama’s opponents. I can certainly say that I have learnt a lot: some of it I feel,  applies almost universally, other things seem peculiarly American. One thing that I have trouble with is the concept of judging peoples’ blackness.  I can point to many topics that are at their core, about this concept. For instance: light skin/dark skin, acting white, being  coconut/oreo/bounty,  natural hair/relaxed hair and so on.

I have occasionally heard talk about  people surrendering their black card for various reasons but I take such comments as the jokes they are meant to be. There is no actual black card. A person cannot be ‘de-blacked’ because someone else is displeased with them.  

As is probably evident from my last post about Michael Jackson (see more-on-michael-jackson), I am very uncomfortable with dissecting a person’s blackness or supposed lack of it. Fair enough, people would have asked questions because of his changing appearance but the ferociousness of the debate surprises me in light of what is known about him and his own statements about his identity.  I wonder whether the discussion would have persisted in this way if he had not made any contributions to black people or culture in America but had retained his birth appearance.

So my question is: what makes someone black enough? Is it what they say, what they look like or how they live? Does one cancel out another? And why does anyone else get to have a say in how a person’s racial experience plays out?

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