I am a 23-year-old, single black female living in New York City.
I put this information on the OkCupid profile I set up a week ago when I decided to go online to find love in a hopeless place (Manhattan). I had been online two days when I got a new message from a nice-looking guy. After a few exchanges, I gave him my number. I date guys of all different races, but this guy happened to be black. All was well in our texting conversation until suddenly, out of the blue, came the dreaded yet inevitable "Are you fully black?"
This wasn't the first time I'd gotten this question, and I'm sure it won't be the last. As a fair-skinned black woman with medium- to dark-brown hair (plus some Beyoncé-inspired blonde highlights... luv u, Bey!), I certainly look like I could be biracial.
Growing up I was constantly being asked if I was "mixed" by classmates of all races. Before I was old enough to understand all the history and baggage that comes along with this question, I was fully aware that answering "yes" would mean the other black children would see me as different. And, in some instances, maybe they'd even assume I thought I was better, prettier or smarter.
Answering "yes" or "no" was even further complicated by the fact that I had absolutely no idea what the answer was. Like many black Americans, I didn't know too much about my ancestry. That changed very recently, though, when one of my relatives did some research and uncovered part of the story. One of my oldest ancestors was an English woman who came to Maryland as an indentured servant centuries ago and had children with a free black man.
But still, even though I have more answers about my background now than before, I was incensed that this guy would ask me that question, phrased in that way. I knew what he was getting at, but the whole concept is frustrating.
Didn't he, as a black man himself, know that black Americans come in many shades for many reasons (consensual interracial relationships, white masters raping black slaves, etc.)? Not every black person looks the same! The "one-drop rule" underlies the way our society thinks about race, so identifying as black is what's expected of me and captures all those reasons. Blackness is a part of someone that overrides all else and comes to represent the whole.
So this time, instead of responding with my stock text response to this question -- "Well actually I know I look that way haha but actually both of my parents are black" (the "haha" designed to make this exchange less uncomfortable) -- I asked him, "Is anyone fully black?" He took a minute and finally answered, "No, I guess not."
Think for a minute about what it would mean if it were possible to answer "yes" to this question. For someone to be "fully black," they'd have to be able to trace back their ancestry maybe a couple thousand years and verify that each and every person on that enormous family tree was black. Impossible.
This guy seemed smart, so I think he knew that. But then why did he ask that question?
Based on over 20 years of experience, I put this type of question in one of three buckets:
- At the very worst, it's a way of assuring oneself that someone isn't that black, either as a way to make sense of why the person is smart or successful or to verify that the person is not threatening.
- It's a way of commodifying or "exoticizing" someone, making them out to be more of an interesting mixed-breed anomaly than a real person. It's kind of like how one might get excited about a labradoodle. (Yes, I have experienced this.)
- At best, it's a really, really lame way of asking someone what their ethnic background is, taking a harmless question to another level.
I've definitely experienced the worst-case scenario. I went to a mostly white, Catholic, all-girls private school in Washington, D.C., but the scenario I'll describe could have happened at any school. In fact, I absolutely loved my high school, but the environment wasn't free of the common yet unspoken tendency to think that someone who is not that black is more palatable or more capable. One year, after working hard for many semesters in the most advanced classes, I won an award at a school ceremony for having one of the top GPAs in my grade. When I walked back to the common area afterwards, still beaming with a sense of accomplishment completely unrelated to my race, I walked by a group of girls who stopped me to ask, "Wait, are you half-white?"
No one at school had asked me this before. Had my receiving the award triggered the question? If I answered "yes," would my diluted blackness be seen as explaining why I was smart? Because someone who is "fully black" wouldn't be able to get better grades than most of her non-black peers, right?
I did and still do find that kind of suspiciously timed questioning to be pretty egregious, but I've had other experiences that, to me, represent the non-malicious but still pathetic best-case scenario I described above. A few weeks ago, while I was walking through Union Square, a man passing out fliers jumped out at me to very politely ask, "Are you a black/white mix?"
Maybe this guy was a part-time dog breeder and that language came most naturally to him. Whatever the case, I kept walking, strongly resisting the urge to scream, "I am actually a human being, not a mutt!"
What I would like to say to anyone who feels the need, in the year 2014, to ask someone if they're "mixed," "half-and-half," "fully black," etc., is to hit the pause button. And then rewind and think about why you're asking that question. Is there really something else totally conversational and inoffensive that you're trying to ask, such as "What is your ethnic background?" And why do you want to know this information? Will the answer change the way you look at this person? If so, why?
No one is fully any one thing. Let's all educate ourselves and not talk like we're breeding dogs when it comes to race.