How Black Are You?

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

By Reginald N. Bradley
Wednesday, September 1, 2010.
From as far back as my youngin’ days, I’ve been consistently reminded of light skinntedness and dark skinntedness. Skin color and class are inextricably linked where I’m from. In the ‘Bany, the sides of town were often framed and stratified by skin color – amongst the black folks! The east and south sides were supposedly the working class folks who happened to have a little more melanin than most.  The west and north sides were reserved for well off, bougie lighter blacks who “were tryna front and be whiter than they ass really was.” I didn’t rep a side at concerts and football games.
I was in the boonies. I lived in the field, literally – my house was surrounded by corn and cotton fields outside the city limits.  I repped Dougherty County. As I got older and wanted to socialize, my grandparents were weary of certain places in which I was forbidden to go – football games on the eastside, friend’s houses on the eastside….wait, just the eastside in general.  That was the nigga side of town, my Paw Paw stressed. What, I couldn’t be a nigga? Or nigga by affiliation? Is it ’cause I’m lightskinned? But I digress…There was a particular incident in high school that really made colorism tangible for me. My senior year I was a debutante.  I was talking to a girlfriend about how debutante practice was getting on my last nerve. I ranted, “who cares if I know how to do a box waltz or whatever the hell that little bougie two step is!?” Girlfriend looked at me quizzically and said, “you’re light skinned, you got money, and if you didn’t do it, you’d be a fake.”  
I didn’t know what to say.  I was beggin’ my folks for weekly allowance like er’body else.  I concurred with what Claire Huxtable told Vanessa after she got into a fight at school – “you’re not rich, Vanessa.  Your father and I are.” If my folks had this mystery money my friend so fiercely believed they had, they were being stingier than a republican on Sunday.Fastforward to college. I really struggled with the question of whether or not I wanted to, ahem, join a Black Greek Letter Organization. Colorism busted my ass again at the age of 20:”You gonna do AKA ain’t you?!?! You’re a shoe-in. You lightskinnted!””You gonna do AKA ain’t you?!?! You got money!””You gonna do AKA ain’t you?!?! If you don’t, your grandmama ‘nem gon’ whoop yo ass!”I tried my damndest  not to join Alpha Kappa Alpha because of the stigmas attached to it.  But, you can’t run from who you are. I feel like a neo defending my honor when I say this but I joined because of the women who lifted me up – and they were light and dark complected…and about their business. For one of our townhall meeting conversations, I helped organize a panel to talk about the role of intra-racial relations and identity. We opened with the notorious “paper bag test.”  I took it.  I failed. And the room was wide-eyed with amazement.   Even some of my chapter sorors gasped.  I don’t know why. I got some melanin. Chuch.  Graduated college, went to graduate school, started coming into my own and comfortable with my blackness, and then…I went to a conference.  Met a very beautiful, Afro’ed like Angela Davis sista who stayed after to chat with me about my paper.  Everything started out with those formal niceties:”your paper was enjoyable…””Thanks…””Have you considered X, Y, and Z…””Hmmm, not in that context but I will, thanks for the suggestions…”And then…..the big one:”Sis, why do you relax your hair? How do you consider yourself a blossoming scholar in black culture and you look like that? Are you ashamed of your blackness?”*moon crickets*
How was I supposed to politely sidestep and side EYE this question.  Honestly, I did it because I wanted to. I liked the way it looked.  And, partly, it was how I was raised.  Which leads to my last little bit….why this colorism thing is a pain in my ass.I don’t think the sista from the conference was trying to be condescending or start a rumble in the hotel conference room. But I did find myself perturbed by it. She’s not the first person to question me about my grooming – peers in my MA program (which, by the way, was African American and African Diaspora Studies), friends, even that random ranter on the street corner.  
My folks, however, never really questioned it nor made me conscious of race.  My mother is German and African-American, my father was straight Negro. Many of my aunts and uncles are white or Asian, and my sister had grey eyes when she was born.  If this was the 1900-1920s many of my kinfolk could “pass.” My paternal grandparents, however, did make me conscious of race because of their past experiences.  They showed me things as a teaching tool, to make me aware that there were some folks in the world – black, white, and other – who paid attention to race in often trivial ways.
And yet, something that I continuously battle and struggle with is this idea of being unabashedly black when, often, so many of my experiences and characteristics that I have are interpreted to scream I’m trying to embrace my inner white girl.  This has got to stop – being educated, enjoying a diverse group of friends, and a little Miracle Whip on my sandwich doesn’t mean I’m expulsing or even exorcising my inner black woman. What is frightening is that while living in a society that is attempting to expunge race as an identity factor, African-Americans are keeping racial identity alive through stratifying ourselves based on various shades of blackness. As if we have a meeting with the Creator like “hey, I want 20% melanin.” I didn’t have a choice in how black I am. What’s problematic is that how black I look is how black I’m perceived to be. Whatever that means.  
Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.
Ms Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar.

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