Blackness: A Quick and Dirty Primer

Some people are blacker than others.

–Bodily carriage. Culinary tastes. Dress style. Christian commitment. Juneteenth. And yes, skill on the dance floor.

There are whites who have some of these traits. What I have presented is not a bag of “stereotypes.” These would be stereotypes if I claimed that all black people exhibited all of those traits to a maximal degree. But I have not claimed that. I have listed a few aspects of black culture: what anthropologist might identify as traits unique to the black community – i.e. what it is to be black.

And because these are cultural traits, some individuals will exhibit them to a greater degree than others. The 70-year old Russian in Moscow is more culturally Russian than his 25-year-old niece who emigrated to America at 12. The Orthodox Jewish woman is more culturally Jewish than a Reform Jewish woman who does not keep kosher or celebrate Shabbat.

In the same way, some black people are blacker than others, as measured by their background and personal predilections. Some are not meaningfully black culturally at all. Why would this not be the case?

Especially over the past forty years, the number of black Americans growing up in all-black circumstances has decreased. The diversity of black experience is vaster than ever. For this reason, just as we will not view culturally “blacker” people as lesser, we will not view culturally less black people as suspicious. But most importantly, we cannot evade the issue by treating black culture as something so ambiguous and profound that we aren’t really talking about anything at all.

Ideally, no one would hear “black” as a putdown. And, if we really know what being black is about, we can say the following without anyone batting an eye:

Queen Latifah is blacker than Tiger Woods.

Alan Keyes is blacker than Barack Obama.

Jada Pinkett Smith is blacker than Colin Powell.

And, Michael Eric Dyson is blacker than me.