A long time ago, back when everyone I knew personally was black and my world was much smaller, everyone was embarrassingly blunt about their colorism because they were 9 years old and had no filters.
I knew the girls who were bullied because they were dark. I knew the girls who were bullied because they were light. A lot of “You think you’re cute” was thrown around. For some reason, this was the ultimate crime among black girl children. Even if you didn’t think you were cute, someone would charge that you “thought” you were cute; therefore you should be set straight.
Bravo’s latest all-black reality-show offering, The Real Housewives of Potomac, suffers from a very bad case of the adult version of “You think you’re cute.” Only in this case, “cute” is some tragic-mulatto comedy, light-skinned madness that would make the schoolyard blush.
On the show, Gizelle Bryant, who is light-complexioned with green eyes and straight blond hair, grilled newcomer Ashley Darby, who is light-complexioned with a big, curly natural, on what she is. Is she mixed? What is she mixed with? Is she black? Is her husband white? It’s a not-so-high-brow version of “What set you claim?” Does Darby consider herself black, as Gizelle does? Gizelle of two black parents, but of similar skin tone? Or does Darby consider herself something else, since she is biracial? What a brave, rude question.
This sets things up for Gizelle to also playfully bully the cast’s other biracial member, Katie Rost. Katie, who is not as fair complexioned, has a black mother and a white father and considers herself Jewish. She is mocked for saying she is biracial and is regularly mocked for her faith, which her peers feel she is faking the funk over. Not that she helps her case by being unable to speak Hebrew, let alone name any other black Jewish people beyond Sammy Davis Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. (Let me help Katie out and name some other biracial and black Jews: Lisa Bonet, Drake, Rain Pryor, Maya Rudolph, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rashida Jones. It was easy. I only had to Google a little.)
But we’re getting lost in the weeds here. On The Real Housewives of Potomac, what you are is as important as who you are to these ladies. “Are you black? Are you black? Are you black?” they ask, stopping short of asking how you prepare your collard greens. “You don't put peanuts in them, do you? Because that's not black!”
If you have two black parents, no matter how pale or dark you are, in America, you are black. While it’s true that in other countries you may not be considered “black,” in America, blackness encompasses any and all shades from vitiligo-plagued Michael Jackson to the deepest, richest and darkest of brown. There are societal reasons for this that are old and dusty, and despite the death of the one-drop rule (created to discourage post-slavery “race mixing” and to deny the rights of anyone with any African heritage), things haven’t changed that much in how blackness is defined by both black and white people.
If you have one black parent and the other parent is not black, you are biracial, but if you want to call yourself black, in America, that is totally cool because (whether you like it or not) you will be treated as a black person by some black people and by most white people, thanks to the aforementioned American views about blackness. But you can also say you’re biracial because that is what you are and views are slowly changing. You can also say that you’re both. There are a ton of people who claim being both black and biracial (e.g., Barack Obama). It’s truly your decision in how you would like to be defined, if at all. But none of this gets you out of dealing with racism, unfortunately, or saves you from people making ignorant and/or stupid comments.
If you don’t know one or either of your birth parents, but you are unmistakably brown in a “blackish” way, you will likely be treated as a black person by strangers no matter what you think you are. Again, you don’t know what you are, but strangers will try to force their views on you, and their views are, “You are black.” So, probably to be safe, you should consider yourself black and go learn how to properly make collards.
If you still aren't sure what you are but have a permanent tan that has never run, you will probably be treated as black. Unless you’re Bobby Jindal or something. Then you can say, “But I have straight hair! So I can’t be black!” But what if your hair looks like Chili’s from TLC? I dunno. Maybe you’re Jamaican Chinese? You should probably get a DNA test and take a look around.
If you have two white parents: You, Rachel Dolezal, are not black.
So it all boils down to this: Race is a social construct. It’s only as real as we make it. And since we’re living in a country that had some pretty racist ideology going on in its foundation, race feels very real despite being entirely made up to confuse, subjugate and oppress the masses. So should you fight the system like Katie on Real Housewives of Potomac, and insist that you are biracial to people, even though they want to force you to pick a side? Or should you hope that people will keep their mouths shut and stop being so damn nosy, like Ashley? Or do you fall on the ground in church, screaming, “I’s negra!” as Halle Berry (a biracial black person) did in the TV miniseries Queen?
I say, just live your life. If you want to go around correcting people—“Ahem, I’m actually Cape Verdean-Chinese-Dutch”—fight that good fight. Correct all of us. Insist on having your entire genome mapped, then read that map to the ignorant.
Just understand that many people are a—holes and they won’t care. They’re all Gizelles. And they all want to know, quite rudely, “What set you claim?”
How you deal with that rudeness? The choice is yours.