Blackness: A Quick and Dirty Primer


In the The New York Times last Sunday, Jill Nelson dismissed the idea that black people ever really wondered whether Sen. Barack Obama was "black enough." My memory of how Obama was being discussed a year ago is different from Nelson's. Today, however, black people who question Obama's authenticity are indeed a fringe.

So what's that all about? Well, with Obama, it was whether he was committed to the black community's concerns. He was—as a black community organizer in Chicago. And he is, in his commitment to programs on prisoner re-entry and responsible fatherhood.


However, when the question of whether someone is "really black" comes up outside the realm of politics, we tend to lapse into a kind of doubletalk. One ploy is to swat away the issue of blackness as a real quantity. In that case, "What's that all about?" is not so much a query as a rebuke that the question is inappropriate, illogical, or even underhanded.

When Michelle Obama dismissed the question about her husband as "silliness," that was sensible: Barack Obama has proven that he understands black concerns. Too often, though, we are taught that it is "silly" to address blackness as a gradient at all. But this is evasive. We're tiptoeing around something, and it's black culture. Some people are more rooted in it than others – and there isn't a thing wrong with that.

Some say that blackness is simply a matter of color. By this analysis, anyone who raises the larger questions about black identity is apparently visually impaired. Last year, Gwen Ifill, for example, dismissed the question of whether Obama is black enough because someone who, like her, is a child of immigrant blacks might not be considered "black." But I think we all know it's not that simple. The brown-skinned person implying their skin color renders the whole issue moot is leveling a coded challenge: "Are you saying that all black people talk like rappers and eat fried chicken?"

But this implies that there is no such thing as black culture in a legitimate sense. But there is – and it includes Ebonics and chicken!

What is black culture? Definitions will differ. But we can't treat the definition as so "fluid" that it isn't a definition at all. I will toss out a few parameters of what "black" is:

—The dialect: which is not identical to Southern white English, and not just slang, but a sound and a series of grammatical patterns.


—Music: yes, most of hip-hop's listeners are white. But there are proportionally more black people who listen mostly to black music than there are whites who listen mostly to black music.

—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.

John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of "Losing the Race."


John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.