What Black Looks Like


Dear Come Correct:

I see me as a regular looking black woman—fair, but with definitely black features.  Despite this, I get asked 'so what are you, anyway?' more times than you can imagine.  Then, when I say "I'm black," I get the second insult: "no, really.  Are both your parents black?  What are you mixed with?" I'm proud to be black and I feel burdened by these people who feel as if my DNA is their business.  But is there a polite way to respond?"


Real Black Girl

Dear Real Black Girl:

Where do I start?  Been there, done that, and I've developed some responses that you're free to use.  We'll get that in a moment.  We can't control how people (including black people) think of what black is, except by broadening the example to show that black is everything. Most of us in our community know that black is a rainbow, that the dice-roll of genetics coupled with this country's legacy of slavery has resulted in every possible combination of hue and feature you can imagine.  But people who grew up with no cultural contact with us don't.  For the most part, it's a polite (and sometimes confused) inquiry—and I suspect there are more assumptions that anyone who doesn't fit the profile must be, like our President, part black.  Even when, like our President, they are fully involved and immersed in the black community.

So the short answer is I cut them some slack.  Not a lot, but some.  And the leash gets shorter with each succeeding inquiry by the same person (I told you what I am; why are we still talking about it?)  So I'm imagining a scenario for you:

So, you're really interesting-looking.  What are you anyway?

What am I?  I'm black.

Oh no—you can't be completely black—I mean, look at you!

Excuse me?

Well, it's obvious that there's something else in your family line.  Are both your parents black?


Their parents?

Yup.  All four of them.

Hmmm….  must go back farther than that.  But it's clear to me you're not just black.  I mean, I'm darker than you!


<here's where the non-patience thing kicks in, because, really, we've gone way beyond where we needed to>

Well, maybe you have black ancestors.  You know what they say: there are no purely black or white people left in America anymore.  And just because you look like one ethnic group doesn't mean you don't have the genes of another.  Have a nice day.


(Have you or your children gotten What Are You Anyway?  How did you answer?  Holla.  Inquiring minds, etc.)

is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).