What is Black Identity and Who Determines It?

Eric Deggans wrote an interesting post about the recent CNN Black in America installment "Who is Black in America?" hosted by Soledad O'Brien which examined some "impressive teens in a Philadelphia spoken word workshop led by a biracial poet who has explored his own questions about race and identity."

“There’s a lot of pain behind these conversations,” said O’Brien. “The conversation is about what we value in America. And what is the role of skin color in our values? They’re conversations we in America don’t particularly like to have.”

Of course, Soledad is herself the child of an Irish father from Australia and Afro-Cuban mother. She self-identifies as black, but her non-white roots are in Cuba not America.

What is “black” identity and who determines it?

As Deggan point out:

"Most of the youths in CNN’s documentary talk about being black, they mean African American. And unlike some of the kids she profiles, O’Brien doesn’t believe anyone gets to choose their racial identity."

“This idea that someone gets to choose seems odd,” added the anchor. “I’m lighter-skinned than the president of the United States, but my mom is black, my brothers and sisters are black, my mom has a short afro. I never thought I had a choice about how I identified... My identity was given to me very early by my parents.”

O’Brien’s documentary also doesn’t mention the most famous person navigating issues of race and identity in modern times: President Barack Obama. And the reason Obama isn’t featured is the same reason O’Brien doesn’t tell her story, even though the details — she was raised as an Afro-Cuban/Irish child in an all-white neighborhood where she felt “people like me weren’t attractive” — seems the embodiment of the documentary’s spirit.

“It’s not my story,” she said. “This is about digging into the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful conversations with the people we’re profiling.”

All the same, I can’t wait to see the documentary about how a nerdy kid who was told non-white people weren’t pretty became a top anchor at CNN eventually named to People magazine’s list of 50 Most Beautiful People.

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