How black are you?

Many people, regardless of their their race, seem to think it is their duty to be the judge of just how black other people are. In high school, I had a friend who would tell another friend (both of whom were black) that he is not black simply because he lives on the upper east side rather than in Harlem. To some people, how black you are is as simple as whether or not you know certain songs or have seen certain movies. When I was in ninth grade, a white boy my age asked me if I knew the song “Underground Kings.” I told him I hadn’t, and to this he responded, “Okay, you’re not black.” It was that simple for him.

In the chapter of How to Be Black entitled “How Black Are You,” Thurston recounts his first time hearing the term “oreo.” His friend explains to him that an “oreo” is someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside. Basically, calling someone an “oreo” means that he or she is a black person who acts in a way that people typically attribute to white people – whether this is liking music made by white people or dressing a certain way.

This is exemplified in one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which Carlton is turned down from a black fraternity because according to them, he is not black enough.

Carlton defends himself, saying that this guy does not have the authority to determine his blackness – blackness is not defined by what he wears, the music he listens to, or how he talks; he is black whether people like it or not.

I think that part of this has to do with the relationship between race and class, but there are definitely other factors as well. Because of the way that the U.S. is right now, if you are of a higher class, you are more likely to live in more diverse neighborhoods or at least go to schools that are more diverse. This can have an impact on how black you are perceived to be, as it affects how immersed you are in black culture and how many of the stereotypes of black people that you happen to fit.

For multiracial people, the question of how black you are is even more complicated.

When you are mixed, people’s perception of how black you are depends not only on your behavior but also on your skin tone, which parent you were raised by and what type of community you were raised in. It also seems to be much easier for people tone deny a mixed race person of their blackness. If someone is not fully black in the first place, they are not just an “oreo” if they “act white” but are barely black at all in the first place. As a multiracial person myself, I have experienced my fair share of this.

What does it mean to be black? Is there some sort of measurement to figure out how black someone is? And what does this spectrum of blackness mean for multiracial people?

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2 thoughts on “How black are you?

  1. I have been put in a similar situation that Carlton faced and caused me to think about what it really means to be black. I have also been referred to as an “oreo” because of how I dressed and how I spoke. My white friends have even gone as far as calling me the “whitest black kid they know” or “Kenny you are not black”. What is staggering to me is that although my skin is dark there are certain characteristics that I exhibit that fade my blackness. But, what are those characteristics? Is it my diction? Is it the way I dress? Is my educational background or taste in music? What my white friends don’t recognize is that by calling me an “oreo” they are being racist without realizing it. They are taking claims to “positive” aspects of my identity that they prefer and attribute it to whiteness. I am not sure what to do about it but, for any white person reading this, if you have a Carlton in your life, please refrain from calling them an “oreo”. They are still black and still live a black life in America.

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  2. Growing up in Amherst and going through the school system here, there was not that many African-Americans. I think most of the black people were actually either African immigrants or first-gen African-American like myself. Because of the small amount of black people I actually did not encounter any not-black-enough statements. But I definitely did when I went to South Africa. So location definitely factors into this idea you highlight.

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