I Don’t Look Black, but I’m 100% Black Excellence. Any Questions?
I wear a “Black excellence” wristband most days, and if I got a dollar every time someone asked me one grating question, I wouldn’t need to work two jobs right now: “But are you Black?”
It’s frustrating mainly because there’s no one way to look or be Black. Honestly, even if I were as White as cucumber and mayo sandwiches on Wonder Bread — with no seasoning in sight — am I not allowed to support Black excellence? Why is it so confusing that someone you don’t “read as Black” would want to wear their support for Black people openly?
I’m a Brown mutt. My dad’s a European mixture (predominantly Hungarian), and my mom’s Puerto Rican to the bone. I also have some Black ancestry. Exactly how much is unclear, but like many Puerto Ricans, we know that at least some of our background is Black. I never know how to fill out documents that make me choose one race, I’ve been called just about every slur by racists, and I constantly wonder how I fit in with Black and Latinx communities.
I’ve been aware of being mixed and Brown as far back as I can remember, but it wasn’t until my first year in college when I lived in a Black diaspora-themed dorm — Ujamaa — that I really began to explore my Black ancestry.
You’re free to claim your Black ancestry and know that Blackness isn’t defined by rigid boundaries, a specific amount of melanin, or what features you have.
It would be a disservice to my ancestors to not acknowledge my full identity. My Taino ancestors took in escaped slaves in the mountains of Puerto Rico and combined our cultures. The story of my Black and Taino ancestors is one of resilience and cultural evolution, a history I want to represent in full.
However, honoring Blackness while not being read as Black can be tricky. I honor my Black ancestors responsibly so that I don’t accidentally co-opt struggles that aren’t mine. We see this happen all too often when light-skinned people claim colorism works against them but do so by not acknowledging how colorism is a threat to the lives and livelihoods of darker-skinned people.
The conversation around Black ancestry too often ends at only acknowledging it on the surface level. We’re taught to support this way of thinking by trying to unite people under a flag or hashtag and claim “We’re all [insert identity here]” as a way to ignore that there are many communities in the diaspora. In reality, it masks the fact that Indigenous people are continually displaced while Black people are incarcerated and exploited in heinous ways. It’s in White supremacy’s best interest that we don’t actually investigate our ancestries and histories too much so that the exploitation and erasure can continue.
One of the most important things I can do is acknowledge my privilege. Not being read as Black means I have access to spaces and resources that many don’t. To honor my Black ancestry, it’s my responsibility to recognize that fully. I need to leverage my privilege to be an advocate and fight to dismantle the systems that perpetuate power imbalances.
A big question that comes up often when I talk to other people with mixed Black ancestry is whether they “belong” in the Black community. I wish I had an answer to this, but it’s not for me to decide.
You’re free to claim your Black ancestry and know that Blackness isn’t defined by rigid boundaries, a specific amount of melanin, or what features you have. There’s so much power in claiming your Blackness. That said, don’t expect Black people to hold any “welcome to the community” cookout for you. Rachel Dolezal was only one in a seemingly never-ending history of people infiltrating the Black community only to serve their own interests or, in some cases, even sabotage causes.
That said, non-Black people don’t have to be part of the community to still fight for it. You can always be an agent of change and support. If your support of the Black people is contingent on how “welcome” you feel, that means you’re centering yourself and your ego.
To fully honor our Black ancestors, we have to put the needs and concerns of Black people as a whole in front of our personal, shallow interests. We must fight for as if fighting for our ancestors themselves.