Black Women's Empowerment

Claiming vs. Exclusion: What makes a black woman “black”, anyway?

I’ve seen the sentiment expressed on multiple posts now, so it’s time to do what I enjoy doing: Diving in head-first getting to the bottom of certain attitudes and beliefs.

In this case: What defines a BLACK woman?


Is it her skin color? Her ethnic make-up? Her hair texture and eye-color? Is it failing the paper bag test or not being a card-carrying member of the “blue vein society”? Is it liking certain music or dressing a certain way? Is it having a black father? Do you automatically get excluded if your mother is Korean? Is it something that other people get to decide for you or something you get to decide for yourself? And if you decide for yourself, do you then get to treat it like a winter coat: Putting it on and pulling it off when the weather changes?


Often, there is an instinct to claim a black woman because she looks black. At the same time, there is an instinct by some to exclude a woman if she isn’t the right kind of black. Some American black women would not consider an Afro-Brazilian woman or certain Caribbean women black, regardless of their skin tone and heritage, but will claim Beyoncé in a heartbeat.

And an African woman may be considered “black” by default…even though the ethnic groups on the continent are diverse. Of the many ways persons in Africa distinguish themselves from one another, language, culture, and country of origin play logical and dominant roles. It’s not merely a matter of  looking at one another and saying, “Well, we’re all black and that’s that.” Skin color does not harbor the grand “aha, you are one of us!” in all places, though I imagine some African Americans assume this claiming/exclusion ideology carries around the world. I at the same time have my doubts as to how many African Americans could tell a Nigerian from an Angolan on sight. Or how many wouldn’t assume the Angolan must be from Brazil or Portugal when she opened her mouth to speak.


What causes this claiming/exclusion behavior among African Americans? I had a theory that a major factor is that American society looks at a person and makes up its collective mind based on skin color and facial features. The dominant Caucasian American public does not care about ethnicity but rather race. What acknowledgement is bestowed on an ethnic group or two is hardly ever followed up with genuine historical introspection. And no, cultural appropriation for the sake of fashion does not count. Instead, it remains about race on the US Census, with “white or not-white” continuing to be the most relevant identifying feature in regard to determining the population count.

In truth, I’ve long suspected that attitude has strongly affected the way some African Americans go about deciding which kind of black women get to be the default shade of black woman, or accepted as black at all. Or perhaps admired or championed for being something other a dark-skinned and non-foreign black woman. I also wonder if it plays a role in the light vs dark woman hostilities I’ve seen in various BW-centric spaces. Or in the way many black women go about looking at another woman, a total stranger and saying, “Oh, well she’s not black.”


This wouldn’t bother me enough to write a reflective post on the matter if it didn’t seem to come with the feeling that such women should not be cared about, trusted, or given any kind of resources. That there could be no comradery or trust with a woman who wasn’t “%100 Black Woman Stock”. And if you don’t intend to ever interracially couple and procreate, okay. But if you do, and you’re in this space…I hope it’s dawning on you why I’m writing this post.


If it hasn’t, let me clue you in: These lighter-brighter-not-quite-whiter-but-definitely-not-entirely-black women will be coming from your womb. YOUR WOMB.

What you may see as an other or at least would assume is not connected to your ethnic group because of her genetic make-up is going to get half of her chromosomes from you. She will grow into a woman, the woman that you would not have claimed if you didn’t know her name and by blood. And when you do claim her, will that instinctive exclusion be as easy should your daughter informs you that she’s “black”? Will her father be offended? Will you be offended? What if she decides she wants to be %100 bi-racial and only relate to other multi-ethnic persons? And should she end up marrying a black man, and having multi-ethnic grandchildren who may identify as “black”? Are you going to take umbrage?


I feel like sometimes we say things as if we expect them to never to touch us in any way. We don’t look into the future twenty years from now and know that we’ll be looking at a woman that if she were a total stranger, we’d say “she is not part of me or my community, I wouldn’t claim her.” And then she smiles at you and calls you, “Mom.”


What makes a black woman “black”, anyway? 


I think the problem is that we continue to exist in a country where we think that a word like “black”, which has so many definitions and connotations, can adequately serve as a single umbrella term to so many people. People have no other plausible means of claiming an ethnic identity in a country that hyphenates anyone that’s not visibly “white”. As a result, there is no simple or immediately right answer. There may never be such an answer.

But I hope what has been gained is a desire for introspection into how we who consider ourselves black women for whatever reason connect to others who call themselves black women. As well as the methods we use to connect or disconnect from other women when we know nothing of aside from their skin color, or ethnicity of one of their parents, or their country of origin. Or what this will mean for ourselves and our progeny.


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