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A while ago, I took my little cousins to Toys “R” Us. Three of them. 8 years old, 6 years old, 4 years old. It was going smoothly enough until we came across a row of dolls.

There were two on the end. A fully-adorned Black doll on the left. A fully-adorned white doll on the right. She picked the one on the right.

My radar immediately went off. I gently suggested the melanated doll.

No dice. I strongly suggested this doll. Nothing. We weren’t getting anywhere and I was met with the confused look of a little girl whose older cousin had a problem with what she wanted. After he said she could get what she wanted.

I was short on time. She was short on understanding. So I relented.

I haven’t been able to shake this experience. The notion of colorism — the lighter the skin, the better the “doll” — hits us early in life and never leaves. It’s endemic in our community, a point brought to the surface by CNN’s latest addition to the Black in America series, Who is Black in America?

“It’s nothing wrong with seeing color,” said CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien. “It becomes a problem when people limit and define you by it.”

The combination of skin tone, culture and identification are inextricably linked. If you look a certain way, you must behave a certain way. And if you behave differently than what people who “look” like you “normally” behaves like, then…what are you?

Society imposes these questions, but at its root, it isn’t racial. There’s a natural tendency for the human brain to classify motifs, ideas, patterns for easy retrieval. There’s a double edge to this tendency.

Classification creates forms. Forms create separateness, which leads to competition. Colonization. And a wondering lot of people left to discover who they are because of who they’re not.

But why the focus on defining minorities? What about a White in America? It is this criticism that O’Brien hears. And agrees with.

“I think White in America would be fascinating,” she said. “Many cultures come to this country Italian, Irish, they’re not considered white. Jews, there not considered white. There’s this whole process of assimilation that Black people have not done, and for obvious reasons. So I think White in America would be a really interesting question.”

In the latest installment (airing again Saturday on CNN, 8 p.m. ET), O’Brien entered the realm of Black identity through the prism of Philadelphia teens. It features strong commentary from notable culture critics Yaba Blay, Tim Wise and Michaela Angela Davis.

For a few candid moments, I caught up with O’Brien about defining “blackness,” future of Black in America, white supremacy’s effects on Black women and self-identification.

Me: This is a huge subject to tackle.

Soledad O’Brien: You think! (laughs)

Me: (laughs) Because this is an explosive topic, what were you hoping to accomplish?

SO: We decided to be very honest and shed a strong light on some of the issues that were important and relevant. With a news documentary you can do that. This isn’t about spinning or PR. It’s about embracing tough situations, sometimes telling hopeful stories, sometimes telling sad stories. But really ultimately trying to do a very honest job in the stories that we are telling.

Me: You hear these criticisms of “why is there such a clamor to define blackness.” [What about a series] what is like to be white in America?

SO: I agree. I have done Women in America. Latino in America. Gay in America. I think a White in America would be fascinating. Many cultures come to this country Italian, Irish, they’re not considered white. Jews, there not considered white. There’s this whole process of assimilation that Black people have not done, and for obvious reasons. So I think White in America would be a really interesting question. What makes somebody not white in a generation and all of a sudden, white? It’s not about “let’s just do it for African Americans,” even though it’s been a very successful franchise. I think that’s why we continue to go back on it. There are lots of interesting stories to tell about Black people but they just don’t get on TV. Same can be said for Latinos. The same for women stories.

Me: Tim Wise had a quote in the documentary: “Who’s Black is not determined by Black people.” This theme that Black people need to craft their own self-identity…is that a romantic notion or can Black people establish an identity independent of white supremacy?

SO: That’s an interesting question, is it? You have a large group [of Black people] who feel they aren’t Black enough or that there’s a certain definition of it. Black by culture. Black because you look Black. Black because your parents are Black. Black because politically you support Black things. Black because of where you grew up. Or how how you struggled. Or who you married. I don’t know that we know the definition of that. I think that’s what makes it a compelling question. I don’t know if we have a definite litmus test for who is Black.

Me: As a Black man, I am aware of how colorism and racism affects me. Sometimes I don’t fully grasp the extent of how it affects Black women. What are some of the under-discussed issues that Black women face?

SO: I was talking with this woman today who is a beautiful woman, a weather woman working in Shrevport, who was fired because of her response on Facebook to a fairly rude comment from a viewer. The viewer said I just don’t like her hair. It’s short. She looks like she has cancer and she should get a wig. She answered that in a lovely response. Yet she lost her job. I don’t think that’s fair. Hair is a big issue. Appearance is a big issue. Why does this viewer feel this uncomfortable with Black women with short hair? This woman is experiencing discrimination and a huge part of the population are like “I don’t even know what’s she talking about.”

Me: It’s 2012.

SO: Exactly! I interviewed her today…today! She just got fired. This isn’t a “you know 20 years ago when…” This was today. A beautiful woman. Gorgeous woman. Successful weather woman and when someone’s attacking her she can’t even answer that nicely on Facebook? I think that’s an indication of how far we have not come.

Me: In bringing these issues to the forefront, have you encountered any limitations in the series’ ability to depict these stories?

SO: I think it’s open-ended. One thing that’s great about it is that we can come back every year. So I never feel we have to resolve everything each episode. We can come back and revisit or choose a different story. We have a slot to do hour-long docs. And an hour is not enough time to tackle something as big and wide as colorism. We do unfolding docs. News documentaries that are unfolding in front of us. I think there’s always limitations of time. But we are grateful because every year we get to come back and turn out another documentary.

Me: When you say unfolding, endless comes to mind. This is a topic that will continue to be discussed. Is CNN on board to embrace this question for the long haul? At what point do the producers say, “that’s enough with these questions. Let’s go to another topic.”?

SO: Honestly, I think speaks to the quality of the work you’re doing. Every single time you turn a doc it has to be high quality or you don’t get to come back. I mean that’s the reality of TV, right? Nobody says “we’re gonna guarantee you the next 30 years.” They say, “let’s see what you do this time.” And if it’s good, then you come back next time. If not, then you don’t. That’s any show. So we have to ensure what we’re doing is top-notch and high quality and that our reporting is unchallengable. It just has to be good because there’s a lot riding on it.

Me: What direction are y’all going in for the next series?

SO: We’re going to take a look at Black male achievement. Black boys in particular.

Me: How much has this series helped in your self-identification?

SO: I’ve always had a very strong self-identification. I’ve never struggled with my racial classification. I was very lucky. My mom used to always tell me, “don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Black. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not Latino.” My parents instilled a very strong sense of identity. Even in the recent doc as I was talking to the young women, I kept thinking, “this is soooo not my experience.” I found that other people had many more challenges about racial ambiguity. I find it fascinating to learn about different communities and geographic history. Black people in Atlanta vs. Black people in Minneapolis (where we’re shooting now). Black people in Philly vs. Black people in New York. Just the history of these communities. I have found it rewarding to see the differences in us and how similar we are.

Me: What does a world without colorism look like?

SO: A lot of times people feel a world without colorism is a world without color. And that’s not true. There’s nothing wrong with seeing color. I’m proud of where I’m from and who my people are and my experiences. Even some of the bad ones. I think the problem comes when people see your color and they judge and limit you. I have friends who are Asian, who are Black, who are Hispanic and I like all the differences in my friends. It’s when we start seeing color and we judge people. A time without colorism isn’t a time where we don’t see color. It’s a time when there are no limitations on what people of any color can do.

Me: It’s our need for definition that informs this colorism and limitation….

SO: Every single time I’ve been asked who I am, it’s never about me. It’s about them. They want to be more comfortable and I’m making them uncomfortable. And until they can really figure out who I am and what I am, they can’t be comfortable. And that question makes them so uncomfortable.

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  • The Punctualist

    As I have not (yet?) seen this part of the series, can someone please answer for me this one question, at least: does the show address the inquiry “Who is Black in America?” or “Who is ‘biracial’ and/OR ‘racially ambiguous’ in America?”

    All of the four clips I have watched feature people who identify themselves as biracial or are reportedly deemed “racially ambiguous.” Further, the pictorial advertisement for the show includes three of the self-identified biracial people grouped together, smiling on the left of the image and a brown-skinned black woman situated alone at the far right of the image. What exactly is this image meant to signify?

    I know biracial people who never get identified as such by others because they are not light-skinned by anyone’s definition. Does Soledad discuss this phenomenon at all? (That is, how the identifier “biracial” largely hinges on phenotype [e.g. subjective definitions of “dark,” “brown,” and “light” skin, as well as hair texture, eye color, etc.] rather than one’s actual heritage–two parents of different races?) If a dark-skinned person were to insist that they were “biracial” and had the right to choose their own race, many people would probably either (a) laugh (b) be rendered confused (c) call that individual self-hating and/or delusional (d) tell them to sit their “BLACK ASS” down or (e) all of the above.

    I also know plenty of Black folk with very light skin, nearly straight hair, light eyes, two Black parents, and four Black grandparents who frequently get mistaken as biracial. Heck, I know dark and brown-skinned Black women who others misidentify as “bircial” (if not “mixed race”), usually because they have some phenotypical feature that others read as indicative of a race other than “Black.”

    I think all of the above questions gesture towards the issue someone on this thread (or perhaps in one of the CNN clips) raised earlier: many of the answers to these questions are socially determined rather than biologically driven. I hate to break it to the young ladies on the above clip, but racial identification occurs at many levels, not just the personal. And due to issues of structure and power, individual self-identification frequently takes a backseat to institutional means of identification.

  • Anthony

    Soledad O’brien specials are played out in my opinion. I never see anything in them that a group of people couldn’t have come up with in a half hour bull session during lunch. I see nothing in the way of really new ideas or perspectives.

  • I don’t see how fighting colorism on an individual level equals ignoring it, but ok. If you say so. lol.