By Cassidy Blackwell
Here in the States I’ve never once been asked that question. I believe this is because the answer upon taking a casual glance at me is rather, well, black and white.
I’ve got brown skin and natural hair. I mean, hell, even my last name starts with Black. I have never not checked the African American box when filling out demographic data.
However, while visiting Lagos, Nigeria people frequently asked about the coily texture of my hair. When I explained to them that this is simply its natural texture, not a coiling technique or starting of locs their response would be, wide eyed with an air of suspicion:
“Your hair just grows like that!!?? Okay, but are you mixed?”
My response was at first always a solid “no.” I mean, I’ve got two black parents, black grandparents, black great-grandparents; I am definitely 100% black. Always have been, no question about it how I’ve identified.
However, after being asked by several people, I started to wonder where this was all coming from, if there was something to that question. This was truly a first for me and I took some time to reflect.
I would never say that I’m mixed, but the truth is that in my family we’re not quite sure where exactly we come from. There’s rumblings of Irish ancestry somewhere back in the day. Rumors of Native American heritage somewhere in there. We see a looser curl pattern here and a touch of light skinnededededness there. But in general, when it comes to skin color, the main link between we the Blackwells is that we loooooooove to be tan. The deeper, the browner the darker the better. With all those winters in Minnesota that suck the color right out of us, once summer hits, we are out there setting our tan lines to show our hard work. My mom calls it “searing” and even my grandfather finishes the summer looking like Golden Teddy Graham. But again, the last name – Blackwell – there has never been any question of who we are and how we identify.
Back to Lagos.
As I continued to be asked the question, I started to attempt to explain that I’m not mixed, however way back when I might have some European or Native American ancestry, but certainly not enough to where I would personally claim being mixed. I don’t really know because I don’t have enough to go on. People seemed to be more satisfied with this response. It seems as though we have this innate need to understand and classify people by where they are from. I’m guilty of it too and am now more motivated than ever to take one of those DNA tests that sheds light on your geographic ancestry. As a black american, I believe there’s a large probability of one having a little bit of a diluted gene pool.
For the record: I’ve got zero, even sub-zero, problem with “mixed”, I’m purely taking this pause because I have made it almost 30 years on this planet without being asked this question until now.
I decided to ask the peeps of the Nomadness Travel Tribe about this “are you mixed” question and learn about their experiences around the world. Was it just me or have other box-checking, black americans had this experience too? Almost 100 people chimed in with their thoughts. A few notable responses I’d like to share:
I was told flat out that I was “mixed” or “coloured” more than once in South Africa and in Morocco (by a woman from Botswana, a South African man and a Moroccan man). Admittedly, I was pissed initially; however, I realized that defining someone as “Black” varies from country to country and that’s what makes being a daughter of the diaspora so beautiful.
I’m just Black. Parsing it out seems thirsty to me.
I’ve never met a multigenerational black American who wasn’t mixed in some way. It’s not even all as a result of slavery.
Sometimes it makes me a little upset that the assumption is that if you have light skin or eyes or hair that you have to have recent mixture. I’m a person with 4 black grandparents, but people still assume a lot of the time that I’m biracial or less black. They don’t even ask me most of the time, just outright telling me.
This happened to me ALL THE TIME in Burundi (East Africa)…and at first I was extremely offended…but realized that people just don’t know…b/c most people of even a lighter hue tend to be mixed…so I just explained that no, I’m black…with 2 black parents…they would then say, ‘ahhh…TWO black parents?!” (lol) which my response was yes…I had a digital camera with me, with pics of my family and fiends on it (they always got a kick out of seeing my maternal grandmother and asked if she was Burundian), and just shared that in America, black people come in all shades…it was a good opportunity to enlighten people who just legitimately didn’t know…
You have to realize we are all the product of colonization. My views are mine. My grandfather is biracial from Honduras, his mom is Garifuna. He identifies a black. No hispanic. No latino. All these subtypes cause us to lose the REAL importance of it all. The fact that we should celebrate the cultural differences and not the differences in the combination of ethnicities which make you up.
And a personal favorite:
I appreciate the good honest conversation as well as the opposing view points. There’s a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be a part of the larger black diaspora and how this movement has created different cultural awareness, identities and sensitivities around the world. Cultural and ethnic identity I find are not one and the same, but these issues are often conflated. The reality is that there it no easy answer here, it’s simply not just black and white—nor should it be.
Cassidy Blackwell heads up editorial at Bevel Code, the editorial site of Bevel, a men’s shaving grooming company owned by Walker & Company Brands. In her spare time she blogs at Natural Selection. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.