What is “Black identifying”?

Really. I feel like I need an answer to this question. And if anyone knows who might have some answers, please tell me.

I’ll also admit my ignorance: The premise for this post is an honest question. Therefore, if “Black identifying” is an older term with a respected history, I apologize. Yet I’ve heard it only in a contemporary context, and I can’t help but consider how it might be manipulated.

Where I first heard the words

A few weeks ago marked the second time I’d heard a Black person use the words “Black identifying” in reference to other Black people–during a radio interview. The first time was on TV, surrounding the dustup over the National Arts Centre’s Black Out Night. After both instances, I felt uncomfortable.

There’s a part of me that wants to believe that “Black identifying” is a phrase that emerged out of a desire to welcome people of various complexions who have African ancestry. Yet regardless of its origins, I fear that its use will open the door to people who engage in blackfishing and other forms of race-based mockery.

Overall I wonder, why we need to use this term? And who decided that there was something wrong with just saying “Black”? 

And just how did “Black identifying” come into the public lexicon? Was it because of an over-extension of certain Black folks’ desire to be inclusive or accepted by others?

“Black identifying” – Beginnings?

To ask it in another way, who coined this word? Who decided to view the signifier “Black’ as something vague or offensive–so much so that it needs to be changed? And if they think that Black needs to be modified, then why, and for whom?

At this point I honestly don’t even feel like looking up a definition. If I try, I think I’ll probably end up finding something that’ll make me go, “So, you actually mean to say Black, but…?” 

My concern is that a push to use “Black identifying” feeds into the idea that using “Black” as a racial identifier–regardless of how accurate it is-is somehow offensive. There are people out there who insist on twisting notions of Blackness, and view them as signifiers that are designed to restrict or otherwise intimidate others. It feels as though “identifying” has been brought in to soften Black’s potentially drastic impact. (Yet “drastic” for whom?)

Meanwhile, although some may find frank talk about Black folks troubling, I’m afraid I’m sorry not sorry. If a circumstance concerns Black people, I’m going to tell it like it is. Why lie and say that I’m referring to Latinos or Indigenous people?

The cultural tensions that we are experiencing within society aren’t happening because people are merely being honest about their lives and experiences. They come from certain folks’ determination to cast such truth-telling in a negative light. Just because a conversation is uncomfortable, that does not automatically mean that it is bad. And yet, time and again I’ve seen expressions of Blackness interpreted as a threat or an attack. It’s tiring and deeply unnecessary.

The Heart of the Matter

Quite frankly, the first thing, or rather person that came to mind when I heard “Black identifying” is Rachel Dolezal. For those of you who don’t know or remember, years ago Ms Dolezal was in the news. Throughout a portion of her adulthood, she claimed to be Black, and even did her best to disguise herself accordingly using extensions and makeup. Her scheme was successful for a while. And yet it was ruined after her parents verified that she was actually Caucasian.

I mentioned “blackfishing” beforehand, and I feel the need to expand on my concerns. 

It’s hard for me to keep from wondering: Do some of the people who use the words “Black identifying” think that being is Black a form of amusement, something that everyone gets to play at? In some way, to me, it sounds like whoever invented that phrase is trying to extend a hand to certain people who aren’t actually Black. I can almost hear them trying to reassure someone, saying, “It’s okay. You can be Black, too.”

It’s as though they’re encouraging people to be delusional about something that people like me don’t have a choice about–and that something is a vulnerable status, given the existence of racism within our society. Those who wish to engage in being trans-racial–another term that’s fraught with its own issues–are taking advantage of a choice that actual Black people do not have.

As alluded to earlier, another small part of me wonders if the use of “Black identifying” has anything to do with the at-times complicated relationship that can exist between a person’s Black ancestry and their physical appearance. Are people trying to make those who hesitate to lean into their Black heritage feel comfortable? 

That doesn’t sit well with me. Even if at first glance, someone doesn’t look as though they are Black, they know their ancestry. Meaning that most people know if they’re Black or not. And unless someone is engaging in some Dolezal-level deception, most Black people don’t have a problem with people of various hues who choose to claim their roots. 

Hence, I’m willing to question the use and actual usefulness of “Black identifying”. In spite of any potentially innocent origins, I am concerned. Black people tend to know who they (we) are. So who is it really for?

Image via Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash






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