Ask Lisa Advice: Can I be Black if I Look White?

Ask Lisa Advice: Can I be Black if I Look White?

In this week’s column I counsel a Multiracial Woman who appears White, identifies Black and faces her Brother-in-Law’s Skepticism.

Dear Lisa,

I have an ongoing cultural battle with my husband’s brother and maybe you can help us settle it. My husband, his brother and I are all Biracial—Black and White. The thing is, they both appear Black to most people while I appear White, really to everyone who doesn’t know that my mother is actually Black, though light-skinned enough to appear Armenian or Latina. (My father is White of Dutch Nationality.)

Still, I identify Black and Mixed, which I do not see as mutually exclusive like some people do. I identify with my Black heritage and history and feel that our (Black people’s) numbers and dignity are always under attack in this country. I consider my identification partially as solidarity.

My husband and brother-in-law also identify as Black. My husband has no problem with me. We see racial issues the same way and feel united in this. We do not have children yet, but when we do, we will teach them to be proud of their heritage.

My brother-in-law, on the other hand, says I have no right to identify as Black because I look White and benefit from White privilege and cannot possibly relate to the experience of being African American.

Who’s right?

Signed – Exasperated

Dear Exasperated,

Though I cannot claim to be the definitive voice on Multiracial identity, my personal opinion is that you’re in the right. As far as I am concerned, racial identity goes way beyond appearance—encompassing many elements, including your connection to history, culture and the experience of having one’s heritage marginalized.

That said, there are members of the Multiracial Community who believe the term “Black” should be as exclusive as “White.” People with this conviction argue that only those who can claim pure African Ancestry should call themselves “Black,” in reciprocity to the “One” drop rule. This interesting notion—arguably as logical as the “One Drop” rule—excludes a majority of African Americans, even those who do not identify as Multiracial at all.

In addition to the “reverse One-Droppers” above, there are those like your brother-in-law, who believe a White appearance makes a person White. Your brother in law is not alone. It’s a discussion that I see all over Multiracial Facebook and in comments on some of my other columns: What’s the difference between being White and looking White? Especially if race is a construct and all about society’s response to one’s physical self?

My strong belief on this point is that every Multiracial person has the right and prerogative to define themselves and to identify as they see fit. (See Maria Root.) 

I also believe that every Multiracial person has the right to identify with every aspect of their heritage—whether it shows up in their appearance or not.

Is your brother in-law’s reason for saying you have no right to identify as Black that you haven’t had first-hand experience being discriminated against for being Black specifically? If so, I believe he has a very limited view of Black identity. Surely, being the direct target of racism is a big part of the Black experience, but it is far from all-encompassing. Black identity also includes pride in, ownership and awareness of our history, struggles, achievements, humor, food, music, and/or other parts of African American culture. Your Dutch and other ethno-racial-national identities may appear more dominant, but Blackness is still part of you. It is unfair for your brother-in-law to deny your connection to it because of your features or complexion.

Your Multiracial identity is your own. No one can take any part of it from you regardless of what they see.

Best Wishes

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Published on: November 16, 2017

Filed Under: Advice

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One Response to Ask Lisa Advice: Can I be Black if I Look White?

  1. Lyn says:

    I doubt your biracial brother and husband appear black but then again, Americans don’t know what the phenotype of a white or black person is. Just go by your ancestry. If you’re DNA says you’re 40% black and 60% white, I’d say you’re still mixed. Heck even if you’re only 25% of another population while being 75% of another, that’s still mixed because that’s the equivalent of one grandparent.

    Now can you be black if you look white? Of course not. All you have to do is ask that question in a vice versa scenario and the answer would be obvious(because everyone has fed into the idea that white people must be pure, blonde and blue and that’s the only way to look white).

    If you’re a multiracial person identifying as one race, it’s just pure hopping on the racist bandwagon. If it’s not okay to identify as just white, why would it be okay to identify as just black? What is so hard about just saying mixed race? Why do people feel the need to cater to old racist doctrines and American ignorance when it comes to race? I seriously don’t understand. And I don’t think I want to. It’s disingenious to pretend to be monoracial when you’re not. This is why actual black people don’t exist in the media. Black claiming mixed people have replaced them.

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