‘Are you fully black?’

BY: PERRYE PROCTOR, Strategy and Business Development Associate

I am a 23-year-old, single black female living in New York City.

I put this information on the OkCupid profile I set up a week ago when I decided to go online to find love in a hopeless place (Manhattan). I had been online two days when I got a new message from a nice-looking guy. After a few exchanges, I gave him my number. I date guys of all different races, but this guy happened to be black. All was well in our texting conversation until suddenly, out of the blue, came the dreaded yet inevitable “Are you fully black?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten this question, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. As a fair-skinned black woman with medium- to dark-brown hair (plus some Beyoncé-inspired blonde highlights… luv u, Bey!), I certainly look like I could be biracial.

Growing up I was constantly being asked if I was “mixed” by classmates of all races. Before I was old enough to understand all the history and baggage that comes along with this question, I was fully aware that answering “yes” would mean the other black children would see me as different. And, in some instances, maybe they’d even assume I thought I was better, prettier or smarter.

Answering “yes” or “no” was even further complicated by the fact that I had absolutely no idea what the answer was. Like many black Americans, I didn’t know too much about my ancestry. That changed very recently, though, when one of my relatives did some research and uncovered part of the story. One of my oldest ancestors was an English woman who came to Maryland as an indentured servant centuries ago and had children with a free black man.

But still, even though I have more answers about my background now than before, I was incensed that this guy would ask me that question, phrased in that way. I knew what he was getting at, but the whole concept is frustrating.

Didn’t he, as a black man himself, know that black Americans come in many shades for many reasons (consensual interracial relationships, white masters raping black slaves, etc.)? Not every black person looks the same! The “one-drop rule” underlies the way our society thinks about race, so identifying as black is what’s expected of me and captures all those reasons. Blackness is a part of someone that overrides all else and comes to represent the whole.

So this time, instead of responding with my stock text response to this question — “Well actually I know I look that way haha but actually both of my parents are black” (the “haha” designed to make this exchange less uncomfortable) — I asked him, “Is anyone fully black?” He took a minute and finally answered, “No, I guess not.”

Think for a minute about what it would mean if it were possible to answer “yes” to this question. For someone to be “fully black,” they’d have to be able to trace back their ancestry maybe a couple thousand years and verify that each and every person on that enormous family tree was black. Impossible.

This guy seemed smart, so I think he knew that. But then why did he ask that question?

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