Students discuss the shades of black

Blackness is political. It’s social. It’s not just wearing baggy clothes and listening to hip-hop. It’s eating soul food. It’s not the same thing as being African-American. It’s simply too big to define.

All of these points and more were raised by the roughly 50 students who showed up for a discussion of “Degrees of Blackness” at DuBois College House Feb. 19.

The discussion was one of a series of talks on timely subjects co-sponsored by the PennTalks project and the college houses. And those in attendance — all non-white, save for a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter — did not hesitate to speak up.

“You can’t define blackness,” Michelle Watson (C’02) said. “I wouldn’t even go so far as to say it’s a social construct. We’re not a monolithic people.”

Others said it could be defined, but disagreed on how — except to agree that the question seems to take on special resonance in an American context.

“You usually don’t have the luxury of defining yourself. What matters is how society defines you,” said Nicholas Scott (W’02), reflecting the view that blackness is at least partly a social and political construct.

Graduate Assistant Charles Peters agreed. “If we were the majority, we wouldn’t be here asking what blackness is — we’d be asking white people what white is.”

On the cultural side of the question, many participants cautioned against equating one set of behaviors and attitudes with blackness. Graduate Assistant Alton Strange, who facilitated the discussion, noted: “Everyone’s definition of blackness is different. But we do come with some sort of biases that come with our own definitions.

“Take the brother from Harlem who is into classical music and uses ‘proper’ language, what some call talking white. We’d look down on him and consider him less than black. But if I don’t like hip-hop, does that make me less black?”

For the wide range of views expressed on what black is, one thing that black is not soon became apparent — black is not the same thing as African-American, a point several African and Caribbean-American students made.

Zwelithini Tunyiswa (C’04), who hails from South Africa, noted that to him, a black person was “someone who is black and speaks an African language.” So it took him some getting used to how Americans viewed the subject. Describing one of his first meals in 1920 Commons, where “on one side it’s all black,” he said, “I’d sit down [somewhere else] and for the first time, I’m not black.”

But for all the differences, participants repeatedly stressed that no one view should be considered definitive.

“Don’t be limited in terms of how you define your box,” said House Dean Sonia Elliott.


Originally published on March 1, 2001