Let’s talk about phenotype and global Blackness
You can try to pry away my Blackness from my cold dead hands, but you will not succeed.
by Siete Saudades
Phenotype: the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. (How we look)
Genotype: Genetic makeup of an organism.
Race: a system of identity and power structures that categorise human beings based on ancestry and phenotype.
Many Afro-American people ignore the impact that race mixing (as a consequence of slave rape and other circumstances) has had on our own phenotypes. This impacts who we see and identify as “mixed.” Familiar phenotypes are seen as Black, unfamiliar ones (i.e. many of the Afro-Latinx or other Caribbean phenotypes) are othered, whether or not they are “obviously” of mixed ancestry and regardless of how far removed we look from continental Africans who still reside where our African ancestors are from.
This is one of the reasons why Love & Hip-Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra is forced to defend her own Blackness against people who have accused her of wearing Blackface, despite her being very dark-skinned and having coarse, tightly coiled, and kinky natural hair.
On the other hand, many Afro-Americans may not necessarily identify someone like Yara Shahidi as “mixed” on sight, even though she is half Iranian. This is because her phenotype is familiar to us, and she is of a darker brown than, say, Alicia Keys who is readily understood as mixed, while also being accepted as Black. The same is true of countless others.
I use Yara Shahidi as an example here because she is a Black young woman of mixed ancestry, who is not half white/European. People too often equate mixed-ness with proximity to European color and features, and this is a problem and a barrier to understanding Blackness. It implies that the only thing relevant about mixed-race people, whether or not they move through the world as Black, is European ancestry.
Yara’s phenotype is familiar to us because of all the non-African ancestry we have in pockets of our people that create phenotypes like hers, or Amel Larrieux’s, or Ava DuVernay’s. When people do identify people who look like Yara as being of mixed ancestry, they generally assume that non-Black ancestry is farther back than one of their parents. They might also assume that this ancestry comes from slave rape, because this is a typical aspect of our experience as Afro-Americans.
I often tell people in America that if Trevor Noah (South African) or Sade (Nigerian British) “look Black” to you, it is because Black people who look like them in America are typically mixed and you are matching familiar phenotypes when you look at them. This is an in-group/out-group dynamic.
Here in the U.K., which I have visited many times and where I currently reside, I see many people who are the product of an unmixed Black African and an unmixed white person. These people are generally brown-skinned. Not “high yellow.” Not the color of apricots and peaches. Brown.
People have often thought I was a first generation biracial Black person, and I have even gotten into arguments about it.
Biracial folks here aren’t usually yellow or white-presenting/passing. That’s often the Caribbean and English mixed, and that’s because whatever admixture the Black parent might have tips the phenotype towards the white parent. Even so, most of them are still brown-skinned. Some are even dark-skinned, by our reckoning.
It’s jarring because, even though I was raised in an Afro-American space where it was understood that we had European and Native ancestry, we were still Black and Proud. Our mixed heritage did not significantly impact our experience in NYC where I grew up. Our phenotypes, whether we were lighter skinned or darker skinned, were considered Black and we were seen as Black by everyone around us.
I have never had my Blackness challenged until recently, as I have begun to engage in certain discourse online and also begun to travel more, but I have certainly not been challenged in the same way that Amara La Negra has. Sometimes, I have been called light-skinned, or some variant thereof, but this has never been done to erase my Blackness entirely.
I’ve learned that people will interpret my phenotype as whatever is familiar or logical for them, based on how Blackness and mixed-ness look in their region.
This has happened to varying degrees during my travels around the world. People can clearly see my African ancestry, and they also see the “whatever else” they assume is there. Whether they think I’m half Arab, half Polynesian, half European, half Asian, “Coloured”, Martinican Creole, or Brazilian pardo will vary. But they definitely don’t see me the way my own people do.
When my Blackness is challenged in these online spaces, it is often by people who are themselves of mixed ancestry. They seem to project their own anxieties about their mixed-ness by trying to police and silence me in conversations about Blackness. Even when I “look Blacker” than the person challenging me, they will often still call me a “mulatto”, or a “mutt”, or otherwise try to minimize my Blackness.
To them, I say: You can try to pry away my Blackness from my cold dead hands, but you will not succeed.
We need to acknowledge the nuances of Blackness as we are participating in global conversations and being confronted with Black experiences that are different than our own. We are traversing the globe now more than ever before and we need to be prepared to interrogate what that means for us individually and what impact it will have when we engage with global Blackness.
Through examining ourselves, our histories, and the intersections that produce us, I believe we can fully engage our Blackness, and understand what that means for ourselves. Our narrative is not universal. It is necessary to understand this and to pay attention to how other groups of Black people move through the world.
Siete Saudades is a notable spiritualist, as well as a social activist and commenter who primarily resides in New York. He is founder and head of the collective known as The Myriad, and travels internationally for his work.