CNN's Soledad O'Brien keeps own story under wraps while exploring colorism in "Who is Black in America?
More than any other, one moment crystallizes the confusing, sometimes comically absurd contortions built up around racial identity unveiled in CNN’s latest documentary Who Is Black in America?
It’s not the 7-year-old, dark-skinned black girl who turns to her mother and insists light skin is pretty. It’s not the professor who cites studies showing dark-skinned black men suffer a 10 to 12 percent income inequality compared to white men.
It’s when Becca Khalil, a Philadelphia-based high schooler who is the light-skinned child of Egyptian parents, feels compelled to identify herself as white on a college scholarship application.
Declaring to CNN’s cameras that she identifies as black personally, Khalil is nevertheless challenged by a friend born of African-American parents, who says she hasn’t had a “black experience.”
And Khalil applies for scholarships as a white girl, the film tells us, because she fears an award given by an organization thinking she is black might be revoked once they learn she is Egyptian. Even the U.S. Census says light-skinned people whose heritage is from North Africa are classified as white.
“This is a coming of age story for kids in this environment,” said Soledad O’Brien, the anchor who hosts the documentary; the fifth in CNN’s widely-acclaimed Black in America series. (at left, from left ot right, is Khalil, workshop leader Perry "Vision" DiVirgilio and Khalil's friend Nayo Jones)
“There’s a lot of pain behind these conversations,” added O’Brien, the child of an Irish father from Australia and Afro-Cuban mother. “The conversation is about what we value in America. And what is the role of skin color in our values? They’re conversations we in America don’t particularly like to have.”
O’Brien’s documentary revolves around the impressive teens in a Philadelphia spoken word workshop led by a biracial poet who has explored his own questions about race and identity.
Khalil’s best friend, 17-year-old Nayo Jones, is the daughter of a black mother and white father, raised by her dad, who declares “I don’t feel black,” even though her cream-colored skin and kinky hair leave her looking African American to strangers.
Jones’ sister, who surrounds herself with black people and black culture, insists she is black. How could both girls, children of the same parents raised in the same home, come to such different cultural conclusions?
The film offers firebrand author and anti-racism activist Tim Wise to note that the hierarchy in the background of all this — valuing white skin most and black the least — comes from America’s roots in slavery, when plantation owners gave special privileges to lighter-skinned slaves and encouraged them to serve as overseers.
In this way, racial identity — which is a creation of society, not biology — is a means of control. It separated black people from poor white people and other new immigrants, encouraging slaves to see themselves as worthless.
Now, as 15 percent of modern marriages involve interracial unions, more people face “colorism,” where one shade of skin is valued more than another within the same race. Curiously, the documentary itself doesn’t answer a crucial question:
What is “black” identity, and who determines it?
When most of the youths in CNN’s documentary talk about being black, they mean African American. But O’Brien, who also self-identifies as black, has her non-white roots in Cuba, a Hispanic-centered culture that's different than the environment for black folks raised in Atlanta or Detroit.
And unlike some of the kids she profiles, O’Brien doesn’t believe anyone gets to choose their racial identity.
“This idea that someone gets to choose seems odd,” added the anchor. “I’m lighter-skinned than the president of the United States, but my mom is black, my brothers and sisters are black, my mom has a short afro. I never thought I had a choice about how I identified ... My identity was given to me very early by my parents.”
In a 2007 Perspective story and in my new book Race-Baiter I have theorized that racial identity seems an odd balance of four factors: Your parents and family’s race; your appearance; how you self-identify and how the world sees you.
Andrew Penner, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, agreed that racial identity often boils down to how people see themselves and how the world sees them. And while most people find those two visions are synchronized, increasing numbers don’t.
Penner’s work, focused on how society classifies people by race, indicates that a person's racial identity may change over time and circumstance, often depending on how much they rise or fall in social status.
He tells the story of a South Asian business leader of Indian descent who was seen as an Indian in his office. But when he went to bars or nightclubs, dressed in casual clothes with dark skin, people he encountered there thought he was black.
“Sometimes it’s interesting to ask ‘Who is black, when and why?’ ” said Penner, who tested this idea by placing the same faces in different types of clothing and asking people to identify the individual’s race, discovering their answers changed based on cues communicating status. “There are situations where we have more leeway with race that we claim … and some people probably have their race forced down on them.”
O’Brien’s documentary also doesn’t mention the most famous person navigating issues of race and identity in modern times: President Barack Obama. And the reason Obama isn’t featured is the same reason O’Brien doesn’t tell her story, even though the details — she was raised as an Afro-Cuban/Irish child in an all-white neighborhood where she felt “people like me weren’t attractive” — seems the embodiment of the documentary’s spirit.
“It’s not my story,” she said. “This is about digging into the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful conversations with the people we’re profiling.”
All the same, I can’t wait to see the documentary about how a nerdy kid who was told non-white people weren’t pretty became a top anchor at CNN eventually named to People magazine’s list of 50 Most Beautiful People.
Because, in an increasingly diverse America, that’s becoming the story of us all.