What is Black?

In the midst of the racial uproar and unrest going on across the United States, I’m reminded of an encounter I had probably almost 15 years ago. But it has always stuck with me, and really threw a wrench in my paradigm. This picture is the closest one I could find that is probably from around that era.

It was winter and I used to live in Illinois at the time. I was bundled up – heavy clothes, gloves, scarf wrapped around my neck, and a coat with a hood over my head to protect me from the snow and wind. There I was…standing at the bus stop, listening to a CD on the discman hidden in my pocket.

It was pretty early, so the streets were very bare. A college-age white girl walks past me and we give each other a simple nod of recognition and hello. While I still waited in the bitter cold for my late bus, she is returning from her errand, and walks past me again. She pauses and asks, “Why do you have black makeup on your face?”

“Why do you have black makeup on your face?”

Her question took me aback. It must have been obvious because all I could mutter in that split second of confusion was a Huh? I guess she then realized how awkward her question was, and she started walking away a little faster than she came (I’m sure also from embarrassment).

She thought I was white. With only my vitiligo face exposed for her to see, her conclusion was that this was a white person with black makeup or marks, not a black person with……(I guess how could someone assume I’ve “lost pigment” if they’ve never heard of or seen vitiligo before?)

We tend to speak of “Black features” – wide nose, eyes, big lips, body shape, etc. Even when someone is fair skinned, has hazel eyes, etc., like a Rochelle Aytes or Maya Rudolph, we still identify them as Black. We say things like You just know or You can just tell. But can we? My facial pigment was probably about 50/50 then, maybe slightly 60/40 leaning towards white. Apparently, my nose, eyes, cheekbones, and lips weren’t enough to identify my race.

So when we look at someone and say they are Black, what does that really mean? Talk to me!!