Black History Month: Why I Identify as Black

BlogHer Original Post

Undercover Black Woman* is one of several potential names for my autobiography. It refers to the fact that I look white but identify as black. I say identify because race is not a fact of biology but a construct that varies across cultures, societies and nations.

If race isn't a thing that can be measured and assigned, despite the efforts to do so throughout this country's history, why then does racial identity matter? When I was growing up some white kids would ask me why, since they thought I looked and spoke and acted like I was white why didn't I just call myself white? They didn't understand why I needed to proclaim and explain that I am other.

My great-great-great grandmother, Ellen Craft, was the child of a white slave owner an a slave, as was her mother. Therefore, she was 3/4 "white" and 1/4 "black." However, by the laws of the United States at the time she was legally defined as "black." Those laws no longer exist and so I can now choose my race, my identity. Although I clearly have European ancestors, I identify solely and completely as black.

I choose blackness rather than whiteness for a number of reasons. In part it's because of my family history. In part it's because, though most of my family are fairly light skinned, my father and sisters, along with other family, have brown skin. To proclaim myself white would mean to me "passing" and rejecting my family.

Maria Niles


(L to R) Angela Niles (sister), Maria Niles (author), Virginia Niles (mother), Gloria Niles (sister)

Because I perceive myself as black while people who don't know me treat me as white, I am acutely aware of the privilege whiteness brings. As I wrote in a post a few years ago:

I know this because I benefit from white privilege even though I'm black. I'm made aware of my privilege every time I go to dinner with friends and I am the only person at the table the waitress will speak to. I'm made aware of my privilege when I go into shops with family and they are followed and I am not. I'm made aware of my privilege when white people assume I share their racist thoughts and they spill their secrets to me unaware that I'm working undercover. I'm made aware of my privilege and thus the corresponding depth of racism every day.

Bearing witness to such behavior only strengthens my identification as black.

I sometimes want to wear T-shirts stating my racial identity. Or perhaps hand out some of Mollena's fabulous race cards (link thoroughly awesome but NSFW) or maybe a calling card like artist Adrian Piper:

Dear Friend,

I am black.

I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.

I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

There have been among my ancestors who chose to live as white, who do not have a black identity. However, everyone I grew up with in my immediate and extended family identifies as black to the best of my knowledge. Some of my young relatives might not but just because I think race is less of an issue for younger generations. However, when people over the years have asked me why I don't consider myself white the unspoken subtext is that it would be easier, better. But, while it might be in some ways easier to be white, for me to deny my blackness would mean rejecting my family which would be as painful as cutting off a part of my body.

Living as a racial spy is fascinating and sometimes horrifying. You can imagine some of the things I've heard when people believed that they were talking to a white person. And some of the things that have been said when they learned of my African American heritage. It's hard when I'm the only black person in the room, at a job, on a panel. As many black people can tell you it can be wearying to have to represent all black people and constantly educate even well-meaning non-black folk. I don't always want to be in teacher mode -- sometimes I want you to do your own research. And, for me, even when I am happy to be the face of diversity, unless I get a tattoo on my forehead or wear a tee-shirt at all times that says "Yes I am a black woman. Ask me how!" and print the story of Ellen Craft on the back, the impact of the color (pun totally intended) and perspective I bring to settings is lost on anyone who doesn't know my back story. I make for a terrible token.

There are times that I've wished to have browner skin but I have never longed to be a real white girl. Perhaps that's because of the fact that I've escaped most of the overt racism living in brown skin can bring to you in this country. But I hope it's because (say it loud), I'm black and I'm proud.

*I actually coined this name for myself before the late David Mills launched his blog Undercover Black Man. However, if I were going to steal from pay homage to someone, Mills would be at the top of my list. I was a fan of his writing and his blog and in my limited interaction with him he was kind and generous. He died far too young - may he rest in peace.

BlogHer CE does her racial spying from the comfort of her blog PopConsumer

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