Black Identity and What it Means To Be 'Black Enough'

Black children receive many messages on what it means to be “Black enough.” Instead of telling children how Blackness shows up for others, experts recommend teaching them about the diversity of Black communities.

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Olivia Hunte, 31, lives in Denver, Colorado, and spent the first ten years of her life on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, surrounded by Black culture. It didn't prepare her for the narrow definitions of Blackness in the U.S. that she'd find after moving to South Atlanta. "Growing up in Atlanta, I learned about my Blackness," she says. While there are multiple valid ways to communicate—complete with diverse languages and dialogues—she was confronted with the expectation that Black people speak a certain dialect. "I was taught that speaking 'proper' or standard American English was considered "talking white."

That move taught her that Black people faced certain "invisible" expectations in the US. "My interactions during my formative years taught me a lot about what Black people do and don't do. Like, I can never be ashy", she says. "Or I always need to be dressed well no matter if I am going to church or just the grocery store down the street. She also learned "that certain things were designated as '[things] white people do," like going camping or hiking.

Black people face many messages on what it means to be "Black enough," as Hunte did. Many of these are anchored in surface-level behaviors around the clothes and interests that have been assigned to Black people.

Black celebrities have brought attention to how the media shapes our understanding of Black identity. Sheryl Lee Ralph, former Moesha cast member and current Abbott Elementary actress was once fired from a TV pilot for not being "Black enough." "Those were his words. It was horrible", she told PEOPLE. "I can still remember the way I felt." Like bi-racial actress Zoe Kravitz, others say they have been "fed through the media," a warped perspective of what it means to be Black.

These messages rarely acknowledge the diversity of the Black experience or Black subcultures. Today's Black parents are left to sort through these messages. For many, it's a struggle to define what Blackness is and pass a full understanding of Black identity to their children.

Dr. riana elyse anderson

"If we say that being Black is only certain things, that leads to stereotypes, not only for other people, but for ourselves, that we can only be these limited things."

— Dr. riana elyse anderson

Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says it's a fact that the media creates stereotypes about what Blackness is. "We know that there is an over-representation of Black people in certain roles—especially around [supporting], violent or deviant roles," she says. This makes it more critical to discuss the challenges, the joys, pains, and promises that come with race and racial identity with our children. "If we say that being Black is only certain things, that leads to stereotypes, not only for other people, but for ourselves, that we can only be these limited things."

Anderson references the phrase, "Blackness is not a monolith," saying there is no one way to describe Blackness. Instead of telling children what Blackness is and how it should be performed, she advises asking our children what they notice to teach them the diversity of Black communities.

This helps with critical thinking and affirms the limitless potential of Black identity. Books, videos, and other resources further these efforts. This approach allows children to notice the overlap, contradictions, and diversity across Black communities. "Being so that our children can see that diversity, and can then pare it back to us," she says. "Now we know that there's more than just one type of Black outfit or food, that we see the diversity in all of its forms."

Jay Brissette, 37, a queer parent of one, who lives in Los Angeles, learned about Black identity from their mother, family stories, and friends. But they've always known that they were Black, even when they found themselves outside of expectations for Black people. "I was always the 'you're one of us kind of, but not one of us,'" they say. 'You're obviously Black, and we accept you as another Black kid. And you listen to punk? And you're gonna dress like that? And like you don't speak in the same way that we do?' Brissette says, recalling others' reactions.

"There was always an end with a question mark at the end. I resist the gatekeeping that happens when Black folks do something outside of what is considered typical for Black people," they say.

For Brissette, Blackness and queer identity are intertwined. Occasionally that makes it challenging to navigate spaces with other Black parents, like the Black affinity group at their child's school. "It's clear queerness is still very outside of mainstream Black culture. I 100 percent resist that," they say.

Anderson says the windows and mirrors approach, or seeking an inside look at others' culture and reflecting on how it's similar and different from your own, is useful for Black people who are isolated or don't have connections with the larger Black community. "That's how you can gain an entrance to that type of lifestyle, that type of community so you can look through a window—finding resources like books or movies so that you can see what it is that people are doing," says Anderson. "The mirror is reflecting back, taking a look at your own self and asking questions about your practices."

She says Facebook groups and community meet-ups can also help Black folks find community.

In fact, the unprecedented access to social media currently available is a blessing and a curse, according to Anderson. She notes this brings new opportunities to see the diversity of the Black experience. But, social media can also come with the risk of seeing negative images of violence toward Black people. There's also an increased risk for depression, anxiety, and comparison.

Black families use these and other strategies to pass a dynamic understanding of Black identity to the next generation. Brissette says for them, Black identity is a legacy of resistance and a shift away from respectability politics toward unapologetic joy and self-love.

Hunte echos this, saying since moving to Colorado, she's enjoying outdoor activities and experiencing being Black on her own terms.

"One of the most important things I have learned about being Black is that there is no one way to be Black. We are so dynamic and multifaceted," she says. "As a child of the African diaspora, I know there is a universality to Blackness; for all the things that Black people have in common, we also have things that are very different about each of us!"

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