I’ve Never Met a Black Person, and Neither Have You
A writer questions where and how we came to accept black and white as descriptions for skin color instead of, say, brown, tan, or pink
At about 9:30 a.m., I turned away from my laptop, leaned back in my swivel chair, pulled down my mask, and took a sip of the piping hot black coffee that was just delivered to my desk. I could see that everyone else in the office was doing the same.
We all spun around in our chairs and kind of wheeled ourselves into position so that we were more or less facing each other. This little impromptu meeting of colleagues happens every day. We call it Coffee Club.
At Coffee Club, we don’t talk about work. On that day, the discussion was about the recent riots in Washington, D.C. At one point in the discussion, Estelle, who is the newest member of our group and who recently emigrated from Jamaica, reflected on the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred during the summer.
She pointed this out: “If these terrorists who stormed the Capitol building were Black like me, they would have all been shot.”
As Estelle continued to speak, I took in what she said but also took in how she looked. I could see the fabric of her mask moving with every word, but I was struck by her use of the word “black” and by her actual skin tone.
I had just realized something shocking about Estelle, and it was all I could think about.
She wasn’t actually the color black.
She was brown like me. And as I thought about it, I realize I’ve never actually met a person who is the color black.
Still, I’ve met tons of people who call themselves Black. The U.S. Census asks people to identify if they are White, Black, or African American. We accept the use of the word “black” in this way.
But I’ve never actually met a black person. And I’m going to suggest that you haven’t either.
Why? Because the people many of us describe as Black people are actually all Brown. The people who we refer to as “black” are actually brown-skinned. They’re all — and we’re all — just varying degrees of brown. Some are darker than others, but all of them are brown.
Brown like me.
“Keith, are you still with us?” Estelle said, noticing that I had mentally drifted a bit.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I just realized that I’ve never met a black person.”
She looked at me like I was from another planet.
I found myself wondering about the common definitions of the color black.
Black has several definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The first definition is “having the very dark color of the night sky or the eye’s pupil: of the color black.” Other definitions say it describes people of African ancestry. The fifth description describes it as being the complete absorption of light. Subsequent definitions move into black as evil or sinister and black as the devil or described as hostility or anger-type definitions.
The dictionary doesn’t list or describe shades of black. Black is black. There is no dark black or light black. There is no brilliant black or faded black. There is only black.
A hockey puck is black. A person is not. People come in many shades, and I would dare to say none of them are black.
As I looked at Estelle, and she looked at me, I realized that her skin tone was pretty close to my own, but not one single, solitary person has ever mistaken me for a Black person.
I am brown. She is brown. And brown is not black.
Have we all just gone colorblind? Why have we chosen a specific color to describe a group of people when they are so clearly not that color?
Associating color with meaning
In 1971, Muhammad Ali did an interview with Michael Parkinson on the BBC where he questioned why everything good was referred to as “white.” He also wondered why everything bad was referred to as “black”:
And I always asked my mother, I said, “Momma, how come is everything white?” I said, “Why is Jesus White with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s supper all White men? Angels are White, the pope, Mary, and even the angels.” I said, “Mother, when we die, do we go to Heaven?” She said, “Naturally, we go to Heaven.” I said, “Well, what happened to all the Black angels?”
Whiteness is associated with goodness. When we think of things that are white, like fresh snow or angels, we think of purity. When we think of blackness, like Darth Vader from Star Wars, we think of darkness and evil. We are the ones who give meaning to the color.
So when we take those colors and use them to describe an entire group of people, it can be difficult to separate the implicit meaning from the people.
Black people are not actually black. We’ve established that. And for that matter, White people are not actually white. They are more pink or tan in most cases. It’s virtually impossible to look at the color white and be able to legitimately match it up with the color of any human being.
So here we have two wholly inappropriate and inaccurate names to describe two groups of people: Black and White.
Why? Simple. This oppressive labeling was done on purpose.
“I love being Black,” Estelle said. “But you’re right; it’s definitely strange that Black was chosen over Brown.”
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson recognized a long time ago that black is a color, not an identity, and is one in a long line of labels used by — and sometimes coined by — European imperialists to describe the African people they enslaved and brought to America. But we all know that race is a social construct that historians say only came into play around the 1500s as a way to separate enslaved brown Africans from everyone else.
By using negative labeling to refer to African people, it made it easier for imperialists to enslave them. It dehumanized them. Words have power. They can reinforce positive or negative social identities. Slave owners are White: good. Slaves are negros, colored, or anything but White: bad.
Jackson addressed this in 1988 when he said this:
Just as we were called colored, but were not that … and then Negro, but not that … to be called black is just as baseless.”
I posit that this is the oppressors’ label and is not a label created by people of African descent (or Jamaican in origin, in Estelle’s case). It became more prominent during the Black Power movement of the 1960s as African Americans attempted to take back the word. And we see it used frequently in the Black Lives Matter protests of late.
But I wonder if it’s time to do away with associating the color black with people? Since people of Indian, Mexican, African, and many other descents are actually just varying shades of brown, perhaps Brown should be adopted to identify all of us. Black is the oppressor’s label, but Brown is just accurate.
When we refer to White people, we can be talking about people from Europe or Russia or Australia or any number of places. There is no other universally embraced term that is commonly used to describe the various shades of White people.
But for people who have a brown skin tone, there are two separate categories: Black and Brown. As a person of Indian descent, I fall into the latter.
At Coffee Club that day, this didn’t seem to bother Estelle. She was perfectly fine to be called Black and was, in fact, proud of it. And that is her right.
But it bothers me.
I don’t like the idea of trying to take the power out of the word by having the oppressed group use it on themselves (like in the Black Power movement). We’ve seen the results of that with the N-word. For years, it’s been used in hip-hop and rap music by African American artists, and the word is still horrible. It doesn’t work.
It especially bothers me after learning about the history of the word and after reading opinions about it from people like Jackson.
Jackson suggested using African American as a possible alternative instead of using color, and I think that’s a good idea.
But the label Black bothers me because I know the positive connotations associated with the color white and the negative connotations associated with the color black.
Selfishly, this affects me too. If there is a stigmatized category of people called Black, then logically anything close to that category (like Brown) also carries a stigma of being less than White.
All of it bothers me, and I think we should get rid of it when it comes to describing people. If we are going to use colors to describe people, they should at least be accurate.