What Makes You Black?

Jason Articles

Do you know someone who is black? Can you define it? This little debate was brought on by a friend who was of mixed-race. Her father was black, her mother was white and she definitely looked more white than black. Nonetheless, she was a bit confused as to what race she was and didn’t want to list “other” on all of those dumb forms.

What I thought would be a quick answer to her question, “You’re considered black to most people, so therefore you’re black,” turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected. In fact, I tried that answer, but was challenged at virtually every step.

She asked me to describe what it was that makes someone black. Again, I thought it would be an easy answer, but my friends and I got into a heated debate about it. It was so thought-provoking that I wanted to share it.

Skin Color Makes You Black

If you were talking to someone in the street, in reality you would probably know if they are “black” or not. But what is it about them that would tell you this? Often the answer is skin color, which is the most obvious choice, but also the weakest.

The color black is far darker than any “black” person I’ve ever seen. Shades of brown seem more suitable when talking about color. If skin color is what makes someone black, then a white person with a very dark tan or a dark-skinned Hispanic or Native American would all be considered black—yet they’re not.

I’ve seen some Brazilian’s far darker than blacks, but they’re considered Hispanic.

Also, if color is the culprit, then light-skinned black people should not be called black at all and of course they are. How about an albino black girl? Is she still black even though her skin is lighter than even the whitest of her friends? You bet she is, but why?

As you can see, skin color is not enough to classify someone as being black.

Culture Makes You Black

Our next thought might be that one’s culture makes you black. This is a ridiculous argument, because if that were the case Eminem, Vanilla Ice, and loads of other whites who subscribe to the “black” culture would all be listed as black and they’re not.

On the flip side, blacks like Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell might all be considered white. Surely one isn’t to believe that all “black people” share a common culture; and if so, are these exceptions not considered black?

Some people might imply that it’s how one speaks, acts, or carries oneself, but that would again fail under the “Eminem” and “Cosby” examples.

So if there’s such a wide range in culture among “blacks” then it can’t be culture.

African-Descent Makes You Black

The dictionary describes “African-American” as being a “black person of African descent”. This definition uses the black as if we know what they mean. This unsatisfactory definition doesn’t take into account whites who were born and raised in Africa and come to America. Are they not “of African descent” aka “African-American”?

According to science, homo sapiens all migrated from Africa; the earliest human remains were found in Ethiopia and they were 3.3 million years old.

If you believe in science then we’re all of African descent. Believe in religion over science? Although mostly Muslim now (of the biggest religions), Africa was once home to some of the oldest Christian and Jewish communities in the world.

According the infamous “one-drop rule” any person with even a drop of non-white blood was considered “black.” If this is true, everyone on Earth is black if you go back far enough.


Some may say that it is a combination of these answers that makes someone black, but any combination would need to stand up to the scrutiny of each individual criticism.

Let’s say a white guy is born and raised in Africa, but then moves to America and engulfs himself in the black culture and customs. Is he black or is he still white?

Let’s say a very light-skinned black guy born and raised in Montana, which only has 0.227 blacks per 100 people, speaks so-called proper English only and despises the urban culture. Is he black or white? What if this same guy were of mixed-race?

Let’s say we have a mixed-race girl with one black parent and one white parents, but looks completely white. 1% rule says she’s still black, do you? What if it were a grandparent of hers that were black and not her parent? How about if only one great-grandparent were black?


If you think hard enough about the issue and come up with what seems to be a great answer, in all likelihood you would be able to discredit it immediately with exceptions and examples.

We often look at someone or hear their voice and think we know if they’re black or not. But before we make that leap, perhaps we should figure out just what being black is.