On honoring Black ancestry while not being read as Black

“Oh, what’s your wristband say?” “Black Excellence.” “Oh… That’s interesting… Why?” “Because I support Black Excellence in all its forms.” “But… are you Black?”

If I got a dollar every time someone asked me this, I wouldn’t need to be working two jobs right now. There are two big reasons why this is so frustrating: 1) There’s no one way to look or be Black, and too often non-Black people try to deny the Blackness of mixed Black people. 2) Even if I was as white as cucumber and mayo sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with no seasoning in sight, am I not allowed to support Black Excellence?

Why is it so confusing that someone you don’t read as Black would want to openly wear their support for the Black community?

I’m a brown mutt. My dad’s Hungarian and miscellaneous white, and my mom’s Puerto Rican to the bone. I also have some Black ancestry; exactly how much is unclear, but like many Puerto Ricans we know that at least some of our background is Black. My life’s been a supercut of people almost too curiously asking “What are you?”, never knowing how to fill out documents that made me choose a racial classification, being called just about every slur by racist people too lazily hateful to even care what race I actually am, and constantly wondering how I fit in with different communities, especially Black and Latinx communities.

I’ve been aware of my being mixed and brown as far back as I can remember, but it wasn’t until my first year in college when I lived in a Black Diaspora ethnic theme dorm (Ujamaa) that I really began to explore what it means for me to have Black ancestry.

Part I: Honoring Black Ancestry

It would be a disservice to my ancestors to not acknowledge them in who I am. My Taino ancestors took in escaped slaves into our communities in the mountains of Puerto Rico, combining our cultures. The story of my Black and Taino ancestors is one of resilience and cultural evolution — a story I want to represent in full.

However, honoring Black ancestry while not actually being read as Black can be a tricky thing. I have to honor my Black ancestors responsibly so that I don’t accidentally coopt the struggles of people actually read as Black or prioritize my own voice and experiences over theirs.

We see this happen all too often when light-skinned people claim colorism actually works against them by denying their community membership but do so by speaking up over darker-skinned people speaking on how colorism is a very real threat to their lives and livelihoods.

In the next section, I’ve outlined how mixed folks can be involved with the Black community, and also some pitfalls to watch out for.

Part II: Finding Our Role

The conversation around Black ancestry in people not read as Black people too often just ends at only acknowledging it on the surface level. Or, worse, people then weaponize their Black ancestry to erase the different lived experiences of Afro-Boricuas* and other Afro-[nationality/ethnicity] people by claiming we’re all ‘one race’.

Step One: Know Your History

Governments often support this by trying to unite people under a flag and claim “We’re all X” as a way to ignore that there are many different communities within the nations, and to shy away from the fact that in many ways the governments are still displacing and committing genocide against Indigenous people as well as incarcerating and exploiting Black people in heinous ways.

It’s in the state’s best interest that we don’t actually interrogate our own ancestries and histories too much so that the exploitation and erasure can continue.

To question this post-racial narrative is to be ‘divisive’, so often non-Black people will use claims to Black ancestry to avoid conversations about the very real racism going on throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Just like when people use “we’re all technically from Africa” to push colorblind politics, this sort of behavior really ain’t cute.

Step Two: Acknowledge Racial Privilege

One of the most important things we can do is acknowledge our relative privilege. The fact that we’re not read as Black means we have access to spaces and resources that people actually read as Black don’t, and in order to honor our Black ancestry it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that in full.

That doesn’t mean we should feel guilty for having these privileges — what it means is that we need to leverage our privileges to be advocates for and accomplices with the Black community, and fight to dismantle the systems that perpetuate these power imbalances and unearned privileges.

Step 3: Mindful Community Participation

A big question that comes up often when I talk to other people with Black ancestry who aren’t read as Black is whether they ‘belong’ in the Black community. I wish I had an answer to this, but it’s not for me to decide.

You’re free to claim your Black ancestry, which I encourage you to do, and know that Blackness isn’t defined by any rigid boundaries of how much melanin you have or what features you have. There’s so much power in claiming your Blackness.

That said, don’t expect the Black community to be holding any ‘welcome to the community’ cookout for you, especially if your claim to Blackness is the first time you’ve ever really interacted with the community.

With all the Rachel Dolezals out there, it’s no wonder why the Black community would be hesitant to accept us with open arms, and I don’t blame them. There are long histories of people infiltrating communities either to only serve their own interests or in some cases to even sabotage the causes of those communities. If the Black community’s slow to take you in, or doesn’t at all, know it’s probably coming out a place of self-preservation and concern.

Learn to be genuinely who you are, not some performative version in order to try to win points from the community, and get really comfortable with growth and accountability because you’re likely going to stumble at least few times. Don’t expect to be coddled, and don’t push the emotional labor required to help you grow on members of the Black community (at least not without consent and compensation).

Step 4: Show Up

That said, you don’t have to be part of the community to still fight for it. You don’t need some label in order to be an agent of change — you can still participate in and support a community without necessarily being deemed as part of it. We occupy a gray area, so in many ways we have to act as allies and accomplices to the Black community in order to truly honor our Black ancestry.

If your support of the Black community was contingent on how welcome you felt by the community, that means your work was always centering yourself and your ego, not the community itself. To fully honor our Black ancestors, we have to put the needs and concerns of the Black community in front of our personal, shallow interests — we must fight for the Black community as if fighting for our ancestors themselves.

*Puerto Ricans of African descent