CNN Contributing Producer Probes Lingering Pain of the ‘One Drop’ Rule

Dec 07, 2012

Keep the concept of privilege-clinging in the back of your mind as you check out the work and words of Dr. Yaba Blay, the driving force behind "Who Is Black in America?" the fifth installment of CNN’s "Black in America" series. Using Blay’s Kickstarter-funded multimedia collaboration with photographer Noelle Theard as a starting point, the show focuses on how people of African descent practice colorism, enforce identities based on appearance and the challenges of self-definition for multiracial people who aren’t recognizably black. I caught up with Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Philadelphia’s Drexel University (and, full disclosure, a Facebook-buddy-turned-friend), a few days after she co-hosted a special screening of the program on campus. Here, an edited, condensed version of our discussion.

So what’s the origin of the (1)ne Drop Project?

Oftentimes we do research that’s reflective of our lived experiences. So I’ve been personally impacted by colorism growing up as a West African, dark-skinned girl in New Orleans where you’ve got [self-described] black, white and Creole [cultures] and skin color politics are at the forefront of our social relationships there. I’ve always been very aware that I’m dark-skinned, in fact very dark-skinned. … I looked at colorism from the standard direction as far as how we look at the disadvantages of having dark skin in a racialized society. But there was always a part of me that wanted to explore the other side of this. … And actually, the first iteration of this project was called "The Other Side of Blackness," but "(1)ne Drop" just emerged [as a] more catchy name. I’ve always known that light-skinned people were having their own experiences with skin color politics, but I wasn’t necessarily sure how to approach the question. There are black people all over the world, but the imagery connected to [blackness] has been more nebulous. If I take my students on study abroad, say in Brazil, will they be able to recognize the black people? Or are they just living with the idea that the black people are the ones who look familiar?

A lot of scholars, writers and activists have asked these kinds of questions. So how did you transform an intellectual question into material for a Kickstarter video, a web site, the coffee table book of portraits that you have in the works, a Facebook page and, ultimately, the CNN documentary? What was the spark?

I always talk about this experience of being on a [2010] panel about skin color politics at [New York City’s] Caribbean Cultural Center. They wanted me to speak specifically about my work about skin bleaching [and] about colorism. I remember sitting next to Rosa Clemente, who was referring to herself as a Black Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx and feeling–I don’t want to say uncomfortable, but preoccupied with the way she was self-referencing.

Why would that make you uneasy?

Because it was completely new; it was outside of my framework of personal experience. I see it differently now, but in that moment there was a distinction between people of African descent and black people.

What was the distinction?

In that moment?

Yeah. In that moment. [Laughs.]

It’s a consciousness. So there’s a quote-un-quote genetic and historical reality of having black people in your gene pool. But it’s another thing to claim it, mean it and say that you are black. In my experience, I have come across people who are technically of African descent but use all kinds of nomenclature to describe themselves. I had been moving through the world with these assumptions that reflected an internalized negativity that a lot of us deal with. So [before that panel] I knew that Puerto Rican people are of African descent, but I also knew that they get to call themselves Puerto Rican rather than black. And here was Rosa saying "I am a black Puerto Rican." As a professor who teaches about the black diaspora, I was [thinking] I’m supposed to know this stuff! [Laughs.] I was sitting on this panel with all of these questions to the point of distraction.

For you, what’s the significance of using "black" as opposed to, say, "African-American"?

Because "black" is a powerful word to me. It is my word of choice. I prefer it to "African-American" even though technically I am African-American. But I like what "black" represents because it’s connected to a Pan-African perspective that I hold.

Talk about what it means for you, a dark-skinned woman who has dealt with colorism, to be the person shepherding a project like this. How did you prepare yourself?

I didn’t prepare myself at all. I feel like I just jumped into it in the same way that I’ve done my other work. I started with people I knew and the first five to 10 interviews allowed me to work it out so by the time I got to interview 15, I had it down pat.

In an interview for another platform you talked about one of your subjects, Danielle. You two had classes together in the Africana Studies department at Temple University, but weren’t friends at all. 

They’ll show a little bit of her story in the documentary. But, in short, I had always found her standoffish. We would speak to one another but that was the extent of it. Then a mutual professor encouraged me to talk to her for (1)ne Drop. When I approached her, she asked me very honestly how light-skinned people would be portrayed in this project because some of the things I had said about light-skinned privilege within the department. We just had to build mutual trust.

What surprised you about her story?

I remember during an interview Danielle asking me, "Why are you looking at me like that?" and I was looking at her like that because what she was saying completely disrupted the perception that I had of her. She grew up in Lancaster County in a Mennonite community with a white Mennonite mother and an African-American father who died when she was 13. In that [predominantly white] space, she was black as hell to everybody; there was nothing else for her to be. She tells this story of her going to a flea market with her aunt and somebody walking up and asking, "Oh, is this your Fresh Air Fund child?" She also talks about how classmates completely ignored her. She didn’t have friends and the only time they would talk to her would be to ask her to jump into fights on their behalf because the assumption was that as the black girl, she could fight. Where it was unquestionable who she was and then for her to come somewhere like Philadelphia where people were like, "Are you Italian? Are you Puerto Rican? You grew up where? With horses and buggies? Well then hell no, you ain’t black." I remember leaving that interview and transcribing it immediately because I couldn’t believe that I’d heard what I’d heard.

I haven’t seen the CNN show–I wanted to talk to you about (1)ne Drop pre-CNN with a clean slate. But in one of the teasers you make a point about the so-called one drop rule that could be construed as an endorsement of what has become a matter of custom but was used to terrorize us.

Clearly, the one-drop rule is racist as hell and comes out of a white supremacist foundation. But it is still at the core of how blackness is defined in this country and we haven’t spent enough time unpacking it. When I say "we" I mean black people in this context. This definition has come from a source external to us who did it for the sake of controlling us. Now that we seek to control our own identity and exact some agency we need to really look at what it means to some of us. I don’t have to define my blackness; I live it. But what does it mean to the biracial woman who has people jumping out of the car or following her down the street asking her to take a picture and demanding to know what she is? What does it mean to people who appear to be light-skinned to some but are the darkest people in their family?

Cable news isn’t known for capturing subtleties. You’re bound to have some people misinterpret your intention. How will you deal with that now that your work is no longer in your hands?

I’m not prepared for that, either. [Laughs.] The truth is we’ve gotten a lot of support, but there has also been pushback. The other day on Twitter, a white woman called me a racist c**t who hated my people. Then I’ve had good friends of mine question why I was examining skin color politics from the perspective of light-skinned and multiracial people. One said she saw it as a distraction–as if giving attention to colorism from this direction would invalidate what dark-skinned women have been saying about it. It was if we were in a gang and I was crossing sides. [Laughs.] But we’ve got to look at these things holistically. I want to have a holistic conversation about skin color politics because it really doesn’t do us any advantage to only sit in the space of victimhood, the space of being disadvantaged. I don’t think these two conversations negate one another. They are equally valid. So I’m not trying to get into that comparative framework. It’s not better, it’s not worse. It’s different and it’s theirs.

"Who is Black in America?" will air on CNN on Sunday, December 9th at 8 PM ET/PT.