December 7th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Soledad O'Brien: Who is black in America? I am

Editor's Note: In today’s United States, is being black determined by the color of your skin, by your family, by what society says, or something else? Soledad O’Brien reports “Who Is Black in America?” on CNN at 8 p.m. ET/PT this Sunday, December 15. 

By Yaba Blay and Soledad O'Brien, CNN

(CNN) - Yaba Blay, Ph.D. created the (1)ne Drop Project, a multiplatform endeavor that hopes to challenge perceptions of black identity. Blay, a consulting producer for "Who Is Black in America?" spoke to hundreds of those who may not immediately be recognized as "black" based on how they look, including CNN Anchor Soledad O'Brien.  In this edited excerpt from her forthcoming book, Blay spoke to O'Brien about what makes a person black, and why the conversation is important.

Yaba Blay: How do you identify? Racially and culturally?

Soledad O'Brien: I’m black. I’m Latina. My mom is Cuban. Afro-Cuban. My dad is white and Australian. And I think because of my job, often a question like "How do you identify?" is really not about the question. It’s always "What side are you on?" "What perspective do you bring?"

Blay: I remember when "Black in America" first came out, and a lot of people being like “Who is she and why is SHE doing this?”

O'Brien: I think it’s a valid question. I think every question is valid. I just don’t think there should be a rule like “Oooh that is the question that shall not be asked.” I’m happy to answer any question. And I think also there is sometimes a hostility in that question. Especially around "Black in America." You know, “Who are you that gets to tell our story?” And I understand that, too.

You know, white people really have a luxury in that they get a range of stories, that they’re not defined by five stories. So I think that the difference with "Black in America" was the filter did matter. That there are only going to be five stories and we want to know exactly who you are and what your credentials are to be telling our story. And I don’t think you can do documentaries and opt out of the conversation. You know, it’s not “Well you know that’s about them, not about me.”

I think what I love about the documentary process is that you bring yourself to the documentary. And hopefully that makes you ask good questions and hopefully that makes you reveal a little bit about yourself as well.

Blay: Have you had that experience of people asking you, “What are you?”

O'Brien: Oh my God yes! All the time. People tweet me that question. I used to take great offense – like immediately sort of get annoyed, partly because I don’t think that came from a very good place. I think I read it as sort of questioning my value and reasons for being wherever I was. But now I think it’s twofold: one, I think that because I’m a journalist, people are really just trying to understand - "You’re somebody I see on TV, but I don’t know you in person so who are you?" Then, two, I think that part of my job as a journalist is to educate people about stories in a way and some of these stories I’m part of that story.

I think I was part of "Black in America" even in the context of who is the filter of the story and so it became relevant, so I really stopped hating answering that question because I felt like my job is to elaborate and explain for people who I am. I think it’s relevant. I think because of the reporting that I do I sort of owe people that answer.

Blay: So why do you think the questions are coming? Why are there questions about why Soledad is doing "Black in America?"

O'Brien: Some of it is physical presentation. I think that some of it was that I’d been anchoring shows that weren’t dealing specifically with African-Americans so it was kind of like "What are your politics? What’s your perspective? Who are you?" I think sometimes it’s as straightforward as that.

At screenings for "Black in America" I’ve heard people say, “Well you know I never thought you were black until you did Katrina and then I thought you were black.” And I’d say, “That’s so fascinating. What was it that made you think I was black?” And then someone else would say, “Yeah, but she’s married to a white man.” And I’m like "OK, so does that make me less black and how in your mind does that math work? That there’s a certain number and if you get below that number because you get points for who you marry and you lose points for where you live and how you speak?"

But even just going back to the questions consistently, I thought it was just illuminating. I thought it was just so fascinating to really open up a conversation about race. Now we’re up to "Black in America 5" and we’re having that conversation.

Blay: So what makes a person black?

O'Brien: I certainly don’t think it’s skin color. And I certainly don’t think it’s how well you speak the language. And I’m not sure I can answer that question thoroughly because my consciousness about race was really implanted in me by my parents. I would say I’m black because my parents said I’m black. I’m black because my mother’s black. I’m black because I grew up in a family of all black people. I knew I was black because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. And my parents, as part of their protective mechanisms that they were going to give to us made it very clear what we were.

My mother would say, “Do not let anybody tell you you’re not black. Do not let anybody tell you you’re not Latina.” And I remember thinking her comments were so weird, like "What is she talking about?" There weren’t people coming over to my house saying “You’re not black!” We stuck out!

But now I understand what she was going for. And I am very grateful for those conversations because I think it implants in your head sort of the perspective that my parents wanted us to have. We were raised that way in a place that was often not particularly hospitable and sometimes out and out hostile to people of color. I guess my parents taught me very early that how other people perceive me really was not my problem or my responsibility. It was much more based on how I perceived me.

soundoff (1,450 Responses)
  1. flextones

    Your culture makes you black. It is not really based on how you look. Although Barack Obama was raised partly in Kansas, over-seas and Hawaii he really was a part of and embraced black culture including marrying a black woman.

    June 30, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ron

    i have some consternation, given the time elapse since I've looked at this blog, as to why germans with balloons are relevant here and though I can enter into a realm of inanity I don't dwell long...I will attempt o read some of the article with mich kleine deutch and get back to you

    April 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. coldpiece

    If you’re born in africa and move to america…. you’re african american regardless of race. There’s a difference between race and nationality folks. A mind is a terrible thing to waste

    March 22, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • john miller

      Yes, but Africa is not a nation, so you can't equate it to a nationality to be African either. But you are correct in pointing out that many races are in Africa and so using the term African is a misnomer. Another common mistake is people who refer to Hispanics as not white. Hispanic is part of the white race that is why your U. S. Census asks if you are white hispanic or white non-hispanic.

      May 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sabrina

    I am a woman married to a wonderful man. My race is white his race is black and yes it is that simple. I have been told we dont fit the "typical black/white couple becuase I am not overweight. I hear all the time from peopke that most black guys go for heavy white women because the women are insecure and cant find a white man.....Really?? Do you really believe that? I am a very secure successful happy attractive white woman and no I an not overweight and he is a very secure successful attractive black man. We have been together for 12yrs married 8yrs and race is not an issue in our home so I dont understand why people make it their issue. Our daughter's birth certificate states she is Caucasian and the reason......that is what the hospital put on her records. I did not ask nor did I care what was on her b/c all we cared about was our beautiful new baby girl. Rascism is an issue in this World its not just America. I have had people tell me "I never would have pictured you married to a black man" and "you're not the typical black guy type". I am amazed at how comfortable people are with stating their opinions to me about my marriage. I have never told someone "Wow I would have never pictured you with an overweight bald headed man" or "You dont seem like the kind of man that would marry a fat girl". People are NOT born racists it is something they are taught. PEOPLE ARE RACIST....even against people of the same race. My husband gets comments from other black men about being "light skinned" that just tells me that person has insecurities within himself. God made you the way are and its not perfect....no one is therefore you can allow your insecurities to ruin your life or you can except everyone for who they are and create an opinion of someone by their character not their skin.....you can choose be rascitst or you can choose not to be. If you choose to allow skin to define someone be very careful in life because it is VERY possible almost a guarantee you will have to depend on someone of a different race than yours and they may even one day save your life. If your child is in the hospital struggling to live are you going to ask what the race of the Dr saving your childs life or if the Dr.is light skinned or dark skinned? And heaven forbid you do.....are you going to risk losing your child by asking for a Dr. of a certain ethnicity? I find it very ironic and hypocritical that white women spend millions of dollars each year to make their skin darker (tanning beds)

    February 22, 2013 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. Hal Smith

    At 75 years old I am always amazed at the comments re racisim. Growing up in New England in the 40's and 50's there was no racisism. Blacks and whites went to school together, played sports together and lived in the same tenements together. I didnt see racisim until I joined the military and was sent to Florida and then the middle east where I was astonished. Coming home nothing had changed but the government seemed to be trying to perpetuate the myth that all whites hated blacks and vice versa. It wasnt true, we still got along fine, each race having equal educational opportunities as well as employment opportunities. It seems to me this is is contrived problem initiated by politicians to enhance their winning elections by fragmenting the vote. If it is true that racisim exists today it's because of affirmative action and political maneuvering. Even today the government spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on seminars for government workers telling them the same sad bogus story. It's political hijacking.

    February 21, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • BasilT

      LOL- "myth" about whites hating blacks? All you have to do is go read the anti-black racist graffiti on any restroom to see that. Most whites have been ingrained with the silly notion that their white skin somehow makes them "better" than anybody else. The history of this country is prove of that. If you are "allegedly" 75 then you should be cognizant of that- but like so many other whites you probably buried your head up your ass and continued to enjoy your white skin privileges...less than 75 years ago blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus in the south- has there been any time when whites were forced to do so? No? I thought so...

      July 11, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. House

    What a stupid question. African Americans are black. Any other questions?

    February 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. q

    ...as George Clinton (the musician ) said...:fantasity is reality..".....all humans came from Africa...that means that we are all different shades of BLACK......deal wit it!!

    February 6, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lousinana CreoleKing

      @Mike Armstrong:Not because humans came from Africa meant that they were Black!! Did any of you ever think of that?????!!!

      February 7, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sandra Crowe

    Americans keep racism going with the nonsense of having "race" on every piece of paper one has to fill out. Also calling people from other parts of the world "African-American" is assinine. What makes American think the world is "American." Are the REAL Africans who has never been to the US African-Americans. Even among "black" people there is prejudice. The reason the American Idol name Doolittle did not win and Jordin Sparks won was all to do with skin color. Doolittle was a much better singer. But ALL Americans go on looks. So very sad. And you only inherit from one side. Therefore The President got nothing from his white mother and nothing from growing up with his white grandparents. It is his father whom he met twice? who had all the influence according to the BLACK middle eastern man on Fox.

    February 5, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • BasilT

      Sandra- people like Soledad Obrien keeps it going for her self promotion. You notice that CNN will never do a special on White in America and give the world a peek behind closed doors there. They will never shine a light on why certain whites kill or rob or rape or carry on like that old guy in Alabama kidnapping that little boy. So hence you have these "Black in America" VOLUME TEN THOUSAND OR SO AND NOT ONE "WHITE IN AMERICA" special...

      February 6, 2013 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Lousinana CreoleKing

      Well put and eloquently stated! Soledad would disagree with you.LOL

      February 7, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. nataliepryor9218206

    The definition of "blackness". Some people in this program defined it as "an experience." If that were true, people of other races raised in black neighborhoods or households would be seen as black, and they aren't. Angela Davis said it was the culture you were raised in, "who loved you." If that we're the case, black children adopted by white parents would be seen as white, and they aren't. Some said it was skin color, but I would say if that we're the case dark-skinned East Indians would be decidedly Black, and they aren't. The one drop rule was broughht up a few times and some said it was still in effect. I say no. Blackness in this racialized society is more than skin color or tone, more than experience or culture, it's defined by a combination of racist stereotypes, and determinations about a person, based on Sterotypes–brown or dark skin, certain facial features, and hair texture. The young lady from North Africa, is African. She is as African as an East Indian is Asian. If the U.S. Census sees it differently, they should explain the difference between these two comparisons. I see the fundamental problem as being directly related to slavery in this country and creation of the terms " black" and "white", which are truly meaningless–the definition changes. Many early immigrants (Italians, Jews) were not initially defined as "white", for example. The history of racial terms/color used to justify subjugation and minimalization of a group of people is why this country continues to see things, predominantly, in black and white. References to the color (red, yellow) of anyone else is rarely used, in fact, everyone else is "brown" and mostly other people of color use this term. This country's racist history is why when the term "racism" is mentioned, Americans immediately think in terms of "black" and "white".

    February 2, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sunbeam

    What I can't stand is how stories such as this always talk about being dark skinned as some form of hatred, and never showing bi-racial individuals with dark skinned. I am tired of the potrayal of the stereotypes of those with darker complexions as having a burden. I love having mahoghony skin, and would never want to change that. I've been mostly discriminated against mostly by black people,m and have been accepted mostly by white people.

    February 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sally

      Yes, I agree with that. I am light skinned black, never seen myself as anything but black and it;s always dark-skinned black people who think I want to be white or make jokes about my color. I'm sure if I made a joke back about their color, there would be hell to pay.

      February 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dwan

    In my family I and my children along with other light skinned members are considered to be white. The majority of my family are tan to dark brown, but I and my children are the lightest of all. I was told that we're mixed with Irish, Native American and black. But we all are black. All of the light skinned members have dark spouses and the dark have light skinned spouses. My maternal grandmother is Irish and Native American, but she was considered black. I've had that experience where I was asked what are you? I have people coming up to me and speaking spanish as though I were hispanic or latino... I AM BLACK!

    January 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Sergio

    I love the show, but as a black Cuban I felt that we were not included in your show. Even though you mention that you are half Cuban. As a young man growing up in this country I felt discriminated also. By the white Cubans, and by the blacks even though many of us identify our self as Afro-Cuban, it were not enough for them. Because our heavy accent when we speak, our on culture, which different from theirs, but which have African roots. So as my children grow older,. How should they identify themselves?

    January 28, 2013 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Mike Armstrong

    This piece struck me as entirely un-American. How can we make progress towards a post-racial America when "progressives" are constantly reminding, entrenching, and reinforcing racial demarcation?

    I don't view people according to race, I appreciate them based on their competence and character. It's lost on me why this piece so focused on "black-ness" v. competence and character. MLK would roll over in his grave if he watched this piece.

    What is so disconcerting here is that "progressive" doctrine here continues to reinforce racial demarcation v. championing color blind individualism.

    January 28, 2013 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • BasilT

      The only people running this garbage is Soledad and her white bosses at CNN...they would NEVER do an in depth report about the going-ons behind the scenes in white America- simply because that would indict themselves so they keep regurgitating these anti-black hit jobs called BIA....

      July 12, 2013 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  14. Denise Ramos

    I seen god use the most unlikely people do increditable things. I seen him do it, that unliked person ms. O'brian is me. My story to some have touch many yet at the same time makes me appear to others unworthy of gods blessings. Faith,hope God. With me being multi cultured. I'm at times faced with the difference in our great country called America. I stand. Please reply ok thank you in advance i got a great story to share with you. Be blessed.

    January 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. nick

    CNN amazes me. i thought FOX was biased, this kind of reporting makes them look "factual." imagine if the right ran a show called "being white in America"...

    CNN has sluggish ratings, that need to survive must explain their nose dive in their journalistic standards.

    Boo whoo

    January 26, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
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