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December 8th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

For young Americans, what's black is gray

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 Sunday, December 15.

By Michelle Rozsa and Soledad O'Brien, CNN

(CNN) - Seventeen-year-old Nayo Jones has chestnut colored skin and wears her curly hair in a small Afro, but she doesn't "feel black".

“I was raised up with white people, white music, white food, so it’s not something I know,” says Jones.

She sits in a circle talking about black culture and what makes someone black in 2012, surrounded by a group of diverse teens and twenty-somethings. They grew up with a biracial president who identifies as black.  They will not have to fill out a census that demands they check just one racial box. And they are part of a generation that has a growing number of mixed-race relationships and people.

In 2010, 15 % of new marriages were between people of different races or ethnicities, double the number from 1980. Also, the number of people who self-identify as mixed race is growing.

Census: More people identify as mixed race

For Jones, who has a black mom, but was raised by her white dad, black requires a certain type of experience. She rejects identifying as black because, “It's kind of my lack of the black experience, or what other people would say is my lack of a black experience.”

Many of the 50 or so young adults in the room view race differently from their parents, and from one another. For them, race is fluid, and they get to decide their identity.

“My grandmother's goal, her generation's goal was life, stay alive, live and get out of the South,” says Michaela Angela Davis, an image activist who speaks and writes about race and image. “My mother's generation … was about liberties.  It was about the right to vote. And this generation must pursue happiness. This pursuit of happiness part means that you get to say who you are.

"That’s the ultimate freedom that you no longer have to negotiate what other people say you should be.”

Youssef Kromah, 22, defines himself as “African-African.” He has deep chocolate-colored skin with tight black curls he allows to grow onto his cheeks in thick sideburns. His parents were born in West Africa, but he was born in Philadelphia and has lived there his entire life.

“People would say, you know, ‘You're not black …  you're African,’" says Kromah, a junior at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “You're not like us, you can't adapt to our culture, you didn't go through our struggles, our experiences.”

“I'm, like, I live right on the same block as you.”

He writes poetry about the black male experience growing up in Philadelphia.

Perry DiVirgilio is Kromah's mentor in the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement. DiVirgilio, 34, identifies as a ‘"biracial black man." He is the artistic director of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and created a four-week workshop on identity for young poets because he struggled defining himself as a teenager.

“I was just kind of floating out there trying to figure things out on my own,” says DiVirgilio. “What is black? Is black just skin? Is black cultural? Is black our experiences? Is black struggle?”

Safiya Washington,18, another poet in DiVirgilio’s workshop, believes to some degree, black is color.  She thinks some, like her fellow poet Becca Khalil, are too light to be black. “I think while we would all love to get to choose how we are and how people see us," she says. “What people see you as speaks stronger than what you personally identify because you don't always get that chance to explain how you identify.”

Khalil’s skin is light brown, and she says while she is often mistaken for Mexican or Indian, she is Egyptian. Nobody, she says, guesses that she is black.

"I’m proud to say that I’m an African-American. I’m from Africa,” Khalil, 17, states emphatically. “I've always thought that being black and being African-American was synonymous.  So if I'm African-American, I must be black.”

Her parents don't see themselves as African-American, but do insist they are African.

“Reality shifts,” says Davis, the image activist.  “Sometimes it's a generation or a minority of people that say, ‘That's your reality that I'm black.’  And my reality is who I say that I am.”

“The important thing to do is to, of course, define yourself however you wish,” says anti-racism author and expert Tim Wise, who is white. “It's also important for people to always keep in mind how the larger society is likely to see one.  Because if I think, for instance, that I'm mixed and I don't call myself black, but the police officer who pulls me over because he thinks I'm in the wrong neighborhood decides I'm black, what my self-definition may or may not be is not going to be the thing that in that moment matters.”

Khalil’s reality is that she is black. “I wanna say 20 years from now I'll be like ‘I'm black.’  And people will ... be like ‘that's what's up!’"

Khalil's best friend, Nayo Jones, thinks how she see sees herself now might change in the future. "So maybe one day I'll wake up and I'll be like, ‘I'm a strong, independent black woman.’  Or maybe I'll just be, like, ‘Well, I'm biracial," she says. “When it comes down to it, it is what I say about myself that is the most important."

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