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."

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. AfroRomance Dating

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    April 8, 2013 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. Lisa

    I dont understant why there was so much pressure for the biracial young woman to label herself as black only . She stated many times she didnt feel or identify with it and yet under intense pressure by the end of the show she was stating she was black . I think that mixed race americans should be encouraged to embrace both sides of themselves and not have to choose one or the other.

    December 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanCherokeeFirst

      Black racism

      December 13, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Carmen

      The word 'racial' or 'byracial' is WRONG in its premise!!!! Ethnicity is the appropriate and correct term, if we ought to distinguish ourselves from animals!

      January 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. kevobx

    No man knows the day or the hour? Why did the Apostles sleep an hour on Christ watch, before his crucifixion. Christ told them to go back to sleep. *1st Thessalonians 4:13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. (Jer 18:12) *Isaiah 48:22 There is no peace, saith the Lord unto the wicked.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanCherokeeFirst

      Don't worry over useless things such as spiritual pedigree...God told you race is not a factor in Romans. Christ grafted ALL into the tree of life whom believe. kevobx the Barbary pirates kidnapped over 1250000 innocent Irish men women and children and sold them into slavery all throughout the 1600s and 1700s and they picked sugar cane for black slave owners in the us virgin islands. no white guilt here buddy. Just an educated red headed cherokee. you want a name so you can research black slave owners in the us..start with Richard hollows Sr. whites and reds know who he was...its time blacks learned.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:55 am | Report abuse |
      • AmericanCherokeeFirst

        Richard hallway Sr

        December 13, 2012 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
      • AmericanCherokeeFirst

        Richard Halloway Sr. black slave owner. owned whites and reds. Charleston sc 1865 us census

        December 13, 2012 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. kevobx

    Christ is the vine, reading out loud (Isaiah 5:5). Satan is divine, reading out loud (Ezekiel 12:24). *Malachi 2:12 The Lord will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the Lord of hosts. *Matthew 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. kevobx

    Proverbs 21:4 An highlook, and a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked, is sin. *Psalm 9:17 The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.

    December 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. kevobx

    Where are all the black men in America? Why divide us from our women. The serpent is so subtle, a cunning hunter of the world. The word Caribbean is not a dictionary word! What about the black Caribbean people all over America? *Isaiah 37:11 Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the lands by destroying them utterly; and shalt thou be delivered? *Luke 2:2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

    December 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Veronica Bohannon

    I found it very interesting in watching this show, that Becca considers herself, black/African American because of her North African/Egyptian ethnicity. yet checks/circles "White" on applications out of fear that she may not be considered for a job or otherwise. According to the American government whites are people "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." So technically, Becca is white. While she wants so desperately to be viewed as a black woman, she labels herself White for the convenience? Where is the "Black Pride" in that? If Becca truly wants to be black, she should want all that comes with it.

    December 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • doback

      You can be proud to be black but that doesn't mean you need to force yourself to stoop down to societal and bureaucratic categorizations that are both arbitrary and offensive.

      December 11, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bobbie

    i wanted to send a comment to nayo. although my parents are both black and i have dark skin, i was raise in a white enviornment. like nayo i had all white friends growing up. went to a catholic high school where my graduating class had 20 blacks and i didn"t know any of them because i wasn"t cool enough to be associated. i listened to and enjoyed "white" music. (i didn"t even know there was any other kind) then i went to Bennett college. a small all girls black college in greensboro, north carolina. it was a bit of a culture shock at first. black women are so different. but i learned alot from these women about who i was, which helped shape me into who i am.
    now so many years later i feel comfortable with both white and black people because i was so drastically exposed to both. some how i related to nayo. even though when you see me i am obviously black, inside me i am a person first,then female, then black...even if to society i am black first, then female, then a person.
    excellent program.! it was informative and interesting. i feel like it should be shown in schools

    December 10, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. perrie

    i have lived in the south, and the west, and there is no difference,racasimis stillalive.

    December 10, 2012 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
    • dhondi

      and always will be....

      December 10, 2012 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
      • AmericanCherokeeFirst

        As long as people believe in a lie like race...there will be racism. humans have breeds not races, just like canines.

        December 13, 2012 at 7:08 am | Report abuse |
      • bernice14

        ...so then we'll just have "breedism"?

        December 13, 2012 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
      • AmericanCherokeeFirst

        At least breeding actually applies to what we are discussing. lol. race is a contest to a finish line...and nothing more.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. fernace

    Look, this is not a phenomenon limited to the American experience! I'm a Scandinavian immigrant, from Swedish/Norwegian decent! Scratch the surface a bit & you'll find I'm also Roma Zigenare aka Gypsy! My branch is called Tartar & my ancestors travelled from Romania to Norway! During the Nazi occupation of Norway, my Mom & her Grandparents had to hide out, since Nazis killed Gypsies or any Non-aryan (Aryan-a mythical, invented "race", promoted by Hitler) ! The bottom line is to stop the prejudice, bigotry & hatred of any1 not like ourselves! We all do it & it's wrong every time!!

    December 10, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jeff

    What the heck is an 'image activist' and how much does that pay?

    December 10, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. Jeff

    Americans shouldn't be fearful of more 'color'. They should be fearful of more leftism. It just so happens that many black folks are 'left of center' (over 90 percent of black voters voted for OBama) thus they tend to be more simpathetic to leftism and THAT is the real issue because leftism has done more harm to non-caucasians around the world than any other political philosophy.

    December 10, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  13. kevobx

    Ask all the parents, what is the difference between black Friday and a white sale? Hatred is the red anger in them, ask the coloreds. The red dragon, himself is Satan. The Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit are not the same thing. Who are you? God the Father is the I and Joseph took the body of Christ (John 19:38)

    December 9, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. kevobx

    When did a black man found out that he was colored, who told him that? Mankind is on the moon, in the stars watching the sun, and they shall be confounded. What did Christ tell us about the proud, God resists them? Is that a lie. There are twelve hours in a day, and twelve at night. The world took an hour from us for winter time, but pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. kevobx

    Why is it, that no man knows what part of Africa, did the black man come out of? God forbid if they say from out of Egypt! How can a hispanic discuss Black America, when they wont even call themselves Puerto Ricans in the media? Where are all the Caribbean people at? No man wants their vote, why? Dna bloodlines, is against the law to discuss. Love truth, hate opionions.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanCherokeeFirst

      Sir you are not as smart as you think. Hispanics are people from Hispania which is now called Spain. its located in Europe. Neither am i...Im not claiming to be...but i know what Hispanic means. being that in half kituwah cherokee and half Irish i am now labeled as ethnically Hispanic. never been to Spain and i am not culturly connected to Spain in any way.

      December 13, 2012 at 7:18 am | Report abuse |
  16. Laura (Interracial Family Organization)

    Things are changing. I have 7 biracial (blk/wht) children 17-28 years old. They are the generation who is refusing to choose a race. They are proud of everything they are, and their peers accept them, many of them being racially mixed themselves. Yes, society wants label them as one or them as one or the other. It makes people more comfortable to have a specific race to use in making a quick judgement on how someone should act/speak/live. My children do not wait for society to tell them who they are. In no way are we in a post racial society. But it is changing.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  17. kevobx

    Black in America is a secret covet mission to make oneself proud of their culture! Remember the commandment, thou shall not covet? Find your heritage, the Most High is watching, are you watchmen? Grace & truth

    December 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanCherokeeFirst

      If this is what you need to be proud...don't try pride...instead Mr black Hebrew read Romans. there's a scripture written just for you.

      December 13, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
  18. salathieljones

    Reblogged this on The World Outside of Yourself.

    December 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  19. itsjarleeene

    Like Hamsta said. More fuel for race baiters. When everyone, blacks and whites and Asians and Russians and latinod and Germans (should I go on?), gets over needing to identify themselves as something other than American is when race will have a clear path to become obsolete. As long as CNN keeps posting these sorts of articles and people keeping trying to separate themselves, the status quo will remain the same –if not worsen.

    December 9, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • leslie song

      And will it be fine with you if American is identified as dark skinned, Spanish speaking person with visible Native heritage? Because if not, don't talk 'Just be American' because when you say it, you are saying it from a European Center, and guess what, everybody is not that, and everybody does not aspire to that, and there are lots of other heritages in America besides that – and people have no desire to dump their history in the trash. This does not mean they are not American. It means they have a heritage that they got from their ancestors and they intend to honor it. Maybe you should look into yours instead of telling others who to be! There are lots of ways to be American, not just one way.

      December 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kathy

        Right on!

        December 9, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
      • Golden

        Let the church say Amen

        December 10, 2012 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
      • AmericanCherokeeFirst

        Spanish speaking!!! Spanish is a WHITE euro language.....natives speak one of 23 different dialects of tsalagi! /slap

        December 13, 2012 at 7:30 am | Report abuse |
  20. The Phog

    The bottom line is that if you aren't white then you are labeled as "something else" and will be identified as such, no matter how you define yourself. To be more blunt, if you have any brown on your skin, you are looked at less favorably. I saw a doc on Hank Greenburg, a Jewish Hall of Fame baseball player in the 1930's, which talked about his struggles in the majors. Yet he still walked through the front doors of a restaurant, while Jackie Robinson was not allowed to even ENTER the place.

    Also it's funny how some are labeled immigrants and some are labeled illegal aliens...what is the difference? The perception of how low your particular group is perceived in America.

    December 9, 2012 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • sanlui

      This is the difference:Immigrants,were "legal aliens" who came here "legally" having gone through an immigration process,those who didn't are the "illegal aliens" or if you prefer "illegal immigrants".Not too difficult to understand,but I don't see the nexus here!

      December 9, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  21. rbailey806@aol.com

    Because of slavery and the fact that African/Blacks had no say so in whom they procreated with I would think that with some serious unbiased research it would be determined the majority of Blacks/white in America are of mix race. Race is a small part of the equation, most people identify their race according to their Human experiences in these United Stated of America.

    December 9, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  22. hal

    Move on...

    December 9, 2012 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  23. bernice14

    A comment about the teacher I saw in a promo this morning: Her version of the "blue eyes" experiement of th 50's-60's has a major flaw that can make this exercise damaging to her students, especially the darker-skinned students: She should have made the LIGHTER skinned students the ones badly treated. This gives the lighter-skinned students (usually the better treated AND those who treat darker-skinned students poorly) more empathy because they themselves experience in the stings of discrimination.

    December 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  24. 200 TON HAMMER

    Nayo no matter what you are a priceless mixed black AND white young lady.

    December 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Hamsta

    Just more gravy for the race baiters.

    December 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • bernice14

      Unfortunately, racists don't need ANY help figuring our new ways to discriminate.

      December 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |