Submission: Is There a Litmus Test for Being Black?

Campus culture eliminates intersectional narratives of Blackness

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By Simelia Rogers and Davon Thomas

llustration by Camille Cheng

No, there is not. So next time you try to quantify someone’s Blackness, you should take a step back and consider how you are contributing to the erasure of Black identity on this campus and in society.

A litmus test considers a single component as the deciding factor to categorize an object. In this case, an individual into an exclusive category, a single interpretation of Blackness.

We live in a world where how we look and identify provides a constant opportunity for other people’s judgment. Whether it be our sexuality, our gender identity or the color of our skin. As two Black students attending UC Santa Cruz, which has a Black population of less than 3 percent, we are perpetually subjected to comments like “you aren’t Black enough” or “stop acting white.” Despite campus efforts to “increase diversity and inclusion,” Black students are frequently subjected to race-based discrimination through social groups, teaching structures and curriculum that immortalizes the incorrect notion of a single version of  Blackness.

This vocalized and externalized judgment comes equally from white folks, non-Black POC, and Black people. It doesn’t matter if you’re an organizer, if you think your politics are radical or if you’re a person of color, you can still be complicit in erasure by ignoring, contributing to or furthering the notion of a single narrative of Blackness. Your identity and engagement with other marginalized identities do not exempt you from playing a role in the marginalization of Black people of all shades. 

This is a problem that exists within social groups, academic settings and even families. Attempting to quantify someone’s Blackness isolates Black students and invalidates their experiences on the basis of their identity and as individuals. It manifests in many ways. Black students who have white friend groups can be tokenized or shunned by their Black peers for not having enough Black friends or acting Black enough. This very behavior leads to isolation and invalidation of the  individual.

Identity cannot be contextualized or quantified based on society’s expectations of race. The media falsely oversimplifies and portrays race as performative, in which it characterizes people based on a prescribed notion of Blackness. Essentially, the ways in which individuals adhere or don’t adhere to individual stereotypes of Blackness — someone’s hair, speech, interests or skin color — are not the sole indications of their race, regardless of how the media portrays them.

We both grew up understanding the African Diaspora was diverse. Our understanding of the complexity of our history is not something we take for  granted. 

We recognize educational institutions fail to teach the necessary information to even begin to understand our elaborate history. The very history we have internalized, where we were raised, the languages we spoke, the religions we practiced and how we navigated the world have all been formed by our understanding of the diaspora. Yet, the ways we each express this understanding is individual and cannot be reduced to a single experience. This is why there is no litmus test for being Black. 

There will never be a single narrative for our community because it is so vast. When an individual tries to force a single narrative on us, they erase the intersectionalities within our community. We cannot tolerate or perpetuate toxic behavior that tells Black students they aren’t enough or that their Blackness isn’t enough to warrant them a voice on this campus.

Instead, consider the ways in which spaces can be more inclusive of the various Black identities that make up this campus. Ask about the experiences of individuals, not the experiences of “Black people.” Facilitate discourses surrounding the nuances of identity. Finally and most importantly, take an individual’s self-proclamation of their identity and ethnicity to be true, as it is their own.