Convenient or Correct? Why Defining Race As Color Is A Problem

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

I’m always glad to see responses from readers. A recent response to my post on Why Kamala Harris Could Be Native American pertains to my claim that the term “black” is not a racial term but a description of skin tone. The reader responded by saying that “black” and “white” are convenient terms to describe race, since we don’t refer to Caucasians as “European-American.” And since we don’t refer to Caucasians as “European-American,” why refer to “blacks” as “African-American”? It’s just a more simplistic and preferable method to just refer to “black” and “white.”

Yes, it is more convenient, but is it accurate? I ask this question because in formal race studies and research, there is a set terminology used that doesn’t care about convenience. If you’re a scientist, you can’t refer to a “petri dish” as a “container.” You can’t refer to “H2O” (what we know as water) as “water” in scientific research. I’ve worked in the mobile tech industry for 10 years now. In that time, I’ve come to understand that there are two different kinds of storage in a device: onboard storage (that is, storage available on the device without an SD card) and expandable storage (storage that can be added to a device by way of an SD card slot).

You can’t just put the device storage and the expandable storage together when discussing smartphones because it sends the wrong message that the device has 128GB of storage, for example, when, in fact, you have 64GB of storage but can add an SD card (with an additional 64GB) to it. That SD card, however, costs extra, which means that the price of the overall purchase jumps thanks to storage you must add to the device. That SD card storage can also be corrupted easily, which means that all the photos and screenshots you add to the SD card may not be retrievable in the end, anyway.

Each industry or profession in life has specific terms one must use when representing that profession. Sure, we all have common vernacular we use in everyday discussion, but the convenient language becomes problematic when referring to others who may not fit the description. I’ll get into what this means below.

“Black” and “white”: The problem with race as color

race as nationality

This may prove a shock to some, but race is about nationality and ethnicity, not skin tone. Ethnicity comes from the Greek term “ethnos,” which refers to nation or country. The term doesn’t refer to skin tone at all. Race includes skin tone, however, but it isn’t exclusive to skin tone; it involves ancestry, the land(s) of your ancestors. You can have dark skin and be born in England, but if your ancestors come from Africa and Asia, then your ancestry is African and Asian. You may be referred to as “black” in conversation, but in formal discussion, you will be referred to as African-American, Asian-American, or both (biracial is the formal word).

Therefore, when discussing race, one must remember it is a combination of skin tone and ancestry, and these two concepts are similar though not synonymous (they don’t mean the same). So, a dark-skinned person will have African ancestry, though not all Africans are dark-skinned. Some are brown-skinned as is the case with Kamala Harris. Both her parents are brown-skinned, not dark-skinned (what many think of when referring to African-Americans), which influenced her skin tone.

“Black”: A problematic label for African-American Biracials

The idea that race includes skin tone and ancestry, and that these two terms are similar though not the same, brings me to another point: using “black” in conversation to refer to African-Americans as a whole is problematic because of biracials. I am a biracial whose mother was African-American but whose father is Caucasian. I bear my father’s skin tone. I have his eyes, which are green. Green eyes (my green eyes sometimes change color and appear hazel) are a rare eye color, even for Caucasians. Most Caucasians are overwhelmingly blue-eyed. My green eyes, which I share with my father, come from my dad’s dad, my grandfather, who was Caucasian.

I’ve done half a dozen DNA tests now, and 23andme’s in particular shows me as deriving my skin tone from both mom and dad. Both mom and dad passed a European skin tone variant to me. Mom, who was dark-skinned, gave me a European skin tone, alongside my Caucasian father. This means that mom’s family had some measure of Caucasian (which I knew all my life, though I didn’t know what it meant when I was younger). Additionally, 23andme says that I share skin tone with 99% of all Europeans and 97% of all Middle Easterners that have done a DNA test with them. So out of all their DNA customers, I share skin tone with nearly all Middle Easterners and Caucasians.

How then, do I characterize myself? How do I label myself? Would “Black” work for me as a racial designation? If my skin is white but my mother was black, how do I define myself? “Black” as a term isn’t going to work for someone whose skin tone (like mine) is white. So for those individuals, “African-American” is a better term because it takes into account their mixed, biracial or multiracial nature. I am a mix of African-American, Caucasian/European, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian-American/Native American roots, so I am a true multiracial. I discuss biracial here because it is a more common term these days than multiracial may be for many.

It is said that half of all DNA test takers identify themselves as African-American, even those who, like me, bear white skin. So for these individuals, “African-American” as a term is more befitting of their complex racial makeup than the term “black.” The reason? Even Caucasians born in South Africa are “African,” though their skin tone is Caucasian. And this concept works for quite a few Caucasian-skinned brothers and sisters who are biracial with a dark-skinned or brown-skinned parent.

race is complex: summing it all up

I realize the common tendency we all have to break everything down into its simplest, most basic form. We want to have categories that are nice and neat, and to do that, we tend to simplify everything. It makes life easier, to be sure, but sometimes the easiest answer is not always the best explanation.

Sure, a number of African-Americans don’t have my situation. They aren’t biracial, with white skin and an African-American mother and Caucasian father. They don’t have parents who are not only African and Caucasian but also have Native American roots. They don’t have the complex racial makeup that I (and many others) do, so they don’t mind being called “black” or “white.” But for those of us who do have this situation, calling us “black” when we’re both black and white, or calling us “white” when we’re both white and black, is a problem.

I realize that a number of African-Americans who have 15-20% European ancestry (from slavery times) don’t want to identify with their Caucasian cousins, for example, due to slavery and the sexual exploitation of slaves. I understand it, and I truly do sympathize with them. But my story is different: though I do have grandfathers on mom’s side that were conceived out of slavery and sexual exploitation, my Caucasian father and African mother chose to be together. They chose to marry, and they chose to have children. So I was born in the bonds of marriage and in the bond of love. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am not ashamed to claim both my African-American and my Caucasian/European ancestries. I am proud of them both. I am proud to be both.

And I want to have both reflected in how I label myself. I’m sure that other biracials (even those who aren’t necessarily an African/European mix) feel the same and have a similar situation by which they were conceived. “Black” and “white” are basic terms, easy ways to talk about race.

Anyone who is aware of the complex nature of race, however, knows that talking about race isn’t always that simple.