Fifty Shades of Black

Barack ObamaPresident Obama identifies as black. Of course, biologically speaking, he has as much genetic reason to identify as white; his mother was white and his father was black. But no one, including the President, would call him white. Why? Part of the multifaceted reason is the “one drop rule.” An old ante-bellum law, the rule goes, if 1/32 of your ancestry is black, you too are black.

Take a look at this extraordinary photo editorial from the Huffington Post, Striking Photos Challenge The Way We See Blackness. The article is based, in part, on a book written by Dr. Yaba Blay called (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. Based on the one-drop rule, Dr. Blay’s book examines how people who the “one drop” rule would call black, identify themselves. The book features the perspectives of 58 people who identify as black but who approach that identification from numerous different angles – one person looks Asian, another looks white, a third is thought to be Arabic. But one person’s story struck me in particular, Melanie Staton who identifies as African-American. She says:

“I don’t think ever in my life someone has looked at me like, ‘I think she’s a White girl.’ But I’m not sure people always look at me at as African American either. I guess it doesn’t dawn on people that the African American race can come in so many different shades.”

Dr. Blay breaks down “black” and shows us the many physical shades and ethnic identifies being “black” encompasses. And she’s just looking at the phenotype. She hasn’t even started in on the cultural, ethnic and religious differences that exist in the black race. In the excerpts linked above, there are people who identify as Muslim, Jamaican, Cape Verdean, Black and African American.

Why does this matter to lawyers? As Education Associate for the Commission on Professionalism, I review and approve professional responsibility CLE courses offered in Illinois, including those related to diversity. I have yet to review a presentation that recognizes the differences among blacks. Diversity presentations readily identify the differences between blacks and whites, but in the eyes of law firm diversity, blacks are a unilateral group of persons identified by a single characteristic – the color of their skin.

In her terrific diversity training manual, “Moving Diversity Forward,” diversity consultant Verna Myers warns her readers about making assumptions about blackness:

“Some difficult scenarios develop between black and white people when white people assume the black person grew up in an underserved community within a large city … West Indian blacks and U.S. blacks may have common ancestry but they have different histories and experiences, and thus attitudes towards race … the best thing to do is to be open to learning more about those differences, rather than assuming you know who the black person is.”

It’s understandable why law firms, and corporate America on a whole, cannot devote their finite diversity resources to breaking down the differences within racial groups. However, when we consolidate a vast number of people under a single header, we can fail to appreciate the varied perspectives their unique backgrounds provide. I’m one of those West Indian blacks that Verna Myers refers to in her book, and because of my Indian, Chinese, European and African ancestry, and my West Indian childhood, I have had a different “black” experience than many of my African-American colleagues.

As necessary as it is to continue doing diversity programming, it is equally necessary to realize that not all black attorneys share the same history, arise out of the same circumstances, or face the same diversity and inclusion challenges. No, we can’t go into detail on all the difficulties every individual black lawyer faces in a law firm. However, we should recognize in our diversity programming that there are many, many, many different shades subsumed under the color “black” just as there are under any skin color. We should endeavor therefore to move diversity programs from the lectern to the table, a table where every individual shares in the dialogue of inclusion. So let’s take Dr. Blay’s work one step further. In our diversity programs, let’s not simply label people and place them into pre-determined groups. Rather, let’s open up our own numerous group identities for discussion and together learn how lawyers of every color define themselves.

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