“I’m Actually Black”: Commentator’s Naïve Assumption Reveals How We Treat Race

by
Jessica Renae Buxbaum
Last night's awkward TV moment has us reevaluating how we categorize race.

On last night’s “All In with Chris Hayes” activist Nancy Giles accused hip hop critic Jay Smooth of being a white man acting black to which Smooth responded “I’m actually black” in one of the most awkward moments in television history.

The conversation began with Smooth and Giles offered their differing opinions on Starbucks’ new initiative to tackle racism by having baristas talk to customers about race, but quickly turned sour when Smooth's clip of How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist was shown.

Giles could not resist calling out Smooth for “co-opting blackness.”

“I can’t not tease Jay about the kinda like ‘brotha’ way he was trying to talk, like, ‘Hey,’ with the rap music in the background, and like down with the people,” Giles said.

“I’m a rap guy,” Smooth responded.

She continued, “Yeah, I know, but it’s another interesting, funny thing about race. Like, there would be some people that would feel that you co-opted something like that, and other people might feel like that’s his background and that’s really cool, too. These are conversations, you know, ‘Yo, like ya know, yeah, if somebody takes my wallet,’ I mean it’s really interesting.”

“It’s also interesting because I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise,” Smooth countered. “And this is the sort of awkwardness that we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”

Giles’ naïve assumption highlights American society’s broad misunderstanding of multiracial identities. While our culture is rapidly growing to reflect a multiethnic society, we still view race in a purely singular format. While many white people definitely appropriate black culture as a way to be seen as cool (read Iggy Azalea), we also have to remember our rigid idea of what it means to “look black” is changing. Smooth’s light complexion made him appear as not traditionally black so Giles assumed it was fair to comment on his racial identity. The lesson is you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

Giles, later, tried to redeem herself by tweeting she knew he was black, but was rather commenting on how he presented himself in a video versus national television.

Her statements further demonstrate the complicated factors associated with race in the U.S. Race is not merely determined by one’s skin color, but speech, dress and mannerisms as well — yet these elements inadvertently feed stereotypes as Giles’ comments overwhelmingly show. With the continued growth of multiracial identities, we have to remember that there is more than one way to look black.

Read more: Selma 50th Anniversary: How Far We've Come

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