Black Is, Black Ain’t: Biracials, Middle-Class Blacks, and the Meaning of “The Black Community”

Black Is, Black Ain’t: Biracials, Middle-Class Blacks, and the Meaning of “The Black Community”

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting
Hilton San Francisco
San Francisco, California
46 pages

Cherise A. Harris, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Connecticut College

Nikki Khanna Sherwin, Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Vermont

Various scholars have claimed that forging a sense of group cohesion amongst Black Americans is a necessary step toward Black liberation. Our research questions the extent to which group cohesion is possible given the increasing diversity of Black America, particularly its socioeconomic and cultural diversity. In in-depth interviews with 33 middle-class Blacks and 40 Black-White biracials, we explore the variation in the Black experience and the challenges this presents for group cohesion. Specifically, we examine: 1) the similarities and differences in the experiences of both groups, 2) their experiences with rejection and marginality by other Blacks, 3) how they negotiate this rejection, and 4) the extent to which all of the above are shaped by culturally constructed ideas of Blackness. As is consistent with other studies, we find that ideas about “authentic” Blackness have lead to a splintering of the Black community along class and racial-cultural lines. However, we also find evidence of greater tolerance for the community’s racial diversity than its class diversity. Nevertheless, the data presented here suggest that the increasing heterogeneity of Black America poses significant challenges to group cohesion and thus the ability to mobilize for the sake of racial advancement.

…For Black-White biracials and middle-class Blacks, living between the prescribed cultural and class lines of Black America yield life experiences that differ significantly from what is considered the norm. As a result of their class status, Black middle-class Americans must often negotiate life in both Black and White spaces and frequently experience both spatial and philosophical differences from their Black working- and lower-class counterparts. Similarly, Black-White biracials must negotiate both of their racial heritages and manage their identities in both public and private ways. The experiences of these individuals indicate that living between the lines of socially constructed notions of Blackness carries a number of social and psychological implications. These realities raise questions about the degree to which both groups feel attached to other Blacks as well as the degree to which other Blacks feel attached to them, and thus the degree to which they perceive themselves and other Blacks as part of the fictive Black family, as Stubblefield proposes…

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