What is Blackness?

To be presented at the CAAR (Collegium for African American Research) 2017 Conference in Malaga, Spain (Jun 13-16) in the panel, “Voices of Black America in the Diaspora: Comics, Cookbooks, & Film.”

The experience of being Black is more than just that of racial identification, it is a culture, a community, and an identity that varies between individuals. Although it is commonly used as an umbrella term for individuals of African descent, it can have different meanings in different countries and at different times. Blackness is simultaneously category, a group, and an identity. It is defined by having certain Afrocentric features (e.g., dark skin, curly hair, wide features). It is also defined by being a part of a group that is defined by these features, along with a common history and experience; however, one need not necessarily exhibit these features or report these experiences to be a part of the group. Finally, it is also defined by the extent to which any of these things matter to an individual; scholars have investigated this identity construct has been investigated by many scholars (e.g., nigrescence model, Cross, 1978; Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity, MIBI, Sellers, et al., 1998), but these measures do not define Blackness, but rather measure participants’ agreement with the certain dimensions of Blackness, which are often couched in American Blackness.

The ever-evolving African diaspora and generational changes demand a new investigation into our understanding of Blackness and the diversity of Blackness. Instead of couching questions and research in preexisting concepts of Blackness, the current research is an exploratory investigation into definitions of “Blackness” through open-ended interviews. American participants (N = 35) were asked to define Blackness in general, their personal Blackness (i.e., “my Blackness”), the future of Blackness, and the role of media in establishing and promoting Blackness moving forward; responses were coded for themes and analyzed for differences by age and gender.

Although participants provided a varied definition of Blackness, a clear theme emerged that Blackness involved an awareness of one’s history, a shared experience, and a comfort in one’s current skin with an idealized hope for the future. Furthermore, Blackness was defined as creative, resourceful, beautiful, ingenious, and diverse. Generational differences also began to emerge in participants’ contextualization of Blackness; many Baby Boomers were quick to dismiss the younger generation’s understanding of blackness, claiming that their Blackness was “no longer important.” However, several Millennials described their Blackness as dynamic and intersectional; for them, identities were no longer hierarchal (e.g., “Black or”), but integrated (e.g., “Black and”). Furthermore, this intersectional understanding of Blackness was aided by the proliferation of digital and social media; in the current environment, individuals no longer needed to rely on mainstream examples and models of Blackness (e.g., television, film, music); instead they could seek out models that represented their unique Blackness and carve new spaces for new definitions of Blackness (e.g., Afropunk, Queer Blackness, Black Twitter). The current research begins to address the evolving definition of Blackness and Black identity in an increasingly intersectional, globalized, and interconnected community. By understanding new concepts of Blackness, researchers, scholars, and media professionals can develop more nuanced understanding of identity and global culture.

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Summer 2016: Cuba, Japan, China

Check out my trips to Cuba, Japan, and China this summer. 2016 may have sucked but my travel this year was AWESOME.

Photo Book via Shutterfly


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Is Color-Blindness Possible? Racial & Experiential Effects on the Neural Substrates for Motor Empathy (PSYC 555; Fall 2008)

I received some tragic news this morning. Bosco Tjan, one of my former USC Psychology Professors, was killed by a student in the Psychology building on campus yesterday afternoon. I am stunned, shocked, and missing my Trojan family.


As an academic, I find solace in reviewing my work for his fMRI class in 2008. Our final project, titled: “Is Color-Blindness Possible? Racial & Experiential Effects on the Neural Substrates for Motor Empathy” was presented exactly 8 years ago today, and is even more relevant in 2016. In short, we found that actions performed by a race congruent actor are interpreted as communication, whereas actions performed by a race incongruent actor involve more sensory motor processing. You can check out our entire presentation below…

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My Bob Dylan Experience #TBT

In 2005, I was working at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. As I was walking down the hall, late for work, this man was walking towards me. He was about 20 feet away. He was scruffy, wearing an oversized coat and a dingy wool cap pulled down over his face. He looked destitute has he shuffled along down the hallway. I was convinced he was homeless.

He leered at me as we walked towards each other. I became increasingly uncomfortable. He looked me up and down and I just tried to maintain my composure. I decided to call security as soon as I got to the office. When we were about arms length apart, I realized…

“Oh my god. That’s Bob Dylan.”

I froze as we passed each other. I spun around and stared at him as he walked away. He never looked back. He was done looking at me.

I got to work and told the other people in the office, “I just saw Bob Dylan!” Turns out that his 2YO and 4YO were having a check up. Had I been on time, I could have met him. But then I probably wouldn’t have been blatantly objectified by Bob Dylan.

tl;dr: I got the up-down from a Nobel Prize winner.

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I hope your lack of understanding of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.

A buddy of mine shared this article with me.

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad (The Guardian, Sept 13 2016)

Here is a brief sampling of the article:

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life…

I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous….

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived…

We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.

While I think that her perspective is a valuable one, and one that many (privileged) people are experiencing, the lack of understanding of the problems of “appropriation” as compared to “cultural sampling” or “cultural mixing” is the crux of her apparent frustration and anger.

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That Time a Trans Woman Saved My Life

Last week, I chatted with a former student. The last time I saw this student in the spring, she had long curls. This time, they were cut short. I said, “You cut your hair!” She and I talked about curly hair care and the complexity of finding a trusted hairdresser. I shared a story with her about the first hairdresser I ever trusted.

When I was in ninth grade, I would get my hair cut at the Galleria in White Plains, New York. I would go to the same salon on the third floor and never really thought twice about whose chair I sat in. Then one day, they told me that it was an hour-long wait, so I decided to go to the other salon on the second floor. When I sat down, the woman asked me, “Is your hair curly when it’s wet?” I didn’t really understand the question in that my hair was less curly when it was wet, and I assumed that this was “straight.” So I told her yes. She washed my hair and cut it.

After she was done, she informed me that my hair was curly when it was wet and, as it began to dry, the curls tightened and her cut became haphazard and clunky. It was horrific. I still said “Thank you,” and paid in respectful manner, then immediately ran back up to the third floor salon in tears. I was placed in the hands of Beverly, a drag queen,* and she fixed my hair. I don’t know what she did, but she fixed it. From that point on, I always went back to Beverly, even after I went to college in Boston, because I didn’t trust anyone else with my curls.

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