CNN’s Soledad O’Brien dealt with issues surrounding identity and colorism – discrimination based on skin color – in a multi-part documentary “Who is Black in America?”
In the hour-long documentary, O'Brien followed two 17-year-old Philadelphians, Becca Khalil and Nayo Jones, on their journeys to find their racial identities.
She examined important and provocative questions, such as what does Black look like in the United States of America in 2012? Who defines Black?
Other questions included, Why is there an argument or disagreement at all about who counts as Black? Can someone choose to be Black? Isn't race assigned at birth, just like gender? If race is a choice for some people, why pick Black? Why not?
Khalil’s parents are Egyptian and she considers herself an African American.
“I don’t think anyone else gets to pick for me,” she said. In the film, Khalil shared how she wished she had darker skin.
The teenagers are best friends and share a common outlet in poetry. In a spoken word performance, the duo recited a poem that begins, “Girl, you are so pretty. What are you? The quintessential question for any tan-skinned girl with soft kinky curls and a frizz that doesn’t seem to quit because answering ‘human’ simply isn’t enough for them.
Unlike Khalil, Jones was raised by her white father, apart from her African-American mother. “Before this experience I considered myself biracial, but I identified with my white side more than my Black side,” she said. “I still consider myself biracial, but now I'm slowly moving toward identifying with my Black side.
“Even though it was difficult to open up and bare my soul publicly on some of the more painful parts of my past, this experience forced me to begin the healing process. I will forever be grateful that I was a part of the documentary, because it has made me so much stronger as a person. This was more than a documentary to me, it was a chance to change myself for the better, and I just hope that people see that.”
Prior to the national broadcast on Sunday, O’Brien joined Drexel University for an advance screening.
The screening, held at Drexel’s Mitchell Auditorium in the Bossone Research Center, was followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session.
Panelists included Yaba Blay, assistant teaching professor for Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University and consulting producer for CNN’s “Black in America”; Michaela Angela Davis, writer, image activist and creator of MAD Free; Perry ‘Vision’ DiVirgilio, artistic director for the Philly Youth Poetry Movement and executive director of Spoken Soul 215; Danyel Smith, former editor-in-chief of Billboard magazine; and Donald Tibbs, associate professor of law at Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University.
Students, educators and the West Philadelphia community filled the Mitchell Auditorium for the discussion. The 2010 US Census found 15 percent of new marriages are interracial, doubling since the 1980 Census. Similarly, one in seven American newborns was of mixed race in 2010.
Within this context, O’Brien examined how much defining race and identity is personal choice versus reflection of an external social construct.
“Soledad asked me questions that I had never considered, and she forced me to think,” Jones said. “As a biracial woman who identifies herself as Black and sometimes takes heat for it, O’Brien showed me that when you are comfortable in yourself and strong as a person, other people's opinions – whether positive or negative – can only influence you so much.”