"Black" is a shifting identity that depends on where you are and who's looking at you. But is this what we mean when we celebrate black history? Do we intend to say there are some aspects of a common history that are black for example, filled with pain and exclusion for some people or are we thinking that there is a group of people called blacks who have a history unique unto themselves? The first meaning of black and blackness is based on the colour of the skin. This is the most meaningless signifier, based only on the visual. Human beings are more than their skins. However, the history of slavery and social exclusion of those with black skin has made it the primary way of determining who is black.

Shades of Confusion

By Cecil Foster (February 1, 2007)

Think of some Somalians who resist being categorized as black in Canada. Or some of the "white" and light-skinned people from the Caribbean who only discovered they were black when they arrived here. And of course, many children with one black parent cannot understand why they're not as white as their white parent. In the Caribbean, most of them are seen as white; in Canada, they're black.

I am a proud black man. To express one of my identities this way may seem obvious to some, especially those who see my identity as shaped exclusively by the colour of my skin. My blackness is then viewed as essential to who and what I am.

But is this what we mean when we celebrate black history? Do we intend to say there are some aspects of a common history that are black for example, filled with pain and exclusion for some people or are we thinking that there is a group of people called blacks who have a history unique unto themselves?

Just as important, who, exactly, are these black people? This question is usually of paramount concern for those who have traditionally been called "mixed race," or what I think should now more appropriately be called "mixed ethnicity" those with only one supposedly black parent.

The reality for most of us is that "black" and "blackness" have multiple meanings. If a person or thing is not white, he, she or it has long been considered black. This is the case in much of our mythology, religiosity and ideologies that have over generations been able to define with some seeming certainty what is white, and then to relegate everything else to being non-white in effect one of the many shades of black.

It is this thinking that gave us the infamous one-drop rule, which holds that an infinitesimal amount of black is enough to change white from its purity.

The same has been true for what we call blackness, whether we view it as a specific lifestyle, a way of life and culture or even as a specific attitude. Here we might recall the attribution of blackness to peoples from different races, ethnicities and cultures whose actions and thoughts are steeped in "blackness" all those whose hearts are black. This blackness is the same as evil.

What is blackness, and who is black? I want to suggest that human beings have answered this question in four main ways, and each definition fits a specific category of people and attitudes in a specific time and place. For example, I might be considered black in one place and time, but in different circumstances I might not be viewed as black at all.

Think of some Somalians who resist being categorized as black in Canada. Or some of the "white" and light-skinned people from the Caribbean who only discovered they were black when they arrived here. And of course, many children with one black parent cannot understand why they're not as white as their white parent. In the Caribbean, most of them are seen as white; in Canada, they're black.

The first meaning of black and blackness is based on the colour of the skin. This is the most meaningless signifier, based only on the visual. Human beings are more than their skins. However, the history of slavery and social exclusion of those with black skin has made it the primary way of determining who is black.

A second meaning stems from the notion of history: cultural blackness, the idea we still use when we talk about such things as "development" or "underdevelopment." Cultural blacks are all those who live in a culture viewed as inferior to those of First World countries. If your skin is white but you're an immigrant from a Third World country, you are positioned in Canada as culturally black.

On a recent trip to Ireland, I noticed a discussion in newspapers about the country being overrun by black refugees mainly from Eastern Europe, particularly Romania and Bulgaria.

A third category is what I call status blackness. This is based on the differential between those who are deemed elites, with rights, privileges and social standing in society, and those without. In this respect, whites are those at the top and blacks are at the bottom. Again, this definition has little to do with skin colour; some people with white skins might be so positioned that they're treated like blacks. We need only think of the suggestion by some Quebec separatists that being Quebecois makes them the "niggers" of Canada.

The fourth meaning comes from our various religions. In Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to be sanctified and holy is to be white. To be sinful or ungodly is to be black.

When black-skinned Christians sing hymns asking their God to make them whiter than snow, they're not appealing for a miraculous change of skin colour, but of their attitudes, status and the way they're seen in their religion. To be black is to be human, not as white and immortal as God; blackness is the colour and culture of humanity.

It is important that we have this kind of discussion, for among other things it will help us have a clearer idea of why black history is important not only to those blacks whose skins are black, but also to all those black people by any other definition.

Finally, these definitions are important to us in a multicultural country. Statistics Canada and just about every other government institution tells us that Canada has a group of people who can be defined ethnically as black. But who is eligible for membership in this ethnicity, and is it restricted only to those with black skins?

If the answer is yes, then we might well wonder if this categorization is not still racial, as opposed to ethnic. If it is racial, then it goes back to a time when it was widely accepted that people with black skins or coming from "black" countries were inferior.

But this is supposedly no longer true, because if we are truly a multicultural country, then Canada is made up of different and diverse ethnicities and even nations but of only one race, within which all are equal.

Cecil Foster is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph, and the author of Blackness And Modernity:The Colour Of Humanity and The Quest for Freedom.

Originally appeared in Now Magazine.