If a fundamental question of philosophy is “What is being as being?” then perhaps an equally fundamental question (at least for black people) is “What is being black as being black?”
From a so-called “black” perspective, to be is to be black. Being is inseparable from being black. Insofar as one sees oneself as black, one cannot see oneself simply as “being” in some way without also “being black.” But to be black is “to be,” as well as “to be black.” Being black may therefore be ontologically as well as existentially investigated. It may be examined purely from the standpoint of being, as well as from the standpoint of a particular way of being.
The investigation of black being/being black may also be metaphysical or empirical, phenomenological or psychological.
Black being is a mode of being of black people, but not their only mode of being.
There may be more than one kind of black being, just as there may be more than one way of being black.
Black being as manifestation or representation is being black. There may be a plurality of representations, and each may have its own degree of subjective or objective validity, as well as personal or social validity. Some representations may be more valid than others, as determined by their fulfillment of such criteria as truthfulness, consistency, coherence, and intelligibility.
In the being of black being/being black, there is external appearance as well as internal reality. The external appearance (of skin color and other racially ascribed characteristics) may be separable from the internal reality (the cognitive faculties, moral character traits, and other personality traits that have nothing to do with an individual’s supposed racial identity). On the other hand, the external reality (of being seen by others as black) may become an internal reality (of seeing oneself as black). The internal reality may be not only personal and psychological, but also moral and existential.
There is no definable essence of black being/being black. Black being/being black is too diverse to be essentialized. There are no essential qualities or criteria that a person must have or fulfill in order to be described as black. Exceptions may be found to any qualities or criteria that might be proposed as essential to the being of black being/being black.
To be black is to be a human being among other human beings (black, white, brown, and other colors) within a broader society. It is also to share with those human beings a common humanity that transcends all racial and ethnic categories. It is also in some way to share with them a common language, and a common social, cultural, or world history.
Interestingly, Frantz Fanon (1952) rejects ontology as a means of understanding the being of black people, on the grounds that in a colonial or post-colonial society the being of black people is judged by white society as not a being through self, but a being through others (a being that only comes into play through white society). The being of black people is viewed by white society as a subordinate and dependent kind of being. Fanon explains that in order for black people to understand their social situation, they must have a “third person consciousness” and be able to see themselves as they are seen by white society. A “first-person consciousness” is insufficient. Black people must be able to see themselves in such a way that they are able to overcome their being seen as mere objects or black bodies by a white society that attempts to deprive them of their personhood.1
What then is the meaning of being black? This is a key philosophical question that may be approached in a variety of ways. One way of approaching it may be to make the following observations:
Being black means having a social identity determined not only by race or ethnicity, but also by such factors as age, gender, family background, social class background, educational background, employment background, religion, and nationality.
Being black means feeling a sense of kinship, of common ancestry, and of shared history with other black people.
Being black means being able to recognize and appreciate the cultural contributions of black people to the modern world.
Being black means being able to take pride in one's own blackness, and in one's own being black.
Being black means recognizing the capacity of black people to resist servitude and to triumph over oppression.
Being black means being told by white people, at some point in one’s life, that one is inferior to them or is less than they are, simply because one is black.
Being black means being more likely to be viewed by white people as unreliable, untrustworthy, suspect, threatening, violent, or criminal.
Being black means being more likely to be a victim of discrimination with regard to housing, employment, education, health care, and public accommodations.
Being black means “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and “walking while black,” that is to say, being viewed with mistrust and suspicion while performing routine daily activities, and being subjected to racial harassment or intimidation.
Being black means being more likely to be unemployed, undereducated, living in poverty, or incarcerated.
It means being more likely to be denied service by a taxi driver, sales clerk, retail store, restaurant, entertainment venue, public lodging establishment, recreational facility, or financial institution.
It means being more likely to be a victim of racial slurs or hate speech.
It means being more likely to be stopped by police for a minor traffic violation.
It means being more likely to be suspected of stealing, shoplifting, burglary, assault, or other crimes.
It means being more likely to be imprisoned and to be sentenced to a longer sentence than a white defendant accused of the same crime.
It means, in some cases, being denied basic human rights (such as the right to equal protection under the law, the right to protection against discrimination, the right to personal security, and the right to participate in government).
Steve Biko (1971) explains, “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation—being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”1 It is thus a matter of self-definition or self-conception. It involves seeing oneself as black. It is a state of mind as much as a social construct or sociocultural phenomenon.
According to Biko, being black is also a matter of realizing the necessity for struggle against injustice and oppresion. It is a matter of realizing the need for black people to free themselves from the shackles that white racism attempts to place on them.3
1Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, 1952], translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 109-115.
2Steve Biko, I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, edited by Aelred Stubbs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) p. 48.
3Ibid., p. 49.