Jenice Armstrong: A question of color

Soledad O'Brien: News anchor
Soledad O'Brien: News anchor
Posted: November 11, 2010

WHO GETS to decide who qualifies as legitimately black?

Warning: This has been a sore subject with me since the time in college when it got back to me that certain classmates had been referring to me as an Oreo, which is an ethnic slur that means a person is black on the outside and white on the inside.

I was surprised and hurt, because I knew they weren't complimenting me.

What I know now but didn't understand then, is that this is one of those games that gets dusted off every so often when someone for whatever reason challenges your black card.

This tired practice was what was behind those headlines in September that followed Mayor John Street's accusation that Mayor Michael Nutter was "not a black mayor . . . just a mayor with dark skin." President Obama ran into the same thing on the campaign trail when certain African-Americans voiced concerns that he wasn't black enough. I tripped over the subject again earlier this week, when in preparing for an interview with CNN's Soledad O'Brien, in town Monday for the First Person Festival, I read a brief excerpt from her new memoir about how she'd run into the same thing with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, of all people.

According to her autobiography, "The Next Big Story: My Journey Though the Land of Possibilities," Jackson invited her to lunch in 2007 and was complaining about how he dislikes being asked to talk only about black issues. He also railed about how Atlanta-based news network CNN wasn't doing enough to promote its black on-air personalities, a concern O'Brien shared with the civil-rights leader. Jackson also raged about the lack of black anchors, too. That's when O'Brien was, like, huh? She couldn't believe that comment, especially since she was sitting right in front of Jackson.

"Does he mean covering the campaign, I wonder to myself? The man has been a guest on my show," O'Brien wrote. "He knows me, even if he doesn't recall how we met . . . I interrupt to remind him I'm the anchor of 'American Morning.' He knows that. He looks me in the eye and reaches his fingers over to tap a spot of skin on my right hand. He shakes his head. 'You don't count,' he says."

The exchange left her embarrassed, feeling ashamed of her skin color and wishing she had spoken up and challenged him, said O'Brien, who is biracial. "One of the things that was frustrating to me was that I didn't call him on it," O'Brien told me during a phone interview earlier this week. "I was completely thrown."

Later, after her four documentaries on race, O'Brien reminded Jackson of the incident and he explained that he had made a mistake. O'Brien is fair-skinned by most standards, and her mixed-race heritage probably just slipped passed his radar.

Jackson's a smart man and he knows better than to make assumptions about a person by her skin tone, since that's reflective of only one aspect of a person's ethnic heritage. In the case of O'Brien, it doesn't come close to telling the whole story.

As the daughter of a white man from Australia and an Afro-Cuban mother, O'Brien wrote, "That is how precise the game of race is played in our country, that we are so easily reduced to our skin tone. That even someone as prominent in African-American society as Rev. Jackson has one box to check for black and one for white. No one gets to be in between."

She thanked Jackson for having been candid with her.

Send e-mail to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: http://go.philly.com/heyjen.

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