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Who is Black in America?

Aired December 9, 2012 - 20:00   ET


JEANNIE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Definitely not Napoleon. Driving is his waterloo.

Jeannie Moos, CNN.

(On camera): I said hit the brake, not eat the cake.

(Voice-over): New York.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: New meaning there for a rough ride. Corny, I know. I'm sorry. Stop yelling in my ear.

I'm Don Lemon. "WHO'S BLACK IN AMERICA" begins right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why is your hair so good? Why is your skin so light? I'll get questions like, are you Hispanic? Are you mixed?

JAY SMOOTH, SELF-IDENTIFIED AS BLACK: Why wouldn't I think I was black?

EDWIN REYES, DOMINICAN: A lot of people off the back think I'm black. I am Dominican.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just because you're black doesn't mean your African-American. I used to identify as Caribbean-American.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm part Native American. It's always been weird trying to figure out who I am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eritrean. Irish. Italian. Arab.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black and white for a lot of my life. Black was something that I rejected.




SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST, "WHO'S BLACK IN AMERICA": You must have been told well, you're not really black. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Black is big enough to hold every shade.

MONIQUE SCHLICHTMAN: I am a black woman and these are my black daughters who happen to have a white father.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm black. It's never been a question. It's just simple as a beating inside me.




O'BRIEN: I'm Soledad O'Brien. Over the last five years in this series we've explored what it means to be black in America. My mother's black and Cuban. My father is white and from a Australia. And when I was born in the mid 1960s, the census didn't even track the number of mixed race children. Because my mother's black, I always considered myself black. And when I was a kid, my mother used to tell me, don't let anyone tell you you're not black. But more often the question I was getting was, what are you?

With the 2010 census setting a record 7 percent of new births are mixed race, more young people are grappling with that question. And grappling with their racial identity. This installation of BLACK IN AMERICA follows two young women who struggle with their racial identities and who are sick of answering the question, what are you?

NAYO JONES, PHILADELPHIA YOUTH POETRY MOVEMENT: If I had like a word to describe me, most likely be quirky. I'm in a band. We do like progressive alternative rock kind of. At first when people meet me, they don't really know what I am. People will ask me like what are you?

O'BRIEN: Seventeen-year-old Nayo Jones is a singer, a talented poet, a high school senior. But that's not what people want to know.

JONES: Recently after I had one of those experiences, I just started, like, writing things. I was, like, well, now Becca deals with the same thing. Let's just make this a group piece.


JONES: I don't know. Just pick a book and pick a poem.

O'BRIEN: Becca Khalil is Nayo's best friend. They do spoken word poetry together.

JONES: It starts off and it's, like, girl, you are so pretty. What are you? The quintessential question for an intense skin girl with soft kinky curls and a frizz that doesn't seem to quit because answering human simply isn't enough for them. They can't handle my racially ambiguous figure. KHALIL: They itch to know just what I am. It helps them sleep at night if they can just pin down the reason for my green, blond, (INAUDIBLE), burned potato red skin.

O'BRIEN: The young women are being asked to categorize themselves racially.

KHALIL: I am beautiful.

O'BRIEN: In a country that has historically put most people into one of two of boxes. Black or white.

Can you decide if you're black or white?

KHALIL: I don't think anybody else gets to pick for me.

JONES: When it comes down to it it's what I say about myself that's the most important.


O'BRIEN: Perry DiVirigilio coaches and mentors Nayo, Becca and other young poets in the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement or PYPM. Many are struggling to define themselves.

DIVIRIGILIO: Like, literally --

O'BRIEN: He is also a spoken word poet. With some fame in the city where he's known as Vision.

DIVIRIGILIO: I am the artistic and director here at PYPM.

O'BRIEN: Today and for the next month, he's teaching a poetry workshop focusing on racial identity, skin color, and discrimination.

DIVIRIGILIO: How many folks here have been asked what are you?

We're going to talk about, you know, how you identify yourself versus how others identify you, and whether you're OK with that.

O'BRIEN: It's a challenge he's experienced himself.

DIVIRIGILIO: White boy, half breed, mulatto. What is he?

Things I'm reading right now, I don't have them memorized. Look at them running from me. I'm going to lie. I'm running from that poem.

I think I'm going to do the (INAUDIBLE) piece, though.

O'BRIEN: He's running from his past. Divorced parents, his father Perry is white, his mother is black. He says she hates her skin color.

DIVIRIGILIO: She doesn't like being dark skinned. I haven't talked to her in years. I think subconsciously it made it OK in my mind to, like, not be OK with who you are. You know, to kind of not be comfortable in your own skin. I didn't want the curly hair, I didn't want the light skin. I wanted to blend in, to be just like everybody else.

I used to live here with my mom. My father is white. He lived in a black neighborhood. My mother was black, she moved us to a really white community. I got like jumped, like, literally right here on this pavement because I was black. They would make comments about my mom. You know, monkey noises and, you know, nigger this, nigger that.

O'BRIEN: Beat up and taunted because to the white boys, he wasn't white enough.

DIVIRIGILIO: My father's house. This is home.

O'BRIEN: To his father's black neighbors, he wasn't black enough.

DIVIRIGILIO: It's always jokes here and there and side marks and light skinned boys think they're this and high yellow this and things of that nature.

O'BRIEN: High yellow meaning light skinned. It's one of many taunts he heard over the years that made him feel rejected by the black community. Those taunts, the result of colorism.

YABA BLAY, ONE DROP PROJECT: Colorism is a system that says that light skinned is more valued than dark skin.

The ones that I end up selecting --

O'BRIEN: Professor Yaba Blay wants to get people of all shades working together to end colorism. Instead of pointing fingers at one another. It's why this dark skinned woman began (1)ne Drop. A project that looks at the experiences of light skinned people and what it means to be black. She plans to turn it into a book of photos and essays.

BLAY: (1)ne job really started as my own personal exploration into what I call the other side of blackness. It helped me to kind of think differently, if you will, help me to reflect on the assumptions that I was making about people of lighter skin.

O'BRIEN: She believes colorism divides the black community, creating identity issues for light skinned blacks and self-esteem issues for those would are darker skinned. She's felt it herself.

BLAY: I had a friend, someone I considered a friend, very light skinned, blue eyes. She got engaged. And so I said to her jokingly one day, like, hello? Where is my invitation? And she said to me very matter of fact, girl, my momma would pass out if you came to my wedding.

O'BRIEN: Because you're dark skinned?

BLAY: Basically, I was too dark.

O'BRIEN: Why do you think discussions of colorism in the black community are often quiet?

BLAY: There is always anxiety about what white people think about us. We don't want to give white folks more fuel for the fire. And so let's not air our dirty laundry. We'll just deal with that on our own. But any time that we try to talk to each other, it turns into war. You know? We're quick to point fingers and blame and say, I had this experience because of someone that looked like you.

KIARA LEE, COLORISM ACTIVIST: What are the darker people doing in the yellow circumstance circle?

O'BRIEN: Kiara Lee is 22 years old. Like Professor Yaba Blay, she believes colorism divides the black community. It's why she teaches concepts of colorism to grade school kids in Richmond, Virginia.

LEE: My goal for the kids is to have them understand what colorism is. Hopefully them knowing where it comes from. They will be less likely to perpetuate these behaviors.

All right. I heard somebody over here saying, I don't want to be dark, dark, dark. Who said that?


LEE: Why do you like being dark, dark, dark?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because it's ugly.

LEE: Why is dark ugly?


LEE: So if you were darker you wouldn't like yourself?


DIVIRIGILIO: I say that to say this is a safe space.

O'BRIEN: Vision hears the same thing from the teenagers he mentors. On Twitter under #teamlightskin or #teamdarskin, and see comments like "light skin is the right skin," or "there are few pretty dark skinned girls."

DIVIRIGILIO: Why are we still doing Jim Crow stuff? Why are we still on slavery terms? Why are we putting ourselves through this?

O'BRIEN: So Vision is focusing on a conversation about skin color and identity, with Nayo, Becca and about 50 other young poets. Among the questions they'll be tackling, who is black?

MICHAELA ANGELA DAVIS, IMAGE ACTIVIST: Race is a social construct. You are who you say that you are.

O'BRIEN: What makes you black?

DIVIRIGILIO: Is black just skin? Is black culture? Is black our experiences? Is black struggle?

O'BRIEN: Who determines who is black?

TIM WISE, AUTHOR, DEAR WHITE AMERICA: The irony is that who's black is determined not by black people. Who's black is determined functionally by white people.

O'BRIEN: And how does skin color divide black America?

BLAY: We're all very aware from our lived experiences that skin color matters.

DIVIRIGILIO: Once you identify you're there --

O'BRIEN: These are uncomfortable, often painful questions.

DIVIRIGILIO: You've got to stop trying to push people in box that's we're comfortable in. It's not about me. It's about Nayo's path. It's about Becca's path.

O'BRIEN: The journeys down these paths are just beginning.

Why then are you so reluctant to say I'm black, deal with it?


KHALIL: I am --

JONES: I am --


REYES: I am Dominican. I'm a dark skinned Dominican, but when somebody asks me if I'm black, I want then to actually think that they're asking me, African-American, which I'm not. I think it's two totally different cultures. They come from the same ancestry as, you know, Africa, obviously but they're 400 years removed. To what point are we just going to say American and Dominican? How I look on the outside doesn't necessarily mean I'm the same culture as somebody else who's the same complexion as me.

DIVIRIGILIO: Three, two, one. Around this room there are a bunch of signs on the wall. A bunch of, quote-unquote, "identities" on the walls. On the pillars, on some chairs. Walk around the room. You can only choose one. Walk around the room. Find out the classification you -- you think you fit, that you identify with most. Stand there. Go. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go.

O'BRIEN: Vision is asking each student to choose an identity.

KHALIL: Over here. Female. Perfect. Nayo, so easy.


DIVIRIGILIO: Everybody -- has everybody identified? Is everybody comfortable? When somebody walks up to you and says, hey, what are you? This is how you identify? Correct? This is the way you act, correct? Everybody have a seat.

JONES: I went for female because, like, other makes me feel like I'm not, like, a person. Honestly I copped out. I will, like, readily admit, like, I felt going into it I was, like, OK, I'm just going to walk over to other, you know, maybe that's not how I feel. I don't feel like an other.

O'BRIEN: Your mother is --

JONES: Black. And then my dad is white.

O'BRIEN: Tell me about your mom.

JONES: There really isn't much I could tell you, honestly, because there's not much that I know. I think her and my dad, they got divorced when I was really, really young. And after that, I just never saw her.

O'BRIEN: So do you say you're black?

JONES: I will say that I'm black and white but I've never just said black. I don't necessarily feel black. I was raised up with white people, white music, white food. So that's not something that, like, you know, I know.

O'BRIEN: Why are you so reluctant to say, I'm black? Deal with it?

JONES: Because --

O'BRIEN: I have spiky little black hair. I have brown skin.


JONES: Personally, I feel like I don't really feel black. You know? I feel like it's a part of me. But it's not everything.

O'BRIEN: So is Nayo black?

DIVIRIGILIO: She can identify how she chooses. I'm just saying if we don't know each other, I would assume that she was a black woman.

WISE: Ancestrally she is biracial. However, the rest of the society will in all likelihood as it does with million of other people every day remind her of her blackness in a million subtle ways. And the fact that her father is white, the fact that she was embedded in white culture will not prevent her from having a black experience in a racialized system.

O'BRIEN: Tim Wise began fighting racism right out of college. He's written books on racism in America.

WISE: Color and who qualifies as black, who qualifies as white has historically been policed not by those who were the targets of oppression but by those who set up the system of oppression as a way to dole out the goodies or to withhold the goodies from a society where color has really been the dividing line for opportunity.

DIVIRIGILIO: Hey, Queen. How are you?

BLAY: Good. How are you?


O'BRIEN: Today Professor Yaba Blay is speaking to Vision's workshop about (1)ne Drop. Historically, it's the concept used to define who is white and who is black? By 1925, nearly every state had a forum of the One Drop rule on their books. It began during slavery.

BLAY: What's one drop mean?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You got any black ancestry in you at all, and you're black.

BLAY: Black over here, you are enslaved, white over here, you're free. But you're all coming in the middle. You don't look like Yaba, and you don't like white man, so what are you?

O'BRIEN: They were, for the most part, children of rape. White master, black slave.

BLAY: And historically, whiteness has been defined as pure. The government then came to define blackness as anybody with any trace of African ancestry. Any trace. So this definition of blackness has come to be defined as the one drop rule.

So we've got this pure bottle of white clear, pure water. Now what would happen if we were to take some black paint, just one drop. Let's see. Let's shake it up and see. Here we go. Here we go. That once pure water to quench your thirst has now been contaminated. What does one drop has come to mean in history is one 32nd of negro/black/African blood.

All you need is one person five generations back who is black and that is enough to make you black. Take a guess when it was ruled unconstitutional. What year?


BLAY: 1967. The one drop rule was an attempt to save the so-called purity of the white race.

O'BRIEN: So then why do so many black people hold on to the one drop rule? Me included. Right? I think I'm black because my mother is black.

BLAY: The one drop rule, racist as it is, actually gave us parameters for our community. We know who is black. We know who wasn't. We knew what our issues were and even who's the our was.

DIVIRIGILIO: And I hate the one drop rule because the historical significance of it.

O'BRIEN: So what do you check when you have to fill out a form like the census?

DIVIRIGILIO: I say black now. But as long as I check other, I've never checked white. I'm not white. America lets you know real fast that you're not white. I've never been jumped and called cracker or honky. I've been jumped and called monkey and nigger.

O'BRIEN: You're black?

DIVIRIGILIO: I'm black. I'm biracial but I'm black. I'm no different than Frederick Douglas or Barack Obama or, you know, many, you know, historical figures who are biracial, you know, and are black and are part of black history.

O'BRIEN: For Becca, it's not that simple.

KHALIL: I think I'm from Africa. I mean I know I'm from Africa. But the black kids don't seem to really want me and the white kids don't seem to really want me.


DIVIRIGILIO: The prompt is this.

O'BRIEN: All of Vision's workshop end with an assignment.

DIVIRIGILIO: You are writing a poetry and memoir of who you are. What you are.

O'BRIEN: For Nayo Jones and Becca Khalil, it's difficult.

DIVIRIGILIO: So what you feel inside, what you feel you are, how you identify yourself is what you're writing right now. I want you to spit from your heart. One more minute. Wrap it up. We're going to make our way upstairs to the third floor into the drama studio.

JONES: I don't have a race. I'm now and forever my own race. I'm tired of rabbit holing. Why hide in the ground with everyone else when I can be myself and fly?


O'BRIEN: Nayo, black mother, white father, refuses to put herself in anyone else's box.

KHALIL: When there was white kids say, I'm one of them, I can't say I feel welcome. Black has always been the color of my bones. Bones black, black like sand and sky, black like heart and mind. Black like me.


I'm black. And I'm African-American and I'm accepting of that. I'm proud of it.

O'BRIEN: Becca's roots are in Africa. North Africa. Her parents were born in Egypt. And you feel you're African-American?

KHALIL: Yes. That's been a struggle for me.

O'BRIEN: Why is it a struggle? I mean, Egypt is in Africa, right?

KHALIL: Yes, but it's not sub-Saharan Africa. So it's not in real Africa. It's in fake Africa. So -- and most Egyptians don't identify themselves as African-American.

O'BRIEN: Unlike Nayo, Becca proudly calls herself black. But not everyone in the poetry workshop is buying it.

Sophia, do you think she's black?

Sophia Washington is Becca's good friend.


O'BRIEN: Why is she not black?

WASHINGTON: Like I acknowledge, you know, Egypt is in Africa. But I feel like there's a difference between being from Africa and being black.

O'BRIEN: So you think that you don't get to choose what you are?

WASHINGTON: I don't think you get to choose. I think while we would all love to get to choose how we are and how people see us, what people see you as speaks stronger than what you personally identify. Because you don't always get that chance to explain how you identify.

O'BRIEN: What makes somebody black in your mind?

WASHINGTON: I think how people see them a certain amount of experiences.

O'BRIEN: So there is a black experience?

WASHINGTON: I think so.

O'BRIEN: What's the black experience?

WASHINGTON: You know, I would probably have to deal with racial profiling, Becca would not.

O'BRIEN: And you think those differences are the differences between what make you black and not black?

WASHINGTON: I think so. I mean, black, yes. African, no.

YOUSSEF KROMAH, PHILADELPHIA YOUTH POETRY MOVEMENT: My father is from Guinea and my mother is from Liberia. I was born in Philadelphia. Growing up I was ostracized. You're not like us. You can't -- that's our culture. You didn't go through out struggles, our experiences. I'm like, I live right on the same block as you. So people will say, you know, you're not -- you're not black.

O'BRIEN: People tell you that? They said you're not really black?

KROMAH: Growing up this is they used to tell me, like, for a significant portion of my life.

DAVIS: Both of my parents are considered light skinned black. But what makes me black and what makes them black is the culture.

O'BRIEN: Michaela Angela Davis is a former editor at "Essence," a magazine for black women. Today she writes and lectures on issues of race and image.

DAVIS: The music, the spirit, the food, the laughter, the way that we love, the way that black people have soul.

DIVIRIGILIO: I think it's an amalgamation of all of it. I think -- I think it's skin tone. You know, I think it's experience. I think it's culture. I think it's a mindset. I think if you claim black then that's what you are.

BLAY: I think there is this understanding, particularly in this racialized society that to be black one has to be seen as black. So that if you and I walk into a room, people recognize me as black. They might question what you are. And so I think it has a lot to do with this idea of, do people see you as black? If people don't see you as black, then you're not black.

O'BRIEN: Danielle Ayer says at first glance very few people see her as black.

AYER: I have always felt like I'm a black woman.

O'BRIEN: Danielle joined Yaba Blay's (1)ne Drop Project in 2011, about a decade after the two women met in grad school. Danielle's mother is white. Her father is black. He died when she was a teenager.

BLAY: I made so many assumptions about Danielle. I thought that she was that type of light skinned chick. You know? That she thought she was cute, that she thought she was too good and that she was standoffish because she really didn't fool with us, you know, regular folks. But really what was going on is that she had had an experience growing up in the middle of Pennsylvania in a (INAUDIBLE) community.

O'BRIEN: Lititz, Pennsylvania, 92 percent white. Danielle felt like she didn't belong in the only world she knew.

AYER: It was this quiet ignoring that I often felt as though people just didn't really want to mess with me. You know? They really don't -- you know, you're good. Stay over there.

O'BRIEN: How did you get through?

AYER: I left school. I stopped going.

O'BRIEN: You dropped out?

AYER: I didn't officially drop out. They sent a tutor to my house. And that's how I finished my junior year.

O'BRIEN: She got through that year. And the next. Graduated and entered Temple University where she studied for her masters degree in African-American studies. She says she had a deep desire to connect with her blackness.

AYER: My family is very important to me. My white family is who I grew up around. But even with them, I feel as though I'm black. I'm not the same as them. And I've always felt that way. I know where I feel most comfortable. And the way that I want to identify. And the beating that's in me is blackness. It's blackness, there's no question about it.

O'BRIEN: That's not the case for Nayo, who like Danielle grew up with a white family.

She says to me, well, I haven't had a black experience. I don't feel when I'm around black people that I'm black. Is she black?

AYER: I would say she's black. And I think that maybe she has an idea of what a black experience is and doesn't identify with that experience and so, therefore, she doesn't think that she's black. Everyone would say I didn't have a black experience. But I had my own kind of black experience. There isn't just one.

O'BRIEN: For Nayo, the search for her identity is about to open old wounds.

JONES: I don't want do -- this is gross.

DIVIRIGILIO: It's not gross. There is nothing gross about healing.


SMOOTH: I self-identify as black. I grew up as a son of a black father. So although my mother is white, I never saw mixed and black as mutually exclusive. Black culture comes from people being brought to this country systematically cut off from their traditions and culture in Africa and building their own cultural traditions here in America. I feel connected to my Russian heritage and my Jewish ancestry but a connection to white culture is an alien concept to me.

DIVIRIGILIO: All right, Nayo. Spit that.

O'BRIEN: It's a poem about her life but Nayo Jones is struggling to recite it.

JONES: They always call me white girl. I was never ashamed of myself until they taught me to be ashamed.

O'BRIEN: She calls her poem "Others" or the biracial poem. It's about being bullied by black kids for being light skinned.

JONES: I always remember their taunts well into the night. Their brands of weirdo and vanilla took years to fade so I became ashamed.

O'BRIEN: Now the tough part. She has to perform it at the first Spoken Word Poetry competition of the season. But it's painful and she can hardly get through it.

JONES: I pretended I didn't know they were all wondering if I was adopted. No black mother to explain how this tall angular white man ended up with a short chestnut girl. They doubted he was ever my father.

O'BRIEN: Only seven hours until show time and Nayo can't remember her poem.

DIVIRIGILIO: Find it. You got it. I can tell you right now why you're not remembering the line. You're not connecting with this piece yet. When it's pieces that are personal, we don't want to connect to it. Like, I wrote it, I'm done. That's the beginning.

JONES: They always call me a white girl. I was never ashamed of myself until they taught me to be ashamed. I won't be white girl anymore.


JONES: But I won't be mixed girl either. I've come far enough that I'm not ashamed of who I am. But I refuse to be defined by it either.

DIVIRIGILIO: Don't. Don't.

JONES: I don't want to -- this is gross.

DIVIRIGILIO: It's not gross. It's not gross. There is nothing gross about healing.

JONES: I'm just so frustrated. I don't know.

DIVIRIGILIO: It's OK. And it gets easier. I promise you it gets easier. Come here. Come here. Let go. It's OK. It's all right. You got this. Claim who you are tonight. This is your speech. That stage tonight is for you. It's all right, sweetie. Let go.

O'BRIEN: These are the wounds of colorism.

Wounds often first inflicted on the playground to both light skinned and dark skinned kids.

LEE: They live in the same neighborhood. They were even in the same grade.

O'BRIEN: Kiara Lee recently graduated from the University of Richmond. Her passion is educating children about colorism.

LEE: Lashawnte, tell me about that. Why didn't the teacher call on her?

LASHAWNTE BROWN, SECOND GRADER: Because she is ugly and black. O'BRIEN: Lashawnte Brown is 7 years old and her mother is worried her little girl is already getting the message dark skin is bad.

BROWN: I think my skin is ugly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you think it's ugly?

BROWN: Because. I don't want to be dark.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't want to be dark?

BROWN: No, I want to be light skinned.


BROWN: Because light skin is pretty.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there anything else?



BROWN: That I like to be like you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you know what? I want to be pretty like you.

BROWN: So we both have stuff that we wish for.

LEE: Can somebody tell me what that means.

My stance is teach the children what it is. Show them the history. Make them aware of this issue so that when they go to school, when they go out in the world they're armed with this information.

Because he wants to buy her because her skin is lighter.

WISE: Colorism was something that plantation owners used as an instrument to divide and conquer their own enslaved persons. By extending to lighter skinned enslaved persons more privileges. And it was a way to get those lighter skinned black folks to be more likely to side with the owner if there was a slave rebellion plan.

LEE: You guys sit in the back.

O'BRIEN: Even among 6-year-olds Kiara is not afraid to shock. Today the brown paper bag test. Kiara stopped each child entering the classroom and compares their skin tone to a paper bag.

LEE: Let me see your arm. Can you put your arm out for me? OK, you're going -- got to sit in the back, OK? O'BRIEN: Lighter than the bag, you can sit in the front. It's a real test from the early 1900s used by social organizations, churches and fraternities and neighborhood groups to decide who was light skinned enough to join.

Was it too extreme to do to little kids?

LEE: The more shocking the activity is, the better because it's going to stick with them.

Why are you all feeling bad?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She showed us that dark skinned had to sit in the back and light skinned had to sit in the front. I didn't think it was fair.

O'BRIEN: Do you think you are less privileged because the color of your skin?

Eighteen-year-old Sophia Washington, one of Vision's Philadelphia poets, has learned the same harsh lessons.

WASHINGTON: I think that I have less opportunities and less access to certain privilege that other people don't because of the color of my skin.

O'BRIEN: When she claims that her life is harder than either of these other two young women because of her skin color --


O'BRIEN: William Darity is a professor of African-American Studies and Economics at Duke University.

DARITY: There is a lot of evidence that would be consistent with her saying that.

O'BRIEN: Dozens of studies show differences in skin color having huge consequences including a 2008 study that says light skinned black women have a better chance of marrying than darker women. And a 2006 study that shows that dark skin color can affect earning potential.

DARITY: We found that darker skinned and medium skinned tone black men suffered approximately a 10 to 12 percent penalty in wages relative to white males. But lighter skinned black males suffered no significant penalty relative to white males.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's be on team light skin or team dark skin.

O'BRIEN: No surprise the emotional toll of colorism comes up again and again as the slam competition gets under way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Too dark written on our skin and too black on our chest.

O'BRIEN: The competition is tough. And Nayo is nervous.


O'BRIEN: Slam night at the Franklin Institute in Center City, Philadelphia. Twenty young poets competing for the win. Nayo Jones is about to face them and her fears.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody show love and give it up for Nayo.

O'BRIEN: She not only has to be better than the competition, she has to expose old emotions and confront painful questions of her identity.


JONES: They always called me a white girl. I was never ashamed of myself until they taught me to be ashamed. I was never keen on splitting hairs or splitting veins. My blood is not segregated into black and white. In my mind, I'm gray. A mixture of all beautiful things. You cannot paint me the color --

O'BRIEN: She rushes to finish.

JONES: I've come far enough to know not to be ashamed of what I am, but I won't let them define me by it either.

It was so fantastic to just get that off my chest. I didn't stutter. And I didn't stumble. I didn't forget the words which was really great because I was so scared I would forget the words.

DIVIRIGILIO: I know she can dive so much deeper into that poem. I know that she can tap into that and really get free.

JONES: He forces me to do the things that I really would rather not do. But sometimes what's the best for you is kind of hard to do.

O'BRIEN: For Nayo, getting through this first slam of the season is a relief. For Becca --

KHALIL: Biting the hands of every guy --

O'BRIEN: It's phenomenal.

KHALIL: We bark, growl, and tear apart those portraits you painted. We create our own with the corrupted bit of paint you had no use for. We will repaint ourselves as women holy once more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our winner for the evening, give it up y'all for Becca.


O'BRIEN: What was that like?

KHALIL: Awesome. I've never won anything before. It was a really wonderful feeling.

O'BRIEN: Becca Khalil feels black. She desperately wants the world to see her that way, too.

KHALIL: I never thought being black was synonymous to your color because I thought that was racist. Who wants to be racist in our society? Everyone does apparently. Because I'm not dark I'm not black.

O'BRIEN: So who determines who is black?

WISE: The important thing to do is to, of course, define yourself however you wish. That's your own right and your own freedom. And you should exercise it. But it's also important for people to always keep in mind how the larger society is likely to see one.

O'BRIEN: The U.S. government has a say when it comes to identity.

U.S. Census Bureau, white. Person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. You're defined as white according to the census.


BLAY: She's not white. So the question really goes to the U.S. government. Why are people from North Africa white? What purpose does that serve? How did you come to make that decision? They are on the continent of Africa. They are of African descent. Why not be black?

WISE: The question in this society to some extent is will she be viewed as white by anyone other than the census taker? The census taker may write it down that way. But unless the police officer, the loan officer, the teacher, the employer for whom she's trying to get a job views her that way and it's very unlikely that they will, she is going to be at the very least a woman of color.

O'BRIEN: What role does family play in all of this? For Nayo, that's unclear.

JONES: I mean I already have a poetry book. Look at how nice this is, dad. Look at how pretty that is.

DAVIS: I think a lot of it really -- again how you are cultured. What was the dominant culture in your household?

O'BRIEN: For her it's white. Her dad is white. She lived with her dad.

DAVIS: So there you go. Who loved you? Who took care of you?

O'BRIEN: While Nayo is reluctant to embrace her black roots, it's a different story for her 14-year-old sister Ky.

KY JONES, NAYO'S SISTER: I feel more comfortable when I'm around people that are black. I think I fit in more with black people. She likes different music than I do. Dress differently, hang out with different people. I like more hip hop. She doesn't really like that. She hangs out with more white people or black people that act white. I hang out with black people that act black.

O'BRIEN: Same mother, same father. Sisters living on opposite sides of the same wall divided by views on culture and identity. But for Nayo, that might be about to change.

JONES: There are certain things that kept coming up, like female, poet, black. Female, poet, black. And so I'm wondering, how come I have to be the odd one out in this situation?


M. SCHLICHTMAN: I am a black woman and these are my black daughters who happen to have a white father.

JOHN SCHLICHTMAN: I see my daughters as gifts from God who come from a heritage of German ancestry, Irish ancestry, Guineas ancestry. We're raising them as black women because I think that's how the world sees them. I think the United States, I think we still abide by a one-drop rule. We're not overemphasizing anything. We're just being who we are.

JONES: So online application center, OK. Create new account.

O'BRIEN: It's senior year which means it's stressful. And it's extra stressful for Nayo.


JONES: But Dad --

KY: What are you doing?

JONES: College stuff. They're making me select my primary ethnicity. Really? They just have American Indian, Asian, black, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander or white.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She picked African-American, but you should have the option of identifying as strictly biracial.

O'BRIEN: Becca Khalil is also filling out college applications.

KHALIL: When I'm applying to college, I don't want to have to sit and have this long discussion with myself about what bubble I should fill in for my ethnicity. I want to put African-American. I think I'm African-American.

O'BRIEN: What box do you check?

KHALIL: I check white.

O'BRIEN: You check white?

KHALIL: Yes. So that I can avoid any troubles with getting into college. I'm applying for theater.

O'BRIEN: She fears checking black could mess up her chances of acceptance.

KHALIL: You look at black or African-American, you have this image in your head. And then when you meet me, especially because I have to audition for these schools, you meet me and now they don't have any black girls. You know?

O'BRIEN: Twenty years from now, what will you be?

KHALIL: I want to say 20 years from now I'll be like I'm black and people will say, that's what's up.

BLAY: I'm a firm believer in the ability to self-identify. If Becca says she's black, I would agree that she is black.

DIVIRIGILIO: Give me a positive one about biracial.

DAVIS: Maybe these girls get to help dissolve these boxes. They have to say for themselves, they have to define what is beautiful and who is black and who is not. By sharing images, by sharing stories, by sharing culture.

O'BRIEN: The final work shop is all about sharing.

DIVIRIGILIO: Going to write down 10 things that identify you. Write a group poem about the things that you guys have in common.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Paul, creative, black, ambitious.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nick, tall, educated.

JONES: I have biracial, female, student, poet, short, musician, Afroed.

Because you're going around the circle, there are certain things that kept coming up. There was, like, female, poet, black. Female, poet, black. And so I'm wondering how come I have to be the odd one out in this situation. I don't necessarily have to be the odd one out. You know, like it's very plausible for me to just be like, yes, OK. I'm black, too.



JONES: We are the mango queens. We are the blossoms of the mango tree. The fruit of the tree, the black woman, the tree, the beauty, the tree, the beautiful black tree. The beautiful black woman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are a mango tree.

DIVIRIGILIO: Today she said I'm a black woman. And she came off stage, I said, you know what you just called yourself a black woman?

JONES: I think I just identified as black.

DIVIRIGILIO: And there was this almost a weight off her shoulders and this huge smile. She said, I did. She hugged me. And she shook me a little bit. It was pretty cool.

JONES: It wasn't life altering like I am from now on black. And it helped to open my mind a lot. But I don't think it's going to, like, completely, like, change everything. But like, it's a milestone for me.

O'BRIEN: After poetry workshop, Nayo makes some mad dash to choir performance. Nayo is a soprano, a featured soloist. She sees herself as ambitious, talented.

Will there ever be a time when the world sees her only as that?

JONES: So connect the dots with the freckles. But I laugh.

KHALIL: Subtract the possibility of an accent.

JONES: Calculate the sum of my eyes, nose, lips and tongue.

KHALIL: Multiply by every curl on this nappy, nappy head and what do you get? Ambiguous.

JONES: I apologize that my race is invisible to your eyes. But last time I checked, it wasn't any of your damn business.

KHALIL: Mind your damn business.

JONES: So do me a favor and stop assuming.

KHALIL: And stop assuming. Because I'm more than my race.

JONES: I am more than my color.

KHALIL: And the next time you feel tempted to ask? Don't.

JONES: Don't. Or at least have the courtesy not to stare at me like I'm some beast and ask, what are you?

KHALIL: What are you?