Editor’s Note: In today’s United States, is being black determined by the color of your skin, by your family, by what society says, or something else? Soledad O’Brien reports “Who Is Black in America?” on CNN at 8 p.m. ET/PT this Sunday, December 15.
By Jamescia Thomas, Special to CNN
(CNN) – CNN invited iReporters to share their thoughts on being Black in America in 2012. Some said they had to work twice as hard to remain competitive. Others said a strong racial identity was vital and societal views on being black were too narrow to fit the entire race. Here are five perspectives from African-Americans on how they view the definition of black in 2012. What would you add?
Comfort in being a minority
Antwon Chavis grew up without much of a cultural identity, outside of the acknowledgement of his race. The 27-year-old medical student from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was one of the few black kids in his school. He remembers being called on often to make photos seem more diverse or to voice his opinion so that the minority perspective was heard.
He identified more with his white peers and remembers being rejected by his black peers. For a while, he realized he didn’t fit in with any race and thrived only after he acknowledged that was OK.
Chavis opted to go to historically black Meharry Medical College. He said he chose to go there because he found himself becoming too comfortable as the minority and needed to explore “black culture,” which he often avoided.
“If I could choose to sit at a table of black strangers, a table of white strangers, or a table of both black and white strangers, I would pick the white table all day, everyday,” Chavis said. “I was the duck that forgot it was a duck until it separated from the swans and saw its reflection.”
Now in his final year of medical school, Chavis said although he never grew up facing any hardships, being a black man in America is tough. He said he feels as though he is constantly fighting against the societal box for a black man.
“Being black in 2012 means different things to different people,” he said. “And to me, it means being who I am. And for once, who I am is just right.”
Desire Grover said having a racial identity is not that important to her but finds that she cannot escape the practice of others trying to categorize her. She said that the classifiers of race and gender fuel what society imposes to measure the worth of a human being.
The journalist from Chester, Pennsylvania, said the world cannot let her be just a human being because there is a hypothetical “race” that needs to be won.
“Our society has programmed us to compete with one another,” she said. “And in the process of all this competition we size each other up. I think we use the race box as a way to cancel people out of access to certain resources and we are told we must do this because life’s value is measured on how much power you have over resources and others.”
Grover identifies with the underdog, no matter what race, and welcomes the struggle that she faces as a black woman. Being the underdog is something that she says allows her never to take anything good for granted.
“As the underdog in society, when you do accomplish something of value, I believe you are able to experience a level of satisfaction and accomplishment that is lost on someone who is born into a family with networks leading to their profession or financial security,” she said.
She hopes that one day, race will become extinct because the classifications limit human potential.
“We fear getting rid of these identifiers because it would mean acknowledging that we truly are all the same.”
The same as 40 years ago?
North Carolina A&T graduate Andrew Bullock considers himself successful. He has a great job, a loving family and drives a luxury car. But some people who are not black are surprised by his achievements, he said.
“Being a black man in America today means I have more opportunity to succeed than ever before while virtually facing the same opposition that has been present for decades,” Bullock said. “Even with the freedoms afforded us, we still face monstrous oppositions. There are still those who would like to see us remain subservient.”
His mother grew up during the Jim Crow era and told him about the blatant racism she faced. Today, he believes, racism exists in covert fashion and it’s just as dangerous for black people.
“Racism is an idea which cannot die in a matter of a couple of decades.” he said. “It has not gone away, but rather changed forms. It shows itself in the poor funding and care to schools in black neighborhoods, the disproportion of lead roles for blacks in blockbuster movies and cartoons, the unwillingness of state governments to address the high mortality rate of young black men due to violent crimes.”
Bullock said he expects the future for black people will continue to improve.
“I hope that we have such a high number of us shattering the negative stereotypes by becoming successful that we cause new positive stereotypes about our race to be created,” he said.
From Negro to colored to African-American
Being black means a legacy of triumph and brutality, said author and teacher Robyn McGee.
“Having a strong racial identity means loving your culture and heritage,” she said. “It certainly does not mean hating other races. We should not let the media or any other outside forces define us.”
McGee grew up in Long Beach, California, where she still lives, and was one of the few black students in her schools. She remembers being called Simba and other racial slurs.
She found a community of black students when she went onto San Jose State University.
“It was so wonderful to feel like I belonged,” she said. “In fact, my family says I was somewhat militant during that time. I was studying black history in college, so I guess I was both angry and proud.”
She said the black experience was unique because they were brought to America as slaves. Oppression, she said, made black people resilient, forgiving and strong.
“We have been called colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African-American and the n-word,” she said. “But no matter what term appears on a government form, we are still here in the great U.S.A shaping the history, culture and future of the place we call our home.”
No more excuses
Diversity consultant and motivational speaker Omekongo Dibinga, 36, grew up with a Congolese name and whole lot of ignorance. White people disrespected him, he felt, because he was black; blacks disrespected him for his African roots.
“I really tried to grow up and just be like everybody else. I just wanted to fit in,” he said. “At every juncture though, I just kept being reminded of how different I was.”
Later, he attended a prestigious school in Boston, one where he forged his strong black identity.
“I basically decided that if everyone is going to keep disrespecting me because of my black and African culture, I am going to embrace it 100%,” he said.
Now in Washington, Dibinga helps inform and empower people on the issues of race and diversity.
“I didn’t create racism and intolerance, but I can help end them,” he said.
He said black people must develop a “no excuse” mentality.
“We can rise above any challenge put in front of us from poverty to racism,” he said. “We even helped elect the first black president. What do we have to complain about? There is a lot of good going on for black people now.”
How does it feel to be black in America in 2012? Share your views and personal experiences in the comments area below or post your own video on CNN iReport.