I first heard someone at a black student union party refer to herself – and to me, by extension – as a "regular black." The music had made a quick turn from the latest rap song to a Caribbean dancehall mix.
"Oh, I'm regular black; I don't dance to this music."
Well, this "regular black" continued dancing, but I was intrigued by the term.
I had never heard the term "regular black" until I reached the campus of my small liberal arts college outside Boston. As my colleague Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele wrote last week, the term was mostly used in jest. It seemed to be a good defense to the multiple questions that I and other African Americans were asked about our ethnic ancestry.
Many of us were coming from places with large African-American populations, such as my hometown of Chicago, and had never been questioned about our ethnicity. Questions about ethnic and cultural backgrounds are typical on college campuses, where students are trying to learn more about their peers. However, there were times when it was clear that the underlying assumptions behind the questions posed to those who were "regular black" was that their cultural background was lacking and inferior to those considered "ethnic black."
But if we're being honest, this isn't just an issue on elite college campuses. Colleges are just smaller versions of the outside world. In the United States, there is a long history of members of the African diaspora not engaging positively with each other. Blacks from the United States and those from the Caribbean and Africa have long had bridges to cross because of cultural differences.
The reasons for the discord are about what you'd expect: negative media portrayals and, in general, misinformation about each other's cultures. I've heard just as many "African booty scratcher" jokes as I've heard people from the Caribbean and Africa imply that African Americans are lazy. I think what's at the heart of much of the discord is that, because of racism in the United States, "black" people get lumped together. Our respective histories and cultures are not recognized or valued. We may all share a skin tone, but our cultures are not the same. People have the right and the need to identify themselves with their respective cultures.
On elite college campuses, the discord is put under a microscope. As noted in Diana's article, approximately 40 percent of black students at top-tier schools have at least one foreign-born parent. That means that nearly half of the black students at these institutions are "ethnic blacks." Add all the outside factors that influence how black students from different cultures engage with each other and are seen by the community at large and you have a hotbed for these problems to escalate.
I think things are getting better, though. When I talk to friends from my college or those who went to similar schools, it seems that bridges that might have separated students in the past have been crossed. I hope that students can continue to use their college experiences to end these unnecessary divisions.
(Diamond Sharp is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.)