Raised fist by photographer Oladimeji Odunsi

BHM 2022: Reflecting on my Self-Identification Journey

By Bryan P. Parker

“When was the moment you realized you were Black?” I’ve been asked this question a few times during DEI workshops.

When first asked, I realized it was something I never really thought about. I was still pondering the question as others started to share their “moment.” One person recalled the first time she was called a racial epithet. Another person spoke of a time classmates made fun of him for having dark skin. As more people shared, it began to occur to me that many of their responses were rooted in trauma and had a negative impact on how they saw themselves. By the time it was my turn to respond, I thought about sharing a similar story of the first time I remembered being called out of my name, but that wouldn’t have been an honest answer to the question for me.

I could not pinpoint a moment when I first realized I was Black, rather it was something I’d always identified about myself. Before I gave my answer during the workshop, I thought about why that was. My parents attended schools in which there were few other Black students, and for the most part, those other Black students were relatives. As a result, it was important for my mother to make sure that my sister and I grew up with a strong sense of confidence and pride in identifying as Black. She also moved us away from Western Pennsylvania so that we could be raised amongst a more diverse population. 

Social psychology pioneers Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark developed and conducted the “Doll Test” study (famously used as evidence in the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Brown v. Bd. of Education). The study revealed how segregation and discrimination caused Black children to feel inferior to white children, as each Black child in the study favored the white dolls over the Black ones. My mother cited the Clarks’ study as the reason that she made sure to buy my sister and I Black action figures and dolls, have us read books written by Black authors, and watch television shows and films with Black characters. This helped me to identify as Black at an early age, and be proud of the history and culture that came with it. 

So how did I finally respond to being asked about the moment I realized I was Black? By simply stating that it was something I’ve always known. There’s no event I can point to that triggered some moment of grand self-realization. I was raised to be proud of who I am and to not allow anyone to make me feel inferior because of it. I owe my mother for that. Knowing that others look back on moments of trauma during their self-identification journey is troubling to me. It is among the many reasons why education and conversations surrounding race, identity, and diversity are so important. Teaching and discussing these constructs has the potential to give people more positive experiences to reflect on regarding their racial/ethnic identity development. I’d like to think that would go a long way in making people feel comfortable in their own skin. 

*Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash