On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this episode, I talk to Dr. Yaba Blay about her new book, One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. It’s an honest and raw conversation about identity, grief, transformation, history, colorism, and taking responsibility for change. I continue to reflect on this quote from Dr. Blay: “Identity is nuanced. It’s complicated. I think it’s hard to define. Sometimes I think it’s dangerous to define, depending upon who’s doing the defining.”
Listen to the episode
One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race by Yaba Blay explores the extent to which historical definitions of race continue to shape contemporary racial identities and lived experiences of racial difference. Featuring the perspectives of 60 contributors representing 25 countries and combining candid narratives with striking portraiture, this book provides living testimony to the diversity of Blackness. Although contributors use varying terms to self-identify, they all see themselves as part of the larger racial, cultural, and social group generally referred to as Black. They have all had their identity called into question simply because they do not fit neatly into the stereotypical “Black box”—dark skin, “kinky” hair, broad nose, full lips, etc. Most have been asked “What are you?” or the more politically correct “Where are you from?” throughout their lives. It is through contributors’ lived experiences with and lived imaginings of Black identity that we can visualize multiple possibilities for Blackness.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: This is an important, beautiful, hard, honest, reflective conversation that I get to have today, such a privilege with Dr. Yaba Blay. She is the author of the new book, One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. And we talk about everything. We talk about identity. We talk about grief. We talk about transformation. We talk about history. We talk about colorism. We talk about taking responsibility for change. We talk about a program that she has where she teaches us to recognize the very subtle and painful and traumatizing ways that colorism changes the way we think and feel. Not only an honor to have you here with us for this conversation, but such a gift to be in conversation with Dr. Yaba Blay.
BB: So, before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Yaba Blay. She is a scholar activist, a public speaker, and a cultural consultant whose scholarship work and practice centers on the lived experiences of Black women and girls with a particular focus on identity/body politics, and beauty practices. Lauded by O Magazine for her social media activism, she has launched several viral campaigns, including Locs of Love, #PrettyPeriod, and #ProfessionalBlackGirl on her multi-platform digital community. Widely respected, as one of the foremost thought leaders on Black racial identity, colorism and beauty politics, Dr. Blay is a globally sought-after speaker and consultant with an extensive client list of over two dozen academic institutions, including Harvard, Duke, Spellman, New York University, to name a few. And she works with big companies: Netflix, Unilever, SheaMoisture, Estée Lauder, Procter & Gamble and the #MeToo movement.
BB: Yaba has earned a Master’s of Arts and PhD in African American Studies, and a graduate certificate in women studies from Temple University. She holds a Master’s of Education in Counseling Psychology from the University of New Orleans, then she is the former Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University. She’s also taught on the faculties of Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Drexel University, where she served as the Director of the Africana Studies Program. She is an incredible scholar and researcher, and her book, One Drop, will take your breath away. Let’s jump into the conversation with Dr. Yaba Blay.
BB: Okay. First, I’ve got to say that I’m so excited to talk to you, and I have 4827 questions. [chuckle] Thank you for being on the podcast.
Dr. Yaba Blay: Of course, thank you for having me.
BB: I had to buy two copies of One Drop, not to mention all the ones I’m going to give out, but I have one next to my bed that I just read. Every night, I read a story, and then I have to have one on my coffee table downstairs because it is such a beautiful book visually and such a haunting and life-changing and life-affirming book on the inside.
YB: Thank you.
BB: Before we get to it, I’ve got so many questions, but I want to start with this one. Will you tell us your story?
YB: Of course. [chuckle] Which story? I have so many.
BB: Yeah, start us from little Yaba.
YB: Wow. So, little Yaba was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. My family is from Ghana. My father immigrated to the United States to complete his PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin. His first job was as the Chair of Sociology at Xavier University. And so, he and my mom moved from Madison to New Orleans, and that’s where they had me. And so, I think so much of my story is wrapped up in being first generation, occupying a very interesting space in between two worlds, two cultures, growing up in a very Ghanaian home. My parents spoke to me in Twi, we ate Ghanaian food, listened to Ghanaian music. My family I knew was in Ghana, but growing up in New Orleans, my classmates, my friends were mostly African American. I went to Catholic school. So, I was raised Catholic, which is interesting because I was Catholic at school, and I would say probably just… I won’t say pagan, but just regular at home, right? Which parallels to my dad’s story because his mother sent him to live with her sister who was married to a headmaster of a school that so happened to be Catholic. So, he was raised Catholic for the purpose of education, but my father is absolutely not Catholic in a lived way.
BB: Where did you go to school in New Orleans?
YB: St. Rita’s Catholic School in New Orleans. Went there from first to seventh grade, and then my dad got another job at Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware. And so, we moved from New Orleans, Louisiana to Dover, Delaware…
YB: When I was going into the eighth grade, which was the worst thing possible in my entire life because New Orleans’ identity, so much of it is wrapped up in what high school you went to. So even to this day, when I say I’m from New Orleans, folks from New Orleans be like, “What high school did you go to?” And I’m like, “I didn’t go to high school.” “Well, you’re not really from here.”
BB: Yeah, right, right.
YB: It’s that kind of thing, but then also just moving from the warmth and the beauty of New Orleans to cold and gray and nothingness of Delaware. So, I know I acted out. My parents got the worst of me because of that. So yeah, there’s so much that’s wrapped up in my story in New Orleans. And then moving forward, I’d say pretty average high school, then going to college, and I got pregnant when I was in college. And I had my daughter the summer between my sophomore and junior years, and then I graduated on time with honors. And so, when I think about that, that’s like a starting point for a lot of my personality, and I don’t really… If I’m honest, I don’t know that I take pride in that.
YB: In this moment, looking back, I see how it was a setup because part of the reason why I worked so hard to graduate with honors on time is because I didn’t want anybody to be able to say, “See? We knew your life would be over when you got pregnant.” I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. I didn’t want to bring my daughter any shame. I refused to accept the language of teen mom, even though I was 18 when I got pregnant and 19 when I had her. And I know that moving forward, in so many ways, a lot of the things that I’ve done and pushed myself to do have been to prove people wrong, which hasn’t really done my spirit well because even in this moment…
YB: I gave a presentation last night and part of the presentation is talking about the work that I do and reflecting on the projects that I’ve done. And I almost cried in front of a screen full of people because I’m like, “Look at all that you’ve done and still you question yourself and still you wonder if you’re good enough and if your work is good enough.” And so, a lot of that I think can be connected to the idea that some of the stuff that I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to do it, but it hasn’t fully been motivated by my own quest to do something as much as it’s been about proving people wrong. So, when I think about my dissertation — I wrote the longest dissertation in the history of my department because my advisor said that I couldn’t do it. They didn’t think that it was a project worth studying.
YB: This book, One Drop, this is the second edition, which is now printed on Beacon Press, but I self-published it the first time around in 2013 because publishers wouldn’t take it. Nobody wanted to publish it. And so again, being in this space where I’m looking at this work and I’m like, “I think this is amazing, but the people who have power, the people who have the ability to open doors for me wouldn’t.” And so naturally, it makes me question whether or not the work in and of itself is good enough. You know what I mean? And so, I’ve been really conscious I think probably more recently, definitely in this moment to continually hold that mirror up to myself and make sure… Because ultimately, you can never please everybody. So, doing something for the purpose of proving someone wrong, the people that I’m working to prove something wrong to probably not even thinking about me anymore. You know what I mean?
BB: Oh god, that’s the worst. Yeah. Yeah.
YB: And here I am killing myself trying to prove something. They’re not thinking about me. And I’m left with the work; I’m left with the burden.
BB: So, you have your daughter, you finish college on time — which no one does anymore, even without bringing another human being into the world — you end up in graduate school, you write the longest dissertation in your college, and you go out, and you get a professorship.
BB: No, what happens next?
YB: So, unlike many of my colleagues who were looking for jobs while they were writing, I only did the research and wrote. And so, I graduated without a job. I went on the market in the summer, which is after the season.
BB: Ooh, yeah, that’s tough.
YB: And so, the first job I got was actually supposed to be a combination of administration and faculty. It was actually administration with added faculty responsibilities, and it was in the area of diversity and inclusion. I was an academic director of a multicultural, a clinical multicultural affairs type of program at a very, very, very white institution. Went from there to another teaching position — non-tenure track — going from there to another teaching position non-tenure track, went from there to an endowed professorship at an HBCU in North Carolina. Did that job for three years. And I’m now not associated, attached to the academy at all. And so again, similar kinds of story. When we’re in grad school — you know this — you’re getting a PhD, the only carrot they dangle in front of your face is a tenure track position. I never got one. And so, I spent a lot of time questioning whether or not my work was good enough or if I had what it took to be in and of the academy. The academy is absolutely the least affirming space for me, and the work that I do, and the work that I wanted to do. And I’m still in a position right now where I don’t really know how I feel about the academy.
BB: Me neither. Your story is bringing up for me a moment when I was sitting across from my therapist, and she said, “I’m just exhausted by you.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And she said, “What is it going to take to prove to yourself… What is it that you’re going to need to… ” I wish y’all could see Yaba’s face right now. “What are you going to need to do to believe you’re enough?” And I couldn’t get there inside of a relationship with the academy.
YB: I understand.
BB: I’m a prover too. [chuckle] Yeah, I’m a prover. I dropped out of college. I just did everything the wrong way and I’m a prover too. And when you say it hasn’t done your spirit well — I think is what you said — what does that mean? Unpack that for me a little bit.
YB: It’s not affirming. Actually, it’s a setup. It’s a setup whereby I’m, again, concerned with so many external things and not myself. I’m worried about pleasing other people or being affirmed by other people or winning, if that’s the word I want to use in the moment. And it doesn’t do my spirit well because… As you say, when you were talking about your therapist, how many of my girlfriends are so over me because of all of the ways. And they will list… They’ll give me a laundry list, “You did this. You did this. What? Are you crazy?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I probably am.” It’s very hard for me to see the Yaba that everyone else sees.
BB: And it’s really hard because I think when you’re a part of the academy, the day you start graduate school, they say, “Hand us that ruler. We will measure your worth from this point forward.”
BB: And I remember there was this weird moment. And I’m a white woman, so I have a lot more advantage and privilege in that system. And even as a white woman, we had an investiture ceremony where we got a new president. So, there was one representative from every university in the country at this big pomp and circumstance, and they walked down… They preceded… The procession was walking down the aisle in their full robes by date of university establishment. So, Harvard went first. And I was sitting there, and I think they were afraid that not enough people were going to go, so they were like, “Doctoral students, we’ll lend you the robes and gowns if you’ll go and represent the college with the right colors and everything.” And it was super… I didn’t know the Harry Potter reference back then, but if I would have known it, I would have said it was a very Harry Potter-like, very formal. And I was sitting next to my mentor and my teacher — who was really important to me — a Black woman. And when everyone got on stage after this procession, I looked up and I just burst into tears, and I said, “They’re all old white guys.” And she slid her arm around me, and I’ll never forget what she said, she said, “Baby, pale male, Yale.” [chuckle] And I was like, “What?” And she said, “Pale, male, and Yale.” And I was like, “No, but we’re social workers.” And she said, “You don’t belong to social work anymore. You belong to the academy now.”
YB: That is so right on. Yeah.
BB: Do you know what I mean, at that moment?
YB: I do.
BB: So, I hope you get to rest your spirit because One Drop. Tell me the story of this book.
YB: The story of this book is that I didn’t set out to do a book to begin with. At the time that I started this project, it was the first thing I did, I say… I’m not going to say academically because it wasn’t academically, but it was the first project that I kind of connected to after graduating, probably four years after graduating. I know that I traumatized myself writing my dissertation. So, when I graduated and started working, I wasn’t doing much of anything “academically.” I did a couple of articles from my dissertation, but my dissertation still hasn’t been touched in terms of most academics will turn their first dissertation into a book. I haven’t touched it. I’ve done a couple of articles. So, this was the first thing that I kind of said, “I’m going to work on this project,” but my original idea was to do a digital project, and to have this conversation about race in social media realm on a platform like a website, so on, and so forth.
YB: But the —I guess — motivation or inspiration for the project, for the bright idea. I was on a panel in New York City at the Caribbean Cultural Center, and the topic was colorism across the diaspora, and one of my co-panelists was Rosa Clemente. And Rosa Clemente, for those of you who don’t know her, does not mince any words ever, and she always had something to say, but Rosa kept saying, “I’m a Black Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx.” And I’m sitting there, PhD in Black studies, expertise in colorism, completely distracted because I’m like, “Well, who is the Black woman?” [chuckle] She’s self-identifying as a Black Puerto Rican, but in my experience, I knew lots of Puerto Ricans. Nobody identified as Black. They were Puerto Rican. That was different than Black. Not Black, not white. They were Puerto Rican.
BB: A differentiator. Yes.
YB: Completely. But also connected to my upbringing in New Orleans. New Orleans is a very color-caste system historically and contemporarily, and there, for the most part, you got folks who identify as white or Cajun, you got folks who identify as Black or African American. You got folks who identify as Creole. And Creole, historically and contemporarily, yes, very much a culture, very much a unique history, but also very much predicated on what people look like, what I call pretty color and good hair, right? Lighter skin complexion, basically a phenotype of physical characteristics that have a pretty close proximity to white. There’s definitely some otherness, but a distinct appearance, right? And growing up, here I am African, literally African American. I knew that I was dark skin and that I had kinky hair probably before I knew how to spell my own middle name. It was just at the forefront of my identity, or at least my perceived identity. It was at the forefront of my interactions with so many folks. I remember one of my best friends in elementary school was Creole, and I wasn’t invited to her birthday party because she said her mama said I was too Black. That you could have people keep social distance from you based upon what you look like. And so, in my experience, folks who had the “opportunity, the option, the choice” to choose another identity did. Who wants to be Black? So here you are, Rosa, you’re Puerto Rican. Why would you say that you’re Black?
YB: And so again, there’s a difference between what I can learn as a PhD in Black studies, who learned about the diaspora all up and through books, but not through travel, not through actually going to places and seeing actual Black people living all over the world. So, there’s a theoretical blackness, and then there’s a lived reality of blackness. And what I was faced with in this moment, this conundrum was like, I didn’t know this lived experience of blackness. I didn’t know that there were Puerto Rican folks who looked like Rosa, who also identify as Black. And I just remember being distracted that entire panel because I could not wrap my mind around how it is that she identified that way and why. And afterwards, we connected, we talked about it, and — bright idea — I want to talk to more people like Rosa. I want to talk to more folks who may not “look Black,” but identify as Black. And it immediately made me start thinking of people I knew. So, I thought of this woman, Danielle Eres, who I went to graduate school with. I tell her story in the book. We didn’t connect while we were in school together because she was acting very much like — or so I thought— acting very much like folks I knew back home, right.
YB: So, you’re light skinned, you look a particular way, then y’all wouldn’t speak to us. She wasn’t fooling with us. I’m like, “So you think you’re cute. You’re too good for us.” Okay, I wrote her off, you know? But before I was graduating, one of our common professors was like, “You need to read her paper,” and I didn’t want to. And he told me I needed to, and once I did, I came to find out that she grew up in a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. And her mother’s white, father’s Black, and in that community, she was the blackest thing there was. So, she was very aware that she was not white. Her father passed away while she was young, she felt very alone, isolated. She received all kinds of bullying and such in school to the extent that she stopped going to school and came into Temple. Philly is a very Black city. Had a new experience and decided she wanted to stay and go to graduate school in African American studies for herself, for no other reason for herself. She wanted to learn more about her connection to Blackness. And then she gets to Temple and comes into contact with folks like me. So, you’re too Black at home, and then around folks like myself, you’re not Black enough. Right? Made me want to talk to Danielle to revisit that. So, I interviewed Danielle.
YB: It made me connect with Noelle Theard, who’s the director of photography on the project. I met Noelle at a pre-doctoral fellowship at Florida International University, and the African diaspora studies program. She was a student in the program. Overheard her one day identifying, I don’t remember the language that she used, but it was something to indicate that she was somehow Black. And again, I’m like, “I don’t know what’s happening over here, I don’t know who told you that you were Black sis, but alright.” Never talked to her about it. I just knew that’s how she identified. But again, starting this project, I was like, I should talk to Noelle. And I remember I interviewed her, and we talked and we talked. And by the end of the interview, we decided to collaborate so that she would take the photographs for the project. And so, looking at everyone who’s in the book, there’s an intricate web somehow.
YB: Again, this started as a digital project, so the more I talked about it, the more folks were like, “You should talk to my aunt so-and so.” You know, Grandma Angie, and she’s passed away, God rest her soul. She was 103 at the time that I interviewed her. She’s the great aunt of one of my friends. And we traveled to Atlanta to meet with her, and he took her photograph. There are former students in the book. There are family members of friends. And so, I’m connected somehow to everybody in the book.
BB: Oh, I have goose bumps. I do, I have goose bumps, because you can feel some kind of magic or love and the interconnectedness of these stories, although they’re all radically different. Do you think part of that is because you invited them to tell their story?
YB: Oh, sure. And I think for a lot of them it’s a story that no one had bothered to ask them before. When it comes to race, we project all of our own stuff onto people. Very rarely do we sit back in a space of humility and just listen and learn without arguing, without requiring people to defend themselves or define themselves even. And so, yeah, I asked them to tell me their story and I shared their story as best I could. And so. in terms of process, we did an interview. I recorded it, transcribed it, and then took the Q and A and turned it into narrative form. And I shared it with them. We did edits together. I didn’t want to publish anything that they did not have a final “Okay” on. And so, I invited them to help me write their stories to share. Similarly, Noelle, in terms of her process, she invited them to help her create a portrait of them. So, most of them chose the location, they chose what they wanted to wear. We sent them lots of photos and asked them to pick their favorites. So, it’s our book. It’s our project.
BB: Can you define identity for me?
YB: That’s a good question. I would say identity is a mixture of things, but I think it’s somehow the meeting of who you are, who you believe yourself to be, and who others tell you that you are. And I think we’re all trying to navigate that space to come to understand who we are. Because we can’t act like other people’s definitions of us or other people’s projections onto us don’t impact us. A lot of us are constantly massaging our identities to fit in a variety of spaces and places. And I think it’s healthy to do so. But I’m sure over the course of our lives, we’re constantly revisiting the question of, “Who am I?” That’s constantly changing based upon the experiences that we have, and for better or for worse, some of us might define ourselves according to our experiences, or some of us might try to meet an identity that is projected on to us. So, identity is nuanced. It’s complicated. I think it’s hard to define. Sometimes I think it’s dangerous to define, depending on who’s doing the defining.
BB: Oh, man.
YB: [chuckle] Think about it beyond even this conversation around a racial identity. Think of the ways in which women have been defined. Who defined us? If men are defining us, we’re in trouble, yeah.
YB: Within the construct of patriarchy.
BB: Yeah, can we choose our identity?
YB: I don’t know if it’s that simple. I think there are spaces and places that we can. I think there are spaces and places that perhaps we can create to assume the identity and be whoever it is we want to be, but we also don’t live in this world by ourselves. And, like it or not, for better or worse, we’re not always able to live to that fullest choice, given the world that we live in. There are barriers. There are people who are gatekeepers. There’re going to be challenges to fully occupy that identity. So perhaps there are spaces and places where we can. Can we do it 100% of the time in all places? I don’t know if it’s that simple to just choose who we are.
BB: I’m a person, ironically, who hates vulnerability and uncertainty. And I told my team before we got on this call, I said, “No way in hell that Dr. Blay’s going to let me force her into simple definitions around the complexity of this topic. She will not participate in that.
YB: We can’t.
BB: You can’t.
YB: I don’t know how it’s possible. And again, I think to some degree it’s dangerous. And I think about so many conversations that I’ve been having around One Drop in its re-release and this question of identity and definitions, particularly when it comes to this notion of defining blackness. It’s like, Okay, even if we start from scratch in this moment, who gets to do the defining…
BB: Oh my god.
YB: And based upon what?
BB: The power always belongs to the definers and never to the definees, right?
BB: The title of the book is One Drop. Tell us what that means.
YB: So, One Drop, alluding to a historical one-drop rule. It’s been called different things on the books, rule of hypodescent, so on and so forth. But essentially a legal classification defining blackness that ultimately set out to protect whiteness. Because what it said — A — was interesting, a lot of people don’t know, whiteness was defined as pure, whatever that means, right? We’re talking about a historical moment where there’s lots of miscegenation, lots of mixing of the races, which if we’re being honest, was because there were lots of white colonizers and plantation owners who were raping women of African descent.
YB: Right? So, these women are having children. The question is what to do with these children. Now, prior to this moment, by European law, a child takes the status of their father. Insert this law, the child takes the status of the mother. This is a way that ultimately gives white plantation owners — white colonists permission ultimately — to do whatever the hell they want, because now you don’t have to be responsible for the children that are birthed. Matter of fact, you now have more property.
BB: So basically, the laws protected the sexual assault of enslaved Black women.
YB: Yes, of course. A) they were property. So, there was no such thing as rape in that moment. A property owner can do whatever the hell he pleases with and to you. But yeah, so many of the children that were born — they didn’t take their father’s last name.
YB: Matter of fact, he wasn’t even considered their father, whether they knew that he was or not. And so, the one-drop rule essentially says that all it takes is one drop in Black blood, of African blood to make a person Black or African. That they could take it back five generations, and if one person in your family line was Black — no matter what you look like — and one person in your family line was Black according to this rule, you were Black. And again, it was a way to consolidate the power and privilege…
BB: That was assigned to whiteness. We can’t share this.
BB: No, we’re protecting whiteness and everything it holds, its power. Tell me about Susie Guillory Phipps.
YB: So, I start the book with the example of Susie Guillory Phipps, who was a woman who was from New Orleans, from Louisiana. For whatever reason, Susie Guillory Phipps didn’t have a copy of her birth certificate. She and her husband were going to take, I believe, a cruise, but they were going out of the country for some reason. She needed a passport. She had to get a birth certificate to apply for that passport. She gets a birth certificate, her birth certificate has her listed as Creole and she is flabbergasted because she’s lived her life according to her. She’s lived her life as a white woman. So, of course they had to have made a mistake. She contacts them. They’re like, “No, that’s what it is.” So, she sued the Bureau of Vital Records and lost. She sued all the way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and she lost. So, if she is still alive, Susie Guillory Phipps is still classified as colored and/or Negro, which would now be Black. And it’s so interesting. I pulled quotes from an Ebony Magazine interview with her, and she’s like, “I’m white, I was raised white, all my family’s white.” She’s giving all this testimony. But what was so interesting is — I believe it was one of her cousins who testified in the case and was like, “No, we colored.”
YB: It made me think that conscious or not, Susie was part of… She passed. I suspect she probably knew she passed. Somebody in her family knew she was passing. But if you know the history of passing… And by passing, I mean, those folks who, again, according to this one-drop rule, according to the law, will be classified as Black. That they literally have to distance themselves from everybody in their family who could be or would be seen as Black and move away and live their lives as white. So, when we think about the book Imitation of Life and the story of Pecola. Pecola has to run away so that she can live a white life, because if you see her Black mother, you know then that she too is Black, regardless of what she looks like. And so, it’s likely if — it weren’t Susie, maybe it was Susie’s parents — but somebody in Susie’s family made a decision to distance themselves and go live “free” as white folks. So, I’m sure not only was Susie surprised, I’m sure her husband was surprised as well.
BB: Oh, I bet. Yeah, I bet. Yeah, you have some quotes in here from her, and she was just like, “I’m white. My kids are white. My grandkids are white. I live in a white area. There’re not even any colored folks around here, except for helping hands.” I was like, “Oh my god, she is…
YB: Adamant. Adamant.
BB: Adamant, yeah. What do you think people were thinking back then? There is this two-page spread and everyone in our organization who’s got the book and everyone’s getting a copy of the book that works with us. If you know me, you’re getting a copy of the book. So. Okay, let me go to the spread. These are old photos and its colonial Louisiana definitions. And it’s literally eight photographs. This is how people based on skin color and genetics or family history…
YB: Based upon numbers. It’s a numbers game. It’s almost like a measuring cup. So, one-fourth Black, you’re a quadroon. One-eighth Black, you’re an octoroon. One-sixteenth Black you’re a quintroon. One-thirty-second Black? Passe blanc or a blanc force, which means white by force or pass for white. Hundred percent full-cup Negro. Half mulatto. Right? So, on and so forth. And so again, in Louisiana specifically, and we see this across the diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean and in Latin America. Where, okay, yes, we have the one-drop rule that says that if you have as little as one drop, you are not white, let’s say that. So, amongst those of us who are not white, we are going to essentially create our own hierarchy. So, if white supremacy creates a hierarchy in a binary between white and Black. There’s a whole lot of folks in between. And so, these categorizations allow you to climb a little bit up the ladder. These classifications are about in a proximity to whiteness. So that if I’m an octoroon, you know that I’m somehow more white than a quadroon, more white than a mulatto, so on and so forth. And so now I need you to evaluate my value based upon the amount of whiteness that I have, almost like the whiteness saves you from that barbaric uncivilized being that is your Africanity.
YB: If we situate whiteness and blackness as binary opposites and whiteness represents humanity… Because again, folks of African descent weren’t even considered human. How are we written in the constitution of this country? We weren’t fully human. So, if whiteness is human, know that I have this amount of whiteness, which makes me more human than someone with less or someone with none. And so, when we talk about colorism. Colorism is a symptom of white supremacy. It’s what we do to ourselves. It’s our attempt to gain access to the power and privilege afforded to whiteness based upon our ability to approximate whiteness. And that can operate in a variety of ways. It’s not just skin color or phenotype, but even in this contemporary moment, it could be what neighborhood you live in, what schools you send your kids to, how you speak, all manner of things. But ultimately, it’s about attempting to gain access to the power that’s been consolidated in and with whiteness.
BB: Want to talk to you about shame and I’ll tell you why. There were a couple of interviews I did early in the work I was doing with women on shame, and two interviews I just couldn’t stop thinking about when I was reading One Drop. One was a young college student who was a legacy at the sorority. Her grandmother was in the sorority. Her mother was in the sorority. And she was telling me this story. She was in so much visceral pain telling me the story. And she did not get into this sorority, and she said… Because she knew in her heart, it was because of the paper-bag test. This research was like, I don’t know, 10 years ago. This was recent history. And she said that her mother and grandmother were very light-skinned, but her mother married a very dark-skinned man, and she had her father’s dark skin. And so, when I said, “Tell me about the paper bag test,” and she said, “You know the paper bag test like my skin’s darker than a paper bag.” This is recent history.
YB: I’m looking at your face and you’re like, “Are you serious?” I’m like, “Yes.”
BB: People want to take One Drop and will want to read it and think about how bad things used to be historically. What would you say to that?
YB: It may look different. It’s not so different for a lot of folks. But even the paper bag test, Brené — it was a physical test at one point in time. But just to say a paper bag. We all have a reference point; you know what color a paper bag is.
BB: Craft-color brown. Yeah.
YB: I don’t have to physically pull one out.
YB: So, it’s just to say that at one point in time whether we’re talking about… Which is another thing a lot of folks don’t realize. Many historically Black colleges were instituted by white missionaries or white philanthropists who wanted to do good for the Negroes. We’re going to create an institution to basically save them from themselves. We’re going to educate them. And then there are those who were instituted by Black folks ourselves. But. when we talk about colorism and skin color politics, we can’t separate that from socio-economic status as well. That across the world and across the country, again, coming back to that hierarchy and approximation to whiteness. The lighter you are, the more white or the presumption is the more likely it is that you have white folks in your family. You are of a different class, different caste. And so therefore you have more value, or the potential to do better than folks who are straight off the boat and closer to Africa, more like those uncivilized folks who needed to be enslaved.
YB: And so, what we know about many social clubs and I won’t name names — social clubs, fraternities and sororities, HBCUs — that in order to gain entrance, not only did you have to fill out an application, but you had to submit family trees, and you had to submit photographs. This isn’t based upon your grades necessarily, but will you fit in here because we are grooming a particular class of folks? And in many cases, folks with skin darker than a brown paper bag would not be let in. There was also the comb test.
BB: What’s that?
YB: And the comb test was to say that, “If I can’t run this comb through your natural hair without it getting stuck or it getting any kind of hesitation to go straight through your hair, then you don’t pass.” So, it’s not just skin color, but it’s hair texture as well.
BB: And all manifestations of white supremacy.
BB: The other interview took me off-guard, and this was before I started interviewing men, so these were all women and very diverse sample. In fact, my first sample was 40% Black women. And I was interviewing a woman who was in medical school. I think she was a third-year medical student. And I asked her about her experiences of shame, and she said, “Well, I’m trilingual.” And I was so impressed. I was like, “Wow, what do you speak?” And she said, “Oh, just English. But I speak one way here. I speak one way with my friends and one way with my grandparents with whom I live.” And she said, “And you can never make a mistake about where you are, you’ve got to be thinking all the time.” And I said, “What happens if you speak like you do at school in front of your grandparents?” And she said, “Well, I’ll just tell you the first day I came home from medical school and I put on my little, short white jacket that medical students get. The first thing my grandmother said is, “Don’t act white around here.” And so, I have to speak white at school. I speak my most natural way with my friends and a more respectful but familial and very Black way with my grandparents.”
BB: And when I was reading your book, I thought, “This is another way this shows up is in language.” I get to spend 100% of my energy focusing on the problems I’m trying to solve in medical school. I don’t have to think about the different ways I’m going to… I mean I have to watch personally my language, my cussing, but I don’t have to do anything beyond that. But I thought about the trauma and exhaustion that I read in your book was so overwhelming.
YB: Well, perhaps as a white woman, it allows you to see — as you say — how whatever normal is in your day-to-day, the things you don’t have to think about… And I would say when you speak of this woman saying she’s trilingual. She’s speaking to the notion of code-switching, which so many of us do and have to do. And I think it becomes so natural to the extent that we’re not even thinking about it. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m going to… Let me… ” You do it. That we’ve learned, we’ve been trained consciously or otherwise that there are certain expectations in certain spaces. So how I’m speaking to you now, I wouldn’t say I’m speaking white. This isn’t perhaps my act-right voice. I wouldn’t even say it’s my professional voice. But how I’m speaking to you is not how I’m speaking to my girlfriends on the phone. It’s not how I’m speaking to my daughter. And then — added layer for me — t’s not how I would speak to my Ghanaian family.
YB: We are constantly navigating multiple spaces, and not only being comfortable in that space, but ensuring that other people are comfortable with our presence in that space. How do I fit in in that space? The problem to me — could be a problem, maybe it’s not a problem — is for those folks who don’t remember that it is a game, that it is code-switching. I hesitate and I push back. In this moment, I think things have changed in a lot of ways, but this notion or this question of speaking white… Historically in other generations, I might understand that differently.
BB: Say more.
YB: Because… Well, because of segregation, I think we were so much more embedded in our own culture and our own cultural spaces, that there were cultural norms that we lived by in our communities and going into white spaces was starkly different. And so, you knew you had to be a different person to move and navigate through those spaces. Here comes integration. Here comes lines crossing and lines blurring. And yes, we still do have some very thick and strong Black communities throughout the country and throughout the world. But when you start talking about corporate America, when you start talking about the mainstream, when you start talking about working in diverse — “diverse spaces” — it’s time to put on your “professional voice”. But your client’s grandparents saying, “Don’t come in here talking like white folks.” It makes me think immediately, “Yeah, you might have the opportunity to go out into that world and climb that illusion of a ladder, but don’t you forget who you are, and don’t you start thinking you’re better than us somehow, because you over there associating with those people. So, when you come home, be at home.”
BB: Be at home.
YB: So, these questions of, “Who are you?” though, which one of those is real for you? I wouldn’t say that any of them is not real.
YB: But for me it’s, I think of chess. It’s a game. It’s how you’re navigating the spaces to get through and to get by. Is it fake? I don’t think so. Now for some people, they might just go overboard with it. It’s too much of a performance, but we’re all performing.
BB: I was going to say, I don’t know that anyone is exempt from some performance.
YB: Uh-huh. We’re all performing.
BB: We’re all performing. You’re a really good teacher.
YB: [chuckle] Thank you.
BB: It also makes me think of this book I reference a lot on the podcast, which is called Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. Which it was a book I read probably 20 years ago. The first thing I actually thought was…
YB: One of my books.
BB: “God, the exhaustion.” Oh yes, we’ve talked about that before I saw it on your shelf when we were zooming with Tarana one day. What is your hope for the book and what can change and what needs to change?
YB: Well, you know, first time around, when I first published the book myself? 2013. I was interested in sparking conversations about race and about racial identity. I think I did it the first time for us. And by us, I mean Black folks. Because again, I think… I thought that it was important for us to be having critical conversations about Blackness, what it feels like, and what it felt like is so often, we just take for granted what Blackness is, and that spills over into what’s a Black issue? A so-called Black issue. Who’s a Black representative? Who a Black politician might be like? All these questions… We don’t ask enough questions. We don’t think critically about our identity. And historically, our identity has been handed to us. And for many people, lots of Black folks, we just accept the one-drop rule. That’s what it is. No questions asked, right? Wanting us to ask questions, now, does this still serve us? Do these definitions of Blackness serve us? And, if we are going to redefine Blackness in this moment… Again, who gets to do that? And based upon what? And more importantly, for what reason?
YB: So, if we come up with a checklist of what’s Black and what’s not, what do we stand to lose? What do we stand to gain? I know for myself as somebody who is unquestionably Black on appearances, I’ve never had to think about these things. I’ve never had to define it, nobody’s ever challenged my identity in that way for me to have to defend myself, whereas folks who are in the book, most have. So, it was an interesting starting point to have the conversation with folks who are constantly being asked, “What are you?” Or “Where are you from?” Or constantly being asked to… “You’re not Black?” And having to say why they are, so I thought it was an interesting starting point because I’ve never had to do that. Seven years later, 10 years after I started the project in this moment, still hoping to open up conversations about race. But I’m also interested in how white folks receive this work.
YB: And the response has been amazing. I’m thankful for that. But I caution white folks to not pick up this book and do what so many white folks do in this moment of wanting to be “woke,” in this moment of wanting to be anti-racist, in this moment of wanting to delve into the realm of diversity and inclusion and belonging in whatever language we use. And that is to treat “people of color” like animals in the zoo. Like this is a trip to the zoo. Let’s go look and see what the people of color are doing. I need to learn so much about people of color. That we talk about diversity, we put even the language of diverse. When people talk about having a diverse workforce or diverse whatever. We only use diverse to point at “people of color.” That’s not what diverse means. Each time we leave whiteness out of the equation, when really whiteness as the core of the problem. And it remains untouched, unscathed. So, in our attempt to talk about diversity, we’re only talking about the Blacks. We’re only talking about the Latinos. We’re only talking about the Asians. We’re only talking about women. We’re only talking about the differently abled.
BB: Because again, what are we doing? We’re normalizing whiteness, and we don’t think critically about the norm, the norm is the problem. And so for me, for white folks who find this interesting, “Oh my god, this is so beautiful, I never thought about this,” I need you to center yourself in this. It may not be your story, but how was the story connected to you? How was the story connected to your identity and the history of your identity? How did we get here? For example, in this moment, folks who are Jewish identify as white. That was not always the case.
BB: Oh yeah.
BB: Folks who are Italian identify as white. That was not always the case. In this moment, folks who are from Egypt can, — listen to the language — can identify as white. That was absolutely not always the case. So, understand that there are politics. There are political ramifications to these racial identities that we just take as fact. I think about when we get the census or any other form that we’re supposed to check a box? We act like those boxes are factual. I had to fill out something today, and the only option was African American. What about my father? He’s not African American. What about someone from Brazil who looks like me? They’re not African American, but again… Because we get so caught up. And for the work that I do, and the work that I’ve been asked to do, so many times… Again, in the realm of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, a company will reach out to me. They want me to come do a workshop on colorism. They want me to come talk about diversity. Ultimately, what they want is for me to come and give them a checklist on how not to get in trouble. There’s no critical thinking involved.
BB: And not relational.
YB: They’re not relational. You want me to tell you what to memorize in this moment. What are you calling yourselves these days? Is it Black? Is it African American? There’s no critical thinking involved when all you put on a paper is African American, as if there are not people of African descent all over this world who are not American. But what do you put? White. You didn’t say European. You didn’t say European American. You said white. You see what I’m saying? You’re clear.
BB: Yeah, just from a research perspective, it’s a complete ecological fallacy. You’re not even measuring the same things.
BB: You’re measuring power.
YB: You’re measuring power and you have the power to conflate all of our identities into this one box. And you use the language of African American, not because you know anything about that language, but because it’s now a rule — at least in your mind.
BB: It’s safe.
YB: It’s safe. I remember being in grad school, my first Master’s in Counseling Psychology, and we had one course on Multicultural Counseling. Two-year program. We had one course on multicultural counseling. One textbook. Of course, taught by the one Black professor. And somehow in the course of 15 weeks we were supposed to learn everything we need to know about providing therapy to a diverse clientele. Literally, chapter on African Americans, chapter on Latino Americans, chapter by chapter by chapter. And I remember there was a guest speaker who came in and she’s talking about counseling African Americans, and she’s talking and she’s talking, and she got ready to say something and she stopped, she’s like, “When we’re talking about Blacks, I mean afro, I mean African-Americans,” and she turned and looked at me, one of two…
BB: Oh no. Uh-huh.
BB: Black students in the class, and says, “What do you all call yourselves now?” And me being who I am, I say, “It doesn’t matter what you call us if you think we’re all niggers.” I need to tell you what to call me? Because you have no critical thinking involved when it comes to my identity. Because you’re just trying not to get in trouble. But critical thinking says, “There are people of African descent all over the world. Lots of folks got picked up on boats and were dropped off in a whole lot of places. They all come from the same place, but they all got colonized by different people. So those of us who are colonized by the British? WE speak English. We were dropped off in the Americas. Those of us who were colonized by the Spaniards, we speak Spanish. We were dropped off in the Spanish colonies and so on and so forth. Therefore, we have different identities in these different spaces. We are all of African descent. In this moment, yes, we are all Black, but we have different lived experiences. We are not all African American. We’re not all American. And again, you know that when it comes to whiteness. You see what I’m saying? You know that.
BB: Oh yeah.
YB: You can’t afford to say white American, because you know what’ll happen? You’ll lose power. You’ll lose those numbers, because you have to be able to include all the white people all over the world. Guess what would be happening if we were able to claim all the Black people all over the world? We are not the minority. You are.
BB: Man, this is going to get really serious, as it comes to that 2026 census. This is the real talk right here around maintaining power.
YB: And who gets to determine.
BB: Who gets to determine. And, what’s so important that you’re talking about that’s so complex, I think, is the privilege of invisibility. It’s the assumption that the baseline is whiteness, and everything that’s not is a subtraction from that whole.
YB: Whiteness is the comparison point to everything. It’s what’s normal, “normal or standard.” You can’t compare me to whiteness period. I will always come up short. It’s a set up. There’s no winning.
BB: There’s no winning.
YB: None whatsoever. And so, we don’t question even language, when we think about language. It grinds my gears when people use the language of non-white. White is center. That’s okay? We’re just going to keep acting like whiteness is the standard period without question. Non-white? Could I say non-Black? You know what I mean?
BB: Oh yeah.
YB: Again, in the realm of diversity, we don’t include white in there. And I remember working this job I mentioned in Multicultural Affairs in the university. Of course, most universities want to talk about diversity and recruiting diverse students. I think of folks who work in Admissions and the plans to attract a diverse student body. And my thing is like — while you’re sitting here trying to figure out what predominantly Black cities to go set up your little tables at, what about the white ones? Because y’all keep accepting the same white boy from Central New Jersey who comes here with the same attitude and now was impacting the culture — not the climate — the culture of your institution.
YB: You do nothing to change the face of whiteness here. You’re worried about all the other little sprinkles of color that you can bring, and you put the onus of making your institution diverse on them. But you keep bringing the same white boy here. You keep attracting the same white professors. Because that’s normal. What would happen if you got a white boy from Jersey, add that to a white boy from California, add that to a white boy from New York, a white boy from Europe. Give me some different white people. Y’all can’t all be the same, are you? But again, how you think about diversity is only on us. This is not our problem. It’s yours. And that’s why we’re not moving, that’s why it’s all surface. I hand the problem back to you. It’s not ours.
BB: And we receive it, and we reject it, and we make it transactional, and we make it so we stay out of trouble, and then we blame you for the stress of trying to keep up with what the rules are. It’s an entire exercise in dehumanization.
YB: Over and over and over again. And you’re asking us to participate in our own dehumanization.
YB: You’re asking me to teach you how to free myself from you, so you get to oppress me. I can’t be your target and your shield. I can’t.
BB: Yeah, your teacher and your casualty.
YB: No. It’s not my problem. And I think the thing that’s so also frustrating for so many of us is that there’s a sense that white folks wouldn’t even know where to begin. If we don’t hold your hand, how are you going to get there? It’s like you need us to show you the mirror. We have to hold the mirror up to you and say that you’re the problem. @we didn’t do this. And do I want to say it’s not your fault? Work with me. When we think of K through 12 education, how would you know you’re the problem? When we get to college, how would you know you are the problem? If you grew up in the same cul de sac and went to the same schools with the same people and climbed the same ladders with all the same people? How would you know you are a problem? Okay, so this is why we need diversity. Let’s put you in environments with a diverse population so that you can learn different things.
YB: No, because you traumatize us. We get into these diverse spaces, and now the onus is on us to tell you that you’re racist, but you don’t want to receive that you’re racist. How? That’s a lot to ask of us.
BB: Yeah, it’s an impossible ask, actually.
YB: It’s an impossible ask. But, since we’re here dealing with reality, if you recognize that is a valuable shift and work that needs to be done, there are a lot of us who can do the work. The problem is you don’t want to pay us for it, because you don’t value it. You think that it’s an after school special and that we should be happy to come in and do a five-hour workshop for $500. But you’ll pay random, insert-white-man here, to come talk about some theory that you know nothing about. You don’t even understand what he’s saying while he’s on stage, but you’ll pay him a pretty penny because of the name and the suit that he’s wearing.
BB: Will systems have to change first then, if we leave it… I was thinking about this quote the other day, that, “We don’t rise to our highest goals. We fall to our most broken systems.” And the goals and the aspirations are great, but I wonder if our better angels are enough for whiteness to own white supremacy. I don’t know, I don’t have the answer. I know it can’t be transactional, it’s got to be relational…
YB: But the relational part is hard though. This is what I’m saying.
BB: It is, but it’s the only way. I’m sorry it’s hard, but what else can we do?
YB: How do we get there though? How do we get to relational? Because all of that systemic things that we’re speaking about are barriers to us being in a place that we can be relational.
BB: That’s why I’m wondering if it has to be policy. I’m wondering if we just have to say like, what Coca-Cola is doing right now. We just will not hire a law firm that is not racially and culturally diverse. You’re just not going to work for us.
YB: Yeah. Yes and no.
BB: I don’t know the answer. I don’t know.
YB: I think it takes a lot. I think it takes a lot. We definitely need the Coca-Colas, and we need the Ben and Jerrys. We need the white folks to come out and say… We need you to say white supremacy, we need you to call out and identify… So, t’s almost like those of you who know better, we need you with the microphone. We need you to push and do this work with the same fervor that we do.
BB: Yeah, I agree.
YB: But see, it’s a choice. It’s a choice for so many white folks. Whereas for so many of us, it’s no choice at all, it’s our livelihood at stake. We have no choice but to do this work.
BB: Yeah, it’s your children’s lives at stake. Yeah, and we get to like,” Well, I’m going to do it today, but tomorrow is really rough, and I’ve got a lot of shit on my agenda, and so I can’t be uncomfortable on Thursday, but I can come back at it.” Like, the choice of discomfort.
BB: I mean, really comfort is the great plague of white supremacy. I get to opt out of being uncomfortable.
YB: And also, what are you willing to give up? If you recognize that we need a better system and a better world to live in — what are you willing to give up so that we can get there? Because it’s not going to happen with you getting to hold on to all the privileges that you have. And I think for so many white people, at least from my perception of it, you want to hold on to things as they are and let’s help the others at the same time. Can’t go so. Can’t go so. What are you willing to give up?
BB: But I genuinely believe, — don’t you — that my life as a white person will be measurably, observably better with racial equality.
YB: I mean, in theory I would agree.
BB: There’s no question.
YB: I would say yes, but again, who gets to define better because I’m sure there’s some white folks who won’t… No matter what you say, Brené, they’re not going to see that as better. And so again, what’s the personal investment in… And we learned a lot these last four years. A lot of stuff came front and center on our TV screens about the world and the country that we live in.
YB: And for a lot of folks, we were surprised. And for a lot of us, we weren’t. We just knew that it was now on TV.
BB: We just have cameras in our phones.
YB: Yeah. So, it is going to have to come from higher places, and right now, I just think it feels like negotiations, right I think of after George Floyd’s murder this past summer, and everybody was on Instagram with the black boxes, and everybody wants to be anti-racist, and everybody is hashtag Black Lives Matter. And I can’t tell you how many companies — I’m sure you saw them — how many companies came out with statements in support of the Black community. I call BS. You know why? Because I can’t tell you how many of those companies reached out to me to ask me to help them write those statements. I don’t work for you. I don’t know your value system. You tell me. That’s your work. But again, you want me to help you write the thing that’s going to make you look good. Can I talk to your employees? What’s it like to work for you? What you value, you do. Those statements don’t align with your practices, but you don’t want to get in trouble and or you don’t want to be seen as not being a part of this movement.
YB: We don’t need statements. We need you to do better. So, I always bring up the case of Ben and Jerrys, because when I saw Ben and Jerrys come out and say dismantle white supremacy. I don’t even eat Ben and Jerry’s, but they can have my money. I would support you. Because you had the fortitude, the courage — and it’s unfortunate that I even have to give you credit for having courage, but you have the courage to say, “Dismantle white supremacy,” when so many other people were hiding behind the comfortable language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. What do those words look like at your company? It’s not enough to just have Black people at your company. What is the culture of your space and how do they feel being Black in your company?
YB: And does their Blackness somehow impact or influence your practices? Is it a Black perspective that is being brought to the board table, or is it just that you got a Black person at a desk? Is it Blackness of thought? Is it Blackness of perspective? Is it Blackness of critical thinking, or is it just a Black body? What you value, you do. You’ve got to operationalize it.
BB: Operationalize it and accountability.
YB: And accountability. Who holds you accountable?
BB: What mechanisms are in place to hold you accountable for this value you’re espousing as part of your branding?
YB: Yep. So, you don’t get to hashtag us and come up with a nice statement on a Black background with white letters and say you support us. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get a gold star for attempting to be a decent human being.
BB: You do a program for organizations that, to me, sounds incredible. Tell me about the two-part program that you run for organizations.
YB: Well, you know, again, I push back on the kind of standard approach to diversity and equity and inclusion. I tend to focus on the work that I do, and so my work focuses on colorism. And I use colorism as an entry point to talk about white supremacy. I’ve had the opportunity to do this presentation with a few pretty big-name clients in the media industry, so particularly focusing on colorism and mediated images, for example.
BB: Break down that sentence for me, colorism and mediated images. Tell me what that means.
YB: So, we’re talking about the images that are projected onto our screens. The way in which we come to understand who people are based upon who we see on the screen. So many of us learn our reality through the TV. Through media, through film. So again, using my own example — talking about this book, it wasn’t until I physically went to Brazil that I saw how many people look like me in Brazil. Because the Brazil that came through my TV was Rio.
BB: Oh, yeah.
YB: But again, Brazil has the highest population of people of African descent anywhere in this world, second only to Nigeria. Brazil has more African-descended people in its nation than all other nations in Africa itself, aside from Nigeria. You would never know that.
BB: I had no idea.
YB: Never knew that, looking at the TV. So that when we talk about “diverse programming,” when we talk about “Black programming” even — on the one hand we say representation matters. How important it is for us to see people who look like us on screen. But again, if you’re operating from a space of a checklist — how not to get in trouble. So now y’all expect me to create diverse programming that means I got to have a Black person. I’ve got to have a Latinx person. I’ve got to have an Asian, but which Black person are you going to cast in a particular role? There’s going to be a large difference between Zendaya and Makayla Cole. Who’s going to be cast as the love interest? Who’s going to be cast as the victim?
BB: The funny best friend.
YB: The funny best friend. The sassy one with an attitude who’s always in trouble, the teen mom. Whomever. And likewise, with men. But we have different understandings. Again, to keep it very clear, the history of Black folks and the relationship of Black folks to white supremacy into this country is that so many folks have presumed and assumed our value based upon what our bodies look like on those auction blocks. And so, when you think of the cartoon, The Proud Family, colorism up and through. What’s Penny Proud look like versus her best friend Dijonay. Versus her mother — successful woman — versus her sassy grandmother, versus the bullies, the Gross sisters.
BB: The Gross sisters. Yeah.
YB: So dark that they’re grey even. You don’t have to sit children down and say, “This is colorism. This is what this means.” No, you don’t have to tell them anything because they make and they take meaning, based upon the images that they then watch. I think about my seven-year-old granddaughter, and she is the girliest, girliest girl there is. So, every Halloween, she wants to be something girly, if not a princess. How many Black princesses can she dress up like?
YB: And even the Black princess. What’s she look like? What’s her hair look like? Does she look like my grand…
BB: Their skin’s…
YB: Might not. One year, the closest we got was Mulan. My father — for example — I wasn’t allowed to play with white baby dolls when I was little. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he was serious about that role. I remember… My mother, I don’t remember, my mother’s side of the story of me, taking a child to get portraits, taking at like JC Penny and they do the set up with the books and the things, and my dad pulled me off the set because there was a book facing the camera with a white child. That for Black parents — we have to be that kind of vigilant and still our children suffer.
YB: So why not have a conversation with folks who have the power to create images, the power to cast, to say, perhaps you don’t understand how this functions. It’s not enough to just say it’s diverse. What kind of diverse? That there’s diversity within these groups. Every Black person doesn’t look the same. Every Latinx person doesn’t look the same. Every Asian… We see this, the Asian example was another example. I think of Indian Matchmaker [Matchmaking] on Netflix, where the matchmaker talks very casually about how fair skin is a characteristic that they’re looking for. No wonder India has one of the highest cases of skin bleaching in this world, no wonder. If we’re constantly projecting that our value is predicated upon having a particular complexion, and then you create options for us to change our complexion that can ultimately kill us. Do you think we’re not going to take the option? But then you judge us for taking the option. Why is there an option?
YB: So, all of that to say that it’s important to have conversations about colorism and casting in that way, but not without connecting it to white supremacy. Not without connecting it to the broader system. Because what ends up happening with colorism so often is folks act like it is about people’s preferences, that person just prefers lighter-skinned women or that’s just what I’m attracted to. But there’s a very fine line between preference and pathology and colorism is our pathology.
BB: I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but there was a documentary that I think Bell Hooks did that I saw when I was in graduate school, where I remember being so struck by it. But she started with, I think maybe the documentary Kids, which was a very violent documentary, and she talked about how everyone that died in this one documentary or every violent scene, everyone, the violence was against a dark-skinned Black person. And so, I wonder, when you go into these corporations and these organizations and you teach this information, for me, learning that was a lens I could never take off again. Do you know what I mean, when someone gives you a lens and now all of a sudden, you’re like, “Shit, it’s everywhere I look.” But to be able to get that new lens and not connect it with the dismantling of white supremacy, which costs white people things, is not worth doing. Right?
YB: Right. And so again, for me, I go, and I do my part. It’s important for me to share the perspective at least, and again, for me, the goal is to always push people to be thinking critically. And as you say, I don’t want you to ever unsee that. I don’t want you to ever look at The Proud Family the same. I want you to be constantly reminded that this could be a problem. The unfortunate thing, however, is that for the most part, many of the people who are empowered and really have the power to change things usually aren’t in those roles. Because again, a lot of the time when we approach the work of diversity — that’s what companies do for their staff.
BB: You might get the HR person in there. Which is why when I speak a lot, I say, “Who’s going to be in the audience?” And your answer depends on whether I can come or not.
BB: Whatever you write, I read. Whatever you say, I’m listening. And I’m going to take responsibility for that information and do something differently in my life, because that still doesn’t make it a fair equation.
BB: You want to do some rapid-fire questions?
YB: I don’t know. Okay.
BB: Come on Yaba —more enthusiasm. I want you to be like “That sounds…
YB: Yeah, let’s go. Let’s do it.
BB: ‘effin awesome.” Okay.
BB: That was the worst wooh I’ve… Okay, you ready?
BB: Alright, fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
YB: Vulnerability is being willing to walk around with an open wound.
BB: Well, there’s like… There’s 10 more, but I don’t know if I’m going to have it in me. Okay, let’s keep going. Okay.
BB: You, Yaba, are called to be really brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
BB: I get in bed. I lay down.
BB: Lay down. What is something people often get wrong about you?
YB: That I’m happy.
BB: What’s the last TV show that you binged and loved?
YB: 90 Day Fiancé.
YB: It’s my favorite.
BB: Favorite movie?
YB: The Color Purple.
YB: A concert that you’ll never forget?
BB: Favorite meal?
YB: Banku and Okra soup, a traditional Ghanaian meal.
BB: What’s on your nightstand?
YB: Incense and candles.
BB: A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you true joy?
YB: Laying in my bed, listening to music.
BB: Tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.
YB: I am deeply grateful for this moment. I am.
BB: Me too.
YB: Yeah, and I’ll say that it’s just amazing to me to be here in this moment, and I’m trying not to be over-emotional, but I’ve been very emotional since the release of this book, because I know what putting this book out the first time did to me. I worked myself into sickness and still didn’t necessarily feel like it was a success, primarily because I couldn’t get a traditional publisher to pick it up. Self-publishing oftentimes, for many of us, we feel like the equivalent of selling something out of the trunk of your car. Even though the book won awards and so on and so forth, it didn’t have that stamp of approval from a press. And now that it does have the stamp of approval, I find myself still feeling some type of way because I’m like, “But y’all aren’t the reason why this is good. I am.” But I’m thankful to have this moment to see how far the work is going, to see how far I’m going, but to also know that I still have the love and support of my ground-zero community.
YB: You know that I’ve always had my community cheering me on, my community is how I raised the money to even publish the book the first time, my community is probably why the book sold out in 24 hours. And so, I ‘m thankful for the love and support of my community and I pray I don’t let them down.
BB: The last thing I want to talk to you about — this makes me so happy — you gave us songs for a mini mix tape, songs you can’t live without. Number one. “Love Is A Battlefield” by Pat Benatar.
BB: I’m going to try this, and you can correct me. Cantos Ocon…
YB: “Cantos A Ochun et Oya”
BB: “Black” by Buddy, featuring A$AP Ferg.
BB: “My Life” by Mary J. Blige. And “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze, which is also tied with Beyonce’s rendition of the same song on her Homecoming album.
BB: Okay, here’s your challenge, you ready? One sentence, tell me what this mini mix tape says about Dr. Yaba Blay?
YB: This mini mixed tape says that I will always move to the beat of a drum. Sometimes it’s my own drum. Many times, it’s other. But I’m very much moved. I know it’s not one sentence, but it’s… All of these songs is a drum there, so get into the drum, there’s a beating there, it’s a pulse there, and I know that my movement is always guided by that pulse. Dare I say that — that’s God.
BB: Dare you say that’s God. Well, I’m going to tell you that you are a pulse. You are a heartbeat.
YB: Thank you.
BB: And you know what, I’m really grateful for, I’m grateful for your challenge, I’m grateful for your honesty. I’m grateful for your anger. I’m grateful for your heart. And I really hope you take care of that spirit because what a blessing to get to talk to you about this book and about your work and your life. Thank you for sharing your story with us, sharing this book with us and being a truthteller.
YB: Thank you, Brené, truly.
BB: I know a lot of us don’t think of non-fiction books as book club books. Sometimes we do, but mostly it’s fiction books. I wish everyone in the world would belong to some community or some group of people, read One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, individually, and then talk about it collectively. It’s through these conversations that we can start to better understand and also start to better take responsibility for our role in dismantling systems that are deeply dehumanizing and traumatizing. So, if you are listening and you’ve got a book club? Here’s an idea, do One Drop, read it, discuss it, and listen to the podcast together. I think that’s a really intimate connecting way to work our way through information that’s new and information that we invite to change how we think who we are and what we do in the world. You can find Dr. Blay online at @yabablay on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. She also runs @professionalblackgirl and @iampretty.period on Instagram. And her website, which is beautiful, is yabablay.com. Every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on brenebrown.com where we have links, resources, and, about five days after the podcast we’ll put up the transcript, for those of you who would like to read the transcript.
BB: Thank you, always. Thank you. Huge gratitude for listening to both Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead on Spotify. I appreciate it. I appreciate the opportunity to do this work. I appreciate having a community to do it with. Stay awkward, brave, and kind y’all.
Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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