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Ways to Begin Exploring Your Racial Identity

By Tiffany Eve Lawrence

What you know about your racial identity is heavily influenced by where you get your information, and since birth we’ve all absorbed messages from sources we aren’t always aware of. Some are accurate and empowering and some are filled with false, misleading information. Before you attach your Blackness to an idea you’ve been exposed to, consider the source.

Messages From Families and Caregivers

Many foundational ideas about race come from parents through a process called racial socialization, which is how families communicate messages about racial and ethnic identity. Ideally, racial socialization helps you appreciate and develop deep respect for your race and ethnicity. These lessons are given both intentionally, such as teaching about the pride of being a Black person, and unintentionally, like if a parent expresses fear every time they pass a police car while driving. As we grow, we take in these messages and they begin to shape our sense of ourselves and our race.

Messages From the Mainstream

Popular culture’s messages about what it means to be Black are often shown through the lens of racism. For a long time, for example, commercial beauty advertisements mostly showed white models. It took creators like Rihanna establishing brands like Fenty to make Black skin a focus instead of an afterthought. Not having representation in mainstream media can make you feel like the beauty of your Blackness isn’t seen and doesn’t matter. 

That’s just one example of how you can see race every day and begin to attach it subconsciously to your identity. When you internalize negative messages, it can impact your choices and cause you to question your worth and potential.  

Searching to understand your racial identity can lead you to dig deeper to grasp the broad spectrum of where you come from, who you are, and who you can be.

Here are some ways to start.

Talk to Your Family Members

Ask your family members what messages in life shaped their ideas of race. Depending on their experiences, you could get all kinds of responses. They may light up at the chance to share some exciting and colorful stories, but it can also be an uncomfortable conversation about their exposure to prejudice and racism—something they may want to forget. It’s important to understand how their ideas about race were formed. Find out what their challenges were and what positive influences in their life and community empowered them to take pride in being Black.

After you start having these conversations, they don’t have to stop. It can be an ongoing discussion about what you see in the Black community that you want to celebrate and acknowledge in your home.

Do Your Own Research

There are some really good online resources that cover topics such as Black history, culture, and identity, which are good places to start.

Watch and Listen to Diverse Media

Be intentional about what you watch and listen to, and go out of your way to watch shows that celebrate you in a multifaceted way. Enjoy movies in which Black romance is represented or Black characters go on a journey of adventure and discovery. Movies like “Black Panther” are cultural celebrations of Blackness produced by Black creators.

Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Childish Gambino are well known for using their music to honor Black heritage and call out the systems responsible for oppressing Black Americans. Consider exploring some old-school music from singers of the past as well. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Sam Cooke wrote about their lived experiences, and their music is a great way to see events of the past through their eyes.

Reach Out to Black Elders and Mentors

There are many great stories you can tap into. People with diverse lived experiences can demonstrate a broad spectrum of ways race contributes to identity. They can also share what they wish they’d known when they were your age. These conversations can start with your family, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles. You can also ask to sit down with older members of your church or leaders in your life, such as a coach. 

Here are some questions to ask:

  • What did it feel like to be Black when you were growing up?
  • What types of things made you proud to be a Black person?
  • What is something you wish you knew about Black culture when you were young?
  • Has the way you view Black identity expanded as you’ve gotten older?
  • Can you give me any advice while I’m learning more about my racial identity?

As you learn and build a healthy picture of your racial identity, take time to enjoy each step. You’ll become more confident in the beauty of being Black while embracing all parts of who you are.

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