If you have never heard of Kehlani, I suggest you stop reading this post and do a Google search immediately. Tatted from head to toe, drop dead gorgeous, and with a smoky evocative voice completely betraying her years, Kehlani is on the precipice of becoming one of the biggest names in RnB. She writes all her own lyrics, and sings with a rawness that evokes the idea that she has seen it all, done it all, and frankly doesn’t care what anyone has to think about it.
Earlier this week Kehlani dropped her highly anticipated video for the single “The Way” with collaborator Chance The Rapper (also worth a listen in his own right). The video is fire, and calls forth memories of Aaliyah and 2000ish Ciara. I scrolled the comments as our generation does, sharing and experiencing the world as a group rather than individually. What I found, rather than general awe at her skill and delivery, was a full-fledged debate about Kehlani’s race.
“Lol, this whole time I thought she was black”
“She’s a mixture. Not black.”
“I hate being labeled as one race.”
“It’s not called labeling, it’s called repping.”
I was stunned. But also intrigued. The idea of Kehlani’s race had been bothering me for some time as well. With her fair skin and wavy hair, her race IS rather ambiguous. And after hearing her song “Niggas” I became a bit obsessed with verifying that she is, in fact, a Black woman, as the vast majority of her fans claim her to be. After thoroughly researching, and watching a couple of her interviews, I verified that Kehlani is Black (at least a little bit). Furthermore, she is quick to tell you so, which, ultimately, is what matters most.
So why does Kehlani’s race matter? Why is it important that she herself identifies as Black? And why is her “little bit” of Black significant?
I think it’s important to first note that the concept of “race” as exists in the United States, is entirely different than the way people are valued and perceived in the rest of the world and is 100% unique to America’s racialized history, and the laws enacted and perpetuated that maintain a racial hierarchy in American society. The racial group, “Black,” and the ethnic group “Black American (distinguishing descendants of enslaved peoples from other groups in the Black American diaspora, like Nigerian American and Ethiopian American),” exist nowhere else in the world except the United States. So if Black people as conceptualized only exist in the United States, how did we come to be?
In 1662, the state of Virginia passed a law called “Partus sequitur ventrem,” which in Latin translates to “that which is brought forth follows the womb.” Essentially, any child born of a Black enslaved woman was also enslaved. Because white owners of enslaved people viewed Black women as property, and thus there’s to rape as they pleased, mixed-race children were a common occurrence in the Antebellum South. Many enslaved children were thus the products of the rape of their Black enslaved mothers by the white fathers who owned them. While terms like “mulatto” and “colored” emerged to describe these children, who were oftentimes of lighter complexion than the mothers who borne them, under Partus sequitur ventrem these children were racially Negro (a term replaced with Black at the end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s), and thus born into enslavement. At the time of the American Revolution, many of the founding fathers owned Negro people of very light complexions, including some who appeared to be white.
Fast forward to 1877. The Civil War has ended; Reconstruction has utterly failed, and white people are grasping at the last remnants of power available to them. The Jim Crow south is a born, a white supremacist state driven by lawful segregation, restrictive legislation, and the genuine fear that Black advancement could only occur at white expense (a belief still perpetuated today, albeit less blatantly). One white statute adopted in many southern states during this time was the “one-drop rule,” a revision of Partus sequitur ventrem, which stated that a person only needed to have one ancestor of African descent to be considered fully Black–making them ineligible to vote, hold office, or live in equality with whites. The Jim Crow south remained codified and upheld by law until 1954, when the civil rights era began. The one-drop rule represents a phenomenon known as hypodescent.
Ok, so we’ve learned a little about how “Black” as a racial identity came to be, but what does this history have to do with Kehlani?
Kehlani is of mixed race and is “white-passing,” a term used to describe people of Black ancestry with lighter complexions and more Eurocentric phenotypes. The term white-passing was coined in reference to lighter-skinned mixed-raced people’s ability to “pass” in the Jim Crow south as racially white, abandoning their cultural heritage and connection to community in favor of the increased social mobility afforded by whiteness. Many of the mulatto children born in the Antebellum south would have been considered white-passing in the Jim Crow south. However as we’ve learned, despite her racial ambiguity, in the 1800s Antebellum south, per her ancestry, Kehlani would have been deemed Black–guaranteeing her enslavement. In the early 1900s, under Jim Crow, had Kehlani chosen to embrace her Black ancestry as she does today, by law this decision would have ensured her segregation from whites and other races, limited educational opportunities, and minuscule political freedom.
Today, the one-drop rule still applies, but in reverse. Whether we are conscious of how these laws and practices have shaped our perceptions of our racial identity or not, claiming Blackness serves to insulate and uplift us within our own community, rather than ostracize us from a white community in which we have no interest in being a part. If you are a person of Black ancestry, whether you have one Black grandparent or four, the significance of “one-drop” is in acceptance and envelopment by the Black community, not exclusion from the white.
The access to culture and a shared sense of identity afforded by acceptance into the Black community is extremely valuable today in particular, when appropriations of Black culture and the adoption of Black phenotypic traits by non-Black people, or “Blackfishing,” are culturally and capitally advantageous–while being an actual Black person remains socioeconomically dangerous. In a society that thrives on the appropriation and degradation of Black life by non-black people, membership in the Black community is akin to a cultural golden ticket, ensuring inclusion in a group that is often the paradigm of American language, art, music, and style.
Several prominent artists and public figures are examples of this one-drop acceptance: musicians Drake and J Cole; actors and actresses such as Zendaya and Tracee Ellis Ross; and even president Obama. All of these people are of mixed race. But they “rep” for us, identifying themselves as Black when it is not socioeconomically advantageous for them to do so, they ride for us, and are thus loved, respected, and accepted by us, the Black community. If the one-drop rule was enough to ensure our enslavement and mistreatment, it is certainly enough to grant inclusion in and reverence of the culture borne of that enslavement and mistreatment.
However, because America’s racialized society thrives on the degradation of Black life, socioeconomic advancement by the Black community is typically accompanied by a certain degree of backlash and, if we’re being honest, panic (see: whitelash). In a racially hierarchical society, the solution to preserving the appearance of white dominance in the face of black advancement is hyperdescent.
Hypodescent and hyperdescent work in tandem to subtly guide our perceptions of race in America. When Black people of mixed race are poor or disenfranchised, as is the expectation, they are seen as Black–hypodescent. However, when a Black mixed-race person does something socioeconomically advantageous, they are often classified as or recognized as being, mixed–hyperdescent. This mixed classification robs gratification for the achievement from the Black community while citing the addition of whiteness as justification for the achievement in the first place.
This is why Kehlani’s situation is so unique. As a Black person of mixed-race, Black people (myself included) claim Kehlani as a member of the Black community, considering her to be a Black woman first. But given her talent and acclaim, others (white people particularly) might choose to label her mixed, essentially crediting her white genes for her skills and success. Given her racial ambiguity, how Kehlani chooses to identify her race is entirely up to her. She is fair enough that she could identify as white if she wanted, unlike mixed people with darker complexions, whose racial identities are (like most people’s) determined by society at large. But because she has that “one-drop” she is entitled to identify as Black, even if to be Black in America is to be a member of an oppressed people, and would not afford her ease of life or socioeconomic mobility without her acclaim.
When asked about her ethnicity, Kehlani always does the full rundown “Black, white, Native American, Spanish.” Which is her prerogative, and an effective compromise to the “What race are you?” question. However, she claims her blackness, always stating ‘black’ first in the ethnic rundown. This (to me) is an assertion of Black pride and a political statement in itself.