Who Gets to Be Black in America?
A few weeks ago, Twitter chastised Raven-Symoné after she said, “I’m from every continent in Africa, and I’m from every continent in Europe.”
Were people just annoyed that she said “continent” instead of “country”?
Or, were they irritated because she had attempted to “escape” her blackness: i.e., she had expressed her identity beyond racial boundaries and embraced her global ancestry?
The answer is most likely the latter. The “blackness police” felt annoyed because, to them, Raven-Symoné was rejecting her race.
The blackness police were equally frustrated with Isaiah Washington when he said, “I’m not black, I’m human,” around the same time as Raven-Symoné. They pounced on Washington via social media and demanded that he clarify. They wanted Washington to say he was black, unequivocally.
The blackness police also doled out a fair share of jeers to Tiger Woods, the infamous “caublasian.”
To top it off, finger-wagging articles mocking these “New Black” people—Raven-Symoné, Washington, Woods, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Common, etc.—sprang up to sarcastically remind the lost souls that they were “Just Black.”
The mocking seems irrational and unfair, since race is a construct, not a truth.
Sure, Raven-Symoné may need some help redrafting some of her more off-kilter comments, but she was right when she said in that same interview a few weeks ago, “we are a melting pot of beauty.”
Scientifically, no one can be of one race. One’s DNA does not begin with Grandma and Grandpa; it begins, literally, from the very beginning of time, and that’s entirely too much DNA to categorize.
That is the truth of humankind.
The construct of race is evident when racist, European-based beauty ideals sustain the notion that minorities don’t count, or when racist emails from Ferguson emerge, or when people of the same skin tone are assumed to behave the same way, or when legacies of slavery and colonialism create an imbalance of power and privilege.
This construct of race, especially vis-à-vis racism, very much exists.
However, someone not wanting to be racially constructed at every turn, as he draws his every breath, does not mean that the person is oblivious of racism and therefore deserving of ridicule.
And when Isaiah Washington says that “he is not black, he’s human,” he is assumedly not looking in the mirror and hating the hue of his skin or believing that minority discrimination has disappeared. Perhaps he is saying that he just wants to be seen as a unique and complex human being first and foremost — rather than the Stepford-wife, groupthink, box of blackness into which he must fit at all times. How dare anyone monitor and control his identity? Who granted anyone but him ownership of it?
On the other hand, there might be a deeper social psychology behind the “aggressive ownership” of blackness. The “black identity police” probably police blackness because they have learned from their experiences with racism that blackness is fundamentally a thing to be policed.
For example, when they watch the Walter Scott video, in which a black man is brutally killed, it is difficult for them to view race in nuanced, scientific, “kumbaya” terms. What they see is a white police officer desecrating and policing the body of a black victim, a practice that seemingly has occurred throughout “black” history.
As a result, they view race in terms of war. To them, an unspoken racial war is happening on American soil, as the Walter Scott video proves, and it is difficult to watch such a video and not choose the victim’s side.
“Whose side you are on,” then becomes a very serious issue in the black community. Saying “you’re not black,” when Walter Scott videos exist, is tantamount to defecting from your side, your team, your group. It even strays into the realm of your being “on the other side,” which could explain the aggressive policing of black identity to ensure that every member toes the line.
Of course, several members of the African Diaspora view blackness, not as “war,” but as a characteristic in which to take pride and celebrate. If anything, they may feel that “New Blacks” who dissociate with blackness are simply doing so because they see blackness as negative, rather than positive. But why in their minds would that be the only reason for the dissociation?
Yes, some black people might dissociate from blackness because they see it as a negative, but some others might be dissociating from hard and fast labels; they want to live with more complexity — outside of others telling them what and whom they are.
And some others might dissociate or even associate for millions of other reasons.
Why does everyone have to experience identity in the same way? The lack of room for possibility in identity, the lack of room for people to be dynamic beings, is dangerous — even cultish.
Ultimately, people have no right to shackle you to their ideals, even if they feel that you will inevitably be shackled by racism.Wait, before you go…
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