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Yo no sé: McWhorter’s race column – Is this Offensive?

I found this on Gawker today. It linked to an article on The Root by John McWhorter. In his column he tries to dissect the essence of blackness in “Blackness: A Quick and Dirty Primer.” He attempts to define “blackness,” which is where he starts to befuddle me. He bases most of the perspectives of blackness on the black American experience coupled with validating some gross stereotypes of blackness (re: dance skills, Ebonics).

McWhorter starts off referring to a recent column in the New York Times by journalist/author Jill Nelson arguing that Barack Obama’s blackness has not be a serious question in the Democratic debate amongst most black people. Others, like PBS journalist Gwen Ifil also sees the race definition as a moot point.

But McWhorter sees this differently.

When Michelle Obama dismissed the question about her husband as “silliness,” that was sensible: Barack Obama has proven that he understands black concerns. Too often, though, we are taught that it is “silly” to address blackness as a gradient at all. But this is evasive. We’re tiptoeing around something, and it’s black culture. Some people are more rooted in it than others – and there isn’t a thing wrong with that.

Some say that blackness is simply a matter of color. By this analysis, anyone who raises the larger questions about black identity is apparently visually impaired. Last year, Gwen Ifill, for example, dismissed the question of whether Obama is black enough because someone who, like her, is a child of immigrant blacks might not be considered “black.” But I think we all know it’s not that simple. The brown-skinned person implying their skin color renders the whole issue moot is leveling a coded challenge: “Are you saying that all black people talk like rappers and eat fried chicken?”

This is where I have to admit, I got a little confused about where McWhorter was going. Then he dropped some double-edged, racially-laced, stereotype bombs.

(T)his implies that there is no such thing as black culture in a legitimate sense. But there is – and it includes Ebonics and chicken!

What is black culture? Definitions will differ. But we can’t treat the definition as so “fluid” that it isn’t a definition at all. I will toss out a few parameters of what “black” is:

–The dialect: which is not identical to Southern white English, and not just slang, but a sound and a series of grammatical patterns.

–Music: yes, most of hip-hop’s listeners are white. But there are proportionally more black people who listen mostly to black music than there are whites who listen mostly to black music.

–Bodily carriage. Culinary tastes. Dress style. Christian commitment. Juneteenth. And yes, skill on the dance floor.

I have always thought that it’s counterproductive to define blackness assuming that blackness begins and ends with having brown skin and some African ancestry in America.

Are our Caribbean cousins not “black?” Are our Brazilian, Belize, Venezuelan and Cuban brothers and sisters not black? Are Africans who didn’t come here as slaves not black? The only thing we have in common is the shared love of the drum which comes directly from the motherland. Outside of that we’re pretty diverse. Yes, black Americans do enjoy some similar experiences and cultural flourishes, but this has to be a joke, right? Fried chicken and Ebonics? Loving Jesus? Did the Nation of Islam fold? Did all the black Muslims die out? Do black agnostics, atheists and secular humanists not exist?

Juneteenth, while a fascinating part of history, isn’t even celebrated by most blacks, as it is a regional holiday. The only thing I can halfway give him on that list is the black, non-regional dialect which is largely unique to only other African Americans, no matter what part of the country they live on and irregardless of their income levels.

But even that doesn’t always hold true.

I’ve gone to school with a-plenty of black people who had no black American accent at all from years of only going to school with Whites. That didn’t make my friends any less black. They just didn’t “sound” like black people.

But McWhorter, half-jokingly I assume, continues down the path of ridiculousness.

(S)ome black people are blacker than others, as measured by their background and personal predilections. Some are not meaningfully black culturally at all. Why would this not be the case?

Especially over the past forty years, the number of black Americans growing up in all-black circumstances has decreased. The diversity of black experience is vaster than ever. For this reason, just as we will not view culturally “blacker” people as lesser, we will not view culturally less black people as suspicious. But most importantly, we cannot evade the issue by treating black culture as something so ambiguous and profound that we aren’t really talking about anything at all.

I guess I can see McWhorter’s point of wanting people to recognize the meaning of “blackness,” to speak of it as something tangible. And black Americans do have a rich and diverse culture shaped by decades of shared experience. But I still feel he’s over simplifying things. Blackness is complex. When you can look as white as Wentworth Miller and still not be white because this is America, you can’t just shove him out of the black experience simply because he does not fit the racial mold. And to argue that one can become “less black” is akin to arguing that suburban raised, socially-integrated blacks have become “more white.” Or, worse yet, normal, as if there was something intrinsically foul about blackness.

I’ve got a lot of bougie friends. I’m bougie. I was raised in a bougie part of St. Louis. But I’m still black. These things changed nothing about me living and being treated like a black woman. So to me, McWhorter is basically encouraging black people to engage in the self-destructive behavior of assigning racial litmus tests to negrotude.

I’m hoping this column is some sort attempt at Black History Month related humor considering that it’s on The Root. It has to be a joke when he gets to the end and mettles out his correlations of blackness.

Ideally, no one would hear “black” as a putdown. And, if we really know what being black is about, we can say the following without anyone batting an eye:

Queen Latifah is blacker than Tiger Woods.

Alan Keyes is blacker than Barack Obama.

Jada Pinkett
Smith is blacker than Colin Powell.

And, Michael Eric Dyson is blacker than me.

I guess under this logic Lil’ Jon is blacker than me.** Of course, I think Lil’ Jon is an offensive stereotype, but I also agree that we’re both black Americans with the shared experience of being black in America. That’s the litmus test if there is one.

I am black, therefore I am.


** Alan Keyes is blacker than Barack Obama? What’s that based on? Skin tone? The fact that Keyes a “full” American black man and Obama is half-Kenyan? Is it because Keyes’ for reparations and Obama’s never broached the subject? That’s what makes me think this was a joke. I don’t think Jada Pinkett Smith is any blacker than Colin Powell. Powell is a Republican who has consistently talked about racial issues since he left the Joints Chiefs of Staff and has talked about his experience with pride. So, um, I don’t get this methodology.

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2 thoughts on “Yo no sé: McWhorter’s race column – Is this Offensive?

  1. I can’t fight perceptions…but I can buck against the free-flowing bovine fecal matter that folks call justification. I feel that most people demonize in accordance to their preference. Personally, I think it’s selective cuturalalism. For example between the ghetto brutha & the real brutha.. If you look and sound like me..it’s not ghetto….because I can relate, you’re just keeping it real….IF I can’t relate culturally….I can easily dismiss you as “ghetto” or “hood”. I think blacks are guilty of this at times, just as whites.

  2. I won’t deny that I often find myself nodding along with Doc McWhorter. But I recognize, as you rightly do, that he is often playing the role of polemic. I think there’s a little bit of that going on here too. But, like any good polemicist there’s often a kernel of truth to his rant. I think the interesting thing he’s pushing back against is this idea that the very notion of a define-able or describe-able black culture is something that is implicitly racist. A cultural characteristic is not the same thing as a cultural stereotype — at least to me.The trouble comes, as he points out in his book Authentically Black (or something like that), when we link cultural fealty to racial and personal authenticity.I see no problem with noting that, in terms of culture, some American Negroes seem not to have any cultural link to the cotton fields of Arkansas, the jook joints of Miss’ippi, or the backwoods churches of Alabama and Tennessee. But of course in doing that I realize I’m making an argument about what I think the substance of our culture is, which is to say an agricultural past, the blues, and church. Not, as some would have us believe, Hip Hop, the Black Panthers, and general irritability.

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